Whenever I'm having trouble hooking up to a wireless Internet network, I find myself echoing the words on the opening page of E. M. Forster's novel Howards End.
For those of you who didn't have to read this book in school, those words are: "Only connect." Forster was talking about human interaction, of course, but most of what I do online is also about human interaction. The Ethernet may be all about exchanging packets of information, but it was designed to facilitate communication with people, not just computers. Tim Berners-Lee devised HTML as a way to link research topics for the academic community. And e-mail, instant messaging, blogging, threaded message boards, and MySpace are all about linking people together.
But there's a serious flaw in this kind of communication. The trouble is that these forms of community are all virtual and don't engage basic forms of human contact: eye contact, conversation, and refreshments shared together. Whenever you see someone at a public Wi-Fi hot spot, they're not interacting with anybody around them. They may be communicating furiously, but their laptop screens are serving as a shield (or a cubicle wall) to separate them from the people nearby.
Anab Jain figured out a way to turn Wi-Fi access into a way to interact with people, and she managed to do it in one of the most standoffish cities in the Western world: London, England.
Last year, a postgraduate student named Anab Jain figured out a way to turn Wi-Fi access into a way to interact with people, and she managed to do it in one of the most standoffish cities in the western world: London, England. She's bringing her idea to San Jose, California, next month as part of the thirteenth International Symposium of Electronic Art
, and she's expanding it in some interesting ways. The whole thing revolves around a kitchen chair painted bright yellow. Tie a yellow chair around the old Wi-Fi hot spot
The yellow chair was an eye-catching gimmick Jain dreamed up for her postgraduate project at the Royal College of Art. She placed the wooden chair in front of her house underneath a sign that read, "My Wi-Fi network is open for neighbours and passersby. Free access from the yellow chair." Then she sat back and waited for someone to sit down. She'd go out and chat with people, offer them cup of tea, and see what happened.
In other words, this was a way to make Wi-Fi users act more like Harley Davidson drivers, Vespa jockeys, Manchester United fans, or any other group of like-minded people: it prepared them to stop and talk to each other about what they have in common.
This wasn't a desperate attempt to make new friends in a city notorious for being hard to assimilate into. It was, in Jain's words, "a live service design intervention … [that] illustrates how wireless technologies could become interfaces to re-create transient spaces for conversations at the threshold of the public and the private, the physical and the electronic." In other words, this was a way to make Wi-Fi users act more like Harley Davidson drivers, Vespa jockeys, Manchester United fans, or any other group of like-minded people: it prepared them to stop and talk to each other about what they have in common.
Naturally, as this was a project in the field of Interaction Design, Jain documented it scrupulously and posted a QuickTime movie online as the Yellow Chair Stories
. Jain discovered (as I did in the 1980s) that it was possible to live in London for a year and not actually know any of your neighbors. She even had twenty-first century tools at her disposal, such as a wireless network, but they did not actually break the ice. In fact, the only local person she located digitally was someone called "user" who piggybacked on her Wi-Fi connection and left a LimeWire music collection in her iTunes folder. She tried to initiate a conversation with "user" by renaming some of her files with "Hello 'user', let's chat" messages, but to no avail.
Jain didn't see much activity on the Yellow Chair either, until she offered supermarket-style special promotions, such as free recipes for chicken tikka masala out of shared folders on her computer. At that point things took off. She made new acquaintances at the chair, saw passersby meeting other passersby, and spotted new buddies wandering off from the chair together down the street. Yellow Chair, Golden State
Next month in San Jose, the Yellow Chair will make its appearance again, this time with a twin in a different neighborhood. Jain and a colleague, Tom Jenkins, have been soliciting folks to offer their Wi-Fi networks to strangers for free. It will be interesting to see how the chair will fare in sunnier climes and whether it will foster anything more permanent than a passing interest in a stranger's shared folders.
Sure, it is an art project with a sociological hook and not a real technological innovation. But it reminds us of what Wi-Fi is really about.
Frankly, even if there is no lasting effect, the Yellow Chair will still serve a purpose. Sure, it is an art project with a sociological hook and not a real technological innovation. But it reminds us of what Wi-Fi is really about, and it reminds me of a trip I made last summer. I was in a strange town and needed to search online for a cheap place to stay. As if by magic, a Panera Bread restaurant appeared before my eyes, touting free Wi-Fi to all its soup-slurping customers.
I ended up sharing a power outlet with a stranger, but we actually had a pleasant chat as I powered up. We made inconsequential small talk about drive size and RAM, browser preferences and the weather, and then both got down to business. Later, we said good-bye and moved along. This was no great shakes in the grand scheme of social interaction, except that I felt good for the rest of the day, having seen a friendly face in a strange place and found something to chat about.
And really, at the end of the day, that's what network connectivity is really all about.
Matt Lake's own chairs stay around his kitchen table and his wireless access point is secured like a medieval castle. But next time he's in London or San Jose, he'll pull up a yellow chair and make some new friends. Will he see you there? Let him know in the feedback section below.