Cities of the Sun: Urban Revolutions and the Network Commons

Antenna Installation, Valparaiso Mesh
Antenna Installation, Valparaiso Mesh

In this talk, I want to bring together two notions: the city as utopia and project; and the recent developments, over the past 10 to 15 years, with regard to the development of a network commons. The network commons is one among a number of other initiatives that propose alternative future developments, from alternative and creative uses of technology, to alternative energies to alternative economies and ecologies. Those propositions, however, have remained separate. The thesis that I propose is that as long as those propositions remain separate, they will either be absorbed or destroyed by capitalism. There will be some change but ultimately nothing really will change, the world will not become a better place, which is, as I assume, that what really interests us all and brings us together here. We thus need a coherent and collective vision that is anchored in reality. As the locus of this vision I have identified the city as utopia and project.


The network commons1 is part of a swell of initiatives to create a digital commons: this includes free and open source software, open data, open sensor networks, or what is called by industry the internet of things; in this area a lot is happening that has not received a proper name, a bricolage of technologies and collaborative methods; when this applies to design and everyday objects it is called critical making; it is part of a wider DIY – or do-it-with-others – culture which does not necessarily use high-tech but deploys common but underused knowledge such as fermentation, agricultural and green technologies, permaculture, alternative energies. There exists also another type of innovation which has more to do with democracy and participation, with economy and politics. The notion of the digital commons has emerged from cooperative hacker culture within computing. But meanwhile this starts to develop links with another discourse on the commons which comes from what was once called the developing world. In poor nations mainly of the global south, ecologies based on the sharing of common resources are still pretty much in place. There, primitive accumulation is still happening every day, the process described by Marx whereby subsistence farmers are turned into worker-consumers. As a reaction to that, as well as in crisis hit countries such as Greece and Spain, economies of solidarity are developed. The commons of all types and shapes and economies and ecologies of solidarity have become an alternative vision of a post-capitalist economy in a peer-to-peer culture. All those visions, however, are usually addressed separately. The people behind those initiatives are from different demographic groups. They rarely meet in one place and discuss common strategies. For this reason, each of those initiatives, left to its own devices, will be either absorbed and co-opted by capitalism or fought, destroyed, made impossible by legal changes, sidelined by other innovations. What is thus necessary is a coherent and collective vision that brings those alternative strands together.

The thesis that I am testing in this talk is that such a coherent and collective vision can be developed on the basis of the city as a utopia and project. This projection of a collective future does not have a name yet but it can or should not be called socialism or communism for two reasons: first, Marx's ideas, as much as I like them and although Marx's writing is still an inspiration for me, was too much steeped in the industrial culture of 19th century. The working class, considered as an avant-garde, this notion was based on Marx's insight that in the future everybody would be a wage worker. We now live in a time that has already moved beyond that future. We know now that it is unlikely that everyone will be a wage worker. In the past this has only been the case in industrial societies in Europe, North America and Japan. Now a few more nations, notably Taiwan and South Korea, have reached that stage. The great majority of people on the Earth, however, live under unstable and precarious circumstances. Even in the post-industrial, rich countries, wage labour is receding. Secondly, socialism and communism as terms have become an impossibility for historical reasons. The forms of actually existing communism have deteriorated into inhumane, dictatorial regimes of a backward mentality. If we want to develop any coherent and collective vision for the future that does not apply only to the most developed urban centres, such a vision must not exclude from consideration the vast majority of people, what autonomous Marxists such as Toni Negri call the multitudes.

But why the city, you may ask, and why this strange combination of terms, utopia and project? Aren't we living in a thoroughly globalised world? Yes and no. The world has indeed been shrinking through the forces of technology and commerce, but these forces were mainly directed and deployed by transnational capital. This recent wave of globalisation that started in the 1970s and reached its peak in the early 2000s has emphasised the free flow of money and information, while it has built fences to prevent the movement of people. It has used wage differentials between people in different places to create profit and it has developed an international division of labour which has concentrated the production of intangible goods in so called Global Cities, as Saskia Sassen has called them, while material production could be literally everywhere. The different organs of a globalized cybernetic production system have also had implications for the dominant ideology. The appearance of the waning importance of material production has furthered the flourishing of various theories of immateriality, of a weightless economy, of immaterial labour, of capitalism having become “cognitive.” At the same time an aspect of the digital revolution has received little attention which was focused on Just-in-Time production and logistics chains, on driverless forklift trucks in container terminals and super-freighters. Material production has intensified, yet the dominant ideologies of Western cultures, by the left and the right, focused on immateriality. The dialectical relationship between the production of intangible goods in the centers and extraction of raw materials and the production of consumer goods in conditions near to slave labour at the edges has been left underexplored. In addition to that we are faced with a condition of contemporaneity – the existence, at the same time, of developments which are incommensurable to each other. Those are contradictions of a type that do not resolve into dialectical opposites but rather create antinomies, unresolvable contradictions.2 It is therefore of greatest importance to create new collective visions that can deal with the plurality of developments without resorting to idealism. Following a methodological suggestion by Saskia Sassen, it is thus necessary to ask where those global developments come together? Where does this material/immaterial production and reproduction come together? How can a vision for a future collective project be anchored in the here and now? And my preliminary answer is the city. The city has always been the locus of utopia as a place that allows to express a meaningful collectivity. It is important to avoid the pitfalls of a utopianism that paints a blue-sky picture without any real content. It is necessary to be able to dream, to develop a vision that may seem a bit far off, but this vision should also have some concrete starting points and ties to lived reality in the here and now. Otherwise, it becomes a utopianism of the kind that has no real consequences. And for this reason I have added the notion of the “project.”

