Media Infrastructures and Affect
Lisa Parks/ University of California at Santa Barbara


Former Yugoslavia

Broadcast Systems in the Former Yugoslavia

Some of my recent research (( This essay is a short version of a paper presented at the Media and Materiality workshop at New York University in March 2014. )) has combined phenomenological and ethnographically-inspired approaches to explore the physical sites, objects and discourses that shape what might be called infrastructural imaginaries—different ways of thinking about what infrastructures are, where they are located, who controls them, and what they do. By exploring such topics as the destruction of telecommunication and broadcast systems during the war in the former Yugoslavia (Figure 1), the reinvention of mobile telephone systems by walking phone workers in Mongolia (Figure 2), and the lifeworlds around cable endings and transmission towers in California (Figure 3), I have tried to develop a critical methodology for analyzing specific infrastructural sites and objects in relation to surrounding environmental, socio-economic, and geopolitical conditions. (( See Lisa Parks, “Where the Cable Ends: Television Beyond Fringe Areas,” in Cable Visions: Television Beyond Broadcasting, Sarah Banet-Weiser, Cynthia Chris and Anthony Freitas, eds. New York: New York University Press, 2007, 103-126; “Postwar Footprints: Satellite and Wireless Stories in Slovenia and Croatia,” in B-Zone: Becoming Europe and Beyond, Anselm Franke, ed. Barcelona: ACTAR Press, 2005; “Walking Phone Workers,” The Routledge Handbook of Mobilities, Peter Adey, et al, eds., London: Routledge, 2013, 243-255; and “Earth Observation and Signal Territories: Studying U.S. Broadcast Infrastructure through Historical Network Maps, Google Earth, and Fieldwork,” special issue on Earth Observing Media, Chris Russill, ed., Canadian Journal of Communication, Vol. 38, 2013, 1-24. )) This methodology has involved site visits and physical investigations of infrastructure using personal observation, photography, maps, video, art, drawings, and other visualizations. These observations and mediations are intended to foster infrastructural intelligibility by breaking infrastructures down into discrete parts and framing them as objects of curiosity, power, investigation, and concern. (( For further discussion of infrastructural imaginaries and intelligibility see Lisa Parks, “‘Stuff You Can Kick’: Toward a Theory of Media Infrastructures,” Humanities and the Digital, David Theo Goldberg and Patrik Svensson, eds. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, forthcoming. ))

Walking Phone Workers

Walking Phone Workers in Mongolia

Cable Endings and Transmission Towers

Cable Endings and Transmission Towers in California

In his article on the politics and poetics of infrastructure, Brian Larkin foregrounds the many ways infrastructure has been thought about and studied in the field of anthropology, noting “the sheer diversity of ways to conceive of and analyze infrastructures that cumulatively point to the productive instability of the basic unit of research.” (( Brian Larkin, “The Politics and Poetics of Infrastructure,” Annual Review of Anthropology, 42:1, 2013, 339. )) In the spirit of extending the “productive instability” of infrastructure and situating it within media studies, I want to sketch out a continuum for thinking about infrastructure and affect that brings phenomenological and political autonomist approaches into dialogue, marking them as distinct yet equally important and ultimately related to one another. My general argument is that there is a need, on the one hand, for a broader imagining of infrastructural affects—experiences, sensations, structures of feeling—generated through peoples’ material encounters with media infrastructures (not just interfaces but physical sites, installations, facilities, hardware), while, on the other hand, there is a need for an ongoing critique of the ways in which affect continues to serve as part of the base of media infrastructural operations.

Building on phenomenological writings, Melissa Gregg and Gregory Siegworth describe affect as “a gradient of bodily capacity-a supple incrementalism of ever-modulating force-relations—that rises and falls not only along various rhythms and modalities of encounter but also through the troughs and sieves of sensation and sensibility….” (( Melissa Gregg and Gregory J. Siegworth, The Affect Theory Reader, Durham: Duke University Press, 2010, 2. )) Infrastructures become part of such “force-relations” as peoples’ encounters with them in everyday life generates different experiences, rhythms, moods, and sensations. For many people, the default disposition to infrastructure might be indifference, apathy, or disinterest, but it is also possible that a broad spectrum of infrastructural affects remains unspoken and unknown, simply because certain kinds of questions have not been asked.

High through-put grain silo

High through-put grain silo. Photo by Darin Barney.

