Public Space and the Development of Wireless Media

Public Space and the Development of Wireless Media

Alex Lambert (Monash University, Australia), Scott McQuire (University of Melbourne, Australia) and Nikos Papastergiadis (University of Melbourne, Australia)
Copyright: © 2018 |Pages: 21
DOI: 10.4018/978-1-5225-5999-3.ch010


This chapter builds on research into Australian free Wi-Fi initiatives conducted in late 2012 and early 2013. It tours through a range of global developments in wireless internet delivery, focusing on how these influence the character of public spatiality, participation, and social inclusion. While there have been numerous technical and commercial advances, the authors argue that free public services narrowly focus on constructing public spaces of consumption and spectacle, and valorising public activities through increasingly granular sensor surveillance. The authors offer an expanded conception of what it means to value public space and to participate socially, culturally, and politically in public. The chapter concludes with the concerning gap between small scale projects that experiment with these concepts and the large-scale institutions that ignore them.
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This chapter builds on research we conducted in late 2012 and early 2013 on the free Wi-Fi initiatives of Australian municipalities and cultural institutions. In the original article, we explored the drivers behind Wi-Fi services, the way that visitors used them, and how they changed the character of public spaces (Lambert, McQuire, & Papastergiadis, 2014a). At the time Australia was experiencing a significant transformation in its broadband delivery systems with the auctioning of analogue television spectrum and the roll out of our National Broadband Network, which delivers fibre to the home and local node. Going beyond the common focus on private internet use, we sort to understand how these transformations were influencing public spaces.

Since this research there has been a much greater mobilisation of free Wi-Fi both in Australia and across the globe (Gabriel & Fellah, 2016; McShane, Wilson, & Meredyth, 2014). In this chapter we tour through some of these developments, finding that, while many new advances have been made, our original argument retains its persuasiveness. Wi-Fi services are generally planned and managed in a technocratic fashion that delimits the nature of public participation and the capacity for social inclusion. Wi-Fi, along with other wireless technologies, is becoming a central mechanism in the commodification, surveillance and social sorting of public space. This circumscribes the way that people value being in public, and even circumscribes the very concept of ‘value’ within an economic framework that lacks personal, social, cultural and political richness (Frow, 1995). For example, public spaces increasingly focus on commerce, rather than cosmopolitan cultural expression or social cohesion.

This chapter builds on an evolving interest in digital technologies, space and everyday life within media studies. People draw a great deal of meaning from a sense of place. Public spaces often mediate our experience of being part of a broader community, and hence our sense of cultural belonging. They are also significant for the mediation of difference in contemporary societies, such as the expression of multicultural diversity and political resistance (Carr, Francis, Rivlin, & Stone, 1992). For this reason, some argue that public spaces should be imbued with an ethic of cosmopolitanism that is open and respectful to difference (Papastergiadis, 2012). A long history of critical scholarship takes aim at the way that the technocratic and neo-liberal control of public spaces leads to gentrification, inequality, and break downs in cosmopolitan cohesion (for an overview see Harvey, 2009). Meanwhile, discourses of urban development and technological progress tend to mythologise certain places and either disguise or trivialise the differences that make up urban communities.

These political issues are becoming inextricably linked with digital media. For example, within the context of the emerging Internet of Things, Kitchen and Dodge (2011) explore the way that software and various ‘coded objects’ and infrastuctures have come to play an essential role in the governance of everyday spatial practices. When these media enter a space they ‘transduce’ it into something radically different. A café, when linked with Wi-Fi and smart devices, becomes a workplace. The authors advocate a sensitivity to the discursive regimes that justify and naturalise what they call ‘code/space’. These include safety, security, efficiency, anti-fraud, empowerment, productivity, reliability, flexibility, and competitive advantage. Code/spaces are essentially systems of social control, yet the allure of these discourses allow people to willingly accept their disciplinary effects. A nice example of this is the relationship between urban surveillance and social sorting, or what Graham (2005) calls ‘software sorted geographies’. Software comes to regulate access to spaces (such as toll roads, libraries, and Wi-Fi networks). Algorithmic filter bubbles and persuasive computing ‘nudge’ us toward particular experiences that reaffirm our beliefs and desires (Lambert, 2017). Consequently the experience of serendipity – if we understand this as the discovery of something valuable that we did not expect (Olma, 2016) – becomes highly regulated. This applies to the serendipitous encounter with cultural difference, and hence relates to the ethic of cosmopolitanism discussed above.

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