A “project” in the sense of Marxists such as Ernst Bloch or Henri Lefebvre is distinct from utopia insofar as it projects a future that is actually attainable. While utopianism is necessary, it can become disconnected too easily. The project can bring all those threads together into something that I would call a positive ideology. The Cold War discourse about totalitarianism has discredited any ideology as a bad thing. Even the Left has chimed in, practising “ideology self-critique.” But this ideology self-critique has run its course. It has been ineffective in stopping neoliberalism. At best it has made some academic careers, in particular in the art field. Rather than critique we need to rewire the strings that connect network society to create new force fields that drive change into a different direction. If those ideas have some cohesion, they may well be called an “ideology.”

The City as Utopia and Project

I will now turn to a brief genealogy of the city as a project. This will necessarily have to be a sketchy version. The city as utopia has a deep history in human thought, but this utopia has often been tainted by its association with class society and its need to repress aspects of its social life on which it was based. This can be traced back to the very place where we stand now, Athenian democracy. The Greek Polis is widely seen as the cradle of democracy, but what also has been recognized is that this ideal was tainted by the exclusion from the political Agora of women and slaves.

The Greco-French philosopher Cornelius Castoriadis3 has provided the most vivid and insightful description of Athenian democracy. Castoriadis emphasized that voting was one of the least important aspects of Athenian democracy. What mattered more was that large numbers of people participated in political life and negotiated subjects in intense exchanges, forming large ad-hoc committees on specific subjects, often voting by acclamations – expressing a majority decision reached by other means than that of voting. Speeches were often short and sharp, and the outcome of decisions was determined by educated, lucid and rational judgements achieved at collectively. The democratic society for Castoriadis was the self-instituting society. It was, in a Hegelian sense, a society that became conscious of itself as a political unity which produced its own institutions, but was also capable of changing those institutions when needed. Politicians, while democratically elected, could also be removed from positions relatively quickly. The self-instituting society, Castoriadis stresses, had the means of educating itself to create a collective social imaginary. In the educational process also women and slaves participated. But it was not to last.

Learning from Athens means also to learn how democracy degenerated into tyranny. Plato's ideal city state was a dictatorship of philosophers. Even Sokrates supported tyranny, the rule of the few over the many, on the basis of their superiority. As Hannah Arendt has pointed out, Greek philosophy was shaped by the class structure of its society.4 The separation into a leisurely class of philosopher-politicians and a class of enslaved producers was constitutive for a tendency to give preference to intellectual over manual labour. This found analogy in the philosophical domain, where metaphysics was regarded to be more important than practical ideas. The technologies of the ancient Greeks did not achieve the high levels it might have, simply because the Greek ruling class saw no need for it.5

I touch upon the medieval city only very briefly. We note that this was a city idealized as an organic community based on sharp separations between the city and the countryside. It was a religious community whose highest expression was the building of cathedrals, which were built through a huge intergenerational and interdisciplinary effort of builder-engineer-artists.

The Renaissance city reached again the level of urbanism already achieved in antiquity. It re-rediscovered architectural and urbanistic concepts based on the sensual and rational concepts of Greece and Rome, using grids and perspectives. The Renaissance was also the era of the rebirth of the ideal city. Urban utopias were in plentiful supply, among those the one that provided 50% of the inspiration for the title of this talk, Tommaso Campanella's City of the Sun. The City of the Sun was conceived as a form of theocratic dictatorship. However, Campanella also engaged in an “explicit polemic with Aristotle and Plato, who had excluded artisans, peasants and those involved in manual labor from the category of full citizenship and from the highest levels of virtue.”6

In the City of the Sun all occupations were of equal dignity—in fact, those workers who were “required to expend greater effort, such as artisans and builders, received more praise.”7 There were no servants, and no service was regarded as unworthy. It was also a community where everything was held in common, from food to houses, from the acquisition of knowledge to the exercise of activities, from honors to amusements, and, somehow disconcertingly for us today, a form of free love that must appear as sexual slavery for women. What strikes most readers of this dialogue is that the city walls are also the curtains of an extraordinary theater and the pages of an illustrated encyclopedia of knowledge. The citizens of the City of the Sun were engaged in a permanent process of education and all knowledge was always publicly accessible.

