Networks Without the Net

By Douglas Rushkoff. Published in The Feature on 22 September 2004

Software for the next generation of wireless networks may forgo access to the Internet, and give users access to one another.

First there were real networks, then there were virtual networks, and now…it’s wireless networks. But have we even begun to explore what a wireless network truly is?

Most of us – both industry professionals and consumers – think of wireless networks in about as primitive a fashion as early computer users thought about the Internet: as a way of tapping into content and technologies that were already online in one way or another. The Internet would be a way to access university libraries, the heating control systems at distant warehouses or stock trading programs. People couldn’t even really imagine the Internet as an independent network, with a purpose and character all its own, until it emerged quite spontaneously out of the interactions of its many participants.

I believe we’re at the same mental impasse, imaginatively paralyzed by our inability to conceive of wireless networks in their own right. Companies providing wireless “solutions” for cell phones and computers can’t help but think of them in terms of the Internet. “Wireless data” means having a link to the Internet - being able to do one’s Internet tasks on a wireless device. While wireless devices can certainly serve this function, they need not necessarily live off the Internet. In fact, they are quite capable of constituting new networks, all by themselves.

If only we could imagine such networks, and practice or even play with them a bit, we might stand a better chance of building them right.

And that’s where software comes in: to help us use existing wireless technologies in new ways, ways that help the truly independent wireless networking I’m talking about emerge. And a new generation of software writers – artists, mostly – are leading the charge to develop applications for networking tools that promote these new visions of wireless networking.

One such artist is Julian Bleecker, a doctoral candidate in “consciousness studies” at the University of California at Santa Cruz currently developing wireless art projects in New York City. Bleecker’s latest effort, a wireless networking suite called WiFi.Bedouin, carries the slogan, “Warning: This isn’t the web without wires.”

WiFi.Bedouin is basically a portable Wi-Fi node in a knapsack. Instead of providing nearby users with access to the Internet, WiFi.Bedouin provides them with access to one another. In Bleecker’s words, “the advantage afforded by Wi-Fi technology is not to provide access to the same old Web, but to create an independent web of activity where location, proximity and occupancy are primary factors informing the connected experience.”

Bleecker’s program runs on a Mac laptop, and allows users to access “default” groupware programs such as chat and streaming iTunes, and a group blog. But he’s also written some programs for these temporary networks that push the boundaries of how we think about wireless networking. “SSID Stories,” for example, uses the name of a wireless network (the SSID) as the title of a story. Unsuspecting Wi-Fi users logging onto the network are surprised by the rest of the story as they try to launch their browsers. “Geo URL” also challenges users’ expectations, by replacing very common URLs with spoof sites that recognize geographical location., for instance, might become “Second Street”

While the wireless industry might not want to install such programs on their next generation handsets, there’s a lesson in this software for those who are considering how wireless technologies differ from their predecessors, and how to develop networks that are born to be wireless.

As Bleecker puts it, “Sitting in a park so that one can check e-mail seems positively dull when one considers that the possibility exists for creating highly particular virtual-physical hybrid micro-communities. Imagine sitting in The Great Meadow in New York’s Central Park and mustering strangers for a game of ultimate Frisbee simply by posting a notice on a free-floating Wi-Fi network? Or imagine announcing that a dog minus its owner was found? Or streaming a video of a short you just shot on your DV camera twenty minutes ago?”

Another team of developers, working through the Human Connectedness group at Media Lab Europe, have their own answer to this same premise: a music sharing program called tUNA. In their words, “While the mobile Internet was supposed to become the ‘next big thing,’ mobile peer-to-peer seems to have many characteristics that might better adapt to existing social mobile interactions. tunA is a mobile peer-to-peer application, focused on the concept of a local shared music experience, that aims to situate itself in this domain.”

And situate itself it does. tUNA, currently written for Pocket PC, allows users to share their music locally with other users, who “tune in” (thus the name tUNA) via ad-hoc Wi-Fi. tUNA displays a list of connected users and their playlists, and then allows for synchronized peer-to-peer audio streaming.

Like WiFi.Bedouin, tUNA is designed to foster a “sense of awareness of the surrounding physical environment” and, in doing so, provides a valuable lesson to those looking develop software that is truly native to wireless networks.

Ad-hoc, Internet-independent networks are the current vanguard of wireless software development. Projects like these, or the even more abstract project out of Ireland, that links people with iPaq-enabled umbrellas in a “coincidence of need” network, are retraining us to think of wireless devices less as nodes in the hardwired world than spores in a brand new one.

Just as the Internet has fostered a sense of global connectivity for users pinned to their desktops, the wireless network – by coming along in one’s pocket – can enhance users’ connections to their immediate environments and temporary communities. After all, wireless users have left their homes and offices for a reason. Away from their desktops and, in many cases, laptops, they are in “nomadic mode”, not office or home mode.

Software developers must learn once again not to write software that adapts emerging technologies to their older brethren, but applications native to the environments these new devices create.