05 October 2013

Considering the energy demands of mobile connectivity

In the center of the image on the far wall is a mobile phone charging station in Boston's South Station during the afternoon rush hour. Photo by author, August 2013.

What is the role of electrical energy and batteries in enabling mobile communication? How might we develop a practically-minded, spatial grammar through which we could describe the material/electrical/digital relationships between energy, mobile communication and digital connectivity, social exchange, and personal mobility? Beginning a year or so from now then continuing in the summer of 2015, I will be an international visiting fellow of the DEMAND Centre at Lancaster University in the United Kingdom. To quote from their website, DEMAND--Dynamics of Energy, Mobility, and Demand--"takes a distinctive approach to end use energy demand, recognising that energy is not used for its own sake but as part of accomplishing social practices at home, at work and in moving around. In essence the Centre focuses on what energy is for." The Centre takes the dynamic, interconnectedness of practices of mobility of bodies, goods, and information, and the energy consumption needs that are inherent in providing these services, as an entry point to understanding what energy is used for and why those uses are considered valuable.
A close-up of the charging station in Boston's South Station. The description on the screen states: "Battery low? Charge up here. Charges faster than a wall charge." There is a credit card swipe and what looks like six plugs for the most common mobile phones. The service provider, Go Charge (motto: "Never miss a moment"), seems to be capitalizing on users running out of battery and not having a charging cable and plug with them. When unbroken connection to social media, etc. is deemed essentially mandatory, the underlying systems necessitate not just providing pervasive connectivity--through cellular infrastructures and the like--but also having energy in the battery that powers the mobile computing device. Photo by author, August 2013.

Tying to my longstanding interest in the spatial ramifications of the Internet and mobile communication, my project will examine how electrical energy is used to provide individuals with these services. What is the role of charging and batteries in powering these Internet-enabled computing devices--smartphones primarily--that connect users to the global telecommunication systems that in turn mediate a significant portion of everyday social exchange? The central issue motivating this project is: how do individuals negotiate keeping their communicative, computing devices charged and how is this impacting the landscapes of everyday mobility such as train stations and airports, railroad cars and airplanes? How are buildings and transit systems adjusting to the increasing demand for power and electrical outlets to charge personal computing devices, and, in turn, is the need for charging areas impacting considerations of the design and layout of these transit nodes? These empirical questions lead to more theoretical considerations about the materiality of energy in the form of batteries, the high-design of devices--such as an Apple iPhone--versus the utilitarian intent of the charging plugs, cables, and wall sockets, and even to the sociology of standards that are latent in all these considerations. 
For this project I will document the informal, everyday practice of charging and recharging devices by conducting an visually-motivated ethnography of the role of electricity and batteries, and the process of charging electricity into batteries, that enables mobile communication. I will develop a conceptual framework to then approach a socio-spatial understanding of the everyday practice around the--most likely--multiple intersections of charging, batteries, mobile communication, and general, personal mobility in and around Lancaster and connecting to London and the United Kingdom at large. 

Seat-based power outlets in Boston's Logan International Airport, with signage for the service both on the chair-backs and on the adjacent wall, stating "power up". Negotiating a flight today necessitates topping up a laptop or smartphone's battery so work or entertainment can continue until arrival at an intermediary airport or the end-destination itself. What is interesting from an electricity perspective is that power generation and delivery is regional whereas the inter-connectivity of the Internet and global telecommunication systems is--by their very nature--not regionally bound. In many ways the overarching story of digital communication is not about bits and bytes transmitted over distance but of the pulses of light--energy--contained within fiber optic cabling that move about, becoming a text message or an email or a video of a cat.

Preliminary fieldwork in train stations in the North-East United States and airports throughout the US as well as Heathrow indicates that with the exponential increase in the use of personal, mobile computing devices, the need to power and recharge these devices is constantly growing. While individually, these smartphones do not draw much energy, how extensive is the overall demand for electricity to power these digital things? Is this demand considered by planners of current and future transit operations? 

For now I have more questions to guide the research than findings to report. I have started a photo-set on Flickr of charging stations and charging practices in train stations and airports as a way to collect some preliminary fieldwork-documentation of this topic. The set can be viewed here.

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