As a way of thinking through the possibility of extending infrastructural imaginaries, I want to briefly discuss Darin Barney’s ethnographic study of “grain-handling technologies” and “railway branchlines” on the Canadian prairies. Immersing himself in the life worlds of small-town grain farmers, Barney describes grain silos and railroads as places of focused attention and exchange in rural communities. (( Darin Barney, “To hear the whistle blow: technology and politics on the Battle River branchline.” TOPIA: Canadian Journal of Cultural Studies, 25: Spring 2011, 7. )) One of his informants describes the grain elevator at Fairlight, Saskatchewan as “a place to hear the news—news of births and deaths and war and peace. It’s been a place to debate politics, wheat prices, wheat boards and hockey; a place to shake the loneliness of life on the land.” (( Ibid, 8. )) The take over of these facilities by big agribusiness during the past two decades, Barney explains, not only resulted in the gradual demolition and replacement of these infrastructure sites with more “efficient” farming equipment, but also generated feelings of isolation and frustration as farmers sat in long lines alone in their trucks waiting to unload grain in conglomerates’ new “through-put terminals.” By shedding light on “the complex ways in which infrastructural technologies mediate the organization of social and political life,” Barney’s research brings affective dimensions of infrastructures to the surface, while bringing different objects and actants into the repertoire of media studies. (( Ibid, 7. ))

A phenomenology of infrastructure and affect might begin by excavating the various dispositions, feelings, moods, or sensations people experience during encounters with infrastructure sites, facilities or processes. Such an imaginary might begin with a continuum that recognizes, on one end, the general tendency of infrastructures to normalize behavior (such that they become relatively invisible and unnoticed), and, on the other, as the potential for disruption of that normalization, which occurs during instances of inaccessibility, breakdown, replacement, or reinvention. By sketching out this continuum, I hope to build upon Wendy Chun’s crucial work on networks of control and freedom and to suggest that an array of interesting infrastructural affects lay in the gray zone between them. (( Wendy Chun, Control and Freedom: Power and Paranoia in the Age of Fiber Optics, Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2008. )) The intention of this critical move, then, is not to reduce affect or turn it into a list of discernable emotions, but rather to catalyze further thinking about the range of ways people perceive and experience infrastructures in everyday life and how these experiences differentially orient or position people in the world.

In addition to this phenomenological approach, I want to briefly touch on the relationship between media infrastructures and affective labor, a concept derived from critiques of late capitalism’s shift from purely industrial labor to “invisible” or “immaterial” forms of labor involving various social skills, services, and modes of care. (( As Hardt and Negri explain, “Unlike emotions, which are mental phenomena, affects refer equally to body and mind. In fact, affects, such as joy and sadness, reveal the present state of life in the entire organism, expressing a certain state of the body along with a certain mode of thinking. Affective labor, then, is labor which produces or manipulates affects….” From Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri, Multitude: War and Democracy in the Age of Empire, 2004, 108. )) As Brian Massumi puts it, “affect is a real condition, an intrinsic variable of the late capitalist system, as infrastructural as a factory.” (( Brian Massumi, Parables for the Virtual: Movement, Affect, Sensation, Durham: Duke University Press, 2002, 45. )) The case already has been made that network infrastructures rely upon the affective or immaterial labor of users in order to function and sustain themselves over time. Tiziana Terranova reveals that the Internet is not only a technical system; it operates by virtue of the time, energy, and attention of the scattered collectives of people who use it. (( Tiziana Terranova, Network Culture: Politics for the Information Age, Pluto Press, 2004. )) Building on Terranova’s work, I argue that the use of immaterial labor to sustain media infrastructures is an historical and pre-digital process that dates back at least to the emergence of telegraphy in the mid 19th century. What we have in the current historical conjuncture is a compounding and intensifying demand for immaterial labor as industrial societies have undergone a shift from only one telecommunication infrastructure – telegraphy – to a post-industrial order in which multiple media infrastructures – telephony, radio, television, cable, satellite, Internet, and mobile telephony – co-operate and compete for user time, attention and energy. Landline telephony has fewer users today than it did one decade ago not because the system no longer technically functions, but because most people simply do not have enough time, attention and money to use their landlines and their mobile phones. Satellite radio networks shower hundreds of niche signals into continental footprints, but listeners do not have enough time to hear them all. Since most listen to satellite radio while driving, users would have to drive around perpetually for the rest of their lives in order to try and hear all content streams and still probably would never get through them all.

Call Center Workers

Call Center Workers

Such a scenario is suggestive of the compounding affective demands that have become part of media infrastructures’ current conditions of operation. The capacity to produce and distribute networked data not only creates what Marc Andrejevic describes as “infoglut”; these conditions, he suggests, turn affect into “an exploitable resource” that becomes “part of the ‘infrastructure.’” (( Mark Andrejevic, Infoglut: How Too Much Information is Changing the Way We Think and Know, New York: Routledge, 2013, 52. )) Andrejevic builds upon Daniel Smith’s assertion that affects “are not your own, so to speak. They are…part of the capitalist infrastructure…” (( Daniel W. Smith, “Deleuze and the Question of Desire: Towards an Immanent Theory of Ethics,” in Deleuze and Ethics, Nathan Jun and Daniel W. Smith, eds. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2011, 137. )) Within such conditions, media infrastructures once thought of as public utilities have been re-organized as utility publics –-that is to say, infrastructures not only deliver utilities to publics but, in the process, re-utilize publics as part of the base of their operations. To concretize this, consider how much of your daily time and attention is consumed by computer interfaces, TV screens, ATM transactions, mobile phone calls, text messages, radio stations, GPS-based services. Then add to this, activities such as upgrading software, charging batteries, backing up data, synchronizing devices, and fixing equipment when it fails, and on.

