Untangling the unwired: the cultural implication of wireless (WiFi) infrastructures
Adrian Mackenzie, Institute for Cultural Research, Lancaster University, LA14YL, UK email@example.com
Cultural and social studies of technology have regarded infrastructure as less significant than the interfaces, devices and media practices where processes of consumption, representation, attachment, identification and sociality are most visible. What would it mean for 'infrastructure' to be understood as a social, cultural and material process all the way down? Via a case study of an increasingly popular, everyday contemporary wireless networking technology, WiFi, this paper suggests that infrastructures have begun to figure as important sites of cultural contestation. Different imaginings and practices of connectivity run through the many WiFi projects, enterprises and visions that have appeared over the last two years. In seeking to understand how these different imaginings of connectivity emerge in the same technological-infrastructural space, existing theoretical frameworks for understanding infrastructures are inadequate. Theoretical concepts of infrastructure developed in social studies of technology, on the other hand, evacuate nearly all cultural processes from the domain of infrastructure. Both detach the communication habitus from its infrastructural substrate, even as infrastructure sediments social processes, territories, identificatory attachments, political and socioeconomic distributions of power. Contrary to the representations of communications infrastructure as exemplars of formally organised domains, this paper suggests that infrastructures embody cultural logics at odds with each other. A practical logic of the 'kludge' offers one way of accounting for this, and for thinking about the relation of cultural studies of technologies to its objects.
'An unnatural, almost magical capacity to naturalize itself' (McRobbie, 94, 1999)
A somewhat banal component of contemporary computing technology, WiFi or 802.11b WLAN (Wireless Local Area Networking) has recently begun to naturalize itself in cities and towns throughout Europe, North America, South-East Asia, Australia and the Middle East. This technology (although for reasons given below, we need to be cautious in
wielding this concept) is a means of networking computers together using radio links in an unlicensed part of the radio spectrum, 2.4Ghz. It replaces the cable that runs from a computer to a network socket in the wall with a radio link. Unlike the dazzle of Hollywood cinema's digital effects, the startling mobility of images in recent computer games, or the efflorescent sociality of mobile phones, WiFi is hardly spectacular in any way, shape or form. If it appears in images at all, it will be towards the back of the catalogues of computer and electronics retailers. There, WiFi devices look more like the piles of thongs on sale in a suburban supermarket than a site of political contestation over space, the city, mobility and individuation. More often that not, WiFi or 802.11b will feature as just one more line on the specifications of a new laptop computer. It is perhaps not a crucially important innovation in itself, just another ordinary component in the shifting spectrum of computer communication networks rapidly extending through cities, towns and sometimes the countryside in Europe, North America and parts of the Asia-Pacific. WiFi, suggests a recent supplement on the state of telecommunications in The Economist, 'is certainly useful ... [b]ut it does not amount to an epochal shift' (Standage, 2003, 11). And yet, a merely 'useful' technology has attracted and continues to receive much media attention and commercial investment, and set off a tremendous number of cultural-technological projects. Many people have regarded it as 'the next big thing.' These phenomena – the persistent media interest, the burgeoning commercial projects and the scattered, diverse popular projects – are linked together in complex ways. While new media and the Internet have quickly been absorbed into diverse local performances over the last decade (Miller & Slater, 2000), the corporate assimilation of the Internet, hardly surprisingly, has also effectively been completed. Corporate assimilation of the new communications technologies tends to reject the relevance of places or practices that it does not create or manage (De Certeau, 1984, 201). As we will see, the logic working through WiFi seeks to freeze certain places under the rubric of 'freedom' and 'mobility'. Yet this assimilation of mobility does not go uncontested. The appearance of new gadgets, devices and practices associated with new media (fileswapping, blogging, open source software, etc) continually fosters hopes that other
potentials still exist, that other forms of relationality and openness can emerge. Yet that hopefulness is tempered in certain ways by the recent history of new media, and in particular by a consciousness of the difficulties and limitations imposed by the almost totally commercial ownership of the infrastructure of the Internet and communications networks. Different practices, motifs and performances of space, sociality, embodiment and control meet and entwine in WiFi.
