Bandwidth as perceived property

From my bedroom I can see 8 WiFi access points (thank you San Francisco ;-). Two are locked. Why? On the one hand, there are potential security problems--packet sniffing by Bad People and the like--but I think it's something else. I think it's a relationship to bandwidth that's akin to property. People don't have a framework within which to evaluate the pros and cons of sharing bandwidth with strangers--what does it mean to me if someone uses some of the bits I'm paying for? So they retreat to a concept they understand, a mapping of their relationship to their property to their bandwidth. I'm not comfortable letting someone I don't know set up their lawn chair on my front lawn, even if it doesn't hurt me or my lawn, so why should I let them freeload on my bandwidth? Or, at least, that's how I feel the thinking goes.
It's as if there's a confusion between ownership and property. I think that the confusion comes in the reversal of a truism: if something is my property, I own it, but that doesn't necessarily mean that because I own something, it's property.
Yet that's how people treat it. Two examples:

  • I was in a loft recently that a friend of a friend moved into. He got broadband, set up his WiFi base station. "I was going to leave mine open, but then I saw that everyone else's were locked, so I said 'fine' and locked mine, too." It's a classic tit-for-tat Prisoner's Dilemma response, effectively creating a kind of responsive fence-building around what's perceived as property.
  • More and more cafes are starting to give away free wireless, possibly in response to other cafes giving away wireless. Morning Due cafe, near my house, used to charge for WiFi access. Then Maxfield's Cafe, a block away, started giving it away for free. Maxfield's is always full. Now Morning Due is giving away WiFi "for a limited time." The fact that they're doing it "for a limited time" means they're not completely bought into this idea of "giving away" their property, but they see what it did for Maxfield's and they're reluctantly trying it out. But there's still clearly a feeling that it's property and parting with it without reciprocity is somehow losing something. What is being lost is unclear, but it's a very deeply-held mapping that somehow there's something that's lost.

What's interesting to me about this is how similar this reaction is to people's relationship with all kinds of other intangible goods. The ownership of rights and ideas gets similar treatment--and similarly confused responses--because we don't have the intellectual tools to comprehend them as having different properties--obeying different laws of physics in a sense--than physical goods.
It'll be interesting to see how our world changes as other things are added to this list (individual identity? race? allegiance?). It's also interesting that what were purely philosophical exercises (how to tell what is reality from what is illusion?) now become questions of daily life--well, OK, at least for me. ;-)

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Very good points. You're right, when referring to property, I mean that people take their understanding of real world ("hard") goods and apply them to the more ephemeral world of shared resources. So that's the difference between the two understandings of "property." Because our association between paying for something and owning a physical, limited, thing are so strong, we make the jump to the idea that EVERYTHING we pay for, we own in the same way as we own a physical thing, when in fact that's often not the csae. Even more generally, it may be that everything we feel we own (like our identity) we may treat like a physical object, when in fact it behaves differently.
Your points about the potential downsides of sharing a WiFi network are probably what people are afraid of when they lock down their home network (even though they may not be able to articulate them). However, the first and third of those are remote possibilities for the vast majority of people--probably less likely than winning the lottery--but the possibility that there "bad" things may happen is likely enough to make people back away from "giving out" their bandwidth, especially if their neighbors don't. The second is a more real concern--and one that comes closest to the Tragedy of the Commons line of thought--but it's also of a relatively low probability.
And, yes, bandwidth is leased, but I think that the concept of a lease for something that's ephemeral is also difficult to grasp--and even then, people have trouble conceptualizing leases (or else repo men would not need to exist). you have got me thinking about the meaning of "property" and "ownership." I'm trying to understand your claim that:

"...if something is my property, I own it, but that doesn't necessarily mean that because I own something, it's property."

I guess that could be true if you take the second occurrence of "property" in that sentence to mean some physical, tangible entity. If by "property" you mean "something that belongs to someone or some entity, then I have a hard time seeing how owning X does not entail X being property.

About Broadband: correct me if I am wrong, but don't most of us "lease" broadband access rather than own it outright? If that is the case, then we are deciding whether to allow freeloaders to tap into our leased access to a resource.

If that is the case, then the concepts of "ownership" and "property" when applied to WiFi Broadband may not be apt. The question may turn into: if I am paying to access this resource, what reasons would there be for barring others to have free access to this resource?

Here are some reasons that I consider legitimate reasons to bar access:

- The freeloaders are using the resource to commit harmful acts (e.g., using your WiFi to promote child pornography).

- The freeloaders are using the resource to such an extent that I cannot use the resource to meet my needs (e.g., using your WiFi to such an extent that you are reduced to a 28K modem).

- The freeloaders are using the resource in such a way that my rights to use it in the future become endangered (e.g., the owner that provides you with leased bandwidth cuts you off because of the child pornography activity).

In my own case, I'm all for sharing WiFi access, but the three principles above would apply when complications ensue.

Nice post. Thanks.




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This page contains a single entry by Mike Kuniavsky published on December 29, 2003 6:36 PM.

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