31 January 2012

Everyday Structures at the 2012 AAG conference in New York City

Just south of the South Street Bridge, a quonset hut houses the Springfield Beer Distributors, soon to be relocated due to the Children's Hospital of Philadelphia's push across the Schuylkill River, with a single mast cellular tower in the background.
The Association of American Geographers annual conference is in New York City this year. On Saturday 25 February, at the early hour of 8am, I will be presenting research drawn from fieldwork in the Philadelphia region over the last year or so. Attending the conference requires a paid registration, but if anyone readers out there can make it, please say hello afterward.

Here is a description of the session, Geographies of the Internet: Situating information and communication technologies in the urban landscape
As ubiquitous computing, broadband Internet, mobile communication, and the related information and communication technologies become more and more embedded in our daily lives, there is a need to examine the spaces of connection and dis-connection through many analytic lenses. This session will utilize qualitative and quantitative methodological approaches to studying the geographies of the network society, from examining the spaces of mobile communication infrastructure in the metropolitan landscape to mapping the accessibility of broadband Internet. The goal of this session is to critically interrogate the places produced by and through the "Net": these ephemeral and often obscured systems that are at the core of our daily lives as scholars and citizens.
And here is the abstract for my paper presentation, Producing mobile communication: situating digital infrastructure in the urban landscape:
Contemporary urban life is closely linked to the digital telecommunication connection provided by mobile connectivity. While the ethereal presence of the telecommunication networks is visible in the signal bars on a mobile phone, the less-visible physical presence of this digital infrastructure is creating a new utility within the urban landscape that needs to be considered as a component of contemporary urban life. This presentation interrogates one of the primary components of ubiquitous computing: the digital infrastructure of cellular antenna and the like that produces mobile connectivity; this presentation also  examines the communication infrastructure's relationship to the street itself. Using the case of Philadelphia, I address how connecting individuals occurs in spaces disconnected from the street and urban public space in general. I will discuss how to apply a methodological framework from brought out of critical urban studies can be combined with concepts from science and technology studies such as boundary objects to consider the co-production of the urban today through the built landscape of the city itself as well as the ethereal spaces of mobile communication. I argue that spatializing the infrastructure of mobile connectivity and is an important and undervalued component of understanding the twenty-first century urban landscape.


Looking towards East Falls, below the Lincoln Highway/Roosevelt Expressway. Philadelphia. The modernist freeway project clashes quite strongly with the early industrial neighborhood it passes through and over.

the visual impact of cellular sites in Philadelphia

Broad and Washington, looking east. South Philadelphia
Two photographs today, taken in the last few weeks. The first, above, is an AT&T cellular site that stands much taller than the surrounding neighborhood. While these towers rarely blend into the landscape, it is striking to see one in a residential area that sits this high above the buildings. For context, the row homes directly in front of the tower are two stories high.

The Schuylkill River looking west from Kelly Drive, Philadelphia.  
This second photo is a traditional Pennsylvania winter view, water, leafless trees, washed out, cold blue sky, a view that has not changed much for the last few hundred years, except for the cellular site on the left. The tall, narrow and pointy structure that sits above the treeline on the horizon is another element in the infrastructure that produces mobile communication, this one alongside the I-76 corridor heading north out of Philadelphia.

These two images offer examples of how the changes mobile connectivity brings to individual users are reflected in the landscape. Neither of these cellular sites have particularly large impact on Philadelphia's landscape, but they are one of the more visible elements of network equipment, broadcasting the ethereal radio signals that connect mobile phone calls, that bring up Internet-based information on the touchscreen of that iPhone.

16 January 2012

lost fire hydrant

A fire hydrant in the woods somewhere near Philadelphia. These sort of scenes are a reminder of all the pipes, tubes, wires, and the like that are buried underground. Just because we cannot see the water line running to this hydrant, it is there. The roots of all these trees are intertwined with the water line, the forest and the city, nature and culture are all mixed together.

10 January 2012

telecom signage from throughout the United States

A collection of WARNING, DO NOT DIG or general private property signage from telecommunications equipment. Locations: California--Sonora, Point Reyes, Mono Lake, Manzanar, Redondo Beach. Kentucky--Shelbyville, Finchville, Louisville. Pennsylvania--Philadelphia, Norristown. This signage is the most visible element of our communication networks, indicating the presence of the fiber-optic or copper cables that carry landline and mobile phone conversations as well as the Internet. The different designs and font choices over the years, as well as the weathering of the signs is indicative of the evolution of the systems and the telecom providers. Some of the signs are for companies that no longer exist, such as Pacific Bell. Since PacBell became AT&T, changing the signage has apparently not been a priority.

07 January 2012

agricultural landscape with warning sign

A 'Warning: Do Not Dig' sign indicating the presence of a buried fiber-optic cable. Outside Eureka, Illinois.

penstocks and powerlines

in the Sierra Nevada foothills, Northern California. January 2010.

06 January 2012

space age to networked age

The signage from the apparently out-of-business Astro Motel mimics the cellular antenna in the background. Space age 1950s aesthetic looking to the sky meets 21st century non-aesthetic of telecom infrastructure looking down to the mobile phones in cars zooming by on the freeway in California's Central Valley. The flatness of the landscape makes the verticality of the structures even more distinct. Summer 2010. (I forget if this is Interstate 5 or Highway 99, but it is one of the two, somewhere between Merced and Bakersfield.)

05 January 2012

freeway interchange

Oakland, California, in the weeds.

04 January 2012

please turn off

More signage in a decommissioned hydroelectric power plant in Northern California. December 2010.

ladies rest room

Hand-painted signage in a decommissioned hydroelectric power plant in Northern California. Ladies have to go upstairs to use the rest room. December 2010.

cellular tower, airplane, moon

New Year's Day, in the evening. South Philadelphia.

landscape with buried telecommunication line

outside Louisville, Kentucky. December 2011.

the architecture of data space

A Level 3 Data Center in Emeryville, California. Photo by Alan Wiig, January 2010. Level 3 holds an account with Netflix to transmit streaming video (source), so chances are reasonably good that if you watch a movie through Netflix in the Oakland/Berkeley area, the digital content is passing through this building. If there is any cohesion to the aesthetic design of data centers, it is a uniform blandness and the lack of signage. [continued at bottom of post]

Recently the architecture and design magazine Domus, whose RSS feed is full of their articles as well as other interesting information, posted that the architecture journal CLOG has an open submission into 'data space'. I am happy to see more venues exploring the relationship between space--and architecture--and the immaterials of digital information and communication.

Here is CLOG's call for submissions, which is due 9 January 2012:

Over 2 billion people across the world use the Internet regularly. Every second, 2.8 million emails are sent, 30,000 phrases are Googled, and 600 updates are tweeted. While being absorbed into this virtual world, most rarely consider the physical ramifications of this data. All over the world, data centers are becoming integral components of our 21st century infrastructure. These facilities can range from small portable modules to massive warehouses full of servers, from sleek new constructions to reuse of existing infrastructures. What is the significance of this bridge between the virtual and the physical? How does this new typology affect the discourse of architecture and the shaping of our built environment? As cloud storage and global internet usage increase, it's finally time to talk about the physical space of data.
I am looking forward to seeing how this issue of CLOG comes together.

The small 'Level 3' on the No Trespassing sign was the main signifier I could find that this was the data center. I did not want to risk trespass to look at the sign on the door. Regardless, there was nothing prominent indicating that this building housed a Level 3 data center. Photo by Alan Wiig, January 2010.