Space and place consideration in the use of public WiFi

Morning read in the train: Of Coffee Shops and Parking Lots: Considering Matters of Space and Place in the Use of Public Wi-Fi by Alena Sanusi & Leysia Palen. The paper reports an exploratory about how the understanding of space and place matters in accessing free and public WiFi. The emphasis is put on the terms that are employed by wifi seekers and how they reflect spatial notions of ownership, legitimacy and hospitality. The questions they deal with concern the following:

"Wi-Fi challenges us to reconsider space and place theoretically and practically because it offers another layer for possible interaction in spaces, yet its boundaries are not well-articulated. (...) Unlike architectural space, Wi-Fi boundaries are not visible, as they exist in the airwaves. Wi-Fi signals can be sensed with certain software applications, but they cannot be sensed with bodily sensations. Like the wind that makes itself visible through its effects on objects on which it blows, Wi-Fi’s presence can be sensed only by seeing its effects in that space where Wi- Fi is available. We do know something is different about a space, after all, when a bevy of laptops are flipped open at the coffee shop we’ve just entered. (...) Does the space of the wired coffee shop (and the extent of the owner ’s rights) end at the walls of the shop, or at the furthestmost reaches of the signal? Do the social expectations of what should appropriately be done in a coffee shop – buy a cup of coffee, especially when the customer is going to use free wireless service – extend to the walls, or to the parking lot, or to the edges of the signal? How (if at all) is the Wi-Fi user to interact with the signal beyond the bounds of the physical space of the coffee shop? Does the nature of Wi-Fi create a place whose boundaries do not coincide with the place of the coffee shop? Does Wi-Fi create a place whose behavioral expectations of the people there are not the same as those of the coffee shop where it originates? And if so, what are the rights of the owner of the Wi-Fi signal beyond the spatial boundaries of the coffee shop? "

An example I found particularly relevant present a mobile worker in the US who has no time to return to the office and need to send off an urgent email. She drives nearby a coffee shop that does not secure a WiFi network, use their ample parking lot and find an open connection. She sends off her email and takes this as an opportunity to look for incoming email. According to the authors, this scenario constructed from multiple anecdotal reports shows the following:

"This example shows how Wi-Fi connectivity creates new opportunities for interaction with some people and deliberate non-interaction with others. Through connectivity, the mobile worker may be seeking interaction with the email recipient, but it is doubtful that she is seeking interaction with the owner of the hub. (...) When Wi-Fi extends beyond the spatial bounds of walls, then, how are we to interact with it in those overflow spaces? (...) After all, according to conventional understandings of place-behaviors in parking lots, these lots have been designed to be freely used by anyone with a legitimate reason to be there. However, she may be a little uneasy about her right to be in that spot using the overflow Wi-Fi signal, even though it may be entirely unclear from whom she could seek permission, and even though it is unlikely that anyone would challenge her legitimacy as a guest. What we would like to point out here is how intimately our mobile worker ’s understandings of space-based ownership rights and place-based expectations of appropriate behavior and legitimacy are entwined in her experience of using the Wi-Fi signal. "

Why do I blog this? at first it looks like something a bit far from my own research, but as I started piling up material about infrastructures (as a vector for the near future laboratory), it seems that this study echoes with some discussions that happened here: the perception of infrastructure and the corresponding spatial behavior. Of course, there is a lot more to draw in this paper. Having received a Fonera recently I am curious to observe what's happening.

Sanusi, A. & Palen, L. (2007). Of Coffee Shops and Parking Lots: Considering Matters of Space and Place in the Use of Public Wi-Fi. Computer Supported Cooperative Work (online first).