The Physical Network

The Physical Network

Photo of people talking on large open space created in Vienna Gurtel in summer 2020 (Gurtel Pool).

4.  The Physical Network

By Andrew Nash

Episode 1: Vienna Woods    … Episode 2: Bunker Business   … Episode 3: Red Herring Keller


“OMG, someone thinks we’re a threat to the Metaverse,” Adrian exclaimed.

“And they don’t like it,” added Pat, probably unnecessarily given they were hiding in an underground bunker.

“What do you mean Adrian?” asked Sibel.

“Well, probably you’ve heard about the Metaverse, it’s been in the news lately. The Metaverse is an immersive computer world like ‘The Matrix’ where people no longer interact physically, but only through an artificial interface like VR. In other words, social networks attacking more of our senses. And Facebook’s just decided to spend 10 billion dollars building it. Wow Andrea, did Facebook try to buy us?”

“NaJa, he didn’t mention names. But he did ask a lot about our app’s physical world connections. And, like I said, he didn’t sound serious. I planned to mention it next time we went for beers. Sorry.”

“I don’t get how our app is any threat to the Metaverse,” said Maria.

It was Sibel’s turn to surprise them, “Don’t you see, our app is designed to encourage physical interaction, the Metaverse is designed to replace physical interaction. I hadn’t thought about it that way before, but that’s what it does.”

Poster from System Change not Climate Change for teach-in about stopping Vienna Lobau Freeway projects November 2021.“Look how the Lobau activists have been using the demo app to spark real conversations about Donaustadt’s future – instead of just stoking social media flame wars.”

“And when people put down their phones, sit around and talk, they might find they have more in common than they think” added Adrian, “They might even decide they like the physical world better than the online world, which wouldn’t be so good for the Metaverse.”

“What a funny coincidence” Philipp interjected, “automobiles made it possible for people to abandon cities, places where they had to live and solve problems together – like in the Gemeindebau – and now digital technologies are turbocharging that separation. It’s ironic the activists are using our app to fight freeways – the original separator.”

“Yeah, but Lobau’s not really about roads and freeways, it’s about how we want to live in the 21st Century. Vienna’s doing a great job with its planning and climate programs, but just building a better suburbia in the Donaustadt isn’t going to solve the climate crisis or help make Vienna resilient to coming challenges,” Sibel really talked like a professor sometimes, “Our app, by helping people work together to create high density urban places – like central Vienna, not the Speckgürtel – would not only provide design input, but help build the social ties needed to make these new districts work.”

“Sounds like a digital Gemeindebau” Andrea mumbled.

“OK, I get it, but we’re no threat to big mainstream social networks. And our app isn’t even finished.” said Maria.

Pat’s phone buzzed. “Sarah from Senderkeller says she saw a bunch of big guys nosing around my Red Herring Keller, but they’re leaving now. I asked her to keep an eye out.” Pat had a nose for wine as well as security, Sarah and Peter made some of Vienna’s best Gruner Veltliner and their Heurigen was famous for its fantastic organic food.

“Where will they go next?” Andrea wondered out loud.

“Well, they could have found me from my Radlobby work with the Lobau activists.” Philipp said, “So that explains why they were in front of my apartment. And our name’s on the door at cowork.”

“Damn!” exclaimed Pat, “My office is upstairs, and the address is on our contact list. The Red Herring Keller threw them off, but they’re probably heading here now. And, since they’re pros they’ll surely find the bunker. Given the traffic they’ll probably be here in 30 minutes or so.”


Read episode 5: Time and City Spaces

Red Herring Keller

Red Herring Keller

Photo of a old building in Stammersdorf Vienna

3.  Red Herring Keller

By Andrew Nash

Episode 1: Vienna Woods    … Episode 2: Bunker Business


They’d been careful, they hadn’t left much sitting around, Pat made sure of that! But, watching the burglars, it suddenly dawned on them, their project might have more impact than they’d written in the grant application.

They’d proposed a “positive” social networking app designed “to make people’s lives better by freeing them from doom-scrolling in mainstream social media,” nice, but, well, you know, this part needs to be improved, and we don’t think this will work, but here’s a little money to get going. Wishy-washy and idealistic, sure – but now they had to deliver.

Historic photo of childern's outdoor swimming pool in Vienna Margarethen GurtelEnter Sibel, stage left. Andrea had taken her grandmother on one of their regular visits to the Waschsalon Museum. When Sibel overheard Oma Schmidt talking excitedly about growing up in Karl Marx Hof and summers splashing around in Kinderfreibäder, she couldn’t resist introducing herself and asking Frau Schmidt endless questions about life in Rote Wien. Sibel was an architect obsessed with the Gemeindebau housing projects.

