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Building Resilient Networks that Serve Local Communities and Economies

When we mention the web, most of us immediately think of the Internet, WiFi access, cell phone plans, our Internet Service Provider (ISP), and the popular services of today’s Internet offered by a handful of Internet giants. It seems that our digital dependency on these private entities is our only possible digital future, even though every layer in that digital supply chain has prioritized private over public interest time and again. It seems there is no alternative future, or that any possible alternative “does not work as well” while being “offline” means we are missing out on the social interactions and daily conveniences enjoyed by others. What if we take a step back from our familiar web and ask what we actually need from and how we would like to relate to our technologies?

Technology is only useful if it serves us. So each time we reluctantly accept a technology decision made for us, we should ask whether we are in a position to change that. If not, why not? Is this still a relationship that serves us?

Let’s take the example of connectivity, and consider an alternative approach to connect with one another through a “community network”. This is not only a way to implement telecommunication infrastructure different from the traditional ISP model, it represents an approach for humans to engage with and make collective decisions about technologies.

Community networks are networks collectively owned and managed by the community for non-profit and community purposes. They are constituted by collectives, indigenous communities or non-profit civil society organizations that exercise their right to communicate, under the principles of democratic participation of their members, equity, gender equality, diversity and plurality. The information on the network design and operation is open and accessible, allowing and favoring the extension of the network by the users. Community networks promote local services and content, promote net neutrality and free interconnection and transit agreements with networks offering reciprocity. –Cumbre Latinoamericana de Redes Comunitarias, Argentina 2018

Many sustainable community networks exist throughout the world, such as in Catalunya that supports individual participants and local businesses with its common infrastructure, Rhizomatica in Mexico that operates a cellular network and support related communities, and the recently established NYC Mesh that serves users in an urban city with large digital access disparities. Each community network is different in character, but a common feature is to provide a path that prioritizes local needs through collective ownership models.

We can evaluate a technology choice by whether it leads to retention of local economic outputs or extraction from local economic activities. Having multinational corporations intermediate our digital ecosystems will extract influence and agency from our local community in the long-term even though we may see short-term conveniences. Amazon, Facebook, and Uber are excellent examples. Local communities that come to depend on these privately-owned multinational corporations have lost local knowledge and infrastructures to operate alternatives, with technical talents lost to cities housing their headquarters that are themselves struggling with huge economic disparities. The result is our gradual loss of resilient communities to a small technocratic class of digital colonizers.

What is the intervention? We need to define new metrics from how we would like to relate to our technologies. For example, maybe “engagement” should not be measured by “daily active users”, but “contributing participants” who are engaged and empowered in deciding the roadmap of a technology. Designers should not only focus on “user experience”, but a “knowledge transfer experience”. Without knowledge to make informed decisions, and without power to build local alternatives, there is no democracy. Whether we are building a broadband network, a disaster response network, or a social network, we must stop the practice of inviting multinational corporations whose only stake in the project is of economic extraction. The most important component to equitable prosperity and resiliency to a local community is empowered people, and intermediation by private interests necessarily takes that from us!

Where do we start? Let’s start by building our local networks of creators who want an alternative digital future that prioritizes the local community. There is a false narrative that participation in building our digital futures requires specialized knowledge. In reality, community networks are built by neighbours, from children to elders, artists making zines and organizers hosting picnics. It is through these shared experiences among diverse folks that we find the appropriate technologies for our community and become stewards of our digital ecosystems.