14 October 2013

Essay published: Everyday Landmarks of Networked Urbanism

 In downtown Philadelphia not far from City Hall,a cellular antenna array is located on top of an AT&T mobile phone retail store and a hair salon. Photograph taken by author, 2013.

The current issue of the Journal of Urban Technology was just released; it includes an essay I wrote, Everyday Landmarks of Networked Urbanism: Cellular Antenna Sites and the Infrastructure of Mobile Communication in Philadelphia. Readers of this blog will recognize many overlapping themes and concerns in the essay as it more formally details the research on mobile communication systems and ubiquitous computing infrastructures in Philadelphia.

The journal's publisher, Taylor & Francis, offers fifty free downloads of the essay at this link for those of you without academic affiliations.

The abstract and introductory section of the essay follows.

At the center of the image is an AT&T cellular antenna affixed to an electricity pylon alongside the Schuylkill River flyover for Roosevelt Boulevard in Fairmount Park, Northwest Phila- delphia. Photograph taken by author, 2012.
Everyday landmarks of Networked Urbanism: Cellular antenna sites and the infrastructure of mobile communication in Philadelphia

ABSTRACT: Harnessing the utility of mobile communication and the mobile Internet is a common, everyday aspect of the urban condition today. The wireless connectivity these pocketable devices harness is produced through an electromagnetic overlay that emanates from cellular antenna and towers. These sites have a distinct if often overlooked presence in the urban landscape of the United States. Through fieldwork in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, this essay examines the aesthetic impact of telecommunications network equipment such as cellular sites as a means of locating these sites as key socio-technical actors in one of the information and telecommunication infrastructures of contemporary, networked urbanism.

Alongside the Schuylkill River on the western edge of downtown Philadelphia, two of AT&T’s cellular antenna arrays are bolted to the top of this building, 500 South 27th Street, which is a prominent node in AT&T’s national telecommunication network. Photograph taken by author, 2011.
Study a city and neglect its sewers and power supplies (as many have), and you miss essential aspects of distributional justice and planning power. Study an information system and neglect its standards, wires, and settings, and you miss equally essential aspects of aesthetics, justice, and change. (Star, 1999: 379, citing Latour and Hermant, 1998).

Anywhere a connection to a mobile communication network can be found, a cellular site is nearby. Cellular antenna broadcast their communicative potential throughout an area, disregarding distinctions between public and private spaces—as well as the built and natural environment—as the network equipment connects individuals to each other and to the Internet via larger systems of fiber-optic cabling, data centers, and so on (for further discussion of the engineering of telecommunications systems, see Ascher, 2007; Hayes, 2006). To check an email, find directions with a locative mapping program, interact with social media, or to access any number of other uses of the mobile Internet requires the dispersal of ubiquitous, monotone grey and white, thin vertical rectangular boxes mounted throughout high points in a city. The “always-on” nature of mobile connectivity is created through the maintenance of these cellular networks, a situation described by human-computer interaction as well as urban scholars as “ubiquitous computing”, which is defined as the dispersal of computing power—through devices like mobile phones—into the urban landscape itself, with the subsequent changes to urban movement and the flow of information throughout a city and the world (Dourish and Bell, 2011; Greenfield and Shepard, 2007; Weiser, 1991). The potential of ubiquitous computing is inherently dispersed throughout a city’s “electromagnetic terrain” (Mitchell, 2003: 55), but at the same time the connection to information and communication networks requires the cellular sites—among other equipment such as wireless Internet (wi-fi) routers—from which this service emanates.