With multiple competing media infrastructures in the marketplace, it remains to be determined whether there is enough human bandwidth to sustain them all, as well as figuring out what sustaining them means. As recent research by both Sarah Sharma and Jonathan Crary has emphasized, human time, attention, and energy are not boundless, even if capitalism operates as if they were. (( Sarah Sharma, In the Meantime: Temporality and Cultural Politics, Duke University Press, 2014; and Jonathan Crary, 24/7: Late Capitalism and the Ends of Sleep, London: Verso, 2013. )) One incentive for mobile phone and satellite conglomerates reaching out to the so-called O3B—the “other three billion” people on the planet who currently lack Internet access—is to be able tap a more global pool of affective labor. Plans for migrating poor people from the global south onto the Internet can be read as a beneficent cover for schemes to expand digital capitalism’s human resources. Within such conditions, offering more critical analyses and phenomenological accounts of infrastructure and affect in different sites around the world seems more important than ever.

Image Credits:
1. Broadcast Systems in the Former Yugoslavia, Image by Lisa Parks
2. Walking Phone Workers in Mongolia, Image by Lisa Parks
3. Cable Endings and Transmission Towers in California, Image by Lisa Parks
4. High through-put grain silo. Photo by Darin Barney
5. Call Center Workers

Please feel free to comment.




Energy-Media Vignettes
Lisa Parks / University of California, Santa Barbara


Managing the Electricity Demand

Managing the Electricity Demand

Every keyboard button you push, every screen you view, every ringtone you hear requires electrical energy. (( For a fascinating discussion of the relationship between manual labor and media machines see Shaun Moores, “Digital orientations: ‘Ways of the hand’ and practical knowing in media uses and other manual activities,” forthcoming in Mobile Media and Communication. )) If you are reading on a computer, e-reader, or smart phone right now, consider how these words arrived before your eyes, how packets of data hopped through network nodes to become digitally rendered pages for your perusal. Data, whether text, image or sound, moves so rapidly and transparently that we rarely pause to think about the energizing of networks or media. Building on work in environmental media studies (( Sean Cubbit, Eco Media, Amsterdam: Rodopi B.V., 2005; Rick Maxwell and Toby Miller, Greening the Media, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012; and Nadia Bozak, Cinematic Footprints: Lights, Camera, Natural Resources, New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 2012. )), this essay offers a brief discussion of three energy-media vignettes involving water, lithium, and the sun. The goal of this discussion is to encourage further critical and phenomenological thinking about the interdependencies of natural and cultural resources, the layering and coordination of networked infrastructures (( For a discussion of networked infrastructures see Simon Marvin and Stephen Graham, Splintering Urbanism: Networked Infrastructures, Technological Mobilities and the Urban Condition, London: Routledge, 2001. Also see Lisa Parks and Nicole Starosielski, Signal Traffic: Critical Studies of Media Infrastructures, Champaign-Urbana: University of Illinois Press, forthcoming. )), and the subjectivities formed in their interstices.

The first scenario involves television, tea, and hydroelectricity in the UK, as conveyed in a short video entitled, “How the national grid responds to demand.” (( “How the national grid responds to demand,” available at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UTM2Ck6XWHg, accessed Jan. 19, 2014. This video is an excerpt of a documentary called Britain from Above. )) The video features a UK national balancing engineer perched at a computer interface with a map of the national energy grid. He is in the midst of managing what is known as a “TV pickup” – a surge in demand for electricity when the credits of popular TV dramas (such as the Eastenders) begin to roll. Within a period of about five minutes an estimated 1.5 million people simultaneously turn on their electric kettles to make tea. To manage the situation, the engineer quickly scans map of the national grid, analyzes power availability, and then draws extra load from two remote hydroelectric power plants to respond to the demand. Once he brings the hydroelectric plants online, thousands of tons of water rush down hills, generating huge torrents of power so that there will be enough electricity for citizens to sip a cup of post-TV tea.

