Block I Illinois Library Illinois Open Publishing Network

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: An Emergent Strategy for Community Organizing and Action
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 artifacts and systems. We’ve also 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 skill sets, 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 digital resource services for libraries, digital humanities, social informatics, community networking, community informatics, digital literacies, citizen science, classification on the web, information infrastructures for science, human-centered data science, human-AI interaction, crisis informatics, trauma and memory studies, digital health, health informatics, critical data studies, critical archival studies, learning analytics, data analytics, biomedical informatics, everyday information behavior, data science storytelling, linked data, knowledge organization, management of data, information, and knowledge, data curation, data visualization, data and text mining, coupling cognitive systems, natural language processing, mathematical optimization, cultural theory, computational semantics, game studies, collective leadership, business information, innovation culture leadership, accessible computing, and information law, policy, and inequality. This is but a partial list as the information sciences continues to explore the data, information, knowledge, and wisdom (DIKW) realm in full as a broadly interdisciplinary space that also uses multidisciplinary research with many other sciences, from engineering to political science to journalism to education to African American and African studies to women and gender studies and beyond.

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. And so, here too, it is critical to bring in the voices of the marginalized and oppressed, whose community cultural wealth and indigenous ways of knowing have been excluded, hidden, and socially and physically destroyed. Social justice storytelling has been an important start, which this unit works to expand to ensure that we continue to provide liberating directions for social justice outcomes for individuals, communities, and society.

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 and 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 three sessions will continue to explore core concepts and skills through a more structured set of hands-on technical activities. Networking of data and information can happen over a range of different networks, as we’ll explore. We’ll integrate data and information from the breadboard electronics and Circuit Playground Express with the Raspberry Pi in new and creative ways. Many of these could instead be integrated with your laptops, or with local or remote server farms. But in using the Raspberry Pi to demystify digital networked information systems, we will hopefully also demystify the sociotechnical networked information systems in ways that open the potential for more just pathways in your future professional endeavors as an information scientist. This will especially be brought forward in session four, as we explore issues of design for justice in the information sciences.

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. The constant tension regarding whose design has been used, and whose power has influenced these decisions, have moved forward within the digital realm on a path that centers around extractive 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 servers. 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 reflect back and plan forward ways that they can solidify their introductory understanding of the core learning objectives through a person-centered, networked information systems adventure. We’ll also work to explore the ways in which a design justice framework and its underlying emergent strategy principles 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 that 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, and not just by 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 do over forty 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.


Icon for the Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License

A Person-Centered Guide to Demystifying Technology, 2nd Edition Copyright © 2023 by Martin Wolske Copyright © 2023. 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. Copyright “Storytelling in the Information Sciences” © 2023 Yingying Han and Martin Wolske. This book is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

Share This Book