- After convergence: what connects?
Wirelessness as Experience of Transition
Institute for Cultural Research, Lancaster University
Wireless networks are in some ways very unpromising candidates
for network and media theory. They are certainly not the most visible
hotspot of practices or changes associated with media technological
cultures. However, wireless networks persistently associate themselves
into the centre of media change. Their connectivity, intermittent,
unstable and uneven as it often is, lodges in many of the overlaps,
overflows and outgrowths badged as convergence, mobile media, and
pervasive or ubiquitous computing. The forms of wireless convergence
are various, common and familiar. They are currently occurring in
the form of the so-called 'fixed-mobile' convergence that seeks
to connect different infrastructures to each other (e.g. Wi-Fi and
cellular phone networks in the form of the iPhone and many other
mobile phones). It might not be going too far to say that wireless
networks are the very substrate of network media convergence today.
We could think of wireless networks as prepositions ('at,' 'in,'
'with,' by', 'between,' 'near,' etc) in the grammar of contemporary
media. Because of their pre-positional power to connect subjects
and actions, wireless networks act conjunctively, they conjoin circumstances,
events, persons and things.
Taking wireless networks as bundles of conjunctive relations seriously
means also developing alternatives to phenomenological, existential
or socio-psychological accounts of experience. What does it mean
to approach wireless networks in terms of the somewhat troublesome
concept of experience, with all its associations with subjectivity?
Via William James 'radical empiricism,' this paper argues for a
different account of experience. Attached to wireless networks of
all kinds, there is a broadly shared experience of 'wirelessness'.
The fabric of wirelessness is woven of several decades of media-technological
change. This experience is very much entangled with things, objects,
gadgets, services, and with indistinct positional feelings and practices.
Wirelessness is a contemporary mode of inhabiting places, relating
to others, and indeed, having a body. Above all, and this is a key
point for any discussion of wireless networks, it is also a composite
comprising diverse or divergent cross-hatched processes that generate
transitions and create expectations of more change to come. Because
it is principally conjunctive and generates conjunctions, the structure
of this experience is diffuse, multiple and unstable in outline.
There is no pure experience of wirelessness. Feelings of wirelessness
are 'verbalised' in a mass of images, projects, products, enterprises,
plans and politics concerning networks and communications infrastructures.
Wireless networks such as Wi-Fi are quite heavily mediatised as
convergent. So much media phosphoresces around the infrastructures
that it is difficult to isolate wirelessness as such. What makes
wirelessness as a form of experience particularly elusive is that
the subject of wirelessness is not very obvious. Wirelessness is
not a strongly personal or intimate zone of experience. The layers,
intensities, resistances and trajectories of the wireless subject,
the one who lives wirelessness, have a somewhat impersonal and ephemeral
character. In the light of all these variations in tendency and
directions, wirelessness also interrupts convergence, it places
detours on the path to any limit point where all differences coalesce.
Experiences of rapid transition
The feeling of wirelessness is strongly animated by a schema of
rapid transition to connectivity. In its many variations, wirelessness,
like 1990s schemas of the virtual, seems to augur the onset of another
wave of de-materialization, albeit in a slightly more down-to-earth,
practical, located, field-tested and service-planned form. How can
we critically appraise the schema of rapid transition of wireless
network connectivity, with the effects of convergence it creates?
In taking up the challenge of thinking wirelessly, this paper experiments
with a type of empiricism, although not a particularly scientific
or even social scientific empiricism. The empiricism at stake here
is not that of social science or science in general. It is, although
the term might sound a bit ambitious, radical empiricism. Radical
empiricism is usually associated with the American pragmatist philosopher,
William James (James, 1996). Radical empiricism remains empiricist
in the sense that it holds that knowledge comes from experience
rather than being innate (for example, a product of reasoning).
