Stepping through the Portal: CTNY & the Pandemic
The pandemic is shining a bright spotlight on the fundamental human right of communication. Separated from each other physically, we need telecommunications to access educational opportunities, to work remotely, and to feed our souls through connection to loved ones. In the past month has become clearer than ever how digital inequality disproportionately impacts particular communities.
We see a few major conversations evolving which directly impact CTNY’s work to build healthy, equitable digital ecosystems:
- Renewed interest in the problem of inequitable access to the internet and its benefits (The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Guardian, CityLab, etc.)
- Sharper focus on the trade-off between perceived benefits of surveillance and tracking in this new context (contact tracing via devices and networks, a proposed national Coronavirus surveillance system, attempts to create secure, anonymized pandemic tracking systems)
- A conversation about how we use technology with overtones of “tech saviorism” and emerging drawbacks of overreliance on consumer tech (non-consentful data collection, security failures)
We also see hopeful and innovative projects emerging in response to the pandemic, and the crisis of connectivity — fiber-connected schoolbus hotspots in Illinois and Alabama, rural organizers in Oregon connecting radio and wifi systems, Radio Kingston adapting a CTNY Portable Network Kit to serve a Covid 19 testing center.
We believe that CTNY, and our Community Tech Collective with the Detroit Community Technology Project can bring learnings from our work to lead the way in development of community technology ecosystems that embody access, participation, sharing and cooperation, consent, and the health of our communities.
While we cannot by ourselves build all of the new systems our world will need, we can create concrete examples and calls to action, and share them among our networks of allies and collaborators, to grow and seed aligned and generative projects.
Many journalists, funders, and policymakers who had moved on from the “digital divide” to important emerging tech issues like artificial intelligence and algorithmic bias are also returning to basic ground truths inequitable access due the COVID crisis. In fact, we are learning again, we had simply moved on from digital inequity, without solving it. While telecom industry incumbents are now providing more equitable access due to social and political pressure, and government regulators have opened up programs to expand subsidized access, they are not giving any indication that such support will last any longer than the crisis does. How do we build more permanent digital equity?
CTNY’s goal is to present working models, inspiring ideas, and sustainable practices of mutual support grounded in relationships of trust and cooperation — a vision of a future of technology — that is available beyond the moment of crisis, and past the time frame of convenience offered by industry and government.
We believe that the pandemic is a crisis of care, not a war. It is a lens into the inequities and the vital parts of society that are truly undervalued by the machine of capital. In her article “The Pandemic is a Portal,” Arundhati Roy argues that this special period, this pause in our everyday, gives us an opportunity to “rethink the doomsday machine we have built for ourselves… this crisis “has mocked immigration controls, biometrics, digital surveillance and every other kind of data analytics…”
And the pandemic gives us a choice:
We can choose to walk through [this portal] dragging the carcasses of our prejudice and hatred, our avarice, our data banks and dead ideas, our dead rivers and smoky skies behind us. Or we can walk through lightly, with little luggage, ready to imagine another world. And ready to fight for it.
What is CTNY doing to protect and expand communication as a fundamental human right?
We are building a mutual aid project to help get underconnected folks online with self-determination, intention, and care. See our guide to learn how to build your own high-powered hotspot to share bandwidth and/or to organize your neighbors using your own locally-hosted network to create shared grocery lists, check on neighbors, and share playlists and resources.
We believe both online and offline systems are necessary. It is not just tech that is saving us, but the mutual aid networks and organizing relationships we are building. Our Portable Network Kits allow nearby connections that prioritize local connections and building power — and far-away internet connections to talk to loved ones and access work and commerce opportunities.
Above: PNK configured to be a network extender
We are also moving our Portable Network Kit learning sessions online with care and intention. This is a challenge, since our usual methods prioritize being with our partners, getting hands-on with equipment, sharing food and drink and music and just being together. As we move learning online, how do we bring our best selves, and our enjoyment of each other? We invite all of you to join us and figure it out, as we host online support sessions to help anyone build their own PNK (it’s about $300 of equipment — or reach out to us at firstname.lastname@example.org if you and your community need support!)
Meanwhile, our partners in Tennessee’s Clearfork Valley and New York’s Hudson Valley are using PNK and networking tools to build community in the crisis. In the Hudson Valley, Radio Kingston has adapted a Portable Network Kit to create connectivity for health care workers at COVID testing center. In rural Tennessee, the Clearfork Community Institute is expanding their hotspot access to ensure that the community has access to telehealth services, and can organize quickly to help neighbors in the absence of ambulance service or a nearby hospital.
Above: SCCP staff and community members participate in a PNK building session in July 2019
In NYC, we are talking to library systems and to THE POINT CDC about adapting their networks and resources to build the digital justice network and share skills and resources. While libraries are sitting empty, we have an opportunity to share their connectivity in order to seed and grow mesh networks that share bandwidth into the neighborhoods who need it.
Our resilience work in NYC after Hurricane Sandy has taught us a lot about community preparedness and what happens when neighborhoods are under stress. Sandy — and Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico — were important lessons in disaster capitalism. Who owns infrastructure, and who should own it, and who makes the rules? Crises can spark a conversation about decolonizing technology, communication infrastructure.
If you look at the margins, where so many people live, you can see an early version of how climate change may make access to basic human rights even more unequal. But it’s also in these places where you’ll see innovation steering the development of critical support infrastructure away from the corporate quest for profit.
We see: local innovation and a more free, more decentralized internet. What’s of vital importance is that people have more democratic control over their own pieces, their connection to their communities and to the world.
Why do we build our own infrastructure? To make choices about governance and design that are based on principles of equity and resilience. Communication systems are the nervous system of our culture and society, so let’s build them in a way where we feel and see and hear each other and be in relationship with each other.
As our partners at THE POINT CDC and Hunts Point Free WiFi in the South Bronx say:
Changing the face of technology ownership is hard – who do you think about when you think of who owns your latest tech innovation? Our own people can’t recognize our own potential. You have to build a system from scratch in order to understand how it works, what values it embodies — and what your own potential is.
We’re the ones who can fix it because we’re the ones who designed it. We built it from scratch and we know what it takes philosophically, physically, everything. Hire us to do it! (From a conversation with Danny Peralta, Alejandra Delfin, Yamil Lora, Sharon Delacruz, and Luis Saula)
We agree. Emerging issues in tech are not so separate from the basics: who builds it, who owns it, who makes decisions about it, who embeds the principles and values it expresses. Let’s step through the portal together and build the future we want to see.