the

Civitella prototype


by

Ingo GŁnther

i-gun@Maestro.COM




> A community oriented telecommuniction project for the Italian village of Civitella D'Agliano, Lazio, near Orvieto, due north of Rome. The Telecommunication Project for Civitella is a project pro- posed by the INS (Institute for Network Studies)-an international group of media analysts and media artists.

As the world moves toward globalization and interconnectivity in cultural, political and socio-economic terms, familiarity and expertise in computer based technologies for the average person is more und more important. The INS has taken one of the first concrete steps toward the establishment of a working model for the integration of a hi-tech telecommunications station in an industrially underdeveloped yet culturally rich environment, the village of Civitella D'Agliano. The project was to provide access to a majority of the citizens of Civitella to the Global Internet at the lowest cost possible. It was also deemed essential that access be provided free of charge for each user. The overriding consideration was and continues to be the creation of an experimental environment wherein the citizens of Civitella (along with as many others as possible) can experience first-hand an introduction to an international electronic communications infrastructure (the so called and much hyped Info-Superhighway). It's therefore necessary - beyond all useful and practical aspects - to educate and make available to the residents of Civitella information on existing and planned infrastructure policies. We hope to make a meaningful contribution to the formulation of a regional telecommunications policy which is based primarily on the experience and practical knowledge generated by this project, not the formless hype of advertising slogans and biased telecommunications organizations and their media extensions.
The first phase of this project was initiated during a three week period in July with the implicit understanding that it would last at least one full year during which it would grow, adapt and finally be evaluated. As of February 1994 Nik Williams, Tobias Pfeil and Ingo GŁnther had vivid exchange of e-mail planning the actual details of the project. We concluded that Civittella should be equiped with a booth which would house the computer which would be connected to the Internet. The booth itself was to invite cooperative surfing of the Internet, which is to say that the architecture itself was to be conducive not only for a single user at a time but for joint use and exploration of the resources which the computer itself and the Internet would offer.



The Architecture
This part of the project was considered essential in as much the technology itself leans towards a single user, equipped with his/her own telephone line, his/her own computer and a remote account on some host computer. This is the requisite formula for telecom isolation. More importantly, it requires personal computers and modems be available in users homes. The situation in rural Italy (not to mention the rest of the world) does not warrant such a prerequisite. Given the size of the village of Civitella (max. 2000 people),the telecom booth, to be located near the town center, would be accessible to anyone within a few minutes of walking. These conditions were suitable for our proposed public access model.
David Weiner (an MIT trainer architect currently practicing in New York) started work on an "Internet Booth" as well as larger "Internet Container", a piece of idealized architecture which could be adapted to the local situation. Paolo Atzori (Italian Architect currently in residence at the School for Media Arts in Cologne) has contributed his design of a hyper cube for telecommunication. Jae-Eun Choi (Korean artist based in Japan) is currently working on her design for a booth which is to incorporate elements of a Siberian jurt. All designs were to be improved and exhibited during our time on location.

The Internet connection
Given the constraints of a very limited budget, we decided on a UUCP type connection to the Internet. The computer in Civitella would be programmed to call a host computer which, in turn, resides on the Internet. This "polling call" would typically happen once a day, most likely at night when traffic was low. After much research we realized that there are very few sites in Italy offering that service and only for a sizable set-up fee and very high rates for each megabyte sent either way. Italian host computers are available in Milan and Rome only and connection costs to them are again very high (Italy has the highest telephone rates in Europe) for long distance calls.
We were lucky that Tobias Pfeil had the foresight to apply and arrange for a UUCP service in Frankfurt, Germany. During the initial 3 weeks in July in Civitella we relied exclusively on this Internet connection. This "detour" constitutes a temporary fix, not a long term solution. We are continuing to explore alternatives such as linking with both the new University in Viterbo and with the Institute for Mathematics at Rome University.

Station features independent of an international connection

Another feature at the station is the Civitella electronic post office. This is a collection of personal mailboxes wherein anyone with access to the machine can deposit a message for anyone with a mailbox. A space for public message, much like a bulletin board, will be installed. This will happen as the user group defines themes for investigation and designates somebody from their own ranks to moderate discussions, keep records, etc. An invitation has been extended to the local (monthly) newspaper to publish an electronic edition on the computer which can then be linked to a direct reader feedback system. Articles can be broadcast to all users in e-mail form as they are written - inviting a response at the click of a button.

The computer system (hard and software)
We decided that a the type of computer and software to be used should be a UNIX computer in as much as UNIX allows full compatibility with the Internet (which operates from and on UNIX machines).
Tobias Pfeil offered to design the proper hardware configuration to run NeXTSTEP. The configuration which was brought to Civitella in July consisted of an INTEL 486 motherboard running at 66 MHZ with 20 MB RAM, a 1 Gigabyte Fujitsu hard drive. This drive is large to build an extensive library/database filled with information of regional and municipal significance.

Ownership questions
Idealy and quite naturally a system like this should be owned and operated by its users. The cost should be equally shared and should remain reasonable. As the resources for this, the first phase, were in the form of donations of our own time and energy plus some money from "Project Civitella", direct ownership and/or responsibility has not yet been sufficiently established. But since this is more of an experiment than a service it appears best that it be kept in limbo until its nature becomes evident to all of us. Our suggestions for the future development take that into account.

On from here.
After our initial three week period of setting up, demonstrating, discussing and reevaluating we declare our efforts to be an unqualified success. We have established and demonstrated the potential for meaningful use of this technology, within the community and the larger regional context. We have identified and addressed to individual needs of those wo already own a computer and responded to those who would continue their work from a far while working in Civitella during the summer break.





We suggest multiple paths be taken from here:
- Pending the availability of remaining funds we must decide whether to keep the international connection up and running for the next two months - or to disconnect it temporarily until a more cost efficient and robust method of connection can be determined. Options include to connect to and/or to collaborate with a nearby university and initiate polling from a US based computer.

- The hard fact is that for the next two months the system has to survive unattended. This is the first reality check. It remains to be seen if a group will generate an internal structure and work out the necessary operational modalities. The local user group has to define itself and take charge and generate unsupervised expertise. During this time, INS will be available electronically to present technical advice, operating suggestions and general direction. Tobias Pfeil has worked to insure a reasonable level of confidence in the strength of the software and hardware.


Paolo Atzori: Net-Hyper-Booth         David Weiner


- Even at this early stage of development, we hope that a regional telecommunications policy can begin to be discussed and formulated. All effort should be made to encourage participation by the Civitella community in this all important dialogue. If a community oriented telecommunications policy can indeed be formulated it may serve as the model for similar communities all over Italy. However, we are mindful of the traditional tendency to sacrifice a user-oriented development in favour of bureaucratically controlled financial guaranties offered through EU-sponsored development agencies. Even though such subsidies are necessary at this juncture, they can only be accepted as long as the station/network is allowed to retain its experimental, non-commercial character.