Monitoring the National Grid's Power

Monitoring the National Grid’s Power

This situation reveals the intricate layering and coordination of networked infrastructures as well as the significance of water resources. As television networks air programming they also set schedules for fluctuations in the water supply and power grid. The end of a program in one network creates a phase of increased demand in another. Not only is water pumped through plumbing systems to fill kettles, the heating of this water is fueled by the gushing of water through dams at hydroelectric plants. Here, water sustains the nation’s electrical, television, and social networks. Though the video describes this situation as unique to the UK, when television’s popularity surged in the US during the 1950s, similar pressures on water systems emerged. Civil engineers reported increased demand upon water and sewer systems during commercial breaks when viewers simultaneously visited the loo and flushed their toilets en masse. Given such scenarios, media consumerism should be thought about not only as viewing what appears on screen, but also as the consumption of resources needed to capacitate that screen and the life worlds that take shape in relation to it.

While water resources energize television and tea drinking in the UK, Lithium-ion batteries fuel the network connectivity of billions of people worldwide using portable electronic devices, as well as growing numbers of electric cars. But where does lithium come from? The world’s largest lithium reserves are in Bolivia, Chile, and Argentina, and deposits have been recently found in Mexico as well. (( “Lithium,” U.S. Geological Survey, Mineral Commodity Summaries, January 2013, available at http://minerals.usgs.gov/minerals/pubs/commodity/lithium/mcs-2013-lithi.pdf, accessed Jan. 14, 2014. )) Bolivians have described their country as “the Saudi Arabia of lithium” yet, because of histories of exploitation by foreign developers, have taken a protectionist stance as a veritable “lithium boom” unfolds in the region. In recent years, US and Chinese firms such as LG Chem and BYD have maneuvered to tap lithium reserves, recently described as “one of the planet’s most strategic commodities.” (( Lawrence Wright, “Can Bolivia become the Saudi Arabia of the electric-car era?” The New Yorker, Mar. 22, 2010, available at http://www.newyorker.com/reporting/2010/03/22/100322fa_fact_wright, accessed Jan. 12, 2014; Marta Colomar-Garcia and Xingjian Zhao, “Latin America’s abundant lithium reserves are highly attractive for investors, particularly from China,” Latin Business Chronicle, April 13, 2011, available at http://www.latinbusinesschronicle.com/app/article.aspx?id=4855, accessed Jan. 12, 2014; Dan McDougall, “In search of Lithium: The battle for the 3rd element,” The Daily Mail (U.K), available at http://www.dailymail.co.uk/home/moslive/article-1166387/In-search-Lithium-The-battle-3rd-element.html, accessed Jan. 12, 2014. )) (( US companies such as Green Technology Solutions and LG Chem and Chinese firms such as BYD Taiwan Simplo Technology and Dynapack International Technology, which support Apple ))

Once lithium is extracted it is transported to companies in East Asia where assembly line workers use it to make batteries inserted in mobile devices, which must be regularly recharged. Mobile connectivity thus draws not only on lithium reserves but also on power grids around the world sourced by a patchwork of fossil fuels, solar, wind, nuclear and hydro-power, as well as human labor. If, as Tiziana Terranova suggests, the Internet is sustained by the “immaterial labor” of its users, then mobile connectivity is also supported by the time, attention, and capital required for battery recharging. (( Tiziana Terranova, Network Culture: Politics for the Information Age, Pluto Press, 2004. ))

Nigerian Charge Shop

Nigerian Charge Shop

While recharging devices is relatively easy for those who are already highly mobile, it can be a daily challenge for the disenfranchised. Sites in airports once hosting public payphones have been made over as “free” charging stations for business class elites, yet mobile device users in the developing world often lack electrical access and must pay fees to charge their devices at a public market or Internet café, or poach from a friend’s, family member’s or employer’s grid access. Mobile connectivity requires lithium and human resources and is interwoven with differential access to electrical and social power.

As water and lithium resources fuel network infrastructures and media cultures, so too does solar energy. In recent years, massive solar harvesting facilities have sprouted up in sun-soaked places ranging from Abu Dhabi to Arizona, channeling energy into national or regional power grids. The Shams 1 facility just outside of Abu Dhabi is one of the largest concentrated solar power plants in the world. Its 2.5 square kilometer array of parabolic mirrors has a 100-megawatt capacity, enough to power 20,000 houses.

The Shams Solar Panel

The Shams Solar Panel

A short video celebrating the Shams 1 plant’s inauguration applauds the United Arab Emirate’s commitment to renewable energy and sustaining its citizens’ high quality of life, features a cameo of Sheikh Khalifa Bin Zayed Al Nahyan who supported the project. The image-track opens with multiple shots of the cutting edge architecture of Abu Dhabi’s modern skyline and transitions to sci-fi looking scenes of the Shams 1 solar plant in the desert where uniformed technicians inspect equipment and giant orange trucks crawl through the site with their automated arms extended to buff the shiny mirrors. Two young children, presumably next generation energy consumers, then appear, and after walking through the facility, the boy and girl venture into the desert as the sun beams on the sands around them. They arrive atop a massive sand dune and the boy uses a small mirror to reflect sunlight to those at the plant. Suddenly, images of engineers in action are rapidly intercut with computer interfaces, a switch is flipped, and an aerial view spotlights the mirrors rotating in unison, signaling the solar plant going online for the first time. In the final frame the words, “reflecting the nation’s commitment” flash on screen followed by the Shams Power company logo. (( See the Shams 1 inauguration video here on the Shams Power Company website here http://www.shamspower.ae/en/gallery/, or on vimeo at http://vimeo.com/62266148, accessed Jan. 22, 2014. ))

