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XXIX.3 May - June 2022
Page: 62
Digital Citation

Tangible and intangible spaces of community connectivity


Authors:
Débora de Castro Leal, Elaine Correa Teles

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To expand Internet connectivity to communities on the periphery of the world system [1] has been a goal for parts of the HCI community for decades now, as well as for activists and big tech. Efforts include physical centers, where people have access to computers, the Internet, and personal support; grassroots initiatives to build community networks [2]; and Facebook's infamous and rightly criticized [3] attempts to offer free access to a limited number of webpages.

back to top  Insights

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Despite such efforts, many rural communities in the Global South still have little to no Internet access, even as the urgency for improved access increases. Rural, Indigenous, and otherwise traditional communities in Brazil, where both coauthors work, are increasingly threatened by agribusiness, land speculation, legal and illegal deforestation, and mining, which has devastating consequences for nature and livelihoods from the associated pollution [4]. Internet access helps communities both document and spread awareness of the atrocities they face and organize countermeasures. The Internet can also help improve access to formal education and simultaneously provide an opportunity to document, preserve, and spread the knowledge of traditional and rural communities.

But just as crucial as pointing out that communities need access to the Internet is highlighting that creating access is not enough. The effects and benefits of improved connectivity are not universal but rather a function of the specific practices and relations into which Internet technologies are appropriated. For example, as Débora and colleagues have documented elsewhere [5,6], the economic practices of a rural Brazilian community are affected in different ways by improved Internet connectivity, sometimes bringing them closer to the structures of globalized capitalism, sometimes enabling them to keep their distance. Economic practices are only one aspect of communities' lives that are changed by Internet technologies, as we will show here. Relationships between community members or mental well-being can be changed, for better or for worse. When planning and carrying out such interventions as activists or as academics, we need to take into account these varying possible consequences. To do this, space, in tangible and intangible forms, is a central consideration. Tangible space is related to physicality, for example, where to deploy the equipment, while intangible space fosters care, allowing moments of listening, conflict, and decision making.

back to top  Project and Community

We have been working together for several years on a community network project in the rural Brazilian community of Boa Vista do Acará, located in the Amazon region in the state of Pará and about an hour from Belém, the regional capital. Elaine is a member of the community and has been responsible for the management and maintenance of the community network [7] since 2016, a voluntary position with no financial benefits. She recently finished her bachelor's degree in social work. Débora initiated the project with members of the Association of Organic Producers of Boa Vista (APOBV) in 2015, and in 2018 she started working on it as an academic.

Boa Vista's inhabitants are considered ribeirinhos [8], one of Brazil's many excluded social groups who live near the river in the Amazon region. Agricultural practices, such as the planting and processing of acai, manioc, fruits, and various medicinal plants, are the main economic practices, but many members also work in Belém, doing mostly manual work. The community has a few restaurants, a school, and a small health center, and is surrounded by the Guamá River and forest. Community members have known one another for generations and many have family ties. These deep connections are visible during important events. For example, when a member of the community dies, all other members visit the family's house at night for a seven-day wake, playing cards, eating, and keeping the family company. Members, however, feel increasingly pressured to leave the community, some temporarily, some permanently, to look for formal education and employment elsewhere, which leads to an involuntary loss of these community ties. In 2015, during several workshops, community members expressed the need for an improved Internet connection to counter this development. They perceived the Internet as being able to alleviate the pressure to leave by creating improved access to educational and economic opportunities, which would allow people to stay in the community. From this idea, the conectaBV project (https://www.instagram.com/conecta.bv/) was born: a community network in partnership with Débora, APOBV, the Aeronautics Institute of Technology (ITA), and the Federal University of Pará (UFPA). The project created a WiFi network accessible in several key locations in the community, such as the school and the UFPA building, as well as several families' homes. The network has been run, maintained, and expanded by community members, especially Elaine, since 2016.

View of Boa Vista from the main tower used by conectaBV View of Boa Vista do Acará from the main tower used by conectaBV.