The cultural relevance of infrastructure
While the general significance of 'new media' is hard to question, communications infrastructure falls outside the frame of most accounts. At most, it seems just another component of the 'technostructure', the general planning and ordering of places according to strategies governed by an abstract model of the production of information. It is regulated by government policy and owned by transnational telecommunication corporations. Infrastructure is 'strategy' (de Certeau, 1984, xix) because it has a proper place from which relations to an exterior environment (the city, the country, the State, customers, competition,) run in and out. Infrastructure is literally rendered invisible – buried, walled-off, above the ceiling, beneath the pavement. This invisibility parallels a certain analytical invisibility and immobility. WiFi explicitly re-frames the relevance of infrastructure. Much of the mass media commentary on WiFi has focused on its potential as an autonomous network infrastructure. For instance, in Wired magazine, the technology commentator Nicholas Negroponte recently advocated WiFi as a way to overcome the problem of corporate domination of the Internet, saying 'You have broadband telecommunications systems built by the people for the people' (Negroponte, 2002). This interest in WiFi as infrastructural element goes beyond well-known hi-tech futurologists such as Negroponte. Newspaper journalists and editors have taken a strong interest in WiFi as offering new levels of connectivity. An editor of The Guardian in UK writes, 'when you live in a deep, dark wood at the bottom of a bumpy lane, you get used to doing without services even in the booming city of Leeds ... Can FirstNet [a WiFi Internet service provider] hook up this particle of the Guardian to the main office [in London]' (Wainwright, 2003, 21). (The answer is 'no' – too many trees in the way in that deep dark
wood.) Articles on Internet connectivity in new places afforded by WiFi abounded during 2002-3. Many non-commercial projects to build broadband communications infrastructures independent of existing cable and telephone networks have appeared in the print media (and quickly disappeared again) and on innumerable websites. These range across the hundreds of 'wireless community' groups (WirelessCommunity, 2003) wanting to 'unwire' their local neighbourhoods (Cohen, 2003) collective attempts to federate WiFi networks nationally and internationally through 'pico-peering' agreements (PPA, 2003) or through manifestoes and political platforms such as the 'Wireless Commons Manifesto' (WCM, 2003). These projects attest to the increasing visibility of infrastructure as an object of cultural and political contestation. However, we also need to ask how a technology comes to have this appeal. A decade ago, at a time when information mythology was at hightide, Geoff Bowker wrote about 'infrastructural inversion', a way of investigating how claims about technology emerge and circulate: Take a claim that has been made by advocates of a particular piece of science/technology, then look at the infrastructural changes that preceded or accompanied the effects claimed and see if they are sufficient to explain those effects - then ask how the initial claim came a posteriori to be seen as reasonable. (Bowker, 1994, 235) What Bowker termed 'the infrastructural inversion' was a way of making sense of extravagant claims made for a technology by resituating them amidst 'the economic process of ordering social and natural space and time so that subjective' information can circulate freely' (245). The infrastructural inversion was a method of rendering the unattended, invisible work that affords mobility of information on the Internet visible. This paper both follows that suggestion and reassesses it in the light of a heightened visibility of infrastructure as site of desire, memory, and repetition. Put differently, we could ask how has the infrastructure of information and mobile communication undergone a cultural inversion into visibility?i
How do we know what WiFi is?
The notion of technology brings a lot of baggage with it. As Jonathan Sterne observes,
'the force of the 'preconstructed' ... weighs heavily upon anyone who chooses to study technology, since the choice of a technological object of study is already itself shaped by a social organized field of choices' (Sterne, 2003, 368). When we look at the sheer variety of objects and projects associated with WiFi, one thing that stands out is that the outline of the technology itself is not yet completely fixed. Important aspects of it deform as different forces of 'preconstruction' come to bear. Despite the publicity and the predictions of another dotcom-style bubble, WiFi is not reducible to the setting-up of commercial hotspots for wireless Internet access in offices, hotels, bars, cafes and airports, nor to the construction of 'wireless community networks' in rural or urban areas. WiFi has given rise to an astonishing variety of projects, tactics and artifacts over the last two years. Much early media attention in 2002 focused on the practices of 'warchalking' and 'wardriving'. Roaming city streets with wireless equipped laptop computers, warchalkers marked the presence of WiFi networks in city streets and buildings using a lexicon of symbols drawn on sidewalks. These practices disappeared as quickly as they appeared (Hammersley, 2002). In their wake, wireless local area networking became the object of more diverse projects, imaginings and projections. These range from the very rapid commodification and circulation of the hardware, which is now sold cheaply and often built directly into new computers as a standard feature to be used in home, office or hotspot, across the hybridisations of WiFi technology with consumer electronic devices such as ghetto blasters (BassStation, 2003), televisions (Sharp), and cameras (Nikon) to the modification of WiFi technology to build large scale or long distance infrastructures (a remote village in Laos (Jhai, 2003); base camp at Mount Everest, a long distance link in the north of Sweden; connections between the Solomon Islands in the South Pacific (PFNet, 2003)). These projects have been widely reported in the print media, and they have been useful to hardware producers such as Intel as a way of heightening sales or 'accelerating deployment' of WiFi as one of Intel's press releases puts it (Intel, 2003). The social, political, economic, cultural contexts in which WiFi is being operated keep expanding. It moves through the arms of the State (military, education, justice, health, lawenforcement), through commercial sites (offices, hotspots, telecommunication systems, agriculture, firefighting, etc), and through many different kinds of projects and
organisations ranging from neighbourhoods (the countless 'Community WiFi networks') to artist-activist groups such as 'Consume' (Consume, 2003; about which I will say more below). The 802.11b protocol which underpins WiFi is constantly commodified in new forms and new contexts ranging from chips, to cards, to standalone devices (routers, switches, mesh-network boxes). WiFi embodies a matrix of possibilities whose combinations and permutations are still being tried out in different domains. Different manipulations of the spatial organization of office, home, and public place are at stake. Only a few years ago, for instance, a 'router' or 'switch' was a piece of technical infrastructure that most homes definitely didn't need. With WiFi and broadband Internet, it has suddenly become desirable for every home, let alone every office, to have a miniature communications infrastructure, to have a router or a switch, and a 'firewall' that coordinates movements of information around the home and secures the home communications infrastructure from the contaminating information habitat of the broadband Internet. If, '[t]hanks to the BT Voyager 2000 [a domestic WiFi setup], ... you can roam your home and garden at will' (BT Voyager, 2002) with a laptop and still be connected to the Internet, that is because the home has been endowed with 'freedom of movement to go with that freedom of information' (BT Voyager, 2002).