The Great European City of the second half of the 19th century had inequality written into its structure. It was based on the destruction and undoing of parts of the medieval city, destroying grown working class communities. The Haussman Boulevard's were designed to counter the tendency of the urban masses to spontaneously erupt in revolution. But it was also a city that was only possible because of another great revolution that took place in the 19th century. As is often forgotten, the industrial revolution was based on an industrial revolution in agriculture. New techniques in agriculture achieved huge increases in output with ever fewer people. As people moved from the country to the city, they became proletarians, forced to live by selling their labour power. Fredrick Engels has described the horrible conditions in which the English working class lived around mid century.8

This caused various counter-movements:
- the hygienic movement, a movement of the educated bourgeoisie, of doctors and planners, who argued for rooms with high ceilings painted in white, for an architecture of light and air to counter the spread of epidemic diseases such as tuberculosis.
- the Garden City movement formed a specific version of this approach, proposing grand schemes for new urban dwellings
- the working class movements formed themselves, asking not only for typical trade unionist goals such as better wages and a shorter working day, but also for political emancipation.

At the beginning of the 20th century those movements converged to create functionalism and the Fordist city. The political working class movements changed the course of history successfully claiming universal voting rights after 1918 in many countries, bringing socialist administrations into government. The Fordist city was based on an alliance between the reformist sectors of the educated bourgeoisie who believed in rationalism and the ability to plan a better world, the political emancipation of the working classes and the functionalist spirit of what Reyner Banham calls a New Machine Age.9 The Fordist city led to achievements such as Red Vienna in the 1920s and 1930s, large scale public housing developments which provide working people a decent standard of living together with amenities for sports and leisure, education, political gatherings and entertainment.

The Fordist city comes more fully into force only after the Second World War. It is a space where the political emancipation of the working class is brought together with the functionalist and technological spirit of the new machine age. The Fordist city is also a very fragmented city, divided into areas for production and leisure, into working class and middle class quarters. It continues the destruction of grown working class communities, for instance in London, where people from the East End were resettled in New Towns just outside London. While planned according to some of the ideals of the Garden City movement, the new spatial arrangements destroyed networks of kinship, as a famous study from the 1950s was called,10 therefore making life actually more difficult for working class people.

The Fordist city was the city of the atomized individual or at best of the family as the nucleus of society. The atomized structure was overlaid by force fields of mass media communications through radio, television and illustrated mass media magazines and the yellow press. It was a city characterized by the separation between producers and consumers, order givers and order receivers, senders and receivers. As Henri Lefebvre has pointed out, the Fordist city was of a destructive effect on forms of everyday life which had existed in the older forms of city life.11 A political critique that was oriented towards Praxis, towards a realisation of political philosophy in life, could not only focus any longer on those domains traditionally associated with politics, such as political parties, and the state. It would also have to proceed from the critique of everyday life. Lefebvre's rebellious disciples, the Situationists actually claimed that political revolution had to be raised from the ground up, through the decentralized passions of the many revolutions of everyday life.

The ideas of Lefebvre and the SI were put to the test by the revolutions of 1968, from the Parisian May to the many revolutions and revolts that broke out simultaneously nearly all over the world. It was a revolution against the social and political forms of Fordism, its one-dimensionality and its one-directedness. What we have now in Europe is in many ways the long term result of those revolutions on the micro-scale of where the personal becomes political.
As Fordism has been replaced by the Network Society – a term by Manuel Castells – this has brought forward the networked city, also to be understood as the projective city (to be differentiated from the city as project). The projective city is part of the analysis brought forward in The New Spirit of Capitalism by Luc Boltanski and Eve Chiappello.12 It is based on a new flexible regime of accumulation, a term introduced by David Harvey13 and elaborated by Brian Holmes.14 In this flexible regime the life-long job is replaced by a succession of projects in which networked individuals come together for a limited period. The project creates a highly activated segment of a network with dense connections between protagonists which intensify into a critical mass of active connections which are able to create new forms, what Boltanski and Chiappello call … “a temporary pocket of accumulation.” Moreover, the authors claim that those pockets of accumulation actually realized the demands of the revolts of 68, albeit in commodified form. The changes demanded by the 68 generation in those areas where the personal becomes political have been captivated by the new spirit if capitalism and streamlined into new products and services. What they describe is how capitalism is capable of mobilizing terms and concepts that have developed outside it, autonomously.

I find it debatable if the 68 generation can really be blamed for everything that goes wrong in networked capitalism, especially if the claim is made that the decline of those ideas was already contained, in seed form, at the point of their inception. I agree with Brian Holmes that this would constitute a denunciation of the radical social imaginary of '68. At the same time we can witness that something of the kind they are describing is actually happening. But it is not the spirit of 68 that is becoming commodified, but individual aspects of it, which are taken out of context and then realized in a commodifying form.

As a holding remark, lets recapitulate: I have advanced the idea that the current city, the city of informational capitalism, is the projective city, where a new regime of flexible accumulation reigns. Capitalism is a dynamic and creative force which has the capacity to appropriate concepts developed outside itself and turn them into new sources of profit, by creating temporary pockets of accumulation. We need to leave the urbanist discourse and turn to a technological discourse.

