Visualizing Wi-Fi Network via House Society Theory

Jung-Hua Liu

School of Fine Art, History of Art and Cultural Studies, University of Leeds


Wi-Fi networks are ubiquitous in our daily life and they are always depicted as spots in map or signal waves via sensor. This paper applied anthropology's house society theory to visualize Wi-Fi access points as houses in the cities and present them in three points of view to connect Wi-Fi networks to social aspects and adopting Arjun Appadurai's study on globalization's landscapes offer the alternative way to rethink how importance of Wi-Fi technology had on identities and social behaviour in this internet era.  The visualization with BSSID colours transform  the random and unstructured distributions of Wi-Fi access points to  mass-production and globalized urban landscapes.


Wi-Fi networks are popular in metropolitans in the world. Different cities have their unique concepts and demands to design and build Wi-Fi infrastructure. This project has fieldworks to observe and study the development of Wi-Fi networks in London, Taipei, Hong Kong, Chicago, and New York. The social and geographical context of Wi-Fi will be visualized as a serial of colourful chart and social theory will be applied to analyze the data. The aim is exploring how Wi-Fi networks are shaped in different context and the result helps us to consider urban characters into the design of Wi-Fi networks.


Wi-Fi is wireless technology for building network connection. Wi-Fi technology is also often compared to similar wireless technology, such as 3G. Although both of them are involved with broadband data transfer, Wi-Fi focuses on short-distance connection and 3G is applied in mobile phone market. Wi-Fi technology is widely adopted by different cities to construct their municipal networks, such Taipei (Taiwan), Chicago (USA), Philadelphia (USA), Venice (Italy), and Bristol (UK). Low cost and easy installation are major factor for cities to promote Wi-Fi as their important digital infrastructure. Popular Wi-Fi hotspots evoke safety issues more than cable connection, because Wi-Fi signals are easy to be sniffed and interrupted. The safety are particular meaningful for public Wi-Fi while they are exposed to lots of users and crackers’ attack. Wi-Fi is not only concerning to technology but it also related our habitats and behaviour.

This project aims to apply anthropology's house studies of anthropology as explaining theory and  colour chart artworks as the object to study the Wi-Fi users' identities. Because Wi-Fi users need to be equipped with Wi-Fi devices in a Wi-Fi network to go online, this project takes the machine equipments into consideration to study users' behaviour. Wi-Fi users seem to have their mediated life with Wi-Fi devices and networks, so this project looks Wi-Fi users as cyborg (cybernetic organism) which is both human beings and machine. This project will present how house studies help us to understand the complicated and mixed condition of human beings in contemporary societies where technology affects our life significantly. The artworks create a mediated appearance of urban life and this can expand anthropologists' view on the urban culture from the real world to cyberspace.

Wi-Fi is convenient rather than network cable for us connecting to the internet via wireless signals. For example, you can go online in Taipei or in the Hong Kong airport via free Wi-Fi connection without plugging into a network socket. Besides the different connection method, most Wi-Fi networks have names for the users to recognize Wi-Fi hotspots and for the providers to announce their ownership. Their names look like such as "AT&T" in USA, and "Wifly" in Taipei. In contrast to Wi-Fi, traditional network cable can only provide one user to access internet per line, but Wi-Fi signals can cover more than one user's connection. Recently more and more users go online by mobile phone's 3G, GPRS or similar data transferring technology. Unlike Wi-Fi, mobile phone users do not need to gather in particular location to obtain the connection ability. From the difference, Wi-Fi network is similar with a house which contains the members in one place, so I we regard look Wi-Fi network as a house metaphor in this study.

Literature review

Claude Levi-Strauss (1983) considered the house as a social unit after reviewing the confusion of kinship in Franz Boas's study on North American native Kwakiutl. Boas wanted to found the basic social unit according to traditional anthropological terminology, but he failed to locate 'lineage' and 'clan' in Kwakiutl society. He found a native term 'numaym' which involve with the kinship and society and it doesn't fit any traditional categories. Levi-Strauss figured out 'numaym' is house which is comprised of house names, decoration, tangible wealth and blood relationship. The kinship in houses is dynamic with the political and economical activities through the physical and invisible house objects. He coined 'house societies' for this type of societies. His findings inspired the following anthropologists to study the kinship via the process of becoming kinship not being kin.

Modern Houses are not only homes but also a living machine as Le Corbusier mentioned in 1923,

The machine that we live in is an old coach full of tuberculosis. There is no real link between our daily activities at the factory, the office or the bank, which are healthy and useful and productive, and our activities in the bosom of the family which are handicapped at every turn.