However, the lightly structured account of experience proposed (in
James, 1996), as we will see, seeks to conceptualise a certain overflowing,
excessive, or propagative aspect of experience. It focuses closely
on change taking place, on the continuous reality-generating effects
of change, and on the changing nature of change. As James writes,
'change taking place' is a unique content of experience, one of
those 'conjunctive' objects which radical empiricism seeks so earnestly
to rehabilitate and preserve (161). In this respect, it is not typical
empiricism. Brian Massumi has developed this strand of James work
in his account of the transcontextual aspects of experience
(Massumi, 2002). In reflecting on James account of experience, Massumi
describes the streamlike-aspects of experience: we become conscious
of a situation in its midst, already actively engaged in it. Our
awareness is always of an already ongoing participation in an unfolding
relation (Massumi, 2002 13, 230-1). Experience overflows the borders
and boundaries that mark out the principal lived functions of subjectivity-self,
institution, identity and difference, object, image and place.
Wirelessness comes bundled with two or so decades of network-media
technological change. The point of adopting a radical empiricist
approach is to slow down that experience of change (convergence)
enough to present the many transitions it depends on, to become
conscious of what it means to be engaged in that situation. Adding
an extra word to James' phrase 'radical empiricism' to make radical
network empiricism is meant to highlight the challenge of conceiving
of empiricism under network media conditions. Under those conditions,
the limits of experience are frequently re-drawn, the outlines of
the subject, personhood, group and collective blur and crosshatch,
and above all, are permeated by more or less intense awareness of
the process of change.
What would this mean in relation to wireless networks and to wirelessness?
The image of Slupr (Hoekstra, 2007) gives pause for thought.
Figure 1: Slupr (Hoekstra, 2007)
This slightly ridiculous, non-commercial device is a wireless access
point with five antennae, designed to allow connection to numerous
wireless networks simultaneously. In a literal way, the design of
the device embodies not only a geek-ish delight in hyper-connectivity,
but a literal-minded attempt to summon up one facet of convergence,
bandwidth. Being slightly playful in response, we could say that
those five antennae embody one of the theoretical mainstays of James
[O]ne and the same material object can figure in an indefinitely
large number of different processes at once. (James, 1996, 125)
Things themselves belong to diverse processes. Slupr, with its
appetite for open wireless networks in the neighbourhood, seeks
to figure in a large number of different processes at once; that
is, to connect to five different wireless access points. More importantly,
for our purposes, James writes,
experience is a member of diverse processes that can be followed
away from it along entirely different lines. (James, 1996, 12)
Like objects, experience for James figures in diverse processes.
In particular, experience can be followed into things as well as
into perceptions, feelings, affects, memories, and signs. If we
accept that experience and things are deeply coupled in the ways
suggested by James, wirelessness too is a composite experience,
a member of diverse processes. These processes do not always belong
entirely to human subjects (in the form of users, technicians, engineers
or others). At certain points, experience is no longer ours, it
goes beyond the turn that constitutes human experience, and takes
on impersonal or pre-individual aspects. The effects of convergence
generated in wirelessness could derive from entirely different lines,
from diverse processes, or, in short, divergence. In the light of
James' expanded notion of experience as expanding and diverging,
we would need to ask: what are the diverse processes that wirelessness
belongs to? A radical network empiricism that lived up to its promise
would have to invent ways of engaging with the diverse, divergent
lines that inform experiences ranging from the infrastructural to
the ephemera of mediatised perception and feeling.
Tendencies and transitions: what proportion of unverbalized
In a sense, transition lies at the core of any experience for James.
Our experience, inter alia, is of variations of rate
and of direction, and lives in these transitions more than in
the journey's end. The experiences of tendency are sufficient
to act upon. (James, 1996, 69)
This sounds incredibly general, a truism that is hard to disagree
with. He is saying we inhabit transitions more than ends in general,
just like people say, rightly perhaps, that the journey is more
important than the destination. For instance, convergence as experience
of transition is lived more fully, richly, diversely than any end
or limit point can express. The feeling of being in transition is,
for James, what gives consistency to any experience, what allows
it to flow. This feeling of change, transition or tendency is the
core of what we experience as acting or being acted upon. Empiricism
is radical to the extent that it manages to hold onto 'the passing
of one experience into another' (50).