Andrea was steeped in the spirit of Rote Wien, but somehow, she’d missed the architecture connection. For her Red Vienna was social programs like the new baby welcome packages (which Oma Schmidt brought up frequently with her favourite Enkelin) and education programs like the Volkschule.

Sibel’s questions were about the physical spaces, but, somehow, maybe the way Sibel asked them, Oma Schmidt’s answers were always about feelings and how they’d been a community – during some very tough times as she reminded them. Listening, Andrea suddenly saw what was missing from their app – the physical connection.

Sibel came for coffee the next day and never left. Her enthusiasm for planning spaces that encouraged real-world interaction bubbled over and soon the wishy-washy app wasn’t.

The app would help people share stories and ideas for places in Vienna. Chairs would be set-up in these places to encourage real discussion. They called it “Digital Gemeinde Bau” (digital community building) and asked people to describe what Rote Wien would do today. The first story was Oma Schmidt talking about community in the Karl Marx Hof.

But, back to the bunker. Andrea told them about Franz’s call and asked whether anyone else heard anything – although it was hard to focus as they watched the burglars going through their stuff. Philipp started saying something, when suddenly the burglars gathered around the short one and looked closely in a notebook he was holding. After heated discussion they left in a hurry.

Pat snickered and said, “Ha, they took the bait. I planted a red herring in that notebook, and they found it. They’re probably on their way to an abandoned Weinkeller in Stammersdorf. They’ll have a lot of fun searching that old Keller!”

“Nice, but you really are crazy you know?” replied Andrea.

Philipp added “My kind of crazy though. You should have seen the two guys who chased me! I’m glad they’re off on a goose chase. But, Andrea, what gives, why are they after us?”

“Well, I’d meant to tell you sooner, but I didn’t think much of it at the time. Someone’s interested in our new physical place idea for the app. A couple weeks ago a guy called asking lots of questions and whether we’d thought about selling the app.”

“Wait” Adrian snapped, “you got an offer and didn’t tell us?”

“Yeah, sorry, I mean he was pretty unspecific, it didn’t sound like an offer at all. Now I’m beginning to wonder. One more thing, he mentioned the Metaverse.”

Suddenly the penny dropped.


Read episode 4: The Physical Network

Bunker Business

Bunker Business

Photo of an anti-aircraft tower (Flakturm) in Vienna Augarten.2.  Bunker Business

By Andrew Nash

Read episode 1 of the story here: Vienna Woods.


Pat hurried over and handed Andrea coffee. They’d humoured Pat with her drills, but she’d saved their asses so often with her secure messaging, open-source, and back-ups, why not a little cosplay every now and then? Besides, there was a great Italian bar around the corner.

This couldn’t be that grey empty room, could it? A few sips did the trick – Pat’s coffee was strong and as bitter as the anti-vaccination fight. But Andrea’d deal with the coffee later –she had bigger problems.

Everyone looked up when she came in, expecting her to explain, but, of course, Andrea didn’t know what was happening either. “Thanks for coming in so early guys” she said, “let me get organised and then let’s talk at the table.”

The bunker had been connected to one of the anti-aircraft towers built during World War II. The huge reinforced concrete towers were practically impossible to destroy, so they were simply re-purposed or abandoned.

Less known were the tunnels for secretly moving soldiers and supplies between towers and bunkers in nearby buildings. The tunnels had been filled-in, but many bunkers remained. Most had had their doors bricked over and were soon forgotten. But, one day, helping a friend move, Pat had found one.

The door was hidden behind the cellar stairs and easy to miss. Secret cellars were just Pat’s thing, so she returned that night. Pushing open the door with a flashlight she saw a large windowless junk-filled room with several decades of dust and cobwebs. Pat rented an office upstairs the next day and, without saying anything – it was better that way – cleaned out the bunker to use as a safe space.

Faces turned back to laptops. Andrea did a silent roll call, Pat, Michael, Adrian, Maria, Sibel …

Reading her mind, Pat said, “Philipp noticed he was being tailed and is trying to lose them.”

This was getting scary. While she’d believed Franz, she hadn’t expected this. A denial-of-service attack, a hacked database, a false landing page – sure, but being stalked by real people? Pat pulled off her blond wig and smiled, “Aren’t you glad we have a bunker?”

