Saturday, April 12, 2008

WiFi as a shared resource

While I'm thinking about Computers In Libraries I'll mention one of the less - positive experiences of the conference - the wireless networking situation. It became a running undercurrent to the rest of the conference content. I think it is something that there should be more discussion about, in a number of areas:
  • In one strange sense, I was happy to experience the frequent network outages / instabilities. I know I, and probably most of those in attendance at the conference, come from situations of bandwidth luxury: A private home wireless network connected to a good DSL line, A research grade internet connection at work. It is probably good for us to be in the position of access scarcity every now and then, to remember that for many people that is till the norm.
  • In one sense it would be easy to blame the conference organizers for the instability of the networking situation, or the hotel facilities. But realistically - it is a big job to provide wireless infrastructure for a potential userbase of over 2000 people. From what I could see, ITI was making a real effort to accomplish this, and often succeeded.
  • The real issue for me is a question of "netiquette" - of social behavior. Often, the problem seemed to be that people could see the wireless network and connect, but couldn't talk to the outside world very well. I don't know what the bandwidth of the connection from the conference routers to the internet as a whole was, but it is obviously a limited resource. And yet, when people could connect, I'd see them browsing aimlessly, watching You-tube videos, looking at facebook pictures... etc. etc. -- not that there is anything wrong with that in the abstract, but when at the same time presenters are having to scrap their live demos because the network is so slow and unpredictable, it seems at best highly inconsiderate, and possibly mean spirited and a form of sabotage.
With all the talk of building community, of collaborating, of "sharing online" etc... etc..., I'd like to see more explicit discussion of this aspect of "social networking" - more consideration of the basic norms of appropriate behavior around a shared, limited resource.

More and more the digital world is ushering in a new form of economics, not based on the old paradigm where scarcity equals value, but where value equals abundance and ease of access. But wireless networks are not part of that world yet.

Okay, I'll take off my curmudgeon hat now. :-)

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