WiFi juxtaposes different spaces and different movements
The diversity of WiFi examples suggests a deeper uncertainty. The technical protocols that underlie WiFi are being put into question in various ways. A member of the Consume project based in Greenwich, London touched on this when he exclaimed during an interview: '802.11b is a kludge' (Stevens, 2003). A 'kludge', according to the New Hackers Dictionary, is 'an ill-assorted collection of poorly matching parts, forming a distressing whole' (Raymond, 1996, 271). After so much about the promise of WiFi, and about how adaptable, powerful and effective it is, it is striking to hear WiFi, a very highly promoted and arguably successful networking technology built into millions of systems today, called a distressing whole. Given that the interviewee was heavily involved in a successful wireless project that had many operational nodes deployed and working, why should he call the protocol itself a kludge?ii The complaint about the WiFi kludge was quite specific: it was directed at the WiFi protocol, 802.11b. Now a protocol is supposed to be a set of rules that allow machines or devices to communicate with each other without ambiguity. It should be fully determined, not indeterminate in any way. Computer science understands a protocol as [a]n agreement that governs the procedures used to exchange information between cooperating entities. More specifically, a protocol is such an agreement operating between entities that have no direct means of exchanging information, but that do so by passing information across a local interface to so-called lower-level protocols, until the lowest, physical, level is reached. The information is transferred to the remote location using the lowest-level protocol, and then passes upward via the interfaces until it reaches the corresponding level at the destination. ... See also seven-layer reference model. (Oxford Dictionary of Computing, 2003) Without delving too deeply into technicalities here, IEEE Standard 802.11b or WiFi is a protocol defined as part of a larger suite of standards dealing with digital communications, the 802 family. These interlocking standards, usually implemented in computer code, sometimes built directly in hardware, form the fabric of the Internet. The published standards document is entitled 'Wireless LAN Medium Access Control
(MAC) and Physical Layer (PHY) Specifications: Higher Speed Physical Layer Extension in the 2.4GHz Band' (IEEE Std 802.11b-1999). Although protocols are meant to reduce ambiguity and eliminate openness to unexpected interactions in a given situation, sometimes they do the opposite. As the title of the IEEE document states, the 802.11b protocol describes a way for computers to be networked together using an unregulated portion of the electromagnetic spectrum, 2.4GHz. This is described as 'a Physical Layer Extension'. What does this mean? The protocol implicitly refers to a web of other standards and protocols. The title of the protocol itself implicitly refers to a broader standard model for communications known as OSI, the Open Systems Interconnection model, and locates itself by reference to this broader model (on the significance of OSI in the history of the Internet, see Abbate, 1999, 167-177). In this model, the term 'Physical Layer' designates the physical and electrical components of the computer network. The Physical Layer constituted the most stable, even obdurate, component of the Internet. It includes all the wires, cables, optical fibre, microwave links, network sockets and telephone lines out of which contemporary computer communications are cobbled together. Everything else in the network architecture contrives to hide the Physical Layer, to push it 'down' to the bottom of the so-called 'protocol stack' and to literally put it behind walls where it remains visible only in the form of the 10BT plug office PC's are connected into. WiFi combines two of the seven layers of communication – Medium Access Control and the Physical Layer – defined by the OSI model. Because WiFi lies across two layers in the protocol stack - the Physical Layer and the medium access control layer - it imports Ethernet-specific features into the Physical Layer. The indeterminacy the 802.11 protocols, what makes them a kludge, comes from the discrepancies between the topology of the Physical Layer, which no longer resides within cables but occupies a radio frequency band, and the organizational topology of the network implicit to the Medium Access Control protocol, which limits the number of networks nodes and organizes them in a tree-like hierarchy. The 'agreement' reached with protocol 802.11 is somewhat awkward because the Physical Layer turns out to be not just physical. Once it moves out of wires into the electromagnetic spectrum, the Physical Layer becomes explicitly social, political and cultural. The awkwardness of WiFi comes from
juxtaposition of the Medium Access Control protocol meant for well-defined, enclosed 'Local Area Networks' such as offices with a newly profligate Physical Layer which radiates across the boundaries between inside and outside, and effectively turns opaque walls into glass.
Two spatial practices affecting the visibility of WiFi
In terms of contemporary theories of technology, WiFi is a 'repeatable social, cultural and material process ... crystallized into a mechanism' (Sterne, 2003, 376). Sometimes, however, crystallization is an ongoing process in its own right rather than something completed once and for all. Processes of crystallization are often metastable. That is, they can organise themselves in different ways, depending on the interaction of highly contingent factors - the presence of impurities, or changes in ambient conditions. At this moment in the supersaturated medium of communication networks, many different imaginings of connectivity are in contention. They imagine different network topologies and different idioms of movement. Differentiating the idioms is one way of understanding how communications infrastructures become culturally relevant as the locus of social-cultural-material processes. WiFi, as material-social-cultural process, exhibits unevenly developing facets as it crystallises relations between urban mobility, the subjectified infrastructure of the office and home, the thresholds between public and private, and between individual and collective. Two principal topological idioms circulate through 802.11b. The first presents WiFi as a way of combining access to information networks with mobility. For reasons that will become more apparent, we could call this the 'Medium Access Control' or MAC idiom. The second regards wireless LANs as a way of making visible certain social, economic and even political obstacles affecting information networks. That idiom might be called the 'Physical Layer' or PHY idiom.