James, I think, is saying more. Experience relies on variations
of rate and direction, and these variations are lived as the passing
or transitioning of experience, and the sense, hopeful or not, of
more to come. The living in transitions depends on variations in
rate and direction. This variation or even substitution resonates
quite strongly with the constantly churning transitions associated
with wirelessness. Take for instance, the waves of change associated
with Wi-Fi as it has moved through different versions in the last
five years. In each version 802.11a, 802.11b, 802.11g and now 802.11n,
wireless networks changed. There were changes in rate as the rate
of information transfer increased (sometimes by large factors).
There were variations in direction. The processes of setting up
connections altered slightly, especially in relation to encryption
and security controls. The access points or wireless routers connected
to the telephone or wired network, the network cards, and the antennae
still look more or less the same, or became less visible. Yet many
more gadgets (phones, cameras, music players, televisions, photoframes,
radios, medical instruments, etc) appear to be wireless. Often transitions
between these different networks are only distinguishable on the
basis of small changes in feelings of connectivity, in an experience
of celerity, in the rather minute and flickering visibility of network
icons, signal strength icons; on other occasions requests to authenticate
or pay for a connection entail larger variations in direction.
If we take seriously James' idea that the fabric of experience
is lived in variations, then wirelessness takes on a different character.
Rather than being directed towards the endpoint of endless, seamless,
ubiquitous connectivity of all media, we might begin to attend to
ways in which wirelessness alters how transitions occur in experience.
When wireless hotspots are set up in cafes, hotels, trains, aircraft,
neighbourhoods, parks, and homes, they promise to alter transitions,
or to introduce, as James puts it, 'variations in rates and direction.'
However, for various reasons, this is quite a difficult thing to
contain or control. At what scale or level of transition can passing
be re-shaped? In what ways can the transitions be lived?
In what might seem like a detour into the realms of Psychology
or Philosophy 101 mind experiments, we can imagine some of the facets
of lived transition by returning to James' own account of what it
means to know a thing. James describes sitting in his library in
95 Irving Street, Cambridge, Massachusetts and imagining Memorial
Hall, a landmark building at Harvard University:
Suppose me to be sitting here in my library at Cambridge, at
ten minutes walk from “Memorial Hall,” and to be thinking
truly of the latter object. (54-55)
He asks himself - how could having the name or even an image of
the thing in mind ever be said to constitute knowledge of the thing.
What is interesting and useful in James' answer is his insistence
on the role of special experiences of conjunction (55) in giving
the name or image of Memorial Hall its knowing office. A special
experience of conjunction could include walking to Memorial Hall
along with the reader (I can lead you to the hall, and tell you
of its history (55-6)). What is made during that imagined walk would
be a series of felt transitions, that act as intermediaries. The
tissue of experiencing these transitions - out of the library onto
the street, the street signs, the tower of the Hall gradually coming
into view - connects the starting point of the knower to the known.
The knower - James in the library thinking of Memorial Hall - connects
with perception of a thing by undergoing these felt transitions.
There is no other way, at least on a radical empiricist account,
of knowing a thing.
Now, suppose James sat in a library at Cambridge today imagining
Memorial Hall. He could try to conduct special experiences of conjunction
through wireless networks. For the imagined 10 minute walk, he might
substitute a series of felt transitions to Memorial Hall that went
via his laptop through his home wireless network or other available
networks in the precincts, accessing web pages, blogs, webcams,
and geobrowsers that showed images, directions, maps, descriptions,
history and contact details for Memorial Hall. But that point is
fairly obvious. We don't need James to tell us that wireless networks
open up different paths for experience to thread along since that
is inevitable with networked media. However, in that series of felt
transitions from library to Memorial Hall, he may well encounter
variations in rate and direction. Although it would be impossible
for him to be aware of all the intermediary relations and transitions
that have to occur for a wireless-mediated knowing of the Hall,
one question that might come up would be which network to connect
to. It could be any of the following, and there are no doubt many