The issue of space has been a central consideration since its inception. This includes both questions of tangible or physical space—Where can the signal be received? Where is the router located? Where are good access points?—and intangible or social space—space for the community to share complaints, discuss and evaluate the effects of the improved Internet connection, and find ways to support one another.

back to top  Tangible Space

Taking into consideration physical space, we asked ourselves where a signal, which when we set up the project was provided by the university located 6 kilometers away, across two rivers, could be received. The community is dispersed, spanning about an hour's walk from the harbor to the last house. Dense vegetation grows between houses, impeding Internet signal strength. Next to the harbor is an old tower installed by a telecommunications company, which abandoned its services several years ago. We took over this tower and installed an antenna to receive a signal transmitted by an antenna on the roof of a UFPA building. From there, the signal was sent to the school and then distributed to the health center and police station and to a second, smaller tower in the center of the community, on the premises of the APOBV.


How could we prevent wildlife from tampering with the infrastructure, such as animals gnawing on cables or birds bending antennae?


The next issue was where to locate the infrastructure (e.g., routers, switches, antennae) to manage the network. We picked the school because of its strong interest in having better connectivity and its proximity to the tower. The two access points, however, were not enough. With additional funding, we installed a series of antennae and routers close to the initial two locations. At this point, we had to address the obstacle created by the vegetation: Where could we place routers to be least impeded by trees and other plants? How could we prevent wildlife from tampering with the infrastructure, such as animals gnawing on cables or birds bending antennae? How could we create the least disturbance to plants and wildlife with our activities? But also, which trees would be ideal to carry an antenna, and which natural resources, such as cipo (an Amazonian vine), could we use to fasten antennae and cables to the trees?

Mapping the houses of the village to facilitate visualization Mapping the houses of the village to facilitate visualization.

Even more difficult, however, were socially oriented questions such as where exactly access should be improved, as it meant some families needed to be picked over others. To help us make such decisions, we used GPS and OpenStreetMap to map all the houses around the two towers. The location of each router was then decided on individually and with continuous pressure from many community members, who all wanted to receive an Internet signal closer to their home. In the absence of connectivity at home, the community would park motorcycles on the road and put plastic chairs in the forest around the two buildings, to mark spots where a good connection could be received. The question of where to locate infrastructure is not only one of physical space but also is significantly connected to social and even environmental contexts. This indicates the need for an intangible space that enables reflection and discussion among the community members of the social consequences of an improved Internet connection and its physical location.

back to top  Intangible Space

The improved Internet connection creates significant yet varying changes for the community. Those changes shape the social relationships people have to and within the spaces around them—the intangible spaces. As Débora and colleagues have described elsewhere [6], the Internet connection creates changes to the economic practices of individual members. For example, it helps some agriculturalists avoid spending hours in the market of the region's capital, Belém, waiting for clients to buy their produce. Yet while some consequences are desirable, not all of them are. The Internet connection interferes in complex ways in the relationships that make up the community, altering them profoundly. For example, Elaine's role as the guardian of the community network is not only a privilege but also a significant burden for her.

Bia, a community member, attaching the router on the post Bia, a community member, attaching the router to the post.

Elaine has been an employee at the school since 2014; she took over the administration of the main network tower in 2016. During working hours, Elaine was often required to maintain the network for the school's teachers and administrators. For that reason, Elaine's role within the school ended up generating conflicts, as she had two responsibilities: her paid general services job and her volunteer role as the network administrator. Interestingly, her volunteer work is often recognized as more critical than her paid work. For us to deal with these tensions and be able to continue, we needed mutual support and counseling, as well as psychological support throughout the entire process so that the project would not end.


The Internet interferes in the social network of the community, changing the frequency and intensity of personal interactions.


The hardest part of the project was not the difficulty in accessing financial or specialized technical support, but rather Elaine's changing roles in the school and in the community. It was not only a process of the community appropriating a technology but also of Elaine appropriating her new role in the community. As Elaine stated, "Members of the community do not come to talk to me anymore to ask, 'How are you?' They now only ask, 'What is the WiFi password?'" Her perceived increase in power is sometimes received with hostility, as families feel excluded or treated unfairly. At the same time, other community members were able to contract rural Internet services, making different socioeconomic classes in the community visible. Those with individual Internet do not share the password with their neighbors. Elaine believes that the Internet is a space for inclusion that causes exclusion: "Internet is creating barriers for those who do not have money to deploy their own Internet and depend on conectaBV to access it." At times it felt as if Elaine was loved by many and hated by many, making her wish she could throw the router, cables, and antennae into the river, ridding herself of the position and its burden.

