From WiFi (802.11b) with its fixed and mobile high-speed wireless broadband Internet connectivity to WiMAX (802.16e), the newest wireless protocol, extending the reach of WiFi across longer distances and more difficult terrain, new wireless technologies are increasingly thought to impact the ways in which we encounter social spaces in public, civic and commercial sites within large urban centers. This chapter explores how and to what extent these new wireless technologies might also be reconfiguring and reorganizing domestic practice and social relations. Drawing on a year-long ethnographic study of WiFi and WiMax provisioned homes in a major Australian metropolitan center, we argue that new wireless infrastructures are impacting how people imagine and use mobile devices, computers and the Internet in and around the home but not in ways wholly anticipated by commercial Internet service providers.
The commercial rhetoric that surrounds wireless infrastructure proposes to radically alter our everyday lives. A recent Telstra advertising campaign featuring images of a kombi van driving along an open road to the classic tune I’ve been everywhere suggests wireless infrastructure offers the ‘freedom’ of ‘true mobility’ (Telstra 2006). Other providers make claims of ‘convenience’, ‘no worries flexibility’ and ‘always on’ connectivity to signal the ease and ubiquity of the service (See Optus 2006; Unwired 2006) . On the most basic level WiFi and WiMAX technologies enable the transfer of high-speed data wirelessly and operate via electromagnetic signals broadcast from individually owned modems connected to a broadband connection in the home or accessed via city-wide wireless coverage. This means a person equipped with a wirelessly enabled computer or handheld device can theoretically access the Internet anywhere within a broadcast area. They are no longer restricted to the office desk, the table near the fixed landline in the home, or the Internet café. Contemporary advertising for wireless services promises change to not only how we do things but where we do them. Indeed, advertising messages from service providers and technology manufacturers, political discourses and governmental agendas, and media coverage all exhort users to release themselves from the constraints of their fixed and sedentary habits and embrace new forms of wireless mobility. For the most part, this mobility is mapped directly onto an urban landscape, which users will now be freer to explore and inhabit. Not only do we reject this notion of a generic, stable, depersonalized user, but there are a number of assumptions implicit in these wireless discourses and imaginings that bear critical scrutiny: firstly, that people find their sedentary habits restrictive and will want to experience the ‘freedom’ that ‘being wireless’ offers; secondly, that wireless is ‘everywhere’ which makes it easy or at least easier than traditional technology; thirdly, that once people gain access to these devices and infrastructures they will use them in new places and in new ways; and finally, that there is a seamless and open terrain in which such access can transpire.
Rather than assuming wireless technology use reflects these kinds of ‘anywhere’ and ‘anytime’ imaginings, this paper explores how and in what ways people make sense of wireless infrastructures. By grounding our analysis in cultural and social practices, we offer a snapshot of a specific set of lived experiences that, for the most part, reject the current formulations of ‘wirelessness’ as a technology of ubiquity. We take as our starting point of analysis, the home as ‘hub’: here we are playing on the notion of the router as a gateway to wirelessness, and also on the centrality of the home as a unit of analysis for social and cultural practice (Arnold, M 2004; Jungnickel 2006b; Venkatesh 2006; Shepherd C. et al. 2007). We are particularly interested in re-inscribing homes as an important part of the urban computing research agenda. After all for as much as urban spaces are made up of public, civic and commercial sites, they are also composed and comprised of a complicated build out of domestic spaces – from the high-density, multi-family dwellings of Asian cities to the tightly-packed row houses and terraces of many European and British centres, urban spaces are also, already domestic spaces.
Key Terms in this Chapter
Feral Technologies: A particularly grounded Australian understanding of the tensions and anxieties located at the intersection of partially wild and domesticated technologies.
Cultural Practice: Objects, events, activities, social groupings and language that participants use, produce and reproduce in the context of making meaning in everyday life.
Located Mobility: A theoretical instrument that examines the notion of ‘ease of use’ that pervades much technological discourse and problematises the idea that new ICTs streamline and make simple everyday life, focusing specifically on the existence of rules and boundaries in relation to wireless Internet and computer use in certain spaces, contexts, relationships and periods of time.
WiMAX: Wireless Microwave Access (WiMAX) is based on a compatible 802.16e standard and covers up to 50 kilometers without direct line of sight.
Ethnography: A qualitative approach that produces a thick description of the ways people live their everyday lives and involves participating in everyday activities, observing what goes on and developing relationships with people in these settings.
WiFi: Wireless Fidelity (WiFi) is based on 802.11b standards and provides networking capabilities for computers in a localised area to transfer high-speed data wirelessly. It is most often associated with Internet use though it can be used for file sharing, voice over the Internet Protocol (VoIP) and multi-player gaming.
Wireless Infrastructure: A constellation of technical and social practices.