MAC: medium access control
The term “WiFi” tries to establish a resonance between a wireless communication technology and relatively expensive home sound equipment dating from the 1950s, “hifi.” It tacitly links WiFi to domestic architecture and consumer electronics rather than to cyberspace or corporate infrastructure. This resonance of 'high quality but for
domestic use' pervades the dominant idiom in which 802.11b equipment and software is represented, installed and used. The MAC idiom grapples with the representational problem of rendering something visible – a new modality of communication infrastructure - while insisting on its invisibility. Recent Intel Corporation promotions of their Centrino™ computing products have heavily featured WiFi. Intel is just one important example amongst the real plethora of enterprises, schemes, and strategies centring on WiFi as the basis of connected mobile computing. Mobility is understood here as re-organising or manipulating space, and in particular, disconnecting computers from walls, wires and sockets. The Centrino chipsets have been promoted through the slogan 'the unwired office starts inside' (Intel 2003b). Integration of wireless capability into the 'inside' is represented in the current advertisements by an 'X-ray' image of the motherboard of a laptop computer (Intel 2003b). While 'convergence' between communications hardware and computing hardware has been occurring for several decades (so-called Ethernet NICs - Network Interface Cards - have been standard computer components for a decade), the shifting-down and integration of wireless networking capability into the core Intel chipset can be seen as staking a real claim in the future of wireless networking. In producing and promoting the coalescence of CPU and wireless networking, Intel is banking on the significance of wireless networking. By embedding non-proprietary conventional objects such as the 802.11b protocols into the lowest level of commodity computer platforms, they become quasi-invisible, naturalised components of the ongoing 'convergence' of computing and communication. This invisible incorporation is balanced by attempts to make certain places more visible: hotspots. Rather than just including hardware to handle 802.11b communications in its core chipsets, Intel, a company whose principal business has long been making computer chips, 'has been working with leading wireless network service providers, hotels, airports, retail and restaurant chains worldwide to accelerate deployment and increase awareness of wireless public hotspots' (Intel, Centrino Press Release, 2003). The chip manufacturer wants to 'accelerate deployment' of the technology by negotiating with other kinds of businesses such as hotels and airports, and offering a 'verification program': 'Intel has developed the Wireless Verification Program, which includes engineering and testing of Intel Centrino mobile technology with various access point
devices, software combinations, hotspot locations and wireless service providers to verify they are compatible. Intel’s efforts worldwide have already resulted in thousands of verified hotspots. The company expects to verify more than 10,000 by the end of the year' (Intel, Centrino Press Release, 2003). IIntel has staged 'Wireless Days' with free national access, and also awarded cities for being 'most unwired'. [TODO: mention their wireless day, and their awards for the most wired cities – Guardian] The hotspot is another significant topological element of the MAC idiom. Hotspots are widely scattered through North America, Europe and South-East Asia (see WiFi Alliance, 2003 for a geographical locator). Driven somewhat belatedly by telecommunications corporation investment, they have rapidly multiplied in more affluent urban zones such as inner-city London, Manhattan, Seattle and Singapore, but can be found in almost any town bigger than a village in the UK. In principle, a hotspot is a point of intersecting flows, a place where heavy traffic or concentrated activity occurs. Starbucks ('We Serve More Than Coffee'), McDonalds ('Bites or Bytes, We Do Both'), airports, hotel lobbies and bars are making themselves into WiFi access points for the Internet so that drinking coffee or eating burgers can be associated with network access. The flow of food and drink merges with flows of data. Actually, despite their proliferation, the hotspots have not, it seems, been very hot. The bar employees often don't know of the hotspot's existence. Many hotspots are rarely used due to their excessive cost and because they remain, ironically, relatively invisible and difficult to access (Frankston, 2003). Intel's advertising slogan, 'the unwired office starts inside', carries other implications. The other 'inside' might that of the 'WiFi user', who has begun to internalise network infrastructure connectivity as given across all boundaries between public, private, work, home, leisure, travel and war. The figures – usually men - seen in many of the images associated with WiFi show that 'inside' in genesis in two respects. Recent Toshiba Corporation laptop computer advertisements situate the men, mostly alone, although occasionally at work in a casually stylish office meeting, in remote locations and relative isolation (Toshiba, 2003). They are on a rocky promontory beside a storm-tossed sea, in a treehouse looking down on children at play in a sun-filled backyard, on a platform high above a sports stadium, or lying on the grass in the middle of a park on a summers day. The laptop screen to which these figures are always adjacent shows an