Cambridge, Massachusetts, United States
9 Wi-Fi Hotspots found
All locations matching your search criteria
802.11b Wi-Fi, Ethernet
Boston Marriott Cambridge
Cambridge MA 02142
The Charles Hotel in Harvard Square
Location Type: Hotel / Resort
One Bennett St
Cambridge MA 02138
Location Type: Hotel / Resort
Harvard Square Hotel
110 Mt. Auburn Street
Cambridge MA 02138
The Inn At Harvard
Location Type: Hotel / Resort
1201 Massachusetts Avenue
Cambridge MA 02138
Location Type: Hotel / Resort
La Luna Caffe
403 Mass. Ave
Cambridge MA 02139
The UPS Store 0681
Location Type: Cafe
955 Massachusetts Ave
Cambridge MA 02139
Location Type: Store / Shopping Mall
Rebecca's Cafe (Main & Hayward)
290 Main Street
Cambridge MA 02142
Location Type: Cafe
Marriott Boston Cambridge
2 Cambridge Center
Broadway & 3rd Street
Cambridge MA 02142
Location Type: Hotel / Resort
JiWire Certified Residence Inn Boston Cambridge Center
6 Cambridge Center
802.11b Wi-Fi, Ethernet
Cambridge MA 02142
Location Type: Hotel / Resort
Even after he found what networks were accessible from his library,
James would need to undergo a series of felt transitions as he attempted
to access available networks. He might be asked to authenticate
himself with a user name and password, he might be asked for network
encryption keys (WEP passwords) for the Charles Hotel network, he
could be offered the chance to enter credit card numbers to pay
for a hour or a day's connection at the UPS Store, or he could see,
listed on a screen, half a dozen open wireless networks in the vicinity.
These could range from a slight, habitual awareness of the need
to enter once again the same old user name and password details,
through frustration at not being to connect to a network that should
work, to guilty, secretive pleasure at gaining access to a network
that belongs to someone else, hoping that they don't notice. Relations
are of different degrees of intimacy (44), he might say to himself.
Supposing James were an affluent Harvard professor, he might have
an iPass subscription that allowed him to access many networks in
his vicinity. The felt transitions would go via some of this:
Figure 2: iPass wireless network access
system. (iPass Inc., 2007)
In short, his movements towards the known thing, Memorial Hall,
would pass through an externalised series of transitions. In connecting
to any of these networks, the transition from unconnected to connected,
from unassociated to associated could be felt in many different
The point of this updated variation on James account of a word
or image is to simply adumbrate what happens to conjunctive relations
today, and hence to the flow of experience under network conditions.
There is no experience of convergence, connectivity, or flow that
does not go through diverse conjunctive relations, through the transitions
that allow knowing, or doing to be felt. These transitions and the
feeling of them are crucial to what James calls nature or whatness.
These felt transitions are neither spontaneous, random nor completely
ordered. The patterns, means and trajectories of this passing must
include variations in rate and direction, otherwise wirelessness
as experience of connectivity or convergence disintegrates.
No doubt, the means by which sensations of transition are arranged
are highly complex, and themselves work on multiple scales. But
the passing of experience effected by transition can take very circuitous
routes. Experience has many different scales, ranging from the impersonal
to the personal, from singular to general. On any scale we imagine,
wirelessness is not pure flow or pure sensation of transition. It
is shot through with temporary termini, with snags, resistances,
with circularities and repetitions. Pure wirelessness does not exist.
Rather, as James puts it,
... experience now flows as if shot through with adjectives and
nouns and prepositions and conjunctions. Its purity is only a
relative term, meaning the proportional amount of unverbalized
sensation which it still embodies. (94)
We might understand many of the circuitous conjunctive relations
present in wirelessness as attempts to organise, channel and protract
the unverbalized sensation of transition. Although the conjunctive
relations it promises and promotes are on the less intimate end
of the scale of conjunction (with, near, beside), they are accompanied
by adjectives and nouns and propositions that are no less vital
to the flow of experience, and that often tend to be much more personal
or intimate. What shoots through the flow of experience - 'experience
now flows as if shot through with ...' - complicates that flow considerably.
This twist or detour in flow is not restricted to wirelessness.
However the difference between James' imagined walk to Memorial
Hall as way of knowing and his accessing wireless networks to find
directions and information points to a relatively little attended
aspect of experience under network conditions.
The antenna and the algorithm as sites of divergence?