The General Intellect and Peer-based-commons Production

A foundational insight by Marx was that capitalism is based on contraditictions. On one hand capital develops the forces of production. The laws of competition make this constant innovation necessary. Through capitalist innovations, new modes of production are created, which have the potential of completely changing social relations. Through processes and innovations summarized as industrial automation, the socially necessary labour time could be reduced, for instance to a 20 hour week. This would allow a completely different society to emerge, in which people's highest priority would be to develop their personal faculties, their senses and sensibilities, their creative faculties, their capacity for speculative thought, their need and desire to maintain affective relationships. This potential for an actually possible utopia is consequently thwarted by capitalism's other need to maintain current relations of production. The existing social relations, the class structure of society which, in its most extreme form has now become the one percent against the rest, has to be maintained at any cost. Marx has expressed this most pointedly in a famous passage in Grundrisse: The combined power of all this highly skilled human labour develops the general intellect which reaches a stage where it would “blow the foundations of industrial society sky-high.”

According to Toni Negri we have reached that stage. Science and technology can be viewed as accumulated, dead, collective labour. As capitalism mobilizes this accumulated dead labour, the labour theory of values does not apply any more. Labour time cannot be the foundation of value. Whence labour time, the time spent by us in sweat and toil, can no longer form the basis of an assessment in the wage-labour relation prices become arbitrary, dictated by the labour market and by the markets in general. While Fordism found a way of balancing real incomes and prices of consumer goods and services necessary, this balance has been lost in network society. What follows is the “real subsumption of labour” under capital, as Negri calls it, through arbitrary rule and through sheer command, and under the threat of violence.

For the very reason, that the overall trajectory of technology is dominated by capital, any technological utopia which is based on this or that property of the technology alone, is doomed. It is not just doomed to fail but to bring about its opposite, not the technological utopia but a dystopia.

As Marx has predicted correctly in the fragment on machines and the general intellect, over the last 40 years new conditions have arisen from the most advanced poles of capitalism, from computer science and information technologies, to blow the foundations of this society sky-high. As the United States was locked into an ideological battle with the Soviet Union, it spent enormous sums of money to beat its rival for global hegemony. The surplus of Fordism was used to invent the Internet and thus create the conditions for capitalism to be overcome. I do not claim that the Internet was invented with anti-capitalist ideas in mind, but that, as an unintended consequence of high spending on information and communication technologies from the midst of the military-educational-industrial complex, arose ideas, techniques and protocols that have an unmeasurable potential for the social good. Moreover, the way in which those technologies were created were based on a type of freedom that existed, at the time, only inside the closed worlds of Cold War computer science.15 The high-tech bubble of military Keynesianism enabled a commons-based-peer production as a new production method amongst those scientists and engineers inside the techno-bubble.

The social method of peer-production was matched by a new type of communication structure. Bert Brecht's demands for a two-way communication of radio was realized on the level of the protocols. The protocols of the Internet enabled synchronous two-way communications in many-to-many networks. At the same time as the Internet protocols were written, in the late 1960s, the student movement demanded a new horizontal, de-centralized politics and new forms of participatory media communications, for instance in the free radio movement.

Fast forward 30 years later, in the 1990s, the surplus created by advanced capitalist society, the capacity to carry out socially necessary labour with an ever smaller number of people, set free the capacity for people to participate in creative economies and in peer-based-commons production. The Linux operating system, followed by many other innovations, set up the formula for the digital commons.

The 1990s: Internet as Electronic Agora and New Economy

In the 1990s the Internet was hailed as a new electronic agora. The forms of participatory democracy that had existed in Athens 2500 years ago could be re-created, on much bigger scale, through participatory, synchronous communication in networks. The electronic agora combined ideas of participatory democracy with the US-American ideal of the liberal modernist utopia. It connected a John Locke type of liberalism, based on individual ownership, with network utopia. Everybody was a node in a network and could communicate, unfiltered and uncensored, with everybody else, in peer-to-peer communications. Through those “communicologies” as Jürgen Habermas has called it, the rational and polite exchange of ideas could take place for a new civil society to form. This civil society would be global and no longer Eurocentric and it would, guided by an ethical sense, develop global collective consciousness, through which pressing social, political and ecological problems could be addressed.

As we now know, it did not happen like that. The 1990s utopia was based on a disembodied notion of information. Advocates of Internet utopia such as John Perry Barlowe posed the digital communications sphere as a separate reality. Saskia Sassen asked the question, where those disembodied communications in electronic networks actually touched ground. She found out that although at the time the properties of disembodied information were hailed, there were actual places and spaces where those new forms of communication touched ground, the Global Cities. Those were cities such as Hong Kong, New York or London who had little to do with their hinterlands or the nations they belonged to, but were interlinked in high-speed communication networks which fostered new forms of financial speculation in derivatives.

Those privileged virtual market places were based on support structures that needed the actual cities, places that fostered close proximity between speculative financial capital and the professional classes it relied on, such as lawyers, accountants, policy makers, think tanks, and also a second layer of professions that provide the quality of life that this new class finds to its taste, nouvelle cuisine, new bars and night-life scenes, museums of modern and contemporary art and types of cultural production that project a liberal, multi-ethnic, cosmopolitan elite – which they found in the Global City. LTJ Bukem is playing in a few days here in Athens. Thus, allow me this pun, what we got in the late 1990s was “intelligent drum-and-bass for cognitive capitalists.”

