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Rainbow Unit: Networks Big and Small

At the Mary Brown Center in East St. Louis, Illinois, community members and Lessie Bates Davis Neighborhood House staff along with School of Information Science students setup a new public computing center created using participatory and evidence-based design principles.

Table of Contents

Session Social Technical
1 Programmable Electronics, Smart Technology, and the Internet of Things Connecting Our Electronic ‘Thing’ to a Wider World
2 Digital Internets, Past and Present The Infrastructure of the Internet
3 The Digitization of Divides A Person-Centered Network Information System Adventure
4 Recovering Community: Designing for Social Justice Community-Centered Design
Rainbow Unit Review

Rainbow Unit Overview

As we went through the Orange and Blue Units, we dove into essential electronics technology and computer hardware and software concepts that make up our sociotechnical artifacts and systems. And we’ve networked together separate sociotechnical microcontroller and microcomputer artifacts to create our first networked information system. As we move into the Rainbow Unit, it’s time to bring together the technical, cognitive, socio-emotional, and critical sociotechnical skillsets, frameworks, and standards we’ve been advancing within our community of practice into a more holistic understanding of networked information systems.

For over a century, professionals in a range of information sciences have sought to use the information and communications technologies of the day to provide liberating directions for social justice outcomes for individuals, communities, and society. As the twentieth century came to an end and we entered the twenty-first, new digital networked information systems emerged, and the information sciences added to their repertoire community networking, community technology centers, and digital literacy training. There has been a significant tension, though, between user-centered practices that too easily result in users being identified as entities completing a task, and a more human-centered, design justice focus that recognizes the ever-present relationship between design and power, a relationship that is often used to benefit some over others through the social shaping of information technology artifacts and systems.

In the Rainbow Unit, each session will more closely bring together the technical and the social within the two chapters of the session to introduce the sociotechnical Internet of Things/smart devices (session one), the global and community Internet networks (session two), the expansion of historic, and introduction of new, divides through digitization (session three), and the hope of recovering community through design justice (session four). The first two sessions will continue to explore core concepts and skills through a more structured set of hands-on technical activities, while sessions three and four will open up a tinker lab to explore further specific introductory skills that still need some development through execution of your own chosen person-centered networked information system adventure.

Today, networked information systems bring together the rich lived analog realm that has evolved over millennia with the digital technologies that have developed over the last decade. These continue to include the still-relevant Universal Asynchronous Receive Transmit (UART) serial communications protocol we’ve used in previous exercises of the textbook and related protocols like Inter-Integrated Circuit (I²C) and Serial Peripheral Interface (SPI). In addition, as dialup bulletin-board systems and commercial online services entered the scene in the 1980s, central servers began to provide information and communication services to larger communities. In some cases, these systems came together to form larger internetworks using more open models. One serial communication protocol that emerged at this time was the peer-to-peer protocol. Peer-to-peer (P2P) applications are not just used to facilitate communication between two peers passing data back and forth, such as our Circuit Playground Express microcontroller and our Raspberry Pi microcomputer. Some peer-to-peer applications are set up for home file and multimedia sharing, while others make use of the Internet to extend peer-to-peer connections globally, often using a “store-and-forward” principle in which data is first stored at a peer hop in its journey before being forwarded to the next peer. BitTorrent is a widely used peer-to-peer file sharing software, while Bitcoin is a well-known peer-to-peer cryptocurrency, with many emerging mobile peer-to-peer payment services coming to market using Bitcoin’s underlying blockchain technology.

Another space in which peer-to-peer protocols have emerged is within the “Internet of Things” space, and this is where we’ll start in session one of the Rainbow Unit as we also gain a first view of the underlying Internet Protocol (IP). But as we’ll also explore within this session, too often Internet of Things devices are actually simplified programmed devices that use a centralized command and control. This shaping of the sociotechnical “IoT” devices reduces or removes design and the advancement of power that should be centered within the individual and with the community of which the individual is part. Instead, the tension regarding whose design and power for whom that always exists has moved forward on a path within the digital realm that centers around economic and societal dominance, something we’ll especially explore in session two regarding the Transmission Control Protocol (TCP)/Internet Protocol.