It is possible to order conjunctive relations in terms of inclusiveness
and intimacy. As James writes, '[w]ith, near, next, like, from,
towards, against, because, for, through, my – these words
designate types of conjunctive relation arranged in roughly ascending
order of intimacy and inclusiveness' (45). Under network conditions,
as for instance in wirelessness, it seems that this order of intimacy
and inclusiveness becomes unstable. With or near can become confused
with my or for. And it is precisely this instability in ranking
that invite many different material and semiotic attempts to inject
verbal, visual, commercial, legal orders into the conjunctive flow.
It might seem that all these transitions lie quite a long way away
from wirelessness. How can it be brought closer to home? Let's imagine
that James has a Slupr in his library in Irving St: 'suppose me
to be sitting in my library with my Slupr' he might write. Where
are the 'verbalizations' that shoot through experience? The thing
that sits in the library flashes its lights. We could understand
this flashing, for instance, in terms of certain hardware aspects
of wirelessness. In order to envision the diversity of processes
associated with wirelessness, we could do worse than attend to the
antennae sticking out of Slupr. Antennae, we might say, visibly
differentiate wireless and wired networks. Any 'change taking place'
in the experience of wirelessness depends on antennae.
Antennae are deceptively simple bits of infrastructure. Close to
the antennae, sometimes only millimeters away, lie semiconductor
chips on which much depends. Together chips and antennae gather
many different things together. As components in consumer electronics,
they have life-cycles, quite rapid-ones in the case of networks
such as Wi-Fi as it moves through different versions (802.11a,b,
g, and now n are some of the standards). They derive from international
standards produced by the IEEE (Institute of Electrical and Electronics
Engineers), and these standards themselves reflect spectrum licensing
arrangements in various countries. In important respects, however,
beneath the churn of competition and innovation, the basic architecture
of wireless chips used in Wi-Fi, Wi-Max, Bluetooth, GSM/3G or wireless
USB varies very little. The algorithmic techniques they use to process
signals are surprisingly aligned or convergent at a technical level.
Even between major competing wireless technologies such as GSM 3G
and CDMA2000 there are relatively few algorithmic variations. Often
the algorithms are nearly the same, only applied at a different
frequency or in a slightly different order. So the competition between
different forms of wireless network that is happening all around
us, and the proliferation of networks at different scales ranging
from the bluetooth networks draped around individual bodies through
to the planetary scale networks of satellite-based wireless systems,
including broadcast systems like DVB, share algorithmic processes
to a large extent. In fact, some of the same algorithm processes
are widespread in other important domains of new media such as the
video compression that underlies DVDs and video streaming (the Fast
Fourier Transform, for instance).
The algorithms of wirelessness are intricately packed with mathematical
nuances, tricks, shortcuts, optimisations and variations. Their
density and complexity respond to the complicated conjunctions that
wireless signals encounter. Algorithms are designed to allowed information
to move around amidst crowded, noisy, constantly interrupted electromagnetic
environments, deeply saturated with many forms of interference and
obstacle (bodies, buildings, changes in atmospheric conditions due
to weather, other devices, etc). This introduces extraordinary convolutions
into algorithms. Technically speaking, wireless networks usually
suffer from 'severe channel conditions.' What I find resonant about
these algorithms is that they are ways of making networks hang together
under very imperfect signal propagation conditions. In order to
handle that, all contemporary forms of wireless network do one thing:
they build conjunctive relations into the bitstream.
Figure 3: Concatenated algorithms in
wireless computation (Akay and Ayanoglu, 2004)
Figure 3 shows first of all that wireless signal processing has
many components. All these components need not delay us here if
we just attend to one symptomatic box nearest the top left in the
transmitter labelled 'coding' and one at the centre bottom of the
receiver labelled 'Viterbi'. These two boxes are complementary.
