OurNet: Building Local Mesh Networks in NYC

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Building a Network of Your Own: Workshops in Network Infrastructure and Privacy

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Summary Description


This project will empower students with a basic understanding of the key components of network infrastructure, while at the same time enabling them to develop their own private networks. To do so, we are proposing to design and offer two workshops for students grades 6 and up. One would enable students to build a simplified social network that would be unique to their classroom; the second would help them build a private internal network without using an internet service provider (ISP). Both projects are inspired by networks that could have been created more than a decade ago. These two platforms are safe spaces by default, because everyone participating in building the networked environment is located in the same physical space. Students can compare their experiences with these trusted safe spaces to their experiences with the World Wide Web or commercial social networks like Facebook. The project also provides an historic context to understand how the internet was created and continues to develop. Video and written instruction will be provided so even non-technical students can understand and participate.

The first workshop will show students how to create a website with shared hosting where students can learn how simple it is to start their own social network and edit pages with a shell account. In the second workshop, students will build a “darknet” or private network independent of the Internet. Using a simple wifi router, students will be able to communicate in an anonymous forum.

Proposal Content


Laboratory or Site of Inquiry

The development of the two workshops will take place at Eyebeam’s working space in Sunset Park, Brooklyn, where Joanne McNeil is currently a Resident artist. The workshops will be tested using students from middle and high schools with which Eyebeam is currently working on other education projects and will be either run at the schools as after school programs over four weeks or as weekend workshops either at a school or at Eyebeam. The teacher training workshop will also take place either at a school or at Eyebeam, depending on access and scheduling.

Connected learning

Our approach is to inspire students to learn how easy it is to build networked environments of their own that are separate from ISPs or commercial Web platforms. One challenge to trust in online communication is digital literacy, which this project aims to resolve. For this project we will develop two workshops that will teach students about online privacy and the key components of the internet and its infrastructure. These workshops not only instruct students about how networks work but also serve as a history lesson about the development of the internet. Documentation will include a glossary of terms and timeline of key events in internet history. We will also hold a test Teacher Workshop to insure that the instruction materials are written in accessible language so that a non-technical parent or teacher can lead the workshops. Both the written documentation and accompanying videotapes will offer information on content moderation and community management for the instructor. Students will experience a networked environment similar to spaces that existed on the internet more than a decade ago. They will learn about what we mean when we talk about the “cloud,” DNS protocols, how wifi works without using an ISP, and other aspects of network infrastructure.

Diversity, civility, inclusivity

The internet once provided users the space to share their ideas without prejudice against their age, race, gender, sexual orientation or other aspects of their identity. These workshops offer the opportunity to experience what the internet used to be like, and could be like again — as an open forum for many people to share their ideas. It might seem counterintuitive to provide an anonymous networked environment for students to create a safe space with a culture of civility. In current discourse, anonymity is often conflated with online harassment and abusive comments. However, these workshops are structured to provide students with the freedom that anonymity offered early users of the internet. Each workshop will be led by a teacher who would serve as a community moderator in the digital space. A managed community means that the conversation will remain civil and educational while also anonymous.

Access

This project is providing a historical context for deeper understanding of what the internet is and how it shapes our world. The workshops create a safe space for students to learn about networks. They will empower non-technical students and others with access to key internet development skills. Everyone taking part in a workshop and working is in the same room and therefore accountable for their actions on the network, thus making it a trusted space. The community is a trusted group of people and the instructor can moderate what is shared in the network.. The lesson is both how to build a safe, trusted networked space and also how to protect yourself and participate in this networked space. Students will be empowered with a networked environment for the free expression of ideas.

Management of data

These workshops provide networked spaces that do not track the data of participants. Personal privacy is not violated because the students build these networked spaces themselves. This absence of data tracking is therefore a lesson in the fact that social networks like Facebook collect data out of choice, not necessity.. In the instruction guide, students will learn about what kind of tracking is added on to platforms and how their data is tracked in their online activity. The intimacy of this space provides an example of how much students can communicate with others without large tech companies acting as the middle man and using their data. The workshops invite students to compare the intimate networks they have created to larger networks like the World Wide Web or Facebook.

Privacy

Just over a decade ago, internet users took privacy for granted when they accessed the internet. Finding a trusted safe space on the internet was as simple as creating a new screen name or visiting a new chatroom. Most people who used the internet in the 80s and 90s had to learn at least basic coding skills to communicate. That knowledge let people feel a greater sense of control over the content they shared and communicated. Today’s Internet has lost that sense of control and privacy, but, because the networks developed through this project are created by the students themselves, they have control over their personal privacy and what they choose to share with other students. In both workshops the workshop leader has community moderation privileges to remove objectionable content so that the community remains safe for all participants.

Scalability and impact

These two workshops and their accompanying documentation could be introduced to any number of interested schools or similar institutions, such as libraries, boys and girls clubs, or after school service providers. As part of this project, we will test both workshops in school settings or as a Saturday workshop and will also run a teacher training workshop to determine how easy it is for classroom teachers to master the material and explain it to their students.

Technical

This project is inspired by and modeled on two open source projects: Occupy.here (http://occupyhere.org) and Tilde Club (http://tilde.club). The basis of both workshops would, like these two projects, be entirely open source.

Implementation plan

Dan Phiffer, creator of Occupy.here and a volunteer sys op at Tilde.club, would build the program frameworks for both workshops, inspired by Occupy.here and Tilde.club. He and Joanne McNeil would then create student materials as well as video documentation and a teacher’s guide written for a non-technical person to understand.
Once completed, Eyebeam would collaborate with one or more of the middle and high schools we currently work with to identify two or more classrooms to test the workshops. We would also work with the schools to identify teachers interested in learning how to run their own workshops. Dan and Joanne would lead the initial workshops and the teacher training. If successful, we would hope to expand the program to more schools throughout New York City and even nationally.

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