office, a library, a scene from a film; in any case, something different from where they are. It is hard to tell who is working and who is not. These men are not obviously dressed for work. The freedom to connect 'in new places' that Intel's promotions refer to recurs across many different corporate promotions of WiFi. A familiar insistence on 'freedom' - 'enter the world of freedom computing' (Toshiba, 2003), 'lose the wires, be free' (MyZones, 2003) – is attached to an absence of wires. Not having to plug a computer into a socket in the wall to do email, download files or surf the WWW, means that the screen loses its moorings and begins to float around. The socket in the wall to which screens are tethered dissolves. In other words, for the unwired user, the relation between screen and walls changes. Communication is no longer incarcerated, mobility is independent of others, and indeed, others become somewhat invisible. Is this manner of representing WiFi just intended to generate demand amongst middleclass men for the latest upgrade in information technology? A final element of the MAC idiom suggests that the interaction between freedom, mobility and invisibility is a bit more complicated. It invites deviancy. The early publicity attracted by WiFi in 2001-2 focused on 'war-chalking', the marking of city sidewalks with symbols indicating the availability of a wireless network. In the computer industry, systems administrators and technical directors saw this practice as deviant and potentially criminal. At the 'WLAN Event' staged at the Olympia Exhibition Centre in London late May 2003 (WLAN, 2003), many of the most well attended seminars on the schedule addressed WiFi security. From the perspective of the MAC idiom, an important component of the world of freedom means practically excluding unwanted participants from the networks. The freedom of attachment correlates with freedom from the presence of unwanted others. There are several aspects to the prominence of security as a problematic. Technicians and administrators from corporate IT departments see WiFi as changing the boundaries of their corporate networks. Whilst connections to wires and cable can be traced like railway lines, wireless networks spread out diffusely, even if they don't go very far. (How far a wireless network can reach depends on the sensitivity of the antennae in use.) The seminars on security figure the 'threat' in terms of different possible vulnerabilities and attacks on the integrity of the corporate body. The recent arrest by the FBI of WiFi hackers in a shopping mall carpark in Detroit (Poulsen, 2003), the trial of
a hacker who accessed a county court WiFi network in Texas, the arrest by police of a man downloading child pornography using a laptop in his car in Toronto have all heightened sensitivities about unauthorised access to WiFi networks. But unauthorised access to the networks from outside is only part of the worry. The danger comes from people within organisations. The software and hardware tools on display at WLAN, and written about extensively in the myriad how-to computer books, are also concerned with controlling access within the organisation. For instance, network analysis tools on sale at the exhibition allow WiFi network administrators to identify 'rogue nodes' attached to their networks by someone in the organisation as well as blocking attempts to connect to the networks from outside (e.g. AiroPeek NX, 'expert 802.11 wireless LAN network analyzer'). As yet, procedures and mechanisms for controlling access to WiFi networks are still in a state of flux. These security seminars as one important way in which the MAC idiom negotiates re-drawing of the boundaries between public and private space, between corporate and non-corporate, between individual and collective spaces. In sum, the MAC idiom, as a practical imagining of wireless network connectivity, combines several different topological innovations. The 802.11b protocol, which shifts computer networking over to radio transmission, is being compressed into increasingly invisible hardware, something that we might soon see only in an X-ray image. At the same time, the spatial distribution of network connectivity has taken the form of commercial hotspots which need to make, for the moment at least, the existence of wireless networks infrastructures visible. These quasi-public venues are matched by the unwiring of homes and offices. Human figures carrying computers into range of the hotspot/office/home wireless access point are promised a kind of freedom that comes from the (partial) uncoupling of computers from network cables and fixed wall sockets. But they are also uncoupled from the presence of others. This latter uncoupling is not decisive or certain, for the move away from walls also exposes new interfaces for others. This uncertainty features prominently in the concern with security, and the practical tactics for regulating access to the networks and for preventing the networks from growing unexpectedly ('rogue nodes').