Attaching a router to receive the internet signal from the Association tower Attaching a router to receive the Internet signal from the Association tower.

The Internet interferes in the social network of the community, changing the frequency and intensity of personal interactions. When a person died, the announcement of the death and the invitation to the funeral was previously done by someone going from house to house. Nowadays, WhatsApp messages have performed this role. This is more efficient, and perhaps especially welcome by family members who are grieving and mourning, as it lessens the number of things to take care of after the loss. But the door-to-door visits enabled a sharing of grief and a sense of togetherness that is lost in WhatsApp messages. Often these changes are brought on by individual decisions of comfort or efficiency, but their consequences affect the whole community, and are not always perceptible or changeable by just one individual.

Space is required for community deliberations, for all members to reflect on the changes they witness and experience and to make communal decisions about their practices. At the beginning of the project, this was done by meetings in the school, the church, and the association building with the participation of community members, project leaders, and teachers. We would always introduce ourselves and share something not-Internet-related and then open the discussion for questions, complaints, and compliments about the project. Many times people would complain about Internet governance, Internet pornography, and the overall bad influence of the Internet; but they would also talk about the benefits, as well as their wishes and expectations for a more reliable Internet. Nowadays, especially during the continuing pandemic, such spaces are online and only between a few of us—Elaine and Débora, the president of the APOBV, and the school administrators—which means Elaine's role has become even more crucial and the network administration more centralized.

back to top  Conclusion

When planning initiatives to increase Internet access in communities, whatever form these interventions may take, we need to be aware of the different effects of increased connectivity. While improved access can be portrayed as beneficial and universally desirable by both large technology companies and Internet activists, the effects are complex and varied. It thus requires deliberation, reflection, and continuous calibration to make sure such interventions do not create more harm than good. And it is our duty, if we engage in such projects, to enable the creation of such tangible and intangible spaces when planning interventions such as conectaBV. The issue is not that volunteer-led community networks are problematic, but rather that the effects of interventions such as increased Internet access are not universal and not universally positive. There is a need not only to engage with people as individuals and with equipment but also to care in a collective way. It requires the community to review changes they are experiencing, make decisions collectively, and give direction continuously.

back to top  References

1. Wallerstein, I.M. World-Systems Analysis: An Introduction. Duke Univ. Press, 2004.

2. Abdelaal, A. and Ali, H. A typology for community wireless networks business models. Proc. AMCIS 2007; https://aisel.aisnet.org/amcis2007/308

3. India blocks Zuckerberg's free net app. BBC News. Feb. 8, 2016; https://www.bbc.com/news/technology-35522899

4. Lynas, D. A Good Business or a Risky Business: Health, Safety and Quality of Life for Women Small-scale Miners in PNG. K. Lahiri-Dutt, ed. Australian National Univ. Press, 2018, 151–170.

5. de Castro Leal, D., Bustamante Duarte, A.M., Krüger, M., and Strohmayer, A. Into the mine: Wicked reflections on decolonial thinking and technologies. Proc. of the 10th International Conference on Communities and Technologies—Wicked Problems in the Age of Tech. ACM, New York, 2021, 269–280; https://doi.org/10.1145/3461564.3461578

6. de Castro Leal, D., Krüger, M., Teles, V.T.E., Teles, C.A.T.E., Cardoso, D.M., Randall, D., and Wulf, V. Digital technology at the edge of capitalism: Experiences from the Brazilian Amazon rainforest. ACM Trans. Comput.-Hum. Interact. 28, 3 (2021); https://doi.org/10.1145/3448072

7. Computer-based system that supports social networks' communities by using networking technologies by, and for, a community.

8. The ribeirinhos are a traditional population, descendants of former slaves and numerous ethnic Indigenous groups.

back to top  Authors

Débora de Castro Leal is Brazilian and a research associate at University of Siegen, Germany. Her research focus is on the role of digital technologies in rural communities in the Brazilian Amazon region and the tension between these technologies and coloniality. debora_leal@yahoo.com

Elaine Cristina Correa Teles is Brazilian and a resident of a village in the Amazon rainforest. She works as a general service assistant at the municipal school and has a degree in social work. In her spare time, she leads conectaBV, a community network deployed in 2016. elainecristin27@gmail.com

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The Digital Library is published by the Association for Computing Machinery. Copyright © 2022 ACM, Inc.

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