As the 1990s played themselves out, ideas of the electronic agora were sidelined by the boom of speculative capital investing in new Internet companies, the New Economy. The capitalist dream of the New Economy came crashing down in the year 2000.

The Rise of the Network Commons

At the moment of the demise of the New Economy, a new cycle started with new projects and new ideas. In London in the year 2000, and in Athens independently from London, two years later, movements started to build wireless community networks. Using a license exempt part of the electromagnetic spectrum and Wifi – Wireless Local Area Networks -- network enthusiasts built their own networks. Based on the property of the Internet protocols that allow creativity at the edges, they could create networks of their own. Athens Wireless Metropolitan Network was initially started mainly by technology experts. They knew about other initiatives, such as Seattle Wireless, but developed their own “technological style”. Using the urban topology of Athens with its hills and cooperation with radio amateurs, they could create a network that covered a vast area, the Attica peninsula and beyond. The social model was based on the liberal utopia of individual ownership. Each node was built and maintained by its users, all the nodes together formed - and continue to do so - a network commons. The particular idea of AWMN was that it did not offer Internet access. Some nodes were connected to the Internet but this was not publicized as a reason to join the network. The idea was that the network builders would together create a network which would be attractive to its users because of its services. Services offered include mirrors of free software repositories, file sharing, streaming services, games, voice over IP and much more.

Consume in London proposed a slightly different idea. Informed by experiences with Backspace, a net art creative hub in central London, the idea was to have synchronous broadband networks which offer also gateways to the Internet. The net should become a shared resource, both as an Intranet and as a network that connected with the wider world. Backspace, initiated by James Stevens, was a place that allowed many initiatives to thrive, where people could realize their own projects, people such as artists Rachel Baker and Heath Bunting. But it also hosted the Vulcano free film festival, a website for a transgender-cyborg club, and a festival for Buskers (street musicians). A particular noteworthy initiative that emerged from Backspace was Indymedia London. On June 18th 1999 a global “Carneval against Capitalism” was organised by the collective Reclaim the Streets. This protest brought together the multitudes – a new social class that substituted the working class as a new social subject. The size of the protest took police by surprise, and also the decentralizing tactics of protesters, marching out in three different columns, so that for several hours the City of London, the seat of multinational financial capital, was taken over by protesters dancing to samba drums. It was a happy day, until a police van drove over a woman who was seriously injured. This afternoon was filmed by artist activists, among them Austrian multimedia artist Manu Luksch. Couriers cycled back and fourth between the sites of protest and Backspace, where video tapes were transcoded and live streamed by techno-activists such as Gio d'Angelo. Half a year before Seattle, where Indymedia was officially founded, Backspace had become an Independent Media Centre which presented a different viewpoint on the protest of the Multitudes against financialized capitalism. While mainstream media focused only on the police's failure to keep control and the stupid acts of a minority who smashed some windows – possibly police agent provocateurs anyway – the videos streamed from Backspace showed a different reality, a Bakthinian carneval, where the multitudes became aware of its political agency and its mass creativity as a form of opposition against bureaucratic capitalism, the grey men and women of the City of London.

To cut a long story short → for a fuller account I have to refer you to my forthcoming text “Shockwaves in the New World Order of Information and Communication (Wiley-Blackwell 2016) – we saw a relatively short period of the prospering of Consume in London and the UK, where the network commons was merged with ideas by avant-garde digital artists and media activists.

In 2002, the Consume idea was transplanted to Berlin, Germany, where able technician-activists started the initiative Freifunk (free radio). Freifunk adapted the Consume idea to German reality. There were two issues: on one hand, there were areas in East Berlin and East Germany, which could not get ADSL connections for broadband because of the existence of proprietary fibre optics technology of the telecom incumbent. So this was a big motivating factor. Secondly, Berlin in particular and Germany in general has a large reservoir of what I would call ethical hackers, creative free software people, who are happy and willing to carry out free voluntary labour. Those two factors allowed Freifunk to spread rapidly, so that within a few years Berlin alone had more than 1300 free radio nodes and many more users. However, after a phase of rapid growth in the early 2000s, this development slowed down in the second half of the 2000s, some networks even started to shrink. The Deutsche Telecom had recognized the issue with its fibre optical technology and pushed other broadband technologies such as ADSL and cable. Freifunk was no longer needed to get affordable broadband Internet.

At around 2003, started in the rural area of Catalunia, near the small town of Vic. At the time, it was impossible to get broadband Internet in the villages. An initiative started to build wireless community networks. developed around similar ideas of AWMN, Consume and Freifunk, but with a number of differences. It set itself the explicit goal to bring good internet service to the highest number of people at the cheapest price; it developed a system where people could pay technicians to install a network node. did not see this as in contradiction with the idea of the network commons. As long as the nodes built by small service providers joined the network commons, the fact that some money was paid for installation was not an issue. This idea enabled to grow more rapidly than any of the other systems. It now stands at 30.000 nodes.