PHY: unearthing the Physical Layer
Andrew Ross argued over a decade ago that technologies rely on popular consent: '[n]o frame of technological inevitability has not already interacted with popular needs and desires; no introduction of machineries of control has not already been negotiated to some degree in the arena of popular consent' (Ross, 1991, 98). The first signs of interest in WiFi in UK newspapers during 2002 were concerned with war-chalking and wardriving. Warchalking in particular has been presented as resistance to the commercial Internet, a ruse on the part of consumers who want the 'freedom' of broadband for free. Consistently, media attention to WiFi has been elicited by the possibility that WiFi might be something more just another sales gimmick on the part of computer hardware manufacturers, whose main product, the computer, has become a sluggish sales performer and who are now perforce re-tooling themselves as home entertainment electronics producers. Similarly, the many 'community wireless networking' projects that began to spring up in many different parts of the world in 2002 have been written about, sometimes very enthusiastically, as an alternative to the commercial infrastructures of the Internet. In the aftermath of the dotcom crash, anything in the domain of computer that carries counter-cultural, non-corporate caché tends to attract mainstream media interest. WiFi has definitely been seen as the 'next big thing.' A second topological-signifying idiom, the Physical Layer mentioned above, surfaces intermittently in the media stories about warchalking community wireless projects. These projects cover an extremely disparate set of interests, ranging from a geek commitment to exploring the technical limits of connectivity (e.g. Hurghada project in Egypt; http://www.d128.com/wireless/), the development of a 'wireless commons' (WirelessCommons, 2002), to UN-sponsored efforts to leapfrog infrastructural hurdles in developing countries (UN, 2003; BBC, 2003). They lack the co-ordinated global advertising and publicity of Intel's Centrino promotions. In contrast to the effort to attract individuals to hotspots where controlled individual access to computer networks is available, the common thread in all these projects concerns unearthing communications infrastructures, making them visible and transforming them into sites of collective interaction and work. Rather than connecting to the Internet or to work from new places and in new ways, this idiom treats connectivity to network
infrastructure in urban and non-urban spaces as a potential social space that goes beyond hotspots or unwired homes/offices. The Physical Layer idiom is distinguished from Medium Access Control in several ways: by a different, non-exclusive relation to others, by some different practices of space and distance, by varying degrees of politically explicit challenge to invisible control of infrastructure, and by an open stance in relation to commodity computer hardware. Potentially at least, this idiom constitutes a much more metastable, heterogeneous mixture of practices, feelings and imaginings of communication than the MAC idiom. A transformation of media-technology habitus, the embodied social knowledge of communication, infrastructure and urban mobility, could be at stake here (Sterne, 2003, 375). 'Consume', a project based in East London, encapsulates several dimensions of the PHY idiom. 'Consume' components include wireless network nodes transmitting from the roof of the former Greenwich Town Hall, a website (consume.org) which represents the current state of wireless connections in a geographical area centred on London, public events and spectacles that deploy wireless networks and a strong media visibility. The project has received a substantial amount of media attention over the last few years. The key figure in Consume, James Stevens, is regularly interviewed by newspapers (and academic researchers!). Consume's website shows a map of London with each wireless access node marked. It provides technical information about how to connect to the node and an email address for each node owner. These wireless access points are scattered across London. In some places their coverage overlaps, in others there are wide gaps in between with no coverage (although again, this depends on the sensitivity of the antennae in use). These nodes are marked as having different operational status – some are active, some are still being setup, some have been taken off-air for various reasons. The information is not reliable nor accurate since the people who operate nodes can take them off-air without notifying Consume. Until someone reports a problem, the website will not reflect any change. The primary function of the website consists not so much in providing access to wireless networks. Rather, as one person involved in another London wireless project put it,
Yeah, ... it's not intended to be a definitive database. What its meant to be is, in a certain sense, a social tool. You put in your postcode, or somehow you locate yourself on it, and then you seen who's around you based on whatever details they've provided – whether that's a url, what kind of equipment they have. And in a way, you personally make contact with them and see if it's real or not. So it serves some purpose. (Simon Worthington, Interview, May 2003) What might result from the Consume project are quite localised connections between people living in the same neighbourhoods of London, and relatively shortlived augmentations in networked connectivity. Further research would be needed to establish just how many people use the several hundred nodes shown on the Consume database. Even in the more typical urban settings, a different relation to space typically emerges in these projects. Space is not necessarily seen as something which individuals traverse, picking up and shedding networks connections as they move in and out of hotspots. Just the opposite, most of these projects aim to enrol people who are less mobile, and who lack cutting-edge infrastructural connectivity. The 'Wireless Clinics' that Consume has run in London over the last year and a half (February 2002-July 2003) can be seen as temporary alterations in the topology of networked communications. They assemble people together by drawing on an interest in the intersection of culture and technology rather than by simply installing wireless networks in parallel with the commercial projects. At these events, an observer notes: Other things that Consume does that have been really useful and that our project [YourAreHere] takes part in is the events. Sometimes they're more social, fun events where people in a big old town hall use WiFi to download a whole lot of music, and dj. (Simon, Interview, May 2003) Here, attention seems to move away from wireless technology itself towards the technology as a way to bring people into association with each other without the intermediaries of commercial ISPs or network infrastructures. Consume is not totally disconnected from or opposed to the MAC idiom and its milieu. At some point its wireless network has to connect back into commercial infrastructures. On the roof at Greenwich, one antenna points across the river towards the office buildings
