Not On My WaveLength: Risk Perception & The Sebastopol Wi-Fi Debate

13 minute read Published:

Sebastopol is a bucolic little hamlet seated in the western portion of Sonoma County, California. Formerly known for its Gravenstein apples, most orchards have long been planted with vineyards, or converted into the corporate grounds of the tech publishing firm O’Reilly Media. But several years ago a heated battle served to overturn the relative serenity of this community. The conflict erupted over the town’s implementation of a contract for a public Wi-Fi network in its main plaza. The terms of the contract were that Sonic.Net, a successful local ISP that was broadening the reach of its open mesh Wi-Fi project, would have installed and operated the hotspot for the city at no cost. However, a dissenting group of activist residents argued that the risk of negative health effects, including a controversial syndrome known as Electromagnetic Hypersensitivity (EHS), potentially resulting from deployment of this technology, was of great enough magnitude to warrant canceling this contract.1 Despite all the internationally established scientific research judging Wi-Fi technology to be safe to human health, the Sebastopol City Council voided the contract with Sonic.Net, and the plaza lacks a public wireless network to this day. News of this policy event spread across the Internet far and wide, provoking response from both the local and broader communities, as well as leaving a trove of documentation to study. The question I would like to explore is as follows: How can cataloguing the individual histories and motivations of the main types of actors in this particular story help us to shed some light on the current thinking about risk perception?

Sebastopol is not especially diverse across race, gender, or age groupings. As of the 2000 census, it was almost 90% white, had a 20% greater proportion of females, and was skewed toward an older adult population.2 The town has a reputation for being disproportionally populated with those of a liberal political persuasion, yet it has also been known to attract libertarians and anyone else who idealizes a more rural life as an opportunity to express an individual’s freedom. One might expect Sebastopol residents of a progressive bent to see the certain value to the community of a free computer network as outweighing the speculative harm to a person of the wireless spectrum. However, a small group of concerned citizens was able to sow enough uncertainty in the City Council as to the legitimacy and thoroughness of scientific studies supporting the safety of Wi-Fi that the potential risk to an individual’s health was seen as greater than the potential benefit of free Internet to the community’s leaders. Why were members of the Wi-Fi opposition concerned about the health effects of EMF, and how were they able to influence enough of the right people to completely reverse a public policy? I will argue that personal experiences inform an individual’s concern about potential harm, but cultural context is necessary to motivate them to social action. In the case of Sebastopol’s Wi-Fi debate, particular prior associations in the lives of people involved either influenced them to be concerned with or heartened by the City’s adoption of public wireless Internet access. However, without the cognitive frames of thought suggested by their respective cultural leanings, no side would have responded to the controversy in quite the same way.

Accelerating in the 1970’s, Sebastopol’s rural tradition was transformed into a more eclectic community, becoming a fertile environment for artists, Bohemians, and activists. Many residents prefer holistic or alternative medicine, and organic farming practices are considered a high priority. A ‘nuclear free’ city since 1986, Sebastopol has a history of addressing important global concerns with local statutes. In the 1990’s, as the technology sector grew in Sonoma County, Sebastopol’s charm and position as headquarters of O’Reilly Media attracted web consultants and other technologists. This dynamic of cultural backgrounds is the backdrop for the chain of events that preceded the Wi-Fi debate. In November 2007, the Sebastopol City Council approved a contract with a local ISP, Sonic.Net, to install a public wireless access point downtown. This network would be installed and operated at no cost to the city, and provide free access to the Internet for those in range who wished to use the service. Wi-Fi was already widely deployed in the city, with 25 private access points provided by businesses and individuals in a block radius around the proposed router site, and 250 hotspots citywide.3 In January 2008 Sandi Maurer, a private citizen activist, began collecting signatures for an online petition:

We the people who live, work and frequent the city of Sebastopol ask the Sebastopol City Council to reconsider their decision to install wi-fi in town. The convenience of this technology does not warrant the increase in radiation and the potential risks to the health of our community. Please vote NO on wi-fi.[^4]
A group of activists present at a city council meeting asked council members to consider their health concerns and put rescission of the contract on the next meeting agenda. In March 2008, fourteen concerned residents brought their collected 235 petition signatures to the city council, which voted 4–0 to rescind its contract with Sonic.Net and end any prospect of a public downtown access point.