They are designed with each other in mind. In the first box, 'coding,'
the process known as 'convolutional coding' turns the pure bitstream,
the very substrate of convergence, the data to be transmitted, into
a complicated logistical problem. In convolutional coding, a network
of relations (the 'convolutions') is imprinted onto the series of
bits comprising the transmitted bitstream. Convolutional coding
changes the data in the bitstream. It is no longer just a series
of bits that represent data (text, speech, image, code, etc). It
is also a series of bits that expresses relations between what came
before and what comes next. In other words, conjunctive relations
have been embedded in it in a form that can be represented as a
kind of network. Like all networks, points in this network are characterised
by greater and lesser proximity. Some paths through the network
are shorter than others. At the bottom centre of the diagram, in
the box labelled 'Viterbi', the wireless receiver turns the convolutionally
coded bitstream back into a plain bitstream. It 'solves' the logistical
problem imposed by the convolutional coding. In a version of the
'travelling salesman problem' (Cormen and Cormen, 1990, 969-974),
the coding and decoding process introduces the metaphor of the logistical
network into the bitstream itself. Convolutional coding along with
Viterbi decoding applies the mathematical models developed in World
War II and Cold War operations research to optimise the routing
of people and goods to the very structure of the bitstream itself
(for more detail, see (Mackenzie, 2006)). The key point here is
that the bitstream that seems to flow smoothly through the channels
of wireless networks in fact comprises constantly shifting networks
of relations between bits. It is as if networks have been algorithmically
curled inside the fabric of network connectivity, the bitstream.
This is a very curious technocultural achievement by any standards.
In the interests of making wireless networks of various kinds, the
mathematics of logistical networks have been used as the model or
the underlying strategy for propagating signals under 'severe channel
conditions'. The very epitome of network connectivity, the wireless
network, depends on a model or metaphor of a network. A model of
network, a mathematical metaphor concerned with logistics, is folded
into the very heart of the relation of the wireless link-node structure.
What matter of concern could this algorithmic process of convolutional
coding coupled to Viterbi decoding respond to? The algorithmics
of wirelessness centre on the maintenance of a bitstream amidst
severe channel conditions. In other words, there are many possible
relations, circumstance and events impinging on communication. The
generation of a stream-like consistency in experience in information
flow under such conditions depends on developing forms of conjunctive
relation that can flow around, under or between many other signals
and physical structures. However, the convolutions and complications
of the digital signal processing in wireless networks can also serve
as a useful reminder of what radical network empiricism implies
about the conditions of possibility of wirelessness. We have already
seen that James regards experience as a 'member of diverse processes.'
This is because it is replete with variations that take it in many
directions at once. These variations and tendencies enable experience
to flow. How, one could ask, does experience come to belong to 'diverse
processes'? We have already seen that experience owes more to transitions
than to ends. However, James argues something more specific about
these transitions. Radical empiricism, he writes, takes conjunctive
relations at their face value, holding them to be as real as the
terms united by them' (107). Conjunctive relations concern proximity,
distance, intersectionality, detour, immediacy or delay. In language,
conjunctive relations are expressed by particles such as 'with,'
'between,' 'before,' 'far', and 'so forth.' These relations are
experienced constantly, and in fact, James' claims, we live far
more in these relations than in the disjunctive relations associated
with things or entities. As James writes,
While we live in such conjunctions our state is one of transition
in the most literal sense. We are expectant of a 'more' to
come, and before the more has come, the transition, nevertheless,
is directed towards it. (237)
Wireless things make conjunctions, the aspect of experience that
generates expectation of more-to-come, into the principle of their
operation. By capitalising on conjunctive relations, it becomes
possible for networking to handle 'severe channel conditions' or
the presence of many others. When conjunction becomes the modus
operandi of what counts as the physico-material infrastructures
of a contemporary media formation, then how could we not experience
or expect 'more to come'?
This can be viewed from a practical standpoint. There are millions
of wireless transmitters and gadgets in the world today because
algorithmic processes such as Viterbi decoding permit antennae to
proliferate. The radio-frequency antennae used in wireless networks
distinguish them from other kinds of networks. These small antennae
are plainly ubiquitous, and without the somewhat manic and convoluted
signal processing driving those antennae, there would be no wirelessness.
Without wireless networks in their urban, rural, domestic versions,
mobile media would not converge. The promise of convergence has
deeply infrastructural roots in wireless signal processing. Yet
this infrastructural root is hard to grasp since it is purely relational,
and the relations it concerns are conjunctive in character rather
than substantive. This is not to say that algorithmic signal processing
is the ground of wirelessness. The insistence on conjunctive relations
in radical empiricism points us in a different direction that is
intimately interwoven with experience, albeit a somewhat impersonal,
pre-individual dimension of experience.
