Thursday, 8 October 2009

Vistas of distortion

I write this having just sat down inside a coffee shop (Sarwa [no website] - about five minutes drive from Tainan City's Cheng Kung University). They allow me (and, as of now, three other customers sitting around me) to use their wireless network to connect to the internet for free - or, if you like, for the price of a cup of coffee. It is a fact which affords quite a view across a landscape of - what to call it? - silliness.

My problem was that, after chinese class this morning, I wanted to read and write my homework in Cheng Kung University. The reasons for this are largely unimportant and personal - but are to do with convenience. What I want is quite simple: I want to use my textbooks and notebooks, I want a fairly large table to rest them upon and I want to use my own laptop computer to connect to a wireless network. There are two reasons why I want to use my own computer to connect to a wireless network - the first is that I want to use documents that I have saved on my desktop and the second is that I want to use an online dictionary (MDGB Chinese-English) to help me check how my teacher has written certain characters (her handwriting isn't a very clear guide for someone learning traditional chinese characters), and to look for other words which I may have occasion to use in my writing.

The University were singularly unhelpful. First of all I was told that I was not permitted to use their wireless network because don't have a student ID and password. When I asked if I could apply for such, I was told this wasn't possible due to the fact that I currently study part time (10 hours per week) rather than full time (15 hours per week) and thus am not eligible for a student card or a library card. When I asked why this was the case, I was then told it was because full time students pay for these extra services. When I asked whether I could pay for them I was told that this wasn't possible again because I am "only" a part time student. When I asked why this was considered important, I was met with a blank stare and the assertion that the University "must follow its' policy". When I then asked why this policy was in place, i.e. what the purpose of excluding part time students from the use of the wireless network was (as well as use of the library facilities) the head clerk ended up on the phone to the director of the department who, although she refused to speak to me (perhaps a lack of English), requested me to ask my question via the department website. This little Q&A took place inside the building of the University's Chinese Language Centre where I was accompanied by another British student (a very pretty girl called Natalia from Surrey), and it transpired that the University has some other seemingly arbitrary policies - for instance, not only are part time students forbidden from using the University Library, but so are staff and full time students are forbidden from bringing textbooks into the library (not just their bookbags, on the just about conceivable grounds that students might steal valuable books, but the actual textbooks themselves!). And despite the fact that part-time students and staff are forbidden from using the library, I was informed that members of the general public are actually permitted to use it! None of which makes any sense to me.

My alternative options seemed to be: McDonalds, Starbucks or Tainan University of Technology. McDonalds is attractive to me because, like Cheng Kung University, it is close to my apartment and also because they have some very wide and high tables which are ideal for resting my large graph book on for writing in chinese characters. Yet their wireless internet can only be accessed by a card which must be applied for through the national telecoms giant - Chunghua Telecom (which I could do, but which would likely put me through another hour or two of inconvenient time wasting). Starbucks is similarly appealing for reasons of convenience - although they only have pathetic little coffee tables which are too low for serious work - but I don't know what the terms of their wireless network service is (I suspect it is the same as McDonalds). This is quite intriguing to me, because I would think that both McDonalds and Starbucks would be aware of the potential benefit to them from allowing customers to connect to the internet via their wireless networks for free. Certainly, I would spend a lot more time and money in one of the two were this possible. It makes me think that the problem lies with the still partially State owned Chunghua Telecom exercising control over their service provision to McDonalds and Starbucks. It seems that both of these two companies may not have the legal right to dispose of their purchase from Chunghua Telecom as they might please. This calls for more attention.

The Tainan University of Technology has a fantastic modern library building with large, open tables excellent for students with architectural drawings for example. They also have staff with a very relaxed and helpful attitude (even if that help is itself somewhat incompetent!) - unlike Cheng Kung University. Tainan University of Technology also has a wireless network connection which I find somewhat perplexing. At first (i.e. about 20 minutes from 11.30am onwards), there is a "default" network to which one can connect without encountering any firewall or other barriers, yet from just before 12.00pm onwards, the "default" network disappears entirely leaving one blocked by the firewall for the University's TUTNET network. Actually the staff (just a couple of students) were quite willing to help me get past this problem - they just were unable to do so and were also a little too busy serving other students with checking out books and so on.

And yet here I am - finally - in an independent little coffee shop with its' own wireless network which it allows customers to use for free - no passwords required either. It is simple, there was no fuss and its' exactly what I want.

Now if a coffee shop can do this - why can't the others? Why, for example, does a University - any University - require a firewall or passwords to restrict access to its' wireless internet network? The problem of free-riders was suggested to me by Natalie, but I don't think this makes sense because the number of free-riders could never be very significant at least due to reasons of physical space and the limited radius of the wireless network. And it seems unlikely that the University would be charged by their ISP (again Chunghua Telecom) by volume of traffic. I'm quite certain that they must (like everyone else) pay a fixed monthly charge, so the problem of free-riders seems entirely insignificant.

I think the answer lies with the application of the concept of private property.

Structurally, it seems that, at least in the case of McDonalds, they do not have property rights over the service they have purchased from Chunghua Telecom (and they must have purchased at least the hardware from Chunghua). Culturally of course the concept of private property, whilst readily understood in terms of its' immediate practical implications by small businesses like this excellent little coffee shop I'm sitting in right now, is regarded throughout Universities generally as, at best, an artificial legal construction created and sustained by government for purely utilitarian economic reasons - which of course is pathetically wrong. Moreover, the concept of private property - with all of its' short and long range ramifications does not sit well within a government supported University with an overwhelmingly bureaucratic culture. In such a bureaucratic culture, who can get what is not determined by economic calculation (i.e. by means of price signals), but by political calculation (i.e. by means of bureaucratic identity-processing). The concept of private property also has important ramifications for how people conceive of their relations with others and consequently how they interact with them. The girls on the desk at Cheng Kung University were quite rude to me (example: [me]: "Could I apply to use the University's wireless network connection to the internet, please?" [girl]: "I don't think so!") because they do not conceive of themselves as employees of a business or of me as a paying customer of this business - even though they are providing a service which I am freely choosing to pay them for. Rather they conceive of themselves as political guardians at the gate of a State controlled resource to which only the privileged few (and who is privileged is decided by quite arbitrary means - but never mind) deserve access and the undeserving rest nothing but contempt. Whether such contempt is concealed or openly displayed is a matter of institutional indifference, as a desk girl at a University cannot be disciplined for something as insignificant as refusing to help customers in an insulting manner.

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