Exploring the Concept of the Neighbourhood Computer Network (“Neigh-Net”) (1994)

[This piece was cited in Doheny-Farina, Stephen (1998) The Wired Neighbourhood]

WHY NEIGH-NET?

Free-net is a metro-scale community-based subset of Internet, the
vast system of interlocking computer networks around the world
that were established primarily to link academics, researchers,
and policy developers with each other around the world, working
in their specialized, esoteric areas.  Freenet provides the same
communications environment — with all its strengths and
weaknesses — to the other 99% of the population, but focused on
a single metro area.  The access is through their local telephone
service (vs. most Internet users having direct access from the
institution that pays for the node and connection to which they
are directly linked).

In the National Capital Region, the Free-net has, in just 21
months, grown to almost 30,000 members.  This not only limits the
number of people who can use the network at any one time, but
creates slow responses time for on-line users.  There is also
a problem in a “community” in being able to create a sense of
community and belonging among these members, as well as simply
linking those with similar interests from the thousands reflected
in the content of the system and could potentially be carried.
The technical limits are reflected in the sheer demand that
greatly exceed the number of telephone lines available; the
cognitive limits are reflected in the debate over the design of
the menu system (to increase possibility of finding what is
wanted from the huge selection available) and the many gradations
of help that have developed, as the communications experience of
new members drops with every passing month.  The large number of
members who are no longer active reflects all these limitations.

Contributing to all of this is the lack of money to provide the
network and support capacity the members want and need.  One
appropriate way this has been dealt with is to limit access to
the Internet, which not only saves costs on line charges, but
skews the user demand toward metro-scale information, services,
and issues.  The “organized chaos” that has characterized
Internet (and is very much reflected in Free-net) is scary to the
kind of “customer” big business gears itself to, and is planning
to satisfy by the “information” highway being built in parallel
by various consortia.  The proposal below is geared to finding a
middle ground between “chaos” and democracy, irreverence/
irrelevance, and obtuse interface of the Internet/Free-net, on
the one hand, and the formal, entertainment-oriented, overly
structured and managed, and “sexy” services planned for the
information highway.  How do we get networking to be part of a
person’s daily life?

The time has come to think of the next level of decentralization:
to the neighbourhood level.  This is an interesting trend:
networks that allow world-wide access at a cost equal to local
telephone access being used to support communities that are
smaller and smaller in size geographically.  But Freenet is a
clear first step; I propose neigh-nets are the next natural step
in coping with both the sheer growth in participants and in
making the service tangible and relevant.  It will also be a
place to test, on a small scale, new user-interface technologies,
like World-Wide Web (WWW)/Mosaic, and flat-rate user access
charges (vs. the extremes of free-net’s no-charge policy and
telephone companies’ charge-by-the-minute system).

Neigh-nets can address another significant trend: the loss of
relevance of the local scale of life, as world trade and global
consciousness grows.  However, the neighbourhood is the most
important and comprehensible to children and seniors, to the poor
and to the disabled.  Putting networking to work at the local
scale is a way to support local life and stem the trend toward
thinking that what is near-at-hand is, well, pedestrian.  Without
a strengthening of the local level, the global level will not
work over the long run.

It is the level of living that all people can influence most
directly.  In contrast to the “communities” of Internet, local
communities bring together those living and working nearby, and
this means that network encounters will be: 1) more based on concrete
examples and 2) followed up by collective action.  The result
will be a stronger sense of urgency and consensus (whereas the
international contacts are much colder and directed primarily at
collaboration on written material and research).  The civic-
values “listserv” on Internet debates how to recreate this kind
of civic life.

WHAT NEIGH-NET COULD ADDRESS:

1.      Adjusting to neighbourhood population changes:

*       Collectively greeting/introducing new neighbours
*       Saying good-bye to those leaving (& keeping
forwarding address for future reference)
*       Making temporary linkages with visitors.

