Notes from the Underground

Talking, eating, doing business, all of these activities occur in public spaces. In fact, “good” public spaces are supposed to encourage such multiple uses, at different times of day and season. The activities themselves, however, aren’t necessarily public—neither supplied nor funded by our friends and foes from city hall to D.C. The talking may be done over a private provider’s cell phone network, the food purchased from an overpriced vendor, the business deal closed courtesy of a message sent by my Blackberry wireless.

Yury Gitman sends an email from the N, R, Q, and W platform via WiFi provided by his Magicbike. Photo: Nicole Horlacher.

In the New York City subway system, there is one activity that has not yet been declared the spoils of the public or private domain. That is, surfing the Internet. The subterranean system lacks the wireless (or WiFi) “hotspots” that broadcast Internet access to users within its range, and so the politics of the service has been a non-issue.

But on a gray December day last year, 28-year-old Yury Gitman brought WiFi, however briefly, to a platform at the Union Square subway station. There, he sent New York’s first underground email to Mayor Bloomberg. All courtesy of two bicycles equipped with laptops and antennae.

Gitman, an adjunct professor in the design technology program at Parsons (and a self-described “emerging-media artist”), has been bringing Internet access to underserved locations around and under the city through his Magicbike project. By transforming a bike to a magical more-than—which involves mounting an off-the-shelf laptop and WiFi antennae to a bicycle frame and configuring the laptop’s WiFi card as a repeater—Gitman can relay a signal from a more distant existing hotspot. Through his website www.magicbike.net Gitman has been passing along these signals by request, perhaps most notably at a recent Helloworld event staged at the United Nations (www.helloworldproject.com). As for the Union Square occasion, one Magicbike parked above ground picked up a nearby public hotspot and sent its signal in series to a Magicbike propped in the stairwell below.

And there’s the rub. Gitman chose Union Square precisely for the free access (it is one of the few public hotspots in New York). Gitman’s email to Bloomberg went beyond the self-congratulatory, asking the Mayor to consider offering the Union Square service elsewhere. Moreover, since December, Gitman has included a cell phone in the Magicbike ensemble so users can uplink where hotspots are scarce. He doesn’t pass the monthly phone charge on to them.

Photo: Nicole Horlacher

While Gitman says expanding the city’s wireless infrastructure simply gives people the chance to uplink when they want, where they want, he emphasizes that “One day we’re going to have Internet access both in the subways and other public spaces and I think big corporations are going to be involved. I wanted to beat them to the punch.”

Surely Gitman is in a less capitalist frame of mind than, say, Starbucks’s WiFi pay-for-play collaboration with T-Mobile. But at what expense comes this unmatched public service? A little time away from email and pop-up ads in a subway system that is, by unlinked comparison, a refuge from surfing and send buttons.

Check out the May 2004 issue of I.D. for more stories about technologically inclined bicycles.

COMMENT