The projects just described constitute the counter-thesis to the network model offered by the ISP and telecom corporation with their centrally managed operations and their practices of metering and controlling the data flow in their networks. The atomized ethical technologist recognizes him or herself as a community networker who becomes a builder, owner and maintainer of a network node. Those network nodes together form a network commons, a network, where each node transports data according to the original Internet utopia, in two-way synchronous forms, without any discrimination between types of data and users. The network created by the community networker realizes the decentralized utopia. Its political structure was, depending on your viewpoint either anarchist or libertarian, an abdication of centralized control, but also a rejection of strong social regulation mechanisms. While some of those networks have created some form of legal entity, an association for instance, the association usually does not create the network. It does fund-raising, and it is there to assist in fending off political and legal challenges, but it does not own and run the network.

The technological and economic foundation of those networks, however, rest on the production mechanisms of advanced capital exploiting global imbalances and cheap labour. Advanced capitalist production methods using automated machine labour and cheap energy, mainly derived from fossil fuels reduce the socially necessary labour time to such a degree, that people in the capitalist core countries are freed up to devote their time to innovation practices and to participate in peer-based-commons production. The beautiful achievements of the network utopia are built on silicon sand, since those conditions are subject to change. The boom and bust of the New Economy was followed by a relatively mild recession in the early 2000s. New ideas about a commons based economy started to flourish.

The Artistic Urban Utopia

In 2001-2002, the artist Shu Lea Cheang started creating a series of wireless projects which can be considered exemplary for the idea about the city as utopia and project. The very first work, Steam the green, Stream the field in New York highlighted the potential of the coming together of social self-organisation with a social and trans-media art practice that combines landscapes and datascapes, the natural and the digital commons. Cheang organized the harvesting of organically farmed garlic from her own farm and brought this together with the idea of sharing bandwidth in a wireless commons. Inspired by the Argentinian cooking pot revolution, where people created their own barter economies in so called truque clubs, she created a community currency, the Garlico, which would enable people to engage in sharing economies, whether sharing bandwidth or organic food or services such as haircuts. Cheang intermixed the political economy of communications with that of the real economy, by involving participants in a gift economy on- and offline. For several days she and her associates drove around Manhattan in a truck whose load was filled with fresh garlic and on whose side were painted the words RichAir Equals Garlic. Those organic cloves were to become something resembling the gold standard transferred onto a gift economy. This was embedded into a fictional after-the-crash scenario: capitalism had collapsed, the only networks still working were those made by the wireless community network activists of NYC Wireless, the currency was worthless, and organic garlic became the 'new social currency.'

In 2006 Cheang realized Porta2030 together with the Hivenetwork group around Alexei Blinov. Blinov built so called Portapaks – a technological remake of the portable video equipment that was released by Sony in 1965 -- in a low-cost free network form. The Portapaks built by Alexei Blinov and Hivenetworks, were pouches made of a synthetic material. It contained cleverly slung together cheap gear to send audio signals and images within a local area. The main feature was an emergency button, to warn the local community about threats. At the time, gentrification was raging through East London like a wildfire. Rogue developers were sending demolition crews to destroy homes and businesses of people who could not afford the rent which had been drastically raised. Porta2030 played itself out in a tense social setting around Broadway Market in southern Hackney, London, where at the time a very real gentrification process threatened to rip apart communities.

More recently, Shu Lea Cheang has been linking different data sets of nature and culture with Composting the city, Composting the Net (2012-13). People in support of the urban gardening project Prinzessinnengarten in Berlin could adopt a composting box to provide urgently needed compost. This was brought into association with using mailinglists of network culture such as nettime and syndicate/spectre as compost for a new type of thinking. And in Seeds Underground Exchange she used the net to create seeds exchange networks. Those project point at the merging of topics surrounding network ecologies with alternative energies and food sovereignty, providing building bricks for the cities of the sun. As art projects, however, they remain symbolic, they indicate a direction that developments could take without actually being able to initiate such change. Cheang's projects are also riddled with contradictions. In particular, Porta2030 was seen as cynical by some, doing an art project on the back of a community that actually suffered from evictions against which the art project could do nothing.

The Automatic Utopia of Mesh Networks and the Social Development of Technologies

At around 2004, citizen technologists from Freifunk in Berlin and Funkfeuer in Austria started to experiment with the mesh network routing protocol OLSR. Mesh network routing protocols such as OLSR and BATMAN and its recent variations are special routing protocols, optimized for the conditions of wireless networks. They do not need manual configuration, but automatically recognize when new nodes join the networks or existing ones drop out. Their capacity to automate route-finding allows the development of fixed and mobile wireless ad-hoc mesh networks.

