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2005 11 11
Hacking (and Defending) the City - Posted on Reading Montreal by Sophie Le Phat Ho
by Michael Lenczner
As American intellectual property rights lawyer and activist Lawrence Lessig explains in his book "Code is Law", there are rules which you will never find in the law books. He is specifically talking about software and hardware, and his point is that if the software on your computer or the software that makes up the internet dictates a certain kind of use or prohibits another use, than you are constrained. It doesn't matter if you have the legal right or not. A perfect example is the digital rights management software that is built into the iPod and iTunes. It doesn't let you have more than 5 copies of a song you bought from the Apple music store even though there are no such restrictions required from the federal or provincial government. These digital rules sometimes support consumer rights, and sometimes support commercial interests.

The same holds true for cities. We can look at the built city as full of rules that exist by virtue of how they empower or constrain us in different ways. Those rules are written by developers, in conjunction with architects and municipal urban planners. Some of those rules are parks and public spaces and exist for the benefit of citizens and some of those rules are against citizen's interest (such as the much-maligned La Cité complex).

Standard stuff, right?

Where it get's interesting is when we start talking about the augmented city. For 10-20 years now we've been thinking about computers in terms of offline vs. online, cyberspace vs. meatspace, RL (real-life) vs. virtual. The fact is that it's not playing out that way. Instead, with cellphones, pda's, laptops, and podcast-full iPods we are increasingly connected to the network while we're walking around the city. We are navigating a city made of two overlapping and intersecting layers - a physical built environment and a second layer of wireless technology connected with the telephone services and the internet.

If developers, architects and urban planners are responsible for creating (and re-creating) the built city, who are their opposites building the augmented layer of the city? Pretty much only commercial / corporate players. That's not saying anything against corporations or private enterprises - they are great engines of innovation and drive better service and better pricing to people - but there is no corresponding concept of the Commons, ethics, or a watchdog for public interest in this layer of the city. So the only thoughts going into the online layer in the city are commercial - how to make a buck off of you. This is true except for a few rare projects.

There are projects like MDCN at Concordia that - through support from Heritage Canada - aim to make the Urban Digital Commons a welcome place for us as citizens, artists, and members of communities, and not solely as consumers.

I've been part of a similar effort over the last 2 1/2 years. IleSansFil is a volunteer organization started with 2 missions. The first was to promote free wireless internet access in public places in Montreal. The second was to use our networks to support local communities. Both of these ideas were inspired by Ray Oldenburg's conception and valuing of third places (among other ideas and technical and artistic projects).

At IleSansFil - because we are technological proficient - we are able to have an effect on the online layer of the city. And although there are two separate layers, they intersect in the experience of the citizen. If we can exert some control over the online layer of the city, than we can "hack", if not the "actual" built city, at least the citizen's experience of the built city. And with 70 hotspots and already 10,000 users just last month we already have some of the necessary ability over the online layer.

To be sure, we have constraints on how much we can hack the city - it's not as if we can easily directly confront the power of the police or building developers. But we can work to allow spaces to better retain memories, to promote both stronger and a larger number of looser associations between individual, to increase valuing of art and artists, or to help people get laid (more) on the basis of shared interests as well as looks (if you're interested in examples of those projects - just ask and I will share some).

So, in response to the title of this space "Reading Montreal", I would say that we are vigilantly busy writing Montreal in order both to increase the concept of public space in the existing built city and to try to minimize the commodifying and commercializing impact of new for-profit wireless products and services.

Other relevant links are:
The Way New Urbanism by Alex Steffen
Disconnected Urbanism by Paul Goldberger
Locative Media as Socialising and Spatialising Practices: Learning from Archaeology (pdf) by Anne Galloway & Matthew Ward

IleSansFil.org

Similar projects:
NeighborNode
PlaceSite
Michael Lenczner is an activist interested in supporting community and the Commons through designing and implementing value-laden technology. He is one of the founders of Ile Sans Fil.
[email this story] Posted by R Ouellette on 11/11 at 03:56 PM

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