Before Le Corbusier, houses are like artcraft, but he was fascinated with machines and factories and aimed to convert houses to machines. He wanted to change the world via creating houses as mass-production and brought the traditional world to the new order.  Although his goal were not achieved but lead us to think what impact of technology affect the concept of houses.


Although Arjun Appadurai didn't mention house societies directly, his global landscape analysis represented media and buildings which are constructed by the modern technology but organized as different ethnoscapes in the global cities. Houses are the popular buildings full of special decorations in modern societies as Le Corbusier’s ‘living machine’ which are shaped by specific ethnic groups as Levi-Strauss pointed out. He emphasized modern societies are not “tightly territorialized, spatially bounded, historical unselfconscious, or culturally homogeneous”  which are similar to house societies in kinship study. House is beyond a territorially bound and cultural homogeneous unit because its members come from different houses and houses are adopted as an identifier by members to locate themselves in social networks and offer people the freedom to go out the physical house to participate the daily life.

Inspired by the previous studies, this paper takes Wi-Fi access points as houses in the modern societies and presents them as living machines via the repetitive grids which were applied in modern houses widely and artists used them to construct relational and rational artworks to construct the world in their ways, such as Donald Judd, Richard Paul Lohse and Josef Albers. Their works escaped from the representational social phenomena but produced new ways to view their world  and this is important for this paper to connect Wi-Fi access points to houses with the artistic ways to display the new perspective to the wireless networks.


This project has preceded fieldwork in London, Chicago, New York, Hong Kong and Taipei. This article focuses on two southeastern Asian cities: Taipei and Hong Kong, and discuss the cyborg identity in Wi-Fi Networks. This project does not try to record all Wi-Fi AP data in cities but focuses on how Wi-Fi networks are shaped in different cities. Although there are some organizations providing Wi-Fi distribution maps:

a. Data attribute: pure Wi-Fi machine data can't give us the culture, society, economy and environment information in the cities.

b. Legal issue: Besides, commercial companies are collecting Wi-Fi position by their stuff and only allow limited license to query the data from their user interface which can't provide full access to their databases. Open/Free map group is collecting data by the participants and the group owner rejects the request which they think the use(r) may not related to open/free map project.


From the restricted distribution of Wi-Fi position information, we can see that Wi-Fi does not only relates to technology, but also to the concepts of possession, knowledge, resource and power as is like other materially/immaterially valuable objects in anthropology.

To collect the Wi-Fi hardware information, I wrote a Windows batch file runs in my laptop and used iPod Touch commercial software to record Wi-Fi information automatically while I walked around the cities. Besides automatic collection of laptop in the different areas of the cities, the related culture and environment are also observed and recorded.

Data Analysis

London is an active Wi-Fi-promoted city because the newspaper reported London installing citywide Wi-Fi access points every months but the media failed to mention the commercialized Wi-Fi service due to the failure of providing free Wi-Fi service in London. Although the government fail to support their Wi-Fi service but BT, the telecom monopoly distribute their BT-named Wi-Fi machines in the cities. Since the end of 2010, Londoner can access Wi-Fi in one underground station, Charing Cross station.

Chicago suspended their municipal Wi-Fi plan in 2007 because of the financial issues and a non-profit organization NYCWireless promote Wi-Fi in New York City. But this two cities didn't have the main provider can cover the cities as BT and the density is far lower than London..

Taipei's main service provider is Q-Ware's Wifly and it is they installed in nearly 5000 hotspots. This service was originated from Taipei City Government’s network policy since 2004 and Q-Ware is commissioned to build Taipei wireless network. This policy aims to make produce a new network Taipei as a new network city to connect everyone wirelessly. This service is sponsored by Government so Q-Ware's Wifly hotspots spread in the city widely, including main roads, metro stations, Starbucks coffee shops, fast food restaurants, and 7-11 convenience stores. Although it is a government policy but Wifly is a commercial Wi-Fi service, not a free civic service.

Besides commercial hotspots, private Wi-Fi APs (access points) appear everywhere in Taipei, including companies, elementary schools, high schools, universities and residential areas. There are two special Wi-Fi services in Taipei, FON community and global Boingo. FON was originated from Spain but it does not provide Wi-Fi connection directly by themselves. Instead, it provides low price Wi-Fi access point with special functions to help people share the connection with others freely or with the charge of a asking the fee. If you are a FON Wi-Fi AP owner, you can access other's FON AP freely. Otherwise, you may pay the FON AP owner to get the connection. In contrast to FON focusing on the end users, Boingo corporate with different the Wi-Fi service providers around the world to offer one account to access global partner's hotspots. In Taipei city, there are 428 Boingo hotspots but the Wi-Fi APs still are named after their service provider, such as "hinet". It is hard to distinguish what Wi-Fi AP belonged to Boingo. If we ignore the differences of Wi-Fi APs owners, the highest record of Wi-Fi APs is 72 in a single location at the same time.

