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Effects of Air Pollution in Jersey City Discussion Paper

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4 Atmospheres of Communication jen n ifer g a brys ‘Active Air’ From the Wireless Fields of Poldhu in Cornwall, to Signal Hill in St John’s, Newfoundland, the first transatlantic wireless telegraph transmission took place from a temporary fan aerial to a distant kite. Guglielmo Marconi had boarded a ship to Canada in the middle of the winter to receive the invisible transmission of three telegraphic dots that formed one letter: S. After several failed attempts, Marconi declared the transmission successful on 12 December 1901, even as detractors suggested he was simply diving the static. Crackling and popping through the atmosphere, and travelling thousands of miles from their source, the dots were scarcely audible. Yet this faint detection proved that wireless waves could both travel without cables and also issue beyond the curvature of the Earth.1 ‘Dot … dot … dot’ then arrived as a curious precipitation, signalling not just the extended distance over which messages could travel, but also new formations in the atmosphere of communications. Marconi’s experimental broadcasts (together with numerous other developments in wireless taking place at the time)2 contributed to the rapid ascendancy of wireless transmissions. Yet the wireless waves that ping across the electromagnetic spectrum also require distinct apparatuses for their transmission and reception: telegraphs, radios, televisions, telexes, radars, satellites, mobile phones, and wireless computer networks. While these devices are often considered the ‘medium’ of wireless (with the radio set referred to as the ‘wireless’ for some time), in fact wireless is the mode of communication that, as the definition goes, ‘does not require a medium of transport.’ Of course, this refers literally to transmission without intermediary cables or wires. The CROW_UTPID2699.indb 46 2010-01-13 13:44:02 Atmospheres of Communication 47 wireless receiver or transmitter stands in for the ‘medium’ of wireless, so that the space through which signals travel is apparently mediumless. But wireless signals draw our attention to this space in between, the atmosphere through which wireless waves travel, the intervening medium of the air. The Wireless Fields where Marconi’s signal first sparked are now a barely legible ruin, comprised of slumping foundations and a sea-worn monument. Yet what drifts more suggestively through this space are the wide sky and ocean, those spaces of traversal and resonance that were drawn together through the first wireless transmissions. The wireless ruins draw attention to this horizon, and the atmosphere through which wireless signals made their migration. At one time, the space of communication was imagined as an etheric expanse, a medium of its own that exerted a pull upon whatever travelled through its elastic force fields. Even when the ether was scientifically reputed, there remained a language and imagination for describing this hazy space where messages and energy accumulate and transfer. Today, this language and imagination continue to have relevance. Information, as architect Toyo Ito notes, is ‘active air’ (Dunne 1999, 26). This active air constitutes the medium and spatiality of communication – a spatiality that is atmospheric and dynamic. In many respects, communication – wireless or otherwise – exceeds the devices, interfaces, and wires through which we typically conceive of the medium of communication. Indeed, we find there is another medium, an atmospheric medium, through which we can divine more than dots. This chapter charts how that first wireless exchange of ‘dot … dot … dot’ relocates from the ocean to the city, and multiplies towards a concentration of wireless exchanges that give rise to expanded ecologies of transmission. This chapter then explores how an atmospheric mode of communication – like the ether, resonant and electric – delineates a much different type of urban space that gives rise to emanation, presence, and surround. City of Sparks From the time of telegraphy and radio, wireless signals have permeated the city. Exchanges among people and increasingly among machines take place through wireless ‘clouds’ of communication suspended over the city. While the language of networks may prevail in discussions of urban communication, increasingly more fluid metaphors, from clouds to liquid topologies, are emerging to describe the dynamic character of CROW_UTPID2699.indb 47 2010-01-13 13:44:02 48 Jennifer Gabrys communication and mobility in the city.3 As this chapter suggests, mobile and wireless communication in the city is atmospheric. In this sense, the wireless city is best understood through the drift and pull of its electromagnetic spectrum. From radio to sensor, distinct frequencies establish invisible circuits – not arcades and thoroughfares, but atmospheres of communication – that draw the city together as a space of multiple correspondences (Sheller 2004, 47). In the city of clouds and sparks, furthermore, we encounter fields of energy, or what Vilém Flusser calls ‘flections.’ ‘When we are talking about a “new urbanism,” Flusser writes, ‘it is more useful to construct the image of the city as a field of flections’ (323). The city contains zones of energy, registers of communication, mobility and magnetic attraction. These flections describe the energy and ‘field of relations’ through which the city ‘gains contours.’ Flusser further explains this city of intensities and correspondences: The relations among human beings are spun of differing densities on different places on the net. The denser they are, the more concrete they are. These dense places develop into wave-troughs in the field that we must imagine as oscillating back and forth. At these dense points, the knots move closer to one another; they actualize in opposition to one another. In wave-troughs of this type, the inherent possibilities of relationships among humans become more present. The wave-troughs exert an attraction on the surrounding field (including the gravitational field); ever more intersubjective relationships are drawn into them. Every wave is a flash point for the actualization of intersubjective virtualities. Such wave-troughs are called cities. (Flusser 2005, 325–6) The trough, an in-between space, is the magnetic space of relation – it not only exists between, it attracts.4 These troughs, furthermore, might be described as spaces of communication, as atmospheres of wireless exchange. As zones of energy, the city is then multiply located, surfacing through intensities of exchange. Overlaid on the hard grid of pavements and architectural edges, an urban weather collects, a weather of messages and connections. ‘A striking aspect of this image of the city,’ Flusser writes, ‘is its immateriality.’ Within these flections, ‘there are neither houses nor squares nor temples that are recognizable, rather only a network of wires, a confusion of cables’ (Flusser 2005, 326). By allowing the usual hard and fixed image of the city to fade into the background, we can begin to take note of the ways in which seemingly CROW_UTPID2699.indb 48 2010-01-13 13:44:02 Atmospheres of Communication 49 more immaterial exchanges, as transferred through wireless devices or electronic media, alter the ratio and intensity of space and time in the city. These wireless frequencies mobilize more than just media and technologies – they mobilize orders of energy in the city. Energy is a way of understanding the intensities of space and time. It is just such an intensive reading of electronic, or ‘new,’ media that Marshall McLuhan called for. We should not inquire into the workings of media and communication as discrete and linear operations, McLuhan suggested, but rather as intensive and environmental phenomena, or experiences of depth (McLuhan 1994c). This depth is atmospheric. An atmosphere is composed of intensive gradations. It drifts and fluctuates between clarity and noise. It becomes saturated and weighed down with pressure, a fog of messages. And it breaks, shifts with electric, lightning-like pulses. Wireless signals collect and transmit intensively, across electromagnetic frequencies. These frequencies draw together registers of space and time. The charged transmission of electric messages then assembles orders of space and time intensively, rather than extending with blank and infinite regularity. When attempting to locate ourselves within these electric, intensive, and even topological orders of the city, we further find that we must redraw our urban maps and courses of connection. In this respect, Flusser suggests that ‘the new city is not geographically locatable,’ but rather, ‘it is everywhere where humans open up to one another’ (2005, 327). Since their inception, wireless technologies have stimulated speculation about the new topologies that emerge through previously unimaginable connections. Indeed, correspondence via the electromagnetic spectrum was bound to draw us into radically altered conceptions of space and time. Professor W.E. Ayrton, after reading Marconi’s discussion of wireless technologies published in Electrical Review on 15 and 22 June 1901, made a statement before the Society of Arts in London about how we might locate ourselves – electromagnetically. Ayrton envisioned a time within the not too distant future, ‘when if a person wanted to call a friend he knew not where, he would call in a loud, electromagnetic voice, heard by him who had the electromagnetic ear, silent to him who had it not. “Where are you?” he would say. A small reply would come, “I am at the bottom of a coal mine, or crossing the Andes, or in the middle of the Pacific.” Or, perhaps, in spite of all the calling, no reply would come, and the person would then know that his friend was dead.’ Such correspondence between electromagnetic organs across unfathomable distances seemed capable of spanning almost as far as the CROW_UTPID2699.indb 49 2010-01-13 13:44:03 50 Jennifer Gabrys grave. Those endowed with these highly tuned organs could exchange messages that would be audible to no one else. So unreal did these conjectures seem at the time that Ayrton could only say that this was ‘almost like dreamland and ghostland, not the ghostland of the heated imagination cultivated by the Psychical Society, but a real communication from a distance based on true physical laws’ (1901, 820). When locating ourselves electromagnetically, we seem to inhabit some ghostly geography. But the ghosts, in this case, are real. They are the flickerings of an elusive, atmospheric spectrum. This spectrum, however ghostly, constitutes a space of extended inhabitation. Spectral Ecologies As we can see with these considerations of the spectral qualities of wireless transmissions, an atmospheric view of communication is not without precedent. Ideas about an ether of electrical or magnetic force were prevalent in the nineteenth century. The ether was originally conceived as a medium through which light or gravitational forces travelled. This ‘material and vibratory medium’ predated the discovery of electromagnetism, and it was understood to be the stabilizing and guiding invisible substance through which forces moved. The ether, as a stabilizing medium, only gradually fell out of favour after the delineation of the electromagnetic spectrum. Yet even with this dismissal, the ether remained a potent metaphoric device. Infused with poetic and energetic qualities, the ether was simultaneously a medium and an environment. It was an invisible yet all-encompassing atmosphere, constituting an ‘undulating spatial foundation upon which the mobile contents of radiant energies were propped’ (Clarke and Henderson 2002, 21). In this sense, it was even conceived of as jelly – as though all of space were ‘filled with jelly’ – and as an elastic medium through which energy and ‘lines of force’ travelled (21). This jelly, atmospheric broth, or elastic medium resonates with what Jeffrey Sconce discusses as the ‘etheric “ocean” of the nineteenth century. He writes, ‘The advent of wireless at the turn of the century heralded a radically different vision of electronic presence, one that presented an entirely new metaphor of liquidity in telecommunications by replacing the concept of the individuated “stream” with that of the vast etheric “ocean” (Sconce 2000, 14).5 Even as the ether came to be discredited, wireless technologies then gave renewed attention to an oceanic or atmospheric view of communications. CROW_UTPID2699.indb 50 2010-01-13 13:44:03 Atmospheres of Communication 51 Indeed, while one version of the ether fell into disfavour, multiple other versions grew up in its place. Joe Milutis (2006) notes in his study on the ether that
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