Outraged Wi-Fi supporters immediately blogged their disappointment far and wide, eventually reaching the pages of the New York Times, SlashDot, and BoingBoing, spurring much ridicule of Sebastopol residents and their city council. A petition garnering 350 signatures in support of Wi-Fi superciliously stated that “the internet, contrary to some sebastopolian belief, is not the devil nor some radioactive substance that may decay.”4 Dane Jasper argued that science overwhelming backs the safety of Wi-Fi, and that EHS is psychosomatic, quipping that “what we have to fear from Wi-Fi is simply fear of Wi-Fi.”5 He contrasted the relatively weak power of Wi-Fi against other EMF sources such as a mobile phones or microwave ovens, and then pointed out that there are already 25 private Wi-Fi networks being broadcast in the block around the town square. Dale Dougherty, co-founder of O’Reilly Media and organizer of the Maker Faire, criticized the concerned citizens who convinced Sebastopol City Council members to reverse the contract by examining specific comments from an online petition submitted in support of their resolution for the ban. His frustration with the situation is evident as he picked apart their version of the evidence of the harm inflicted by Wi-Fi technology and essentially accused them of being Luddites:

One can see the fear spreading. Science should be a way to dispel such fears but it is clear with this group of people that science cannot be trusted. They put forth the idea that science should be able to prove that there is no harm and therefore eliminate any risk, and without such proof, we should not move forward. They use this logic to recommend a "precautionary" approach, which is their keyword for a "know-nothing, do-nothing" approach.[^7]
A striking feature of the Wi-Fi debate is the degree to which perception of risk drove some citizens to strongly protest the measure and yet others have incredulously discounted any potential dangers as being based on superstition.

The perceived risks of EMF primarily involve Electromagnetic hypersensitivity (EHS), a syndrome in which patients report a wide variety of symptoms they believe are triggered by weak fields, including headaches, disturbance of sleep, and fatigue. Research indicates that EHS is not biophysical, but may be the result of another organic or psychiatric condition.6 Given its social history, Sebastopol’s public apprehension of electromagnetic pollution could be explained in the context of how cultures have traditionally demarcated the boundary between the pure and impure. The social anthropologist Mary Douglas wrote about how it is a ritualistic matter that has rendered dirt taboo: “our pollution behaviour is the reaction which condemns any object or idea likely to confuse or contradict cherished classifications.”7 The open countryside surrounding Sebastopol holds a natural habitat considered precious to many residents of the city, and perhaps the organic and holistic mindset of such a population renders the introduction of any perceived adulterant as inherently risky.

The Cultural Theory of Risk postulates that risk perception is a function of cultural values, as defined by an array one could compare to a political spectrum. The ‘group’ dimension is the level of collectivity vs. individuality, while the ‘grid’ dimension is the level of class stratification vs. egalitarianism. This array of possible cultural attitudes can lead to disagreements over public policy because the participants have differing priorities as the basis for all their decision-making:

Weighing the balance between harm and help is not a purely technical question. Technology is a source of help as well as harm. Objective evidence about technology in general is not going to take us very far. Acceptable risk is a matter of judgement and nowadays judgements differ. Between private, subjective perception and public physical science there lies culture, a middle area of shared beliefs and values.[^10]

The Four Rationalities

The group-grid theory helps explain cultural attitudes about public policy in the Wi-Fi debate. The collectivized side of the array could encompass the portion of the population that perceives Wi-Fi radiation as an unacceptable risk to the group, with the prescribed quadrant willing to accede to the city’s protection. The individualized side of the array could represent the side of the community that favors Wi-Fi coverage for those who choose to live in the area, with the prescribing quadrant unwilling to accept the city’s excessive regulation. While the Cultural Theory of Risk is fairly descriptive of Sebastopol’s debate, its usefulness as a predictive tool is not clear.

Integrating the anthropological Cultural Theory of Risk and cognitive science, Cultural cognition describes a set of processes by which the priority of beliefs is biased in the direction of “cultural commitments”, in spite of factual evidence to the contrary. This process occurs in a cognitive capacity, fundamentally shaping their vision of the world itself, rather than just influencing evaluative decisions:

Essentially, cultural commitments are prior to factual beliefs on highly charged political issues. Culture is prior to facts, moreover, not just in the evaluative sense that citizens might care more about how gun control, the death penalty, environmental regulation and the like cohere with their cultural values than they care about the consequences of those policies. Rather, culture is prior to facts in the cognitive sense that what citizens believe about the empirical consequences of those policies derives from their cultural worldviews. Based on a variety of overlapping psychological mechanisms, individuals accept or reject empirical claims about the consequences of controversial polices based on their vision of a good society.[^12]
The public policy takeaway is that merely assuming the dissemination of scientific knowledge will dispel a heated dispute is a flawed tactic, but there is conceivably a way to present information which 'de-biases' its acceptance into each stakeholder's cognitive frame.