of Canary Wharf. For over a year, Consume has had a 1 Mb/sec WiFi link to a data centre there. In the last month, the link has begun to fail, perhaps due to the rampant growth of other 802.11b networks in the vicinity. Consume has had to have a commercial broadband connection installed to replace the failing rooftop link. Secondly, at one corner of the WLAN event in London, Consume shared a stand with the Broadband Consumers group (ABC, 2003). The title Consume reflects this relation this somewhat complicated relation to commercial network infrastructures: So that in calling it 'Consume', the idea is that it consumes the net, that it should be a replacement for the commercial networks, not just locally but internationally. (Simon, Interview, May 2003) [TODO: substitute quote from JS here] Consume plays on two different senses of the word at once. On the one hand, it issues an injunction to consume. People might be able to consume bandwidth almost for free, if they have some wireless equipment. They can consume bandwidth, for whatever purpose they can think of – downloading episodes of the Simpsons perhaps. On the other hand, the Internet as an apparently increasingly commercial entity to which ccess is regulated by many different kinds of thresholds involving payment, will be consumed or eaten up. Other organisations and groups associated with the Physical Layer idiom take a more oppositional stance to the commercial networks. Some formulation ambitious plans to set up alternative national or infrastructures based on WiFi, others have a much more local scopes. Although Consume is not building international or even national wireless networks, the Pico Peering Agreement and the Wireless Commons Manifesto represents attempts to engineer connection of local networks into extensive adhoc informal meshes of wireless nodes across local and national boundaries. These attempts range from manifestoes (e.g. The Wireless Commons Manifesto) to quasi-legal agreements that seek to formalize connections between networks (the Pico Peering Agreement). What would motivate anyone to try to replace international communication infrastructures with infrastructure built and run by relatively adhoc collectives? Their stance is not simply oppositional. Reporting on a conference held in Copenhagen that focused on developing and promulgating the Pico Peering Agreement, one participant suggests that
[t]he consolidation of commercial operations in the 2.4GHz spectrum in the form of 'hotspots' in hotels, airports and coffee chains, is not as threatening as it first seemed. These commercial networks continue to focus on wireless network access. The Free Network, as defined by documents such as the PPA (Pico Peering Agreement), has an entirely different and unique potential: to be a viable and competitive supplement to the internet, but one where the system of ownership is decentralised enough for it to remain a “common”.' (Albert, 2003, 7) These initiatives are directly influenced by open source and free software movements, and the Creative Commons licensing schemes, but take up a political stance in relation to infrastructure based on the proposition that access to communication infrastructure should be free or a public utility. The term 'community' has been central to the naming of many of these projects. The rhetoric of online community which took hold in the 1990s as a way of articulating an enclosed mode of sociality based on the Internet has been projected outwards onto a technical-socio-geographical space of infrastructure-centred activity. Rather than concentrating on hotspots where individuals will access the Internet 'in new ways', these projects aim to insert new devices into infrastructure itself. Sometimes this involves hardware and software production or modification. Examples of this could be seen at Consume's Greenwich studio. In the equipment room, several grey boxes stood side by side on the bench. These LocustWorld MeshBoxes (LocustWorld, 2003) allows wireless nodes to be connected in a 'mesh' that can cover an extended area in the same way that a cellphone network does. Antennae are also objects of wide-ranging modification in the Physical Layer idiom. They help extend the range of 802.11b well beyond the supposed technical limits of a few hundred metres. Images of these antennae figure prominently in newspaper reports (Cohen, 2003; Wainwright, 2003). The Physical Layer idiom exhibits a much more diverse 'sociogeographical' range than those of the MAC idiom with its investment in hotspots, homes and offices. It ranges geographically across South East Asia (Jhai, 2002), the Pacific Islands (St Clair, 2003), Africa (Hurghada, 2003), Europe and the USA. While the MAC idiom imagines individuals enjoying the freedom to move around the major metropolitan centres of Europe, North
America, Japan, Korea or Taiwan, with more or less constant Internet connectivity, the PHY idiom envisages a different mobility, a mobility in infrastructure itself, in its plasticity as a site of collective work. With its geographical dispersion, its efforts to modify or rebuild commodities (hardware and software) and communities, its slowing down of individual movement into clusters or 'meshes', and its legal-technical efforts to develop an alternative, large-scale digital infrastructure, the Physical Layer idiom diverges significantly from the socio-topoligical idiom of the Medium Access Control. They testify to a growing desire to build physical infrastructure that adds onto or in some cases replaces commercial infrastructure. The desire to construct infrastructure, to create a supplementary or alternate 'Physical Layer' for the Internet, is an intriguing and significant development in the post-dotcom cultural politics of communications.
Hearing that 'WiFi is a kludge' encourages us to think of a 'new' technology as a site of contestation and contingency at every level. In the rapid naturalizations of the 'new' that pre-constructs media technologies, such encouragement is useful. It suggests that the cultural analyst of contemporary technologies also occupies an awkward position in relation to the different forces at work in contemporary assemblages of people, things, images and movement. This position precludes any definite or final construction of the object of analysis. Treating WiFi as a kludge 'all the way down' helps resist the 'forces of pre-construction' that bear down on analysis of technology. Cultural studies and the social sciences have generally tended to interpret contestation as a signifying process in which representations, identities, regulation and production are entwined (Du Gay & Hall, 1997). When infrastructures become culture objects, the focus on language, representation, signification or even bodies has less traction on the dynamics and forces of pre-construction. The re-configurations of urban space, the deformations of the 'purpose' of the technology through hardware modifications, and the incorporation of technical elements in social-cultural life suggest cultural studies of technology could legimately include infrastructures as sites of meaning-laden excavation. The two idioms described here are not in symmetrical, parallel or opposed spaces. We cannot divide
them into discrete strata or layers. Their divergences are mutually conditioned. The kludge combines them awkwardly, but it does bring them into relation. The benefit of seeing WiFi as a kludge might be in seeing how those layers of consumption disturb each other.