The rise of the network commons in general and the development of mesh network protocols by the community in particular illustrate that technologies are inherently social. We have been made to believe that the development of technology is somehow autonomous, that technology follows a course of its own and that people have to adapt to the technologies that are created by corporate research labs and universities, who are often closely interlinked. Yet the development of wireless community networks in Athens, London and Berlin followed trajectories of the social development of the communities it was connected with, communities of practitioners (the ethical hackers who write the code and build the networks) but also the social structures those technological developments are embedded in, which includes the communities of users, but also wider social structures. This can have positive and negative consequences.

The Consume way of developing networks, for instance, was strongly emphasizing workshops and local knowledge. Through those workshops people came together and formed ideas about how to grow the network locally and to what uses to put it. In the process as such, the technology became socialized. Non-techies, like me, became knowledgeable about technology, started to understand networking technology better and began proselytizing about those social technologies. As such knowledge spreads, it contributes to the demystification of technologies. In capitalist societies, technologies are mystified. Technology is surrounded by an aura of being complex and difficult to understand. This creates the fetishized believe in technologies which makes people think that they are either ruled by technology or that they can solve any problem by technology alone. The technologies are understood as things outside us that have a power over us. But once we take developments into our own hands, we learn that those objects are man-made and relatively simple. The overall social complex that produces those objects and how they are deployed in the fabric of society, these things are much more difficult to understand. As we become techno-social communities we discover that the development of a technology is not separated from the social sphere but influenced and guided by it.

The developers of mesh network protocols in Berlin, Vienna and Catalonia first analyzed the needs of the wireless community networks and found an answer. In order for those networks to spread and become more efficient, they thought they needed to create firmware that would contain mesh network technology. Based on the Linux firmware distribution OpenWRT, each of those communities developed their own firmware. With so called firmware flashing, the firmware on a cheap WiFi router can be replaced by a high-end free firmware running mesh network technology turning a piece of industry hardware into, as Freifunk called one such hack, a “Freedom Box”. It is without doubt that community networks have been key drivers of the development of wireless mesh network technology. As Elektra, one key developer in Berlin put it:

“The sleeping beauty of mesh network protocols has been kissed awake by the community networks”

No company, corporation or university has been as efficient and as good in developing those protocols than the community networkers. Those developments, as beautiful and commendable they are, also have several dark undersides. First, the distributions and the mesh network protocols are all open source. That means that everybody can use them, change them, as long as they publish again the source code. The technology of mobile ad-hoc networks has originally been developed by the US military. There is no doubt that those circles are watching what is being done and that the code produced by ethical hackers potentially can find entry into new weapon systems that deploy wireless mesh networks in the battle field, especially as military technology is becoming ever more automated and autonomous. The peer-to-peer based methodology of ethical community hackers offers no way of resisting this form of adaptation.

Secondly, the achievements of open source hackers have also no resistance against being appropriated by the advanced forces of informational capitalism. The freedom on the level of infrastructure gets harnessed on the application layer for commercial gain, by Google, Facebook and other players. The activities of community hackers, guided by an ethical sense, contribute to an economy that creates ever more inequality.

Since the network commons does not exist in a political and economic vacuum, the achievements of community networkers are of a temporary kind only and always in danger of being reversed – the negation of the negation. We can say that wireless decentralized community networks are the antithesis to the broadcast model of communication. Rather than one-sided flow of commands, they allow egalitarian two-way communication. Yet the ethical hackers often claim to be apolitical. They say that they are not interested in politics, they just care for the politics of technology. As long as the network is held in a commons, and every packet of information is routed freely, the hacker's utopia is in good order.

In the past, when non-techies such as me encountered a problem, hackers used to tell me RTFM: Read the fucking manual. Now I tell techies also RTFM: Read the Fucking Marx.

The mesh network utopia is an automated utopia. You take the device, you flash it and up you go. The idea was promoted that firmware with good mesh routing protocols would make it easy to create large scale ad-hoc communities. Indeed, the technology has matured and technically speaking, the utopia is a utopia no more, it is here and real.

In recent years, Freifunk in Germany has experienced rapid expansion. After the revelations of Edward Snowden about the scale of surveillance by governments with the complicity of informational capital a second wave of German community networkers has become active. Those groups have developed their own firmwares, using mesh network protocols, but they do not share the anarchist spirit of the original Freifunk cell. They are growing, and at a very fast speed, but the question remains, what is growing here. Through the use of mesh routing protocols, the user does not need to do anything at all. The automatic utopia creates mesh networks, but the users are left behind. The type of knowledge transfer envisioned and practiced by Freifunk and Consume does not take place anymore. Some of those new networks have become like veritable service providers, they even have the capacity to update the software on all routers from remote.

Mesh network technology, rather than becoming the boon of community networks, tends to reinforce the separation between producers and consumers, between network builders and those who just passively use them. Rather than engaging with the network commons, they enjoy whatever commercial services they receive from the Internet, which itself has become thoroughly commodified. The new Freifunk initiatives have even started to call the groups who started Freifunk “legacy”. In software development legacy is something you need to acknowledge exists and may still be in use so you have to offer backward compatibility. But at some point you will start to consider if you still want to offer backward compatibility or if you simply detach yourself to offer faster growth and greater efficiency. A new generation who has never known anything else but neoliberal informational capitalism follows the patterns of the start-up mentality and of a competitive commercial environment. In this environment, mastering the technology becomes a pretext of commercial success and mastery over other people.

