I have never met most of my neighbours, but I have encountered their Wi-Fi networks.
It's a natural part of digital life in just about any community today. Almost every home is equipped with an Internet connection and a wireless router, a device that provides wireless Internet access to any Wi-Fi-enabled computer nearby. The advantages are obvious: You can now take your laptop anywhere in your house to check out the latest skateboarding cat video on YouTube.
Thanks to this technological advance, home Wi-Fi
networks now crisscross the airwaves of most neighbourhoods. As a result, when I connect to the Internet my laptop computer not only detects my network but a bunch of other home networks in the vicinity.
Security features on routers (which everyone should use) generally prevent sinister strangers or nosy neighbours from gaining access to each other's private home networks. We can see who's out there but we remain separate and secure. It's like a weird virtual block party where everyone wears a nametag, but no one is allowed to talk to each other.
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Of course, we're all much too busy surfing the Web to go outside and have a conversation on the street. The stresses of modern life mean we simply don't have time to cultivate neighbourhood friendships like our parents did back in the day. Instead, my neighbours and I remain distant strangers, waving occasionally as we drive off to work or take out the garbage. But that doesn't mean we can't wonder about the owners of those mysterious Wi-Fi networks next door.
My Wi-Fi list is probably a lot like yours. It includes a woman's name - let's call her "Monica" - as well as "home" (or " maison " in Quebec) and the always popular "Linksys" and "D-Link."
Linksys and D-Link are the default names of routers. I imagine they were hurriedly taken out of their boxes by busy owners with busy lives and set up quickly with no time for the niceties of wireless etiquette. I confess I have a natural antipathy toward these generic Wi-Fi networks. It's like calling yourself "man" or "woman." I believe people should take pride in their home networks and provide a distinctive name for their Wi-Fi, something that captures their personality and imagination.
For example, one of my former neighbours used to play a lot of golf so he named his home network "golf." I didn't learn this valuable information by actually talking to him. I just happened to see him loading golf clubs into his car every Saturday morning. When "golf" showed up as one of the local networks on my computer, I put two and two together to generate a conclusive outcome.
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When "golf" moved away, so did his home network. One day it just disappeared from the Wi-Fi list and, I must admit, I would have shed a virtual tear - if only I knew his name.
When I set up my wireless router, I chose a name that matched my sensibilities and interests, but it didn't dawn on me that others would see my moniker on their list of local Wi-Fi networks. In hindsight, I now regret using the name of a highly evolved alien from Star Trek (even though he was the last of a species of beings whose essence was preserved in what appeared to be a large lampshade from the 1960s).
It never occurred to me what my neighbours would think of this name when it popped up on their computers. Now I get a little nervous whenever I leave the house. I feel it's only a matter of time before the smug, teenaged computer geek from around the block spots me raking the leaves, strides across my lawn and says, "Hey, aren't you Sargon?"
Lately I've been thinking it might be time to clear the airwaves and take that big social leap forward. I'm talking about human contact. Maybe I should plan some kind of real-time social gathering. We'll take it slow. I'll start by putting paper-based invitations in the snail mail receptacles of my neighbours, inviting them over for brunch. We could all sit down over coffee and bagels one Sunday morning and have a cordial exchange of chit chat. Regardless of whether our networks were using 802.11g or 802.11n, I'm sure we would get along famously.
"Monica," I'd say. "I'd like you to meet D-Link and Linksys. Please don't judge them by their names. They're really very, very nice."
"Sargon," she'd reply warmly. "You seem so much stronger in person than your signal strength indicates."
Then we'd have a laugh, share a few stories and before you could say "direct-sequence spread spectrum radio technology," we'd all be networking without our networks. No encryption, no connectivity or DSL issues - just old-fashioned peer-to-peer communication.
Then again, we could just skip the brunch and poke each other on Facebook.
Andrew Mahon lives in Montreal.
Illustration by Dushan Milic.