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Net/Work: Conversations on Server Stewardship

This project consists of conversations with artists and technologists experimenting with alternative networks through self or co-hosted servers. I am drawn to the particulars of what makes various server practices feminist/situated and to considering the care, maintenance, and politics of these networks. The projects discussed range from how web infrastructure could be more relational to what it means for an organic internet to come from the grassroots. What became a running thread was the hosting of servers as a digital stewardship practice—stewardship of local data, bespoke hardware, and sysadmin. What is the relay between care work, the vernacular environment, and intimacy on the web(s)?

Māori architect Karamia Müller's decolonial shift “away from land as property and toward land as guardianship” could be a model for moving from the extractive “big tech cloud” toward digital infrastructures that are convivial. This would involve going “back-to-the-LAN,” to borrow from Gary Zhexi Zhang, and dweb communalist practices that go beyond communal aesthetics without solidarity. The conversations touch on the ongoing labor of managing servers, including care work and repair for a network that is intentionally place-based, small-scale, and semi-autonomous.

I did a work-study at SFPC where I was in charge of maintaining the space. I was the “Space Manager,” and as a former architect, I was very excited about this position. Iain Nash (a fellow student) used his own Raspberry Pi set up a local server using the File Transfer Protocol (FTP) and Scuttlebutt. After Ian configured the server, Gia Castello stuffed the Raspberry Pi inside a considerably sized cotton ball which made it look like a miniature cloud. A fishing line was tied to the Pi, and clipped onto the cloud was a handwritten sign stating, “Our Distributed Network Cloud.” So daintily dangling from our common area was a network of our own, suspended above, where we participated in workshops and discussed class readings and I was made even more aware of how the digital is material somewhere.

At the time, I was working with the concept of "media maintenance,” taking inspiration from John Durham Peters's book Marvelous Clouds. To Peters, media can be understood not just as passive containers but as enabling infrastructures. He helped me see how the commonplace rituals and materials we participate in are atmospheric infrastructures of being. I wondered how I could take our digital ecosystem at SFPC with our maintenance protocols and extend it beyond the bounds of the school.

Lately, those ideas have been coming back to me. When I put together the book Rehearsing Solidarity, I worked on a section focusing on the digital infrastructure and networked solidarity of two mutual aid groups I worked with in Brooklyn and Boston. One of my neighbors, Madeline Blount, questioned what it would mean to have a "tech-location-based" network solely for our neighborhood in Crown Heights, Brooklyn. This sketch ended up on the cover of the book, and I loved it because the way it was drawn inspired sociotechnical imaginaries, but it was also a well grounded proposal for how we could have this local circuit for conviviality and getting our needs met. This research led me to explore other care-based practices and community-owned networks.

Hyperlinked Meshiness

In an interview with Octavia Butler, she notes how four to five books will lay open, across various topics, within her house because the “ideas they present bounce off one another,” functioning like a primitive hypertext. Having already had the opportunity to be in dialogue with everyone in this project, I knew their various backgrounds and perspectives would have deep links. I hope that the readers of these conversations can similarly bounce back and forth between ideas as well as traverse these meshy hypertexts as with a good mesh network, cyclically with more than one path. ✿

Net/Work Stewards

  • Max Fowler is an artist and programmer working with offline-first software, mycology, and community infrastructure. I was interested to hear about their reflections after contributing to PeachCloud, a software that makes hosting peer-to-peer software on local low-power hardware more accessible. In our conversation, we discuss how working with PeachCloud developed their thinking on Sovereign Hardware, how they’re hoping to see servers hosted collectively like with Co-op Cloud, and how Ursula Le Guin’s novel Always Coming Home creates openings for “appropriate technology” that is small-scale and decolonial.

  • Alice Yuan Zhang 张元 is a Chinese-American media artist, researcher, and cultural organizer based in Los Angeles. Her transdisciplinary practice operates on cyclical and intergenerational time. The starting point for our conversation is her project Open Garden, a durational participatory performance exploring attention where a website is hosted collectively without a central server. We reflect on the role of the body in relation to network infrastructure and how we can think about server hosting as a community endeavor.

  • Austin Wade Smith is an artist, ecologist, writer, and technologist based in Brooklyn, New York. They are the creator of Feral.Earth, a solar-powered server hosting a website where the surrounding ecological behavior controls access to its various links. In our conversation, we discuss bioregional computing as a framework for a “situated entanglement,” the notion of feral technology, or technology that is not in direct service to humans, and the importance of management, care, and maintenance work for their server.

  • Sanketh Kumar is an engineer and avid storyteller based in Bangalore, India. He is a collaborator of Janastu and the founder of COWDeNet (Community Owned Decentralized Networks). During our conversation, we discussed the politics surrounding state-owned versus community-owned networks. We also talked about the challenge of building community trust in order to create local stewards.

  • TB Dinesh is a community media activist with a background in Computer Science and the founder of Janastu in Tumkur, India. We begin our conversation reflecting on Anthillhacks, an annual event where people come together to investigate Wi-Fi mesh networks and what technology means in the rural areas of India. We reflect on Janastu’s “COW Mesh,” or Community Owned and/or Operated Wireless Mesh, the challenges of the CO- in COW, and what stewardship and maintenance practices for mesh networks mean in this cultural context and geography.

Thank you to everyone involved in these conversations, especially the Solar Protocol team, Tega Brain, Alex Nathanson, Benedetta Piantella, and Kate Silzer for the edits and feedback. Special thanks to my infra friends Max Fowler and Alice Yuan Zhang.