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IEEE Std 802.11b-1999, Part 11: Wireless LAN Medium Access Control (MAC) and Physical Layer (PHY) specifications: Higher-Speed Physical Layer Extension in the 2.4 GHz Band Intel 'The Unwired Office Starts Inside' Promotional leaflet, WLAN Event, May 2003 Intel Corporation 2003, 'Centrino Press Release' http://www.intel.com/unwire/ 2003 Jhai Foundation 'The Remote IT Village Project', http://www.jhai.org/jhai_remoteIT.html Karif, Olga 'Is a Wi-Fi Bubble Building?' Business Week Online, http://www.businessweek.com/technology/content/may2003/tc20030522_7618_tc119.htm, 22 May 2003 Kevin Poulsen, 'Wireless hacking bust in Michigan' The Register, http://www.theregister.co.uk/content/69/33959.html, 23 Nov 2003 Lovink, 'Fragments on New Media Arts and Science' M/C Volume 6 Issue 4 | 26 August 2003 http://www.media-culture.org.au/0308/10-fragments.html, 2003 Manovich, Lev Language of New Media, MIT Press, 2000 Massumi, Brian, 'Too-blue: colour-patch for an expanded empiricism', cultural s tudies 14 (2) 2000, 177 – 226 McRobbie, Angela, The Cultural Studies Reader, ed During, Simon, Routledge, 94, Miller, D. The Internet : an ethnographic approach Berg, 2000 MyZones, http://www.myzones.com/2003 Negroponte, N. 'Being Wireless' Wired Magazine, Issue 10.10 - Oct 2002 Oxford Dictionary of Computing, Oxford University Press, 1996. Oxford Reference Online. <http://www.oxfordreference.com/views/ENTRY.html? subview=Main&entry=t11.e4193> 12 December 2003 PFNet, 'Solomon's NGO Puts People First Bringing The Internet To Rural People is Pfnet's Specialty' http://www.pacificislands.cc/pm102002/pmdefault.php?urlarticleid=0007 PPA Pico-Peering Agreement, http://picopeer.net/wiki/index.php/PicoPeeringAgreement 2003 Raymond, E, The New Hacker's Dictionary, MIT Press, 1996, Ross, Andrew Strange Weather: Culture, Science and Technology in the Age of Limits, Verso Books, London, 1991 St. Clair, R. 'Creating a Wireless Nation', http://www.niue.nu/images/Nuiepaper38.pdf, 2003 Standage, Tom, 'Beyond the Telecoms Bubble: A Survey' The Economist 11 October 2003, 13 Stengers, Isabelle, Power and Invention, tr Bains, Paul, University of Minnesota Press, 1997 Sterne, Jonathan, 'Bourdieu, technique and Stevens, James, Interview Sept 2003, Greenwich Town Hall, London,
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iThe second debate in which WiFi can be located concerns how to make sense of the dotcom crash and the techwreck. Geert Lovink asks 'To what extent has the ‘tech wreck’ and following scandals affected our understanding of new media? No doubt there will also be cultural fall-out. Critical new media practices have been slow to respond to both the rise and the fall of dotcommania' (Lovink, 2003). Hopes have quickly been pinned on WiFi as a potential stimulant to the post-dotcom/techwreck entrepreneurial doldrums of Silicon Valley and dashed expectations of ongoing computer-driven information revolution. Of the many new companies offering Wi-Fi based networks to offices and homes in the USA and UK, Cnet news, a technology news site, writes '[t]hey are part of a burgeoning wireless movement that bears remarkable similarities to the entrepreneurial garage culture that birthed Apple Computer and other Silicon Valley icons. Where those computing pioneers labored in the shadow of massive IBM, these wireless tinkerers are challenging the cable and phone companies that control the lines into most homes' . Because it has almost from the outset been a media-saturated phenomena, and because many of companies investing heavily in WiFi were also involved in the dotcom crash, WiFi has also been termed a 'bubble' (Karif, 2003). The distinctive mark of WiFi as a cultural-technical phenomena is the awareness accompanying it of being a repetition of the promise of the Internet under altered circumstances. The contest at the core of WiFi is precisely what that promise is. This means that WiFi could provide an opportunity to re-think what was happening culturally during the ebullient times of the late 1990s, the time when new media and Internet research was just beginning to descend from the elevated terrain of cybertheory and when it first began to emerge as a full-blown academic research and teaching priority. In this respect, it provides a significant opportunity to think about the historical mode of existence of new media, and especially in terms of their opacity as imbricated territorial, political, socioeconomic, and identificatory strata.
iiA long history of kludges constitutes the material culture of media. The quasigeometrico-optical term 'convergence' neatens up the kludge of audiovisual, communications and computing technologies that has been occurring for the past few decades as various sound, visual, televisual, textual, graphical, telephonic, and now radio media have been crammed inside the case of personal computers, and now into
many other mobile and consumer electronics forms. Kludges occur for reasons that cannot be regarded as simply a technical deficiency in design but stem from the divergent realities articulated together in most current technical objects. Another way of putting this would be to say that whereas convergence emphasises reduction to a well-defined context or state of affairs, 'kludge' gestures towards relationality, to ongoing changes in nature stemming from juxtapositions. Without wanting to raise the theoretical stake too high here, what Brian Massumi writes about relationality captures certain aspects of a kludge well: Call the openness of an interaction to being affected by something new in away that
qualitatively changes its dynamic nature relationality. Relationality is a global excess of belonging-together enabled by but not reducible to the bare fact of having objectively cometogether (Massumi, 2000, 191).
Where would relationality in this sense, as a transcontextual anomaly, an irreducibility to any identity, lie in relation to WiFi?