2.      Marketing neighbourhood-scale skills and services

*       Baby-sitting
*       Fix-it services
*       Home-business support services
*       Housing (houses, apartments, including sharing)

3.      Supporting the development and launching of new
neighbourhood markets:

*       local driver, delivery services
*       tutoring (not just for “slow” kids)
*       car-sharing
*       ride-sharing
*       “take my teen-ager, please”
*       LETS (Local Employment Trading Systems)

4.      Debating local issues

*       zoning and development
*       councillors’ elections
*       traffic and street design
*       crime & homelessness
*       idleness among youth, seniors

5.      Publicizing neighbourhood events:

*       School plays and sports events (do only parents
go?)
*       Garage sales
*       Debates on local issues
*       Special walks
*       Fund-raisers

6.      Helping Neighbourhood Stores be more local

*       market locally (vs. to outsiders driving cars,
who take up more street space)
*       hire locally (people who know the neighbourhood)
*       support neighbourhood initiatives, causes
*       coordinate delivery services

7.      Making bookings, appointments, connections

*       baby-sitting
*       car-sharing
*       housekeeping
*       pet-tending
*       volunteers for a local school or event

8.      Recycling (advertise availability of unneeded items, vs.
garage sales)

9.      “Test the waters” on new ideas and organize
unusual/innovative events (e.g., organize sessions to
discuss a particular book; a “salon” to discuss issues of
the day, or age-old values)

10.     Finding people with shared interests (using S.O.S.s and
directory services)

11.     Coordinate partnership projects with senior governments,
e.g., group recycling, composting, traffic calming,
Neighbourhood Watch, Block Parents (& other community
policing initiatives), visits to shut-ins, mentoring for
those trying to get first job, “sidewalk stewardship”,
tree-planting, clean-up days, etc.

HOW NEIGH-NET COULD LINK TO FREENET (AND TO INTERNET):

The hierarchical arrangement that exists for Internet nodes
could easily be extended “down” to Neigh-nets, all geared to
reducing the load on the central NCF node, and reduce the
reliance on local telephony infrastructure (including allowing a
“third wire” to be strung by the neighbourhoods themselves).

*       E-mail would be simple

*       The more popular use-net groups could be “mirrored”

*       The membership directories could be more involved (people
would more likely feel comfortable “broadcasting”
themselves if the audience were more local.

*       “information providers” could set up in the same way;
also easily “mirrored” at the city-wide level (or
“dichotomized”, depending on the scale of the provider).

*       Chat sessions would be less onerous for the system (and
thus an “anon-amis” service to link those with similar
“problems” could be easier to provide).

*       Local discussion groups should be segregated from
participation from higher-scale discussion groups and
thus be more particular to the neighbourhood.

*       Links to “private groups” (e.g., abuse survivors,
anonymous discussion groups on fetishes) on BBSs through
“discrete link”.

*       Handshaking to city-wide groups on NCF (and via NCF to
Ontario, Canadian, and international discussion groups)

Plus:

*       Volunteers would be easier to find and retain

*       Examples of the network “making a difference” easier to
produce

*       more likely that independent third-party information
providers would emerge

*       the central computer could be located in a more visible
location (e.g., community centre or “cyber cafe”).

*       discussion groups would be more relevant, more focused

GETTING IT TO HAPPEN:

Of the two models — heavily financed, top-down and poorly
financed, bottom-up — I totally favour the latter.  We can start
with one neighbourhood, financed by a locus of about 100
neighbours who I believe can easily be found to put $200 each in
the “pot” for the first year.  That would buy the hardware and
the five of the 20 necessary phone lines (the other 15 would
easily find sponsors).

The Glebe — a vibrant inner-city neighbourhood with a strong
business community and a wide array of existing community groups
and services — would be a perfect place to start.  Added to that
are four schools, about eight churches, a community centre, a
housing coop, a day-care coop, plus several burgeoning groups
such as a co-housing society and a co-transportation club.  There
are lots of book stores (and resident writers) for intellectual
content, and lots of home-based businesses to need it.

It would be easier to place it in the back of one of the
neighbourhood’s “third places” [1] (restaurants, pubs, or other
hangouts) so people can really see and touch it.  It also needs
such a physical place to allow a physical groundswell to form,
for volunteers to hang around, and for impromptu debates on the
future of neigh-net to occur.

[1] Oldenburg, Ray, 1989, The Great Good Place: How Bars, Restaurants [et. al.] Get us Through the Day

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