Many people would probably say that they have no interest in, let
alone experience of, the algorithmic processes driving antennae
in wireless networks such as Bluetooth or Wi-Fi. Does media theory
need to think about antennae and algorithms? Should it begin to
conduct research into the cultural life of antennae? This is not
the point. Rather, as James says:
To be radical, an empiricism must neither admit into its constructions
any element that is not directly experienced, nor exclude from
them any element that is directly experienced. For such a philosophy,
the relations that connect experiences must themselves be
experienced relations, and any kind of relation experienced must
be accounted as 'real' as anything else in the system. (James,
The key point here is that 'the relations that connect experiences
must themselves be experienced relations.' James at work in his
wireless library, and all the billions of wireless chips in their
algorithmically driven handling of conjunctive relations together
construct experiences filled with conjunctive relations. But in
what sense are the algorithmic processes of wireless networks a
part of the expanded experience of wirelessness?
The feeling of convergence as experienced relation
There are various dynamics associated with antennae that connect
them with experience, or more precisely, that concern experienced
relations in wirelessness. Many of these relations are experienced
directly in the form of 'more to come.' For instance, recently,
much attention has been given to the overflow of radio-frequency
waves in wireless networks in schools and homes. This attention
echoes long-standing uncertainties around radio-waves and electrical
fields associated with electric power networks, and mobile phone
masts. Wi-Fi seems to make some people sick (Hume, 2006). A recent
episode of BBCs Panorama Wi-Fi Revolution describes this
overflow as the martini-style internet, fast-becoming unavoidable,
but there is a catch: radio-frequency radiation, an invisible smog.
The question is, is it affecting our health? (BBC, 2007) (00.55
- 01.07). This is one form of relation in wirelessness - the way
in which bodies close to networks experience themselves as sensitive
to and affected by exposure to an increasing density of signals,
a density that attests to the very efficacy of wirelessness in handling
so many different relations of proximity. In James terms, conjunctive
relations between bodies and antennae are an essential part of wirelessness.
While these conjunctive relations (with, and, near, between, behind)
are often seen as accidental components of experience, in radical
empiricism they are counted as real as anything else.
Another form of overflowing relationality is perhaps most central
to wirelessness. Wireless networks create zones of indistinct and
equivocal spatial activity. The fuzziness of hotspots, the ways
in which people become attuned to signal strengths as they move
around in wireless networks, and the alterations in everyday habits
associated with wireless networks form primary components of wirelessness
as experience grounded in conjunctive relations. The different basic
topologies of wireless networks - star, mesh - as well as the many
different levels of access associated with them, and the many different
attempts to limit or open up access, attest to this sense of equivocal
proximities. There have been many events in the last five years
associated with this equivocal proximity. It began with publicity
about war-chalking, the short-lived practice of indicating the presence
of nearby wireless networks. It continues in the many wireless mapping
projects to be found online, ranging from industry-sponsored maps
to war-driving or war-flying maps. It disables distinctions between
public and private. In the last five years, there has much debate,
somewhat inconsequential on the whole probably, about the ethics
and legality of accessing open wireless networks. High-profile cases
have occurred. The conviction of a teenager in Singapore (Chua Hian,
2007), the theft of 45 million customer records from wireless networks
at TkMaxx stores in the USA (Espiner, 2007), and the general trend
towards criminalisation of any 'unauthorized access' to wireless
networks (for instance, using a wireless network at a coffee-shop
without paying (Leyden, 2007), (Simone, 2006)) suggests that this
topological overflow leads to many kinds of uncertainties about
what properly constitutes a network when its edges tend to blur.
Nor is this always criminalised. Rather, it increasingly forms part
of the basic business model of many service providers: if the Wi-Fi
network is open, people will buy more coffee, etc.
