Gentrification in the mesh? An ethnography of Open Wireless Network (OWN) in Deptford

Cardullo, Paolo
City: Analysis of Urban Change, Theory, Action

The paper offers a critical perspective on practices of construction and consumption of wireless mesh networks in urban environments. It narrates Open Wireless Network (OWN) in Deptford, at a time when this inner borough of London was undergoing an intense gentrification process. Drawing on critical urban theory, the ethnography frames OWN as a socio-technical assemblage deeply entangled with everyday city life. It argues that gentrification poses challenges to a grass-roots wireless network like OWN, because it risks reducing it to an individualised utility and an aesthetic provision. The initial findings suggest the communitarian construction of this wireless network has helped to maintain a commitment to reciprocity, potentially offering—for its users, developers and participants—pockets of resistance against their cultural displacement. Although providing free wireless broadband to many, the paper argues that wireless communication became of secondary importance to the locals who joined the network. For years in fact, OWN contributed to face-to-face interventions, local knowledge exchange and transfer of competences, becoming a relatively known presence in the area. The research operates on a multidisciplinary level evoking hackers, technology and the production of urban space. It wants to stitch back together some of the literature on socio-technical assemblage and on the ‘right to the city’.