In Hong Kong, the main service providers are PCCW and Hong Kong government. Nearly 6000 commercial PCCW's Hotspots and 350 free HK government hotspots.

PCCW Wi-Fi hotspots locate in main MTR stations, convenience stores, and shopping malls. Hong Kong Government runs free Wi-Fi service in public libraries, parks, government buildings. Particular buses provide free Wi-Fi services. Like Taipei, private Wi-Fi APs (access points) appear everywhere in HK, including companies, universities and residential areas. Community Wi-Fi APs, such as FON, also exist.

Wi-Fi networks covers the whole cities, most houses have their AP. The citizens are living in a both physical space and intangible/invisible Wi-Fi networks. The popular Wi-Fi hotspots transform human beings to cyborgs which are the mixture of human and machine. Wi-Fi Network includes tangible AP and Network Card, and intangible Wi-Fi signal coverage. The users share internet connections in particular APs. The activities in Wi-Fi networks contain gathering in real world and surfing the Internet in cyberspace.

Claude Levi-Strauss considered house is both a physical buildings and a social unit. Carsten & Hugh-Jones think the symbolic and metaphorical power of the house weaves social relations into a social network. Wi-Fi networks are like houses, because Wi-Fi networks own are provided through physical machines and people get own their online social activities via Wi-Fi.

Wi-Fi networks of a companies or Wi-Fi service providers could be seen as the social interaction in different kinds of houses which represent the different aspects of identities in contemporary world. According to the above similarities, the hypothesis of this project is "Wi-Fi AP is House.”

The mapping principles indicate the Wi-Fi users are living in real world and cyberspace as cyborgs. To represent the Wi-Fi's house metaphor, this project produces three types of colour chart:

a. Urban landscape

b. AP-centered portrait

c. Personal routes

Wi-Fi APs are the main objects in Wi-Fi networks and house metaphor, so they are the described and visualized objects. Every Wi-Fi AP has its unique MAC address (Media Access Control address) and this project represents house metaphor and Wi-Fi networks by MAC address. MAC address is also known as BSSID (Basic Service Set ID) and it looks like "00:13:f7:8e:5a:15”, whereas Wi-Fi AP name is "V1492”. The first six code is the manufacturer’s code and the last six code is the serial number in the manufacturer’s production lines. Paricular places have their specific providers, such Wi-Fi in East Coast train are produced by Colubris Networks.

Table 1. London Wi-F access points’ manufactures list (

The artworks are generated in a website for fit the subject 'cyborg' which is both human being and machine.

To show the colours in the website, this project translates the MAC address to the colour coding of the webpage, which is hexadecimal six digits. We pick from the first six digits of the MAC address a webpage colour code, then from the second to the seventh. The orderly six-digit transition can translate all digits into colours according to the reading direction of human being and machine.

Fig. 1 Colour Chart

a. Urban Landscape - in one city

The first six digits of MAC Address are is manufacturer code and the last six digits are serial numbers. In Wi-Fi urban landscapes, the major colour charts are similar because Wi-Fi service providers, such BTOpenzone and PCCW, always adopt the particular manufacturers' Wi-Fi AP. The disjunctive and uneven Wi-Fi urban landscapes. And they are either more or less open from cyborg's view according to membership which are obtained by subscribe Wi-Fi service. The colour charts are not only represent digital/analogous colour but also financial/geographical/social colour. This landscape shows the locations (identities) in material and immaterial space.

Fig. 2 Hong Kong Urban Landscape

b. AP-centered Portrait – in one AP

The colour charts are generated in the same way in urban landscape. This portrait presents the sequence of a single Wi-Fi AP in different time, like life history. Because the records are distinguished by areas, the portraits represent the location from different angles.The portraits can show that a Wi-Fi AP is public/private or rented/bought.

Fig. 3 Taipei's one AP-centered Portrait

c. Personal Routes – in one day

The colour charts are generated in the same way in urban landscape. The charts are the Wi-Fi APs which the users passed through in single day and whether the users can access the APs or not. In contrast to AP-centered portrait, this picture is the life history of the user.