These symptoms of antenna awareness - affecting bodies at a cellular
or physiological level, as things in variations, and as equivocal
proximities - are experienced unevenly, and many of them cannot
be verified. When people experience wirelessness as overflowing
change, they have a sense of what the wireless algorithms in their
many semiconductor implementations are working on: expanding and
multiplying relations, continually propagating signals outwards,
overflowing existing infrastructures and environments at many points
and on different scales. They are strangely composite or mixed experiences
of indistinct spatialities. They trigger various attempts to channel,
amplify, propagate, signify, represent, organise and visualise relations.
Wirelessness as hybrid object of research
In a sense everything I have been discussing here - the algorithms
and antennae, the various overflows (spatial, thing, body, private-public),
and the transitions between different versions of Wi-Fi or other
wireless networks - concern how the passing of one experience into
another, is subject to re-organisation in wirelessness.
A radical empiricist concept of experience touches on such questions
at several points. In its insistent grounding of experience in transition,
it names that aspect of wirelessness that entails constant change.
According to radical empiricism, we have an experience of transition
because conjunctive relations vary in degrees of intimacy and proximity.
The conjunctive relations of wirelessness necessarily include a
variety of overflows. Those overflows are themselves at core the
very sensation of becoming-wireless. Yet they themselves are not
pure or aligned with each other. They are exposed to many forms
of verbalisation. Wirelessness as a contemporary mode of experience
is not pure in any sense. It is not reducible to phenomenological,
existential or even psychological modes of understanding. As we
have seen, it envelops diverse processes, including those that are
normally understood as belonging to objects, transactions, devices,
gadgets, brands and infrastructures. If we look at some of the distinguishing
features of those things, antennae and signal processing stand out
as what makes wireless media different from, say, gaming consoles
or cameras (although these, of course, are becoming increasingly
wireless - e.g. Wii). The wireless antennae and algorithms seek
to generate certain conjunctive relations (with, to, for) that hold
experience together. They intensively re-order signals in the name
of a connectivity that can tolerate interference or the presence
of many others. Yet, once we begin to go into wireless media practices,
it seems that the kinds of conjunctive relations they recruit are
not easily controlled, corralled or limited. They overflow in equivocal
proximities - into other things, into living bodies, and across
legal, physical, social boundaries. These overflows all affect transitions.
They constitute changes in the ways that transitions happen.
There is no ground for wirelessness, not even the mostly unfelt
reaches of electromagnetic spectrum. Instead, the radical empiricist
account of experience allows us to say that the most intimate and
most impersonal can sometimes come close to each other. Things and
sensations are not at opposite poles of experience. This almost
brings us full circle. We have glimpsed the mediatised, materialised,
contested, commodified, politicised, normalised, and ignored kaleidoscopic
cascade of changes associated with wireless networks. Many of these
changes seek to connect or align what was previously separated or
misaligned. But in almost every attempt to converge, they disturb
the rankings of conjunctive relations between impersonal and personal,
between remote and intimate. The flow of experience has to be re-configured.
Adrian Mackenzie (Centre for Social and Economic Aspects of Genomics,
Lancaster University) researchs in the area of technology, science
and culture. He has published books on technology: Transductions
: bodies and machines at speed, London: Continuum, 2002/6;
Cutting code: software and sociality . New York: Peter
Lang, 2006, and Wirelessness: Radical Empiricism in Network
Cultures, MIT Press, 2008, as well as articles on media, science
and culture. He is currently working on practices, ethics and politics
of collaboration in biology.
 Shifts between metaphorical and literal invocations
of the term 'network' have constantly beset network media theory.
Often the very notion of a network has been an aspiration or an
expectation rather than something given. The concept of network
has been generalised as a key figure of recent organisational change,
and this has usually been done by saying that wherever there are
patterns of relations, they make up a network. I think contemporary
work with networks would benefit from treating the rapid oscillation
between literal and metaphorical invocations of 'the network' as
a real aspect of contemporary experience, not as something to be
regulated or controlled. Algorithmic and signal processing aspects
of the wireless networks provide a useful limit test case here.
Surely there are no literal-figurative instabilities here? Surely
these are the real, actual networks? However, in the case of the
Viterbi decoder, it seems that networks metaphorise themselves even
at this level. If the invocation of network cannot be regulated
even here, there is no hope of controlling the performativity of
the concept of networks. [back]
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