21 November 2012

Boundary objects, things, and tracing associations

Clark Park on a warm day last April.


Boundary objects, things, and tracing associations: a short case study of mobile communication

Because mobile communication infrastructures are pervasive and repeating, mass-produced spatial products (Easterling 2005), locating every device and every networked element is impossible and not particularly fruitful; charting the spatial impact of telecommunications equipment across a city would not serve an overarching purpose. What could be useful is tracing the network of associations that connect actors together, such as two people talking to each other on mobile phones. The objects that connect these two people become things (Latour 2005) when they complete the circuit between the two individuals. These things can be located and they can be considered boundary objects: as the things that translate between languages and systems, that locate the global interoperability standards and IT economies that are all involved in producing mobile communication in the digital networks themselves. Envisioning these telecommunication systems as an assemblages of—in the case of mobile communication infrastructure—users, networking equipment such as cellular antenna, linesmen on the ground, engineers, telecommunications standards and protocol—changes the relationship between an individual and their mobile device to involve much more than two people talking to each other, or a person checking in to a social media, etc. When a spatial perspective is added atop this conceptualization, we can then locate where each of these actors and other things that produce mobile communication are in the landscape, tracing associations back and forth into one of the immaterial weaves—the electromagnetic terrain (Mitchell 2003)—that constitute a city’s urban fabric. 
Ubiquitous computing is messy and seamful—the digital overlay is never truly universal nor complete (Dourish and Bell 2011, 27-28)— technologies never quite work perfectly, networks are never actually pervasive and consequently mobile phone calls get dropped, and so on. The points where different systems and different types of eqipment meet are boundaries, the things that negotiate these interchanges are the boundary objects (Star 2002; Star and Griesmer 1989). Boundary objects are the meeting points where knowledge or information is transferred through social and technical infrastructural standards—such as those that allow for interoperability between different makes and models of mobile phones—that transcend time and space, but contain certain barriers to admission, such as the necessity to have a mobile phone to access the networks themselves. As a 'passage point' through which knowledge/information passes, the boundary object transmits across time and space in any number of ways depending on the subject matter (Star and Griesemer 1989, 393). Boundary objects can be grounded in a landscape, but they also facilitate spatial jumps between places far apart. The boundary objects of systems such as mobile communication create their own electromagnetic terrain of radio waves, antenna, fiber optic cables, connection points and more, as these things shift digitized information including the human voice between individuals through a complex network located in distinct places but repeated or reproduced at greater or lesser concentrations essentially everywhere.
Considering mobile communication systems as a boundary objects is a way to locate the numerous geographic shifts the mobile phone creates within the network itself, where closeness is no longer a factor of spatial proximity for the individual users, but is for the network equipment of mobile communication itself. The mobile phone in an individual’s pocket does not indicate social cohesion in any one particular place, but that  all users are connected to their individual social networks, wherever those other individuals are in the neighborhood, metropolis, or world.
To trace the boundary objects translating between the different networks that act to connect two individuals together through a mobile phone conversation, I will outline a call to the friend in Seattle. For this description I will use myself making a phone call while sitting in Clark Park in West Philadelphia as an example, and build off of general descriptions about how mobile phones connect to the cellular network, and more specific research (Asher 2005 130-131; Hayes 2006, 303-311). The first and primary boundary object is my Apple iPhone itself. This consumer device that I pay a monthly subscription feel to AT&T for, to access the voice as well as the cellular data network for connecting to the Internet wirelessly when I am away from my apartment’s wifi network, translates my voice into a digital signal that is processed into radio waves sending at around 800 megahertz of the electromagnetic spectrum (Ascher 2005, 144), to the nearest cellular antenna on AT&T’s network. Some online research tells me that there are 300 cellular antenna within two miles of the 4300 block of Baltimore Avenue, the northern edge of Clark Park (Antenna Search 2011). The closest antenna the search finds that definitively belongs to AT&T is 1.46 miles away, sitting 145 feet in the air atop a building at 500 South 27th Street. From where I am sitting, this antenna is across the Schuylkill river and on the edge of center city Philadelphia. It represents the second boundary object, transferring my immaterial, digitized voice from the cellular grid into AT&T’s regional, fiber-optic cable based telecommunications grid. This antenna would typically transmit my voice through a network of fiber optic telecommunications cables buried in the streets to AT&T’s mobile switching center, but the antenna at 500 South 27th Street is located on the roof of this structure already, so it likely just sends my signal into the building (TelcoData.US 2011). This building represents a third boundary object. It transfers this local phone call to AT&T’s larger grid, likely handing off the call to a long-distance fiber-optic cable that routes the signal across the continent to Seattle, where the process is reversed. And all this happens in less time than my friend or I can notice: there is no lag between talking and hearing a reply. Boundary objects translate languages and shift between different networks—in this case between human and computer-programming—they translate between electrical signals to radio waves, then back to electrical signals. These signals move between short networks linking within a specific area into networks that span between metropolitan areas or even underneath oceans linking continents. The paths are short or long distance, but never enacting a global scale or a local scale: the signals travel between distinct places that can often be located and named, even if the meshwork of cables between the two points cannot be directly identified due to the dispersed and privatized nature of the telecommunications networks. If action is form (Easterling 2012), then these boundaries locate the actions of ubiquitous computing in space, assigning it a form in the shape of the networking equipment that produces mobile connectivity.

Digital things do not and cannot exist separate from the material landscape; this is the nature of pervasive systems such as mobile communication and to a large extent the Internet in general. The electromagnetic overlay of everyday exchanges enabled through devices like an iPhone encompasses more than the individual user, stretching across space to the network equipment and other elements of the telecommunications infrastructure that allow the device to connect to the larger networks. A concept like boundary objects provides a means of describing these new things that are deeply intertwined with our lives, but separate from us as individuals, existing at the intersection of information and space itself.


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