I’ve been thinking about WiFi and our increasing sensitivity to wireless connections. A trip through the quiet zone of the subway requires preparation and I’ve developed a feel for the data footprints of various media.

Wireless connections are meant to to be fast and consistent. Always on, at least that’s what we’re told. And when there’s a break in our connection, things get hairy and suddenly I can’t find my way through Brooklyn. But it’s also in these moments that I talk to my neighbors and read books through to the end.

Our recent expectations of constant connection seems strange to me. In natural systems almost everything ebbs and flows with oscillations that us humans, usually try to dampen with our technics (think temperature control within buildings). Yet we are entrained to earthly and unearthly rhythms whether we care to admit it or not. How often is it a relief to watch the sun go down and be able to start again?

alt text Tidal Chart for San Fransisco Bay, California.

The UK is worried about running out of Internet and suggestions are floating around that service providers might actually need to ration it in the future. Apparently Internet media use could also grow to use all of the nation’s electricity by 2035 based on current trends. Oh yeah that’s right, we live in a finite system. So much for the ethereal cloud that appears from nowhere, as if by magic.

But what if our connections to networks were different? What would it be like if connectivity was rhythmic or cyclical? What if we had to plan to go online as a connection might not be there all the time? This question is so far from the rhetoric of the Silicon Valley it actually seems laughable.

Yet the world is finite. The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) and the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) know this, being the two groups responsible for dividing up the radio spectrum to ensure there is enough frequency space to go around. We are also not the only species that does this. In the sound domain, different species in an ecosystem do this informally. Over millennia of evolution, species sharing an environment take up different frequency niches in order to communicate more clearly and be heard by their kind. This is the basis of acoustic ecology.

alt textFrequency allocation in the United States

Ecologists who analyse the soundscape of different environments have noticed that gaps in bands of sound wave frequencies often indicate that an environment is disturbed as it’s likely that there were species with calls that would have once occupied the empty spots. Like the gap that would result in the electromagnetic spectrum if we turned off all the mobile phone networks or all the FM radio stations. The distribution of the commons is the ongoing drama of ecology.

alt text _The spectrogram of some animal calls, from this lovely paper.

My project at Eyebeam sits somewhere at these crossroads. It considers communication technologies in the now cherished frequency range of WiFi and I’m exploring the design of our interaction with wireless networks and how our expectations of these technologies might be leveraged in different ways. Media are not only devices of information; they are also agencies of order. -that’s John Durham Peters whose analysis of environments as media has me enthralled. His discussion of the politics, affordances and visibilities of infrastructures is also deeply relevant to this project.

Not everyone reads the sky, makes records, or sets the clock but those who do arrange the infrastructural settings for the rest of us.

So how might we pull apart our typically invisible infrastructural settings and point them towards producing the world we want? I know, it’s a huge question but an important one to consider even in modest ways. And thus I’m spending what’s left of the summer rethinking and reprogramming WiFi routers and experimenting with ways they might be different, particularly how non-human systems could be better represented within their operation.