After plugging in her laptop, Andrea looked around the table and thought what an odd group. They’d come together slowly, doing student projects at the TU, friends of friends joining, others dropping out, always self-selecting for that magic combination of social democratic convictions and technical expertise – worlds apart from those just in IT for the money.

Pat’s gasp jarred Andrea’s stroll down memory lane – “Someone’s broken into our office at cowork.wien. And look! Check out the size of those guys!”

Phillip, rushing in finally, exclaimed, “I rode by the office on my way. There was an SUV with suits parked there too!”

“Yeah, welcome back Austin” replied Maria – a huge Austin Powers fan – “They’re on the big screen now. We got up early just to watch’em rummage through our office.”

A single thought went through everyone’s mind, “What would the burglars find?”


Read episode 3: Red Herring Keller

Vienna Woods

Vienna Woods

Illustration of person walking through dark tunnel with mobile phone.

1.  Vienna Woods

By Andrew Nash


Ring. Ring. Slowly Andrea realized it was the hotline. Why tonight? Although many forgot Mayday as social democracy struggled to find meaning in a neo liberal world – she still believed, and still celebrated. Ring. Ring. The phone wouldn’t answer itself.

They’re coming after you. Look out. Click.

He’d been careful, using static generation to thwart voice recognition, probably a historic pay phone in some forgotten corner of California. But she recognized him.

Franz. Why, of all people, Franz? He’d left them for the buzz of Silicon Valley and promise of stock options. While never central to the project and he probably wouldn’t name names, she was paralyzed by memories. Franz had been more than a colleague. He’d even asked her to come along to California, but, like her grandmother, Andrea was too stubborn to give up the dream.

Enough memories. This was serious. Franz might have left them – and her – but she knew him well enough to know he wouldn’t be kidding. Time to move.

They’d prepared. Patricia had drilled them while they’d hoped the moment would never come. Paranoid Pat, they teased, but like the best security geeks, she had it in her blood. Andrea reached for the burner.

Ping. Ping. Ping. Philipp looked at the clock. Not a drill. Andrea would have warned him last night at the Rathausplatz Mayday celebration. They’d been seeking beer-inspired wisdom: How had the right become so good at social media while the left remained clueless? Which led to shop talk and more beer.

Philipp replied to the Signal message asking how he liked his new refrigerator with a one. He was on his way to the bunker. He didn’t notice them until he was unlocking his bike. Damn, Pat was right. An SUV across the street with two guys in suits. At 3 AM, in Favoriten?

He answered the Signal reply asking how satisfied he was with the refrigerator delivery service with another one. In other words, he was being followed and would take evasive actions.

Andrea was luckier, she didn’t see anyone following her, but took a roundabout route just in case. Not only had Pat taught them how to notice tails, but how to lose them. Bikes were perfect for escaping through Vienna’s maze of narrow streets and squares.

When Andrea got to the bunker, she almost didn’t recognize Pat, who, of course was in disguise and already executing the crisis plan. The bunker had been built in the second world war and forgotten, now it was filled with the smell of coffee brewing and the light falling from a bank of monitors.

The first priority was protecting their infant application. They’d started building it as part of a grant they’d received from the city of Vienna’s digital humanities program. They hadn’t told the city how they’d planned to leverage the project into a new – secure and private – socially responsible social media platform. Their bad.

Now someone important had noticed and didn’t like it one bit. …


Episode 2: Bunker Business

First published 21 November 2021 in New_Public’s Flash Fiction contest.

Flash Fiction – Vienna Woods

Flash Fiction – Vienna Woods

Art from Lisbon Metro station

Hundertwasser tile art at Oriente Station, Lisbon Metro.

I’m thrilled to have been selected as a winner in the Flash Fiction contest organised by New_Public. My story is about an idealistic group of programmers in Vienna who are developing a new social networking app … and are now being pursued by … who?

It’s part one of the story, if there’s enough interest I’ll write and publish more episodes in this blog.

The idea of using stories to describe alternative futures isn’t new. Last year I worked on a proposal for using a story-writing process to explore possible futures in the City of Vienna’s Digital Humanities Call for Proposals, but I couldn’t find any interested partners. So, I thought I’d write my own story, Vienna Woods was the result.

I hope you enjoy it.

New_Public is a project from the University of Texas at Austin’s Center for Media Engagement and the National Conference on Citizenship. According to the website “New_ Public is a place for thinkers, builders, designers and technologists like you to meet and share inspiration.”