The individual device, such as an Apple iPhone, may fit in a pocket, but the background network is immense, stretching across cities and encompassing much of the world. The last leg of the infrastructural support is wireless and immaterial, but the rest of the system exists as distinct spaces of network equipment embedded within the landscape (see Ascher, 2005: 130-131; Hayes, 2006: 303-311 as well as Graham and Marvin, 2001). As the writer Andrew Blum’s work charting the infrastructure of the Internet shows, data centers house the servers which contain our digital information footprint; a vast array of terrestrial and submarine fiber-optic cabling transmits this information (Blum, 2012), and the final connection to the user can be made through cellular antenna (Hayes, 2006). The aesthetic design and utility of, for instance, an Apple iPhone is of particular concern to the individual user and to Apple, but the design of the infrastructural support is more mundane, similar to other elements of municipal infrastructures such as electricity pylons or wooden telephone poles tying together fixed-line telecommunication systems. Because cellular sites often sit higher than the surrounding city, they become what engineers Claire Barratt and Ian Whitelaw call an “everyday landmark” of the city (Barratt and Whitelaw, 2011: 184). Considering cellular sites as landmarks of contemporary networked urbanism is a productive first step in examining the role this equipment play in cities today.

Philadelphia presents a productive location for examining these issues because the city encompasses many interwoven urban eras from the Colonial to the post-industrial present day. The physical infrastructures of modern, nineteenth-and-twentieth century Philadelphia—water, electricity, gas, street transportation and railroads—are layered with the late twentieth century’s information and communication infrastructures, as well as freeways, a major airport, and the ubiquitous connectivity systems of the twenty-first century, on a street grid originally laid out in the seventeenth century by the city’s founder, William Penn (Dunn and Dunn, 1982: 5). Freestanding cellular sites in Philadelphia often occupy the interstitial margins of the city, wedged into an empty lot alongside a major roadway or standing over a residential neighborhood. While an analysis of the locations of cellular sites indicates that many of the skyscrapers and other buildings of the central business district have cellular antenna either on top of or bolted to the side of their walls, these locations are high up on private property and consequently difficult to observe (General Data Resources, 2013).
The infrastructural aesthetic for cellular equipment seems to focus on presumptions of invisibility and anonymity as well as functional concerns placed before formal design considerations. Muted colors such as whites and greys dominate, with seemingly little attention paid to the impact on integrating the design of the structure with the urban fabric of the adjacent neighborhood. The towers’ heights are meant to disperse the cellular signal over a large area, while the antenna themselves act as a “base station” sending and receiving radio-transmission of information are typically clustered in groups of three parallel to the ground to broadcast their signals (IEEE, 2012b). At the street-level, these towers and their attendant ground-level equipment are typically surrounded by a chain link fence displaying some information about who owns and operates the tower, such as AT&T or Verizon, as well as one or more “No Trespassing” signs. Cellular sites are a perpetually repeatable component dispersed throughout cities and the world to provide wireless network connectivity; the aesthetic intent of this equipment is not locally variable nor does it readily adapt to the particular historic legacies of the neighborhoods in which the equipment is situated. Even so, cellular sites may not have a unique presence in the landscape, but they are still a key actor the networks enabling information exchange in cities today.

This essay focuses on the equipment that supports the wireless exchange of information in the urban space of Philadelphia as a means of locating and grounding these immaterial flows in the built and natural environments of the city itself, of making visible the systems responsible for transforming the landscape into a space for the active, wireless transmission of information. I first discuss mobile communication and the mobile Internet as a component of networked urbanism today using recent developments spatializing and urbanizing Actor-Network Theory to do so (Farias and Bender, 2010; Latour, 2005; McFarlane, 2011). The majority of the essay takes the information and infrastructure studies scholar Susan Leigh Star’s call for ethnographies of infrastructure (1999), from which the introductory quote is drawn, to investigate the aesthetics of cellular antenna and tower sites. The intent of this examination is to draw attention to this new layer of urban infrastructure that in less than twenty years has become a pervasive element in the landscape of cities and open spaces throughout the United States, and to consider what it takes for a mobile computing device to connect to the globalized telecommunications networks.


To read more of the essay, go to the Journal of Urban Technology's site at Taylor & Francis to download the final essay for free; the pre-production version of the essay is available for download as a .pdf here.

KEYWORDS: infrastructure, wireless, mobile communication, cellular antenna tower, Philadelphia, AT&T 

Standing high above its south Philadelphia neighborhood, this AT&T cellular tower backs on to the playground for a community center. Photograph taken by author, 2012.

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