Review of: When Code Meets Place: Collaboration and Innovation at WiFi Hotspots

On: September 14, 2009
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About Albert Cornelissen
Student of the master New Media at the Universiteit van Amsterdam (UvA).


Someone wakes up from a night’s sleep. After having breakfast he or she kisses the kids goodbye and takes the long stairs down to the street. The Coffee Company is only a two minute walk, so a freshly made cup of coffee is not far away. Person X arrives at Coffee Company, orders, positions a laptop on the table, clicks the power button and is ready for a hard day’s work with the assistance of a Wi-Fi connection. Is the location of the Coffee Company important to the work of Person X? It sure is, according to Laura Forlano.

In her dissertation When Code Meets Place: Collaboration and Innovation at WiFi Hotspots Forlano makes an argument for the importance of locality. A Wi-Fi connection, a wireless data network, is not just a gateway to a placeless place, but an important physical space in the lives of its users (note that she writes about public hotspots, not private Wi-Fi connections). Her research, observations, online surveys and in-depth interviews, show that the majority of users are committed to a certain place, a café, a park or a library, not a random Wi-Fi connection. This means there is a physical element to wireless networks, that is, as Forlano states, under theorized. Her focus is this intersection of code (digital information, networks and interfaces) and landscapes, which makes her use the term codescape.

She quickly makes minced meat out of the phrase ‘anytime, anywhere’, a remnant of literature on code, which leads in her view to a technological deterministic view, exemplary of technologists. This is the exact opposite of her argument, concentrating on the social, cultural, economical and political dimensions of wireless networks. In the beginning of her dissertation she gives a number of examples of her research in New York, Montreal and Budapest to support this argument. An example is the use of café’s by freelancers to work in an informal environment where they can socialize with other regulars of the café and even build an offline network. However, this line of thinking is not all that radical, as Forlano wants us to believe. Off course her extensive bibliography on the studies of wireless networks show a lack of viewpoints concerning the physical dimensions of wireless networks, but if we step outside of this niche and zoom out her point is not that radical.

Numerous studies in the field of new media make a case against the simplistic view that the consuming of a technology is determined by the possibilities of a technology. Think of the technological determinism versus social determinism debate. Manuell Castell´s space of flows and space of places theory on the other hand underlines the importance of physical spaces to share social practices. A lack of material on the physical side of Wi-Fi hotspots does not mean an extensive study on the matter is radical, especially since the notion of an all influential digital environment is already heavily contested.

After focusing on the consumer side of wireless networks, Forlano switches to the production side of wireless networks, in particular of early adopters of the technology, and their wireless community networks (WCNs). This gives an overview of the economical, political and social difficulties a bottom up grassroots movement faces in trying to build a community network. These difficulties are not similar all over the world. Different regions set up networks for different reasons and will face unique problems. Emerging herself in the world of WCNs Forlano again sees the importance of the physical space in the setup of a virtual environment. Face-to-face contact and the difficulties in positioning wireless routers are a few examples of her emphasis on locality.

Forlano’s dissertation makes interesting points concerning locality and is an extensive and well documented account of Wi-Fi networks. It makes a clear distinction between the use of internet and the use of Wi-Fi, a distinction that is easily lost. This makes it a fruitful study, as she mentions, for businesses or other groups setting up Wi-Fi connections. They can avoid the trap of seeing Wi-Fi as just wireless internet and give thought to the actual physical space of a hotspot. But the dissertation does not contain a radical view, particularly noticeable when her arguments are defined in broad terms and positioned in the entire field of new media. She is too caught up in the locality of her own research, WiFi hotspots, to see her thoughts already articulated in other fields of research.

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