Fig. 4 One Day Route (part) in New York.

Arjun Appadurai proposed five terms to describe the uneven and disjunctive landscape under globalization. After modifying definition of terms to describe Wi-Fi networks in cities, the landscapes can help us deepen the colour meaning and understand the importance of the house metaphor in studying cyborg identities in Wi-Fi networks.

Ethnoscapes: The Wi-Fi APs spread widely in the city but not every users see the same Wi-Fi distribution map because it depends on whether the users can access APs or not. In contrast to traditional wire connection which is only provided in few places, such as homes or companies, people can expand their online life around the city if they buy the commercial Wi-Fi services. Connection location is not static again, users still can go online at homes or companies but they also can do this in the roads or metro stations. The city-wide Wi-Fi hotspots constitute of a house to provide users to go online via identifier. Wi-Fi cyborgs maybe belonged to one commercial Wi-Fi group but they have their individual moving routes, besides they can be other Wi-Fi group members at the same time. Personal colour charts present their moving routes and the different user's charts shows the heterogeneous ethnoscapes.

Technoscapes: Taipei and Hong Kong are full of Wi-Fi facilities, and a user may connect to Wi-Fi networks in different devices in the different locations and time. At home, the user may depend on laptop to connect to Wi-Fi APs but check email via their PDA in the Wi-Fi network of metro station. In other words, a Wi-Fi cyborg does not always equipped with the same machine to connect to Wi-Fi, so a cyborg is a configuration of Wi-Fi devices. What devices that the users adopt contribute a Wi-Fi technoscape, and the technoscape indicates the difference of locations. A metro station Wi-Fi AP-centered portrait maybe depicted by PDA rather than by laptop so the one quality of Wi-Fi house is PDA-oriented. The quality can help us think what kind of cyborg lives in this Wi-Fi AP.

Financescapes: Both cities choose the ideal and theoretical locations to install Wi-Fi facilities, and that presents the unequally financial distribution. This landscapes are obvious in the colour charts and reveal the relationship between regionalism and politics in a spatial and strcutured way. The strict mapping between colours and BSSID transformed the geographical distribution to a globalized manufactures’ heirarchy.  

Mediascapes : The commercial and government Wi-Fi service providers tell us where we need to go online and how we should go online by different medias, including radio, TV, webpage and Wi-Fi mark in the buildings and on the roads.

Ideoscapes: Although both cites promote Wi-Fi service, Taipei's "New Network City "and Hong Kong's "Wireless City” policies are different. Wi-Fi in Taipei is infrastructure because Wi-Fi boxes are attached along the roads as part of infrastructure. In Hong Kong, Wi-Fi is service as integrated into the store or government service.

  1. 5. Conclusion

 House studies  provide a social/cultural approach to consider Wi-Fi technology in our life. This project reconsiders the importance of the house in cities by Wi-Fi study in qualities, functions, behaviours and entities. Wi-Fi AP as house in a society provides the identifier and resource for the users to go online. In this special house, kinship means the membership and this kind of kinship is not consistent and permanent especially in commercial Wi-Fi networks. And this difference makes us to rethink how the urban house types, bought or rented, affect kinship condition, such as unstable or stable.

The visualization of Wi-Fi networks produces landscapes, portraits and routes map and can help anthropologists think of the effect of technology in modern society in a pictorial view.

  1. 6. References

List and number all bibliographical references in 9-point Times, single-spaced, at the end of your paper. When referenced in the text, enclose the citation number in square brackets, for example [1]. Where appropriate, include the name(s) of editors of referenced books.

[1] Appadurai, Arjun, Modernity at large : cultural dimensions of globalization, Minneapolis, Minn. : University of Minnesota Press, c1996.

[2] Alberro, Alexander  and Blake Stimson, Conceptual art : a critical anthology,Cambridge, Mass. ; London : MIT, 1999.

[3] Carsten, Janet and Stephen Hugh-Jones, About the house : Lévi-Strauss and beyond (Ed.),Cambridge : Cambridge University Press, 1995.

[4] Le Corbusier, Toward an Architecture, Los Angeles, Calif. : Getty Research Institute, 2007

[5] Lévi-Strauss, Claude, The way of the masks, Seattle : University of Washington Press, 1988.

[6] Nash, J. M., Cubism, futurism and constructivism,Woodbury, N.Y. : Barron's, 1978.

[7] William Lehr, Lee W. McKnight “Wireless Internet access: 3G vs. WiFi?”, Telecommunications Policy, Volume 27, Issues 5-6, Pages 351-370, 2003.