A very interesting phenomenon discovered by Cultural cognition experts is the “white male effect”: the difference in perception of risk that this group holds in relation to all others. White males tend to see various risks as being much less of a problem than the rest of people do, especially if they are the individualistic-hierarchical type. According to their research “the subgroup of white males who perceive risks to be quite low can be characterized by trust in institutions and authorities and a disinclination toward giving decision-making power to citizens in areas of risk management.9 Do supporters of Sebastopol Wi-Fi fit into this group, and can their outrage at Wi-Fi supporters’ success be explained in terms of a technology-laden “O’Reilly” culture dominated by white males? According to my non-scientific survey of petition signatures and newspaper interviews, those who tend to be cautious about the introduction of Wi-Fi are predominantly female, whereas the proponents of Wi-Fi are more likely to be male. Since the census indicates the Sebastopol is 95% white, we can draw a fair conclusion that the white male effect can be reasonably descriptive of the Wi-Fi debate.

Social Amplification of Risk (SARF) is a cross-disciplinary framework meant to explain the public’s reaction to risk events. It posits that the differences in opinion regarding the risk of an action are attributable to various psycho-social bases, and that the process of transmission of biased risk assessments leads to second or third order social effects:

The main thesis of this article is that risk events interact with psychological, social, and cultural processes in ways that can heighten or attenuate public perceptions of risk and related risk behavior. Behavioral patterns, in turn, generate secondary social or economic consequences but may act also to increase or decrease the physical risk itself. Secondary effects trigger demands for additional institutional responses and protective actions, or, conversely (in the case of risk attenuation), impede needed protective actions. The social structures and processes of risk experience, the resulting repercussions on individual and group perceptions, and the effects of these responses on community, society, and economy compose a general phenomenon that we term the social amplification of risk.[^14]
Local EMF activists started spreading their health concerns via online petition and bulletin boards, linking to trusted sources and disseminating information on public actions both online and personally. Sandi Maurer, lead activist in the anti-WiFi movement, is the founder and administrator of the non-profit EMF Safety Network, documenting the risks of EMF with links to affinity websites and a number of studies which they believe to strengthen their case. The EMF Safety Network provides a community channel for those affected and petitions for those fighting to stay clear of its effects.[^15] A large portion of the this group’s objection to Wi-Fi is their shared belief that the scientific community’s consensus on EMF safety is not accurate because there are assumptions about the means by which it could be harmful, and there could be possible conflicts of interest between the scientists conducting research and the wireless industry. According to Donald Mackenzie, “where we are located in society – in which social class, in which gender, in which ethnic group, and so on – shapes whom we trust.”[^16] In establishing a network for dissemination of EHS and activism information, the skeptic group was able to broadcast their views far beyond the confines of little Sebastopol yet still manage to successfully change local policy by appealing to common cultural frames, thereby establishing trust for sources of information spread within their community.

Meanwhile, Wi-Fi users and technologists spread their dissatisfaction with the policy via blogs and online petitions, but never gathered a critical mass of local people in time to stop the city council from rescinding the Sonic.Net contract or to officially revisit the issue. Sebastopol and other Californian communities are currently debating the installation of PG&E Smart Meters, and revisiting some of the same controversial EMF issues debated previously. Governments need to address these types of controversial technological issues in both a socially responsible and scientifically sound manner. This can be accomplished by acknowledging potential stakeholder risks and individual motivations, considering a wide range of scientific research, and widely disseminating culturally targeted information.10 With an understanding of how risk perception is embedded in social contexts, policy makers could be much more effective in improving the lives of their constituents.

  1. Nathan Halverson, “Making waves in Sebastopol,” The Press Democrat, April 13, 2008,↩︎

  2. “City of Sebastopol, California 2000 Census Highlights,”↩︎

  3. Dane Jasper, “Sebastopol voids Wi-Fi contract,” CEO Blog, March 23, 2008,↩︎

  4. Trystan Shelly, “Free Wifi petition,”↩︎

  5. Dane Jasper, “Sebastopol voids Wi-Fi contract,” CEO Blog, March 23, 2008,↩︎

  6. G. James Rubin, Jayati Das Munshi, and Simon Wessely, “Electromagnetic Hypersensitivity: A Systematic Review of Provocation Studies,” Psychosomatic medicine (2005): 224–232. ↩︎

  7. Mary Douglas, Purity and danger: an analysis of concept of pollution and taboo (Psychology Press, 2002), 48. ↩︎

  8. Howard Silverman, “Climate, Worldviews and Cultural Theory,” People and Place, March 9, 2010,↩︎

  9. James Flynn, Paul Slovic and C. K. Mertz, “Gender, Race, and Perception of Environmental Health Risks,” Risk Analysis 14(6) (1994): 1106. ↩︎

  10. “Electromagnetic fields and public health: Electromagnetic Hypersensitivity,” World Health Organisation (WHO) factsheet 296, 2005,↩︎