The network commons is embedded in the current political economy and exposed to its force fields. Athens Wireless Metropolitan Networks are suffering from the general economic and social crisis in Greece. Since the model of network freedom they have chosen is based on liberal capitalism, which means individual node ownership and responsibilities, the network deteriorates, as some node owners are affected by the economic crisis and cannot maintain adequately the rather high-tech installations they have built.

The impact of the overall social development on the wireless utopia reaches a particular poignancy in Global Cities such as London, where the city itself is subject to rapid change. As gentrification moves through the districts of London like a wildfire, people have to move to ever more remote areas (or abroad). The maintenance of a community and a network becomes an impossibility. Donating free voluntary labour becomes ever more difficult when rents are so high that you are working day and night just to keep a roof over your head. The urban space itself becomes completely reshaped by a form of aestheticized hipster consumerism. As the open culture of the Internet becomes substituted for the closed commercial world of Apps, and the cities ever more saturated with bandwidth on commercial mobile frequencies, the conditions for a sharing culture deteriorate.

The network commons is also threatened by practices such as Wifi off-loading practiced by mobile telcos. Whenever a phone detects a free open WiFi network it uses that rather than its own infrastructure. Commercial providers thus contribute to the tragedy of the open spectrum commons. Other threats are of a political nature. A new EU directive has been released which would make firmware flashing illegal. Although mesh networking appears to have solved the technical issues, the network commons is in peril through political, sociological and economic threats.

From Community Networks to Citizen Networks

There is a notable change going on regarding the way in which community networkers start to understand themselves as political networks. The “old” groups behind Freifunk have drafted a memorandum of understanding which defines the network commons less technologically rather than politically. The Freifunk umbrella association has also started to organise itself better, and is constantly engaged in lobbying efforts, trying to shape public opinion and the opinions of their political representatives, the members of parliament. Whilst the network commons had initially been built by ethical hackers, they now start to recognize themselves as citizen networkers. Freifunk have begun setting up free and open WiFi in refugee accommodation centers throughout Germany.

Community networks, with their decentralized forms of organisation, have set up mesh networks, technically and socially decentralized networks. The economic crisis that developed in the wake of the financial crash of 2008 has led to an economic crisis which now has become a social crisis. The social crisis undermines the capacity to participate with voluntary labour. The business environment, under lobbying influence by mobile telcos, who have to pay billions for spectrum licenses, and in a climate that is generally sharpening, makes the conditions for the network commons ever more difficult. Under those conditions, the network commons has to become political. Rather than being just another project in the projective city of network society, the citizen networkers who build the network commons need to consciously join other commoners to build the city as utopia and project. As the network commons joins forces with civil society, it could turn into an infrastructure that supports a new commons-oriented mode of production. Areas that immediately come to mind are alternative energy and networks of food provision. Rather than having corporations and the state who centrally organize production and consumption, in such a commons mode of production peer-to-peer forms of cooperation link infrastructural, political and cultural layers. The decentralized utopia envisioned by the 68 generation can now become a concrete project. With citizen networks and decentralized computing power localized exchange economies can be organized.

In a study titled City of the Sun – which formed the other 50% of the inspiration for my title – the EU concludes that a marked effort in using solar energy could replace fossil fuels on a scale much bigger than believed up until now. It could reduce carbon emission of the scale of the annual output of India, a whole subcontinent. However, such change would still only bring us into a new climate economy. What we need are new ecologies that bring nature, the flows of material production, people and ideas into close communication. The methods of Athenian democracy to form decisions on the basis of a close and rational exchange can, with the help of meaningful two-way communication be replicated on a much larger scale. We have learned, however, to distrust a one-dimensional, instrumentalized rationality. Hybridity needs not only connect the city with new technologies but also new forms of being in the everyday, with new forms of conviviality, and with a greater emphasis on education. This should also include the arts. The city as utopia and project needs to consider also the invisible cities about which Italo Calvino wrote; it needs to provide spaces for societies other, the refugee, the outcast; it needs to be an open and permissive city, but also offer new forms of social cohesion. Many initiatives have sprung up in recent years that envision new forms of food provision, not just urban gardening, but also urban beekeeping and ideas about an edible city. Ideas about a Situationist City, developed by Constant Niewenhuis, can come together with Castoriadis ideas of the self-instituting society, a society that became conscious of itself as a political unity and which produced its own institutions out of its shared social imaginary. In such a society, public opinion would be truly well informed rather than manipulated. And maybe in the long run, even the notion of information could be replaced by something more beautiful and more useful, more akin to philosophy and poetry rather than just bits and bytes.

Citizen networks, wireless or not, could become a transversal infrastructral layer, reaching across society and different domains, becoming a revolutionary enabler of a new urban life in a way that points beyond capitalism as we knew it.

  • 1. see my forthcoming book on the subject: The Rise of the Network Commons
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