Pigeon post: Community Web2.0 and creative control through hacking

This post is an adaptation of a small UK Research Council grant application that was successful. We are now advertising for a Research Associate:
http://www.jobs.ac.uk/job/ABY930/research-associate-04-fte/

I’ve ‘laced’ the article with images of pigeons. On a recent visit to the East end of Glasgow, old men could be seen hanging around on corners in the middle of the day for no apparent reason. Their image was reminiscent of the kids standing on street corners in the HBO series The Wire. As it turns out, the old men wait and watch their pigeons fly to and from the doocots (dovecots) that are located across the estates. These large shabby, graffiti covered architectural blocks look more like watch towers, but are a valuable part of the community’s identity. The images of pigeons throughout this article are used metaphorically to conjure an idea of network systems, social practices and pastimes and the ‘slip’ that they represent between progressive and transgressive activities within society. Flying rats to some, dear pets to others the pigeon is a community hack, extended literally through Beatriz da Costa’s Pigeon blog work.

Community Web2.0: creative control through hacking
by Sharon Baurley (Brunel), Martin Phillips (Leicester) and me.

Rationale and research context
The project seeks to explore whether concepts and vocabularies emerging in relation to the Internet could usefully be applied to understandings of off-line contemporary relations and practices. The significance of the Internet in transforming community relations has been widely recognized, with there being considerable debate as to the degree to which it has fostered the development of virtual communities which have displaced territorial, face to face, communities. Such claims have been contested, it being claimed that on-line communications often supplement rather than replace off-line practices, although there has also been considerable attention paid to the emergence of a range of on-line practices, with a range of new terms being coined to express them (e.g., hacking, spamming, file-sharing, up-loading, down-loading), as well as older terms give new internet inflections (e.g., pirating, commons, navigating). In the current proposal we will seek to explore whether some of these newly emerging phrases might have relevance not only for understanding the operation of virtual communities but, might also point to some emergent off-line community practices, identities and relations.
ix600wire

Neighbourhood kids from the fourth series of The Wire trying to catch pigeons to sell.

For example, much of the vocabulary that is being used by the new coalition government to describe community and their roles within a so-called ‘Big Society’ would seem, to share many of the characteristics of contemporary forms of the Internet. Commonly described as Web2.0, users of the Internet embrace a new read/write relationship with much of the content of the Web and have provided vital dimensions to a previously highly top down environment. Adopting metaphors from the print industry, the early internet (Web 1.0) was populated by content that was written by vendors aimed at the public. Large companies provided the gateway to the web and in some cases controlled the content that was primarily accessible (AOL, British Telecom). Subsequently information felt as though it was ‘read’ only. As social computing technologies were developed, companies such as Google and Yahoo capitalised upon the potential for publicly generated content, opinion and statistical data. Our experience of the internet is now one in which contributing is very easy and taking responsibility for what and who we join, take part in and produce is central to how we benefit.

The design context
There is parallel activity in the spheres of design, products and electronics, where product hackers and DIY hobbyists are iterating between the real (content creation) and the online (content sharing). We are seeing a resurgence in hands-on work in terms of DIYing, tinkering and hacking of products and electronics boosted by the economic recession and falling prices of high-tech tools and materials. Product hacking is the act of customizing or modifying everyday products to improve their functionality, or appropriating them to fulfill other functions. For example, ‘Ikea Hacker’ is a blog dedicated to hacks of Ikea products. And ‘HackerSpaces’ is a global network of workshops where people share tools and ideas; they are about enriching hands-on exploration of science and high-tech projects, risk-taking, sustainability, self-reliance and hands-on learning.

Moreover, Von Hippel’s lead user concept – users/consumers who use products to the extremes it will permit, often modifying products so that they better serve their needs (and feeding their modifications back to manufacturers) – has parallels with ‘positive deviance’. This emerging activity is about identifying people whose uncommon behaviours and strategies enable them to find better solutions to problems than others in a community – and feeding that back into community and social development.

Pigeon
Pigeon fancier Matthew McConnell at his doocot (dovecot), near Parkhead. Photo Christopher Thomond


The design community is starting to think about ways to capture user appropriation and hacking to inform product design. ‘Thoughtless Acts’ is a book and blog by IDEO (a global design consultancy) that chronicles visually those intuitive ways we adapt, exploit and react to things in our material environment – examples of affordances perceived by users, which were not designed intentionally.