The Shams Solar Plant

The Shams Solar Plant

While this video promotes the national dream of terraforming the earth’s surface into fields of solar and economic power, other solar configurations are less audacious. For decades small-scale solar systems have powered facilities and consumer electronics in off-the-grid rural communities. In places from Zambia to Mongolia the sun has fueled local Internet access, computer and mobile phone use, satellite TV reception, and radio listening, linking remote locales to a scattering of networks. (( Non-governmental organizations such as Computer Aid International and Inveneo have helped to develop solar powered Internet access in developing countries. See further information here: http://www.computeraid.org/news-detail.asp?ID=35 and here: http://www.inveneo.org/tag/solar/, accessed Jan. 24, 2014. )) Just as lithium-ion batteries catalyze cultures of device charging, solar power generates local cultures of panel installation, tinkering, and repair, and intensifies interest in weather patterns.

Whether imagined as a system of national renewable energy or rural empowerment, the physical properties of solar power systems have the potential to cultivate an insular self-sufficiency at the very moment of (and perhaps as a response to) intensifying interdependencies and flows known as globalization. Rather than turn inward, it is vital that citizen-consumers seek relational and site-specific understandings of network infrastructures, energy sources, and global/national/local cultures so that they can participate in debates and decisions about resource futures.

By adopting a materialist approach to the study of networks and analyzing the resource requirements of television viewing, mobile connectivity, and Internet access, it might be possible to evade interpellation as transfixed button pushers, and support a project of infrastructure re-socialization, treating each moment at a network interface as an opportunity to investigate that which undergirds it, whether the geopolitics of extraction, emergent forms of labor, infrastructural designs and literacies, regulatory frameworks, temporal dynamics, or systems of differentiation and distinction. In the end, understanding the networks of the digital age involves more than tweeting, texting, or liking; it also requires learning how to recognize, sustain, and reconfigure the complex materialisms that undergird media cultures. (( See Diana Coole and Samantha Frost, eds., New Materialisms: Ontology, Agency, and Politics, Durham: Duke University Press, 2010; also see Lisa Parks, “‘Stuff You Can Kick’: Toward a Theory of Media Infrastructure,” in Humanities and the Digital, David Theo Goldberg and Patrick Svensson, eds., MIT Press, forthcoming 2014. ))

Image Credits:

1. Managing the Electricity Demand, Screen Capture by Author
2. Monitoring the National Grid’s Power, Screen Capture by Author
3. Nigerian Charge Shop
4. The Shams Solar Panel, Screen Capture by Author
5. The Shams Solar Plant, Screen Capture by Author

Please feel free to comment.




Media Fixes: Thoughts on Repair Cultures
Lisa Parks / University of California, Santa Barbara


work shops

Electronic Parts in a TV Repair Shop

A while back I published an article about TV repair that explored how technical knowledge about television sets circulated in the US during the 1950s and how that process was gendered. (( Lisa Parks, “Cracking Open the Set: Television Repair and Tinkering with Gender 1949-1955,” Television and New Media, Aug. 2000, vol. 1 (3), pp. 257-278. )) While conducting that research, and in an effort to deepen my understanding of TV’s insides, I visited a handful of TV repair shops in Madison, Wisconsin and talked to guys who had earned a living for decades by tinkering with and fixing peoples’ broken TV sets. The scattered parts I encountered in repairmen’s work shops (see Illustration 1) serve as apt icons for the entanglement of critical concerns brought forth by acts of repair — from resource economies to creative labor, from planned obsolescence to repurposing, from technological literacy to affective engagements. If there are currently more media devices in consumers’ hands than ever, what role does repair play in media studies? How might a focus on repair connect with Wolfgang Ernst’s work on the operative diagrammatics of media or Maxwell and Miller’s work on the “greening of the media? (( Jussi Parikka “Operative Media Archaeology: Wolfgang Ernst’s Materialist Media Diagrammatics,” Theory, Culture and Society, 2011, vol. 28 (5), 52-71; Wolfgang Ernst, Digital Memory and the Archive, Jussi Parikka, ed. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2013; Rick Maxwell and Toby Miller, Greening the Media, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012. )) What kinds of media objects and sites lend themselves to a discussion of repair, and why?