The majority of Internet services used today, including many “smart” sensors, controllers, and communications devices, still function using the client-server architecture. While in peer-to-peer architecture each device on an IP network is equally privileged so that tasks and workloads can be distributed among peers, within a client-server architecture specific nodes play a centralized role as server. The server provides services and resources upon request from individual client nodes, often through front-end applications that interact with the human users of the application. The open standards and protocols of the Internet are systems agnostic, and thus peer-to-peer and client-server technologies can work well together using a range of different internetworking platforms. However, today we are shaped in a wide range of ways to consider the server as the essential information and communication thing floating up there in the cloud, from which we are the fortunate recipient and through which we can be transformed. But servers are always local devices and the cloud is often just a bank of servers within local networks owned by corporations. It remains that the local networks on which servers are housed can be anywhere. And while there is considerable value in locating our core email, video streaming, and social media services within a Microsoft or Amazon or Google cloud located within regional server banks, there remains significant value in more localized community networks and decentralized Internet of Things devices, a concept we’ll explore throughout sessions one and two as we configure our Raspberry Pi as a local “web server” using two different strategies. Together, sessions one and two are works seeking to guide us beyond the dominant neoliberal “American dream” of digital technological determinism, radical individualism, and supply-side, free market capitalism that has especially emerged since the 1990s.

As we move into session three of the Rainbow Unit, we’ll explore how the technological determinism that embeds our digital “thing-orientation” works both intentionally and unintentionally to extend the historic racial and cultural divides into the digital realm. A name that has stuck in this regard is the “digital divide,” which is especially framed as “a national crisis of competitiveness, defined as a human capital deficit and resolved through public-private partnerships for access extensions.”[1] The breadth of socially driven divides is instead turned exclusively into a technical one. The challenge is to shift focus towards both digital inclusion and also digital equity in recognition that today’s digital technology “is a necessary tool for civic and cultural participation, employment, lifelong learning, and access to essential services.”[2]

Our digital information and communication technologies arise through a range of design principles and processes that merge social and technical considerations. Within digital inclusion, affordable, robust Internet service provision is an essential first element, but it is something that has especially been influenced through monopoly power within the United States, something we’ll especially highlight as we move further into session three. But internetworking of information systems does not need to be this way, something we’ll (re)consider throughout sessions three and four of the Rainbow Unit as each learner is encouraged to choose their own person-centered networked information systems adventure. We’ll also work to explore the ways in which a design justice framework can be used to advance new pathways for social justice practice within the information sciences. The open protocols and standards of the Internet Protocol continue to give us considerable freedom of choice. As we conclude the Rainbow Unit, the adventures are meant to provide a means to test execution of choice, especially as exercised at the local premises, neighborhood, and community levels. We’ll learn to track down network performance issues and rapidly move up the support tier levels to ensure our Internet Service Providers give us what we pay for with regard to Internet provision. And as we’ll see in the Rainbow Unit, not only can we build our own local networks and even community networks, we can also build our own web servers, and from there could expand to build our own database and communications servers, if we so choose. But there are communities and even regions that are stepping up their works to build campus and community networks at larger scales, pushing Internet Service Providers to play more by community rules, not just corporate rules.

This is a long journey, but hopefully as we work through the Rainbow Unit we’ll begin to demystify the clouds that keep Networked Information Systems within a mist, thereby opening up a visioning of the revolution of values that are person-oriented, rather than thing-oriented, as King called us to over 40 years ago.

  1. Daniel Greene, “Discovering the Divide: Technology and Poverty in the New Economy,” International Journal of Communication 10 (2016): 1226.
  2. National Digital Inclusion Alliance, “Definitions,” accessed July 6, 2020.


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A Person-Centered Guide to Demystifying Technology Copyright © 2020 by Copyright © 2020 Martin Wolske. Copyright “Ideating and Iterating Code: Scratch Example” © 2020 Betty Bayer and Stephanie Shallcross. Copyright “Introducing the Unix Command Line” © 2020 Martin Wolske, Dinesh Rathi, Henry Grob, and Vandana Singh. Copyright “Security and Privacy” © 2020 Sara Rasmussen. is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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