Such transformations in the Internet might be seen to have parallels with the organization of society. Modernist/Fordist forms of social organization have arguably been replaced by more decentralised forms of organization, sometimes characterized as post-modern or post-Fordist. However, the transitions are far from uniform and unidirectional, and may also be relativistic as well as contestable. The new Coalition Government in the UK is, for example, clearly positioning itself as a decentralizing successor to a centralizing government, although the New Labour Government was itself been widely described as a agent of neo-liberalisalism. It has also been argued that we are moving into a post-postmodern society whereby there is a desire to forge a return to some earlier senses of structure and coherence. Furthermore, there are some striking parallels between some of the rhetorics of contemporary socio-political change and transformations within the Internet. So, for example, the claims for community made within the UK Government’s ‘Big Society’ agenda is quite similar to claims that the decentralisation infrastructures of Web 2.0 encourages a bottom up approach to managing the Internet. In both instances, power is seen to be distributed and people are encouraged to take more responsibility, although in both cases critical voices have been raised. In the context of Web 2.0, for instance, concerns have been raised about ‘dataveillance’, security and privacy. Although the contours and consequences of the Big Society agendas are yet to become clearly apparent, concerns have already been raised about their potential impacts on communities.

Aims and Objectives
The project team are interested in exploring the extent to which parallels between virtual society (Internet) and actual society (communities) may be extended in such a way that helps make sense of both the opportunities and risks of the Big Society for communities. Specifically we will explore a concept of Community Hacking, the capacity for individuals within groups to develop creative social solutions that transgress established protocols for the betterment of their lives. Many aspects of the ‘new’ rhetoric of the Big Society hark back to the infrastructures that are seen to have bound communities in the past in which neighbourhoods were viewed as public spheres in which people were watched by each other and taking part in local services was viewed as part of community life. Such an approach may be seen to have fostered reciprocal benefit for being part of a community as well as senses of common purpose (Tönnies, 1957). The guiding principles for the use of ‘Common Land’ across the UK represent one instance of this principle and it is no surprise that the Creative Commons movement has adopted it within it’s title to express it’s redistributive approach to copyright. The sense of community implied in work such as Tönnies, and also the value of the commons have both of the source of continuing debates, and recourse to it by proponents of the Big Society might be seen as idealistic or ideological, unintentionally or deliberatively ignoring how surveillance can lead to control, participation both requires and brings with it resources, and self-interest often prevails over common purpose. The Big Society might be viewed as much as a ”downloading’ of social problems as it is an attempt to build a society: a practice of the Web rather than Web2.0.

germanpigeons
Beatriz da Costa’s Pigeonblog was a collaborative endeavor between homing pigeons, artists, engineers and pigeon fanciers engaged in a grassroots scientific data gathering initiative designed to collect and distribute information about air quality conditions to the general public. Semi-inspired by the German engineer Julius Neubronner who experimented with camera carrying pigeons in 1903

On the other hand, if the theoretical proposition of the Big Society share more than rhetorical links with Web2.0, then perhaps we might expect there to be some rather more complex dynamics to emerge. For example, we might expect there to be a more/read right relationship, with issues becoming uploaded as well as downloaded. We might expect people and communities to pursue forms of social hacking as more power is passed on to them, and if core services that previously ‘policed’ their behaviour are cut or relaxed. Consequently the aims of the investigation focus upon how to understand forms of Community Hacking: transgressive processes that facilitate a groups access to resources that was previously untapped. These processes may not be illegal but have the characteristics of a community (virtual or actual) identifying an opportunity to empower themselves in a way that provides them benefit beyond that which the State is currently willing or able to provide.

• The research will reveal examples of Community Hacking and identify a continuum of processes from benign and socially constructive to deviant and socially destructive.
• The research aims to understand the parameters of emergent activity and in particular the potential for particular processes to offer empowerment with minimum of harm to communities or individuals.
• The research project aims to identify viable strategies for communities that operate across traditional jurisdictional boundaries, but in a way that their benefits out-weigh their transgression.

Contribution to the Connected Communities Programme
The project team believe that the metaphor of a Web 2.0 approach to new forms of governance offers a contemporary understanding of community processes and one that anticipates how people are likely to turn to ‘creative’ processes to sustain their lifestyles. The nature of the investigation will offer radical insights into how the network society will develop any means possible to overcome the financial cuts that are likely to impact upon them. Of the many problematic strategies that we are likely to record, there will be an equal number of completely new processes that will challenge traditional models of community support. These new constructive processes will offer new methodologies with which to facilitate aspects of the Big Society. We can anticipate that by definition, these methods will be best understood through the use of cross-disciplinary research: social science, arts and humanities and industrial models of co-design.

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