During the past two years I found myself returning to the issue of repair while conducting research on the uses of mobile phones and computers in the rural community of Macha, Zambia. (( This research is related to a four-year interdisciplinary study with Elizabeth Belding entitled, “VillageNet: Intelligent Wireless Networks for Rural Areas,” funded by the National Science Foundation, 2011-2015. I thank Chief Macha, Consider Mudenda, Lindsay Palmer, Abby Hinsman, and the people in the community of Macha for helping with this research. )) There, the issue of repair surfaced in ways that resonated with crucial recent research on repair by scholars Steven J. Jackson and Jenna Burrell, who have worked in Namibia and Ghana respectively. (( Steven Jackson, Alex Pompe, Gabriel Krieshok, “Repair Worlds: Maintenance, Repair, and ICT for Development in Rural Namibia,” CSCW’ 12, Feb 11-15, 2012, Seattle, Wa.; Jenna Burrell, Invisible Users: Youth in the Internet Cafés of Urban Ghana, Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2012. )) Jackson’s path-breaking essay “Rethinking Repair,” calls for a shift away from modernist thinking about technology and embraces “broken world thinking,” which “asserts that breakdown, dissolution, and change, rather than innovation, development, or design… are the key themes and problems facing new media and technology scholarship today.” (( Steven J. Jackson, “Rethinking Repair,” Media Technologies: Essays on Communication, Materiality and Society, Tarleton Gillespie, et al, eds. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2013, p. 222. )) His collaborative study of ICT repair in Namibia makes the compelling point that scholars tend to privilege “how communities embrace or adapt to new technologies” over “how they organize to sustain, manage, repurpose, or simply live with what they have.” (( Steven J. Jackson, Alex Pompe, Gabriel Krieshok, “Repair Worlds: Maintenance, Repair, and ICT for Development in Rural Namibia,” CSCW’ 12, Feb 11-15, 2012, Seattle, Wa., p. 1. )) Repair, according to Jackson, is a key yet understudied practice that is articulated with technological variation, the circulation of knowledge/power, and the ethics of care.

Jenna Burrell’s equally important study of ICT users in urban Ghana exemplifies how a focus on repair can productively complicate Western assumptions. As she describes the “ecosystem of distribution, repair, and disposal” that supports Accra’s Internet cafés, Burrell suggests the flow of secondhand computers from the US and Europe to Africa has resulted in discussions of e-waste that often ignore local peoples’ understandings of “what is reusable, what is valuable and what is truly waste.” (( Burrell, Invisible Users, p. 161, p. 181. )) While Burrell acknowledges that secondhand computers can harm the environment and the health of handlers, she points out that their circulation also has facilitated “technical skill development and employment of Ghanian technicians who repair and refurbish nonworking machines locally….” (( Ibid, p. 181. )) Rather than treat repair as a sideshow to the global media economy, Burrell and Jackson position it as a vital dimension of contemporary technological understanding and critique. Building from their work, I offer below two brief scenarios of repair in Macha, Zambia to highlight relational and affective dimensions of repair cultures.

Open-air Repair

An Open-Air Repairman

Open-Air Repair

Just off the dirt road leading to Macha’s center, Berian Menyani works at a makeshift repair shop on a small patch of cement outside an abandoned shop where people from the area drop off broken generators, radios, power converters, and other objects, hoping they can be repaired. The objects are arrayed around Menyani as he kneels, crouches or sits on the ground, and, works with a few coveted tools. He cracks things open, pulls the pieces apart, lays them on pieces of cloth, tries to identify the problem, figures out a solution, finds or makes needed parts, and puts machines back together in an effort to extend their lives. Radios or mobile phones are fixed alongside and sometimes in relation to other objects such as small engines, bicycle wheels, or pumps, which support daily life in this agricultural community. Rather than being a specialist (a la the TV repairman) Menyani adopts a relational multi-object approach. Skill and knowledge aggregate through regular and rigorous tactile engagements with different kinds of technical objects rather than via mastery over one thing. When there is a conundrum in repairing one object, another is tackled, and the solution for that repair may inform others.

More open-air repair

A Power Convertor Awaiting Repair

Since Menyani works outdoors in an openly visible area trafficked by passersby, his repair work is public and performative and draws attention from community members. Customers and friends often gather around to talk and watch. Here, repair not only extends the use value of objects but becomes a mechanism of social interaction. The recurring act of repairing things in the open-air transmits the message that things can be fixed when they fail rather than thrown away. Relational, open-air repair has the potential to extend the social circulation of technical knowledge by bringing people together to watch and talk as different kinds of machines are opened, manipulated, fixed, and re-circulated. Such practices also work to destabilize the logic of the black box.

Mobile Phone Tower

A Mobile Phone Tower

Guarding a Mobile Phone Tower

Near the center of Macha, a forty-meter mobile phone tower looms above the community, its base surrounded by a spiked fence topped with barbed wire. Installed in October 2006, the Airtel-owned tower hosts transponders for Airtel and competitor MTN and provides commercial mobile phone service to people throughout the area. A Machan man I interviewed (who prefers to remain anonymous) helped dig the hole for and install the tower in 2006. Immediately after the installation, Airtel hired him to be the tower’s guard. For the past seven years, he has spent almost every night from 7:00 p.m. until sunrise sitting on a thin bench in a narrow metal box, listening in the dark for trespassers, getting up periodically to check around the site. If there are any problems, he is to call emergency numbers at Airtel and MTN, though neither company provides him with a mobile phone or buys him talk time. He earns 250 kwachas per month (about $50 USD) and uses this income to support a family of seven people who live ten miles away from the tower. The tower guard takes pride in the fact that there have been no major problems since he began this work and believes that if something were to go wrong he would be individually blamed and held responsible, possibly even punished or imprisoned.

While tower guarding might be thought of as security work, this kind of labor also falls within the rubric of repair since its purpose is not only to protect property but also to prevent service interruptions. Put another way, this tower’s smooth operation is inseparable from this guard’s presence, time, and attention. Having monitored the tower’s functioning night after night, month after month, year after year, he has learned which electronic buzzes are normal and what it sounds like when there is a power outage and the generator is activated. He also has learned to listen to movement around the site in the dark and distinguish the sounds of an animal’s movements from a human’s. As Jackson astutely observes, repair is not just about fixing things; it involves maintaining or caring for them as well, and as such is articulated with the “ethics of care.” (( Jackson, “Rethinking Repair,” p. 231. )) During the past decade, mobile phone tower guards have been hired worldwide to perform similar work. My conversation with Macha’s tower guard suggests this work exceeds mere functionalism and extends into the realm of affect. The guard’s descriptions of his work oscillated from boredom to fear, pride to contempt, privilege to exploitation, revealing that the labor of repair is part of affective human-machine dynamics that demand deeper investigation.

Screen Shot

Screen Shot of ifixit.com’s “Repair Manuals” Page

It is my hope that critical work on repair will continue in media studies across different axes of social and national/local difference and in relation to different kinds of technical objects. In the US, an active “teardown culture” has recently emerged as manifest by the book Things Come Apart and the website ifixit.com, which cleverly insists on consumers’ “right to repair.” (( Todd McLellan, Things Come Apart: A Teardown Manual for Modern Living, Thames and Hudson, 2013. )) While these cultural sites have immense potential to extend the social circulation of technical knowledge, they sometimes link repair to a heroic masculinity more preoccupied with restoring order or turning the insides of machines into spectacles than tackling social issues. In classic high-tech speak, ifixit.com promises to be “the free repair guide for everything written by everyone” yet on the website’s “Repair Manuals” page only white men appear fixing machines; women and people of color are absent. (( “Repair Manuals,” IFIXIT website, available at http://www.ifixit.com/Guide, accessed Dec. 3, 2013. )) Such images are not only evocative of 1950s discourses on TV repair, but suggest the need to approach the breakdown of things as opportunities to imagine social fixes as well.

Image Credits:
1. Electronic Parts in a TV Repair Shop, Photo by Author
2. An Open-air Repairman, Photo by Author
3. A Power Convertor Awaiting Repair, Photo by Author
4. A Mobile Phone Tower, Photo by Author
5. Screen Shot of ifixit.com’s “Repair Manuals” page, Photo by Author

Please feel free to comment.




Flow Favorites: Around the Antenna Tree: The Politics of Infrastructural Visibility
Lisa Parks / UC Santa Barbara

Flow Favorites

Every few years, Flow’s editors select our favorite columns of the last few volumes. We’ve added special introductions and asked the authors to revisit their columns and add a comment afterward. We’ve also added the original comments to the piece below. Enjoy!

Co-Coordinating Editor Jacqueline Vickery:
Lisa Parks draws attention to what tends to be an all too often overlooked aspect of media studies – the politics of infrastructure. Parks demonstrates the importance of understanding the sociocultural politics of “natural” and “invisible” cell towers within a framework of what she refers to as infrastructure literacy. It seems infrastructure conversations tend to focus on issues of access or sustainability without considering the broader community implications. This piece raises so many important questions and opens up spaces for dialog within the academy and beyond.

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An antenna tree

Communication infrastructures are frequently visualized as flow diagrams that are designed to approximate the spatial relations of a network. As a result, there is a tendency to overlook the uniqueness of particular nodes in a network, whether their physical form, the stories of their development, or the practices which surround them once they are activated. The antenna tree, I want to suggest, represents the potential to develop a more node-centric and materialist approach to the study of infrastructure. As a cell tower disguised as a tree, the antenna tree draws attention to the materiality of infrastructure in the very process of trying to conceal it. People often chuckle at the sight of these uncanny objects that have been designed to soften the severity of the steel tower with botanical plastics. This tower in disguise not only relays signals, but it is implicated in an array of industrial, legal and socio-cultural relations. Each antenna tree can be understood as a symptom of processes of fabrication and installation, state and local regulation, community deliberation, and spatial transformation. Thinking around the antenna tree, then, involves considering the fields of negotiation that are produced as an effect of infrastructure development and placement.

In this column, I explore what is at stake in hiding infrastructure and how such practices may end up trading technological awareness for a highly synthetic version of “nature.” By disguising infrastructure as part of the natural environment, concealment strategies keep citizens naive and uninformed about the network technologies they subsidize and use each day. We describe ourselves as a “networked society” and yet most members of the public know very little about the infrastructures that support such a designation – whether broadcasting, web or wireless systems. This issue of infrastructure literacy becomes more prescient as we enter an era of ubiquitous computing in which many different kinds of objects and surfaces will be used either as relay towers and/or web interfaces.

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Antenna without leaves

Cell tower concealment began in the US during the early 1990s as wireless carriers installed new infrastructure in cities across the country. These coverings or concealment strategies, as they came to be known, were marketed as a way of disguising unsightly towers that were installed in the midst of urban and suburban areas. As cell towers sprouted up, citizens groups nicknamed NIMBY’s (not in my backyard) formed in communities across the country to protest tower installation especially in residential districts. Such groups expressed concern not only about neighborhood aesthetics, but were worried about potential health risks since the federal government authorized tower installation without conducting trials to assess their effects on people living in their vicinity. Others feared that cell tower installation near their homes would reduce property values. By 2005 there were at least 500 formal complaints filed in communities across the US protesting cell tower installations. Some communities (such as Redmond, Washington) passed ordinances mandating the concealment of towers installed in residential districts and Connecticut created a Siting Council to regulate cell tower placement throughout the state.

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Components of antenna trees

The opposition to cell tower placement was not limited to residential areas. One of the most controversial installations occurred in Yellowstone National Park. In 2001 Western Wireless Corporation mounted a 100-foot cell tower in close proximity to the beloved geyser Old Faithful. After the installation, it was impossible to look at the geyser without seeing the steel cell tower looming in the distance. In 2004 the environmental organization PEER (Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility) filed a petition trying to have the tower near Old Faithful removed stating that it was illegally installed and done without public comment. ((“Park Service Directors Silent as Cell Towers Grow in National Parks,” Omega News, April 27, 2004, accessed on April 10, 2007.)) When Congress passed the 1996 Telecommunications Act it authorized the construction of cell towers on federal lands. Cell tower installations have occurred in other national parks as well, and wireless corporations provide funds to the National Park Service by leasing these lands. For instance, Western Wireless pays $12,200 to the National Park Service each year to lease the land on which the tower near Old Faithful sites. ((Margaret Foster, “Height of Yellowstone Cell Tower Questioned,” Preservation Online, March 18, 2004 on available at mywire.com
A side effect of the 1996 Telecom Act is that private wireless carriers now provide operating revenue to the National Park Service.)) A side effect of the 1996 Telecom Act is that private wireless carriers now provide operating revenue to the National Park Service.

The installation of cell towers raises fundamental questions about the control of property, whether on the ground or in the spectrum, in neighborhoods or national parks. The cell tower only gained public attention when installed in the “wrong place”—that is, when it was perceived as violating the sanctity of a nationally protected forest or a valued neighborhood. Such controversies are useful in that they draw public attention to infrastructure sites and their relation to social, economic and environmental issues. Wireless infrastructure is defined not only as the capacity, as advertisers would have it, to speak on a phone “anytime anywhere”; it involves the (re)allocation of publicly-owned natural resources, the installation of new equipment on private and public properties, and the restructuring of lifestyles and communities.

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Antenna trees without their greenery

Given the controversies that emerged around cell tower installation, manufacturers and wireless carriers resorted to the use of camouflages as a way to appease NIMBY and environmentalist groups. Increasingly, owners have concealed the technology in an effort to mitigate complaints. Larson Camouflage based in Tucson, Arizona devised the first “tree tower” in 1992. Since then other companies with names such as Steel in the Air, SpectraSite, Clearshot, Crown Castle, Treescapes, TeleStructures, and Pinnacle Towers formed and have sold and installed so-called “stealth towers” designed to look like different tree species, flagpoles, church steeples, mosque minarets, crosses, and grain silos among other things. One company customized a tower to look like an osprey nest. Another sells a “lightning tree” designed to look like a stump struck by lightning. These tower get-ups can cost up to $200,000, and securing permission for their installment can require elaborate planning and meetings with property owners, community groups, local political officials and representatives of wireless corporations.

With the globalization of wireless telephony, similar firms have emerged in different parts of the world that specialize in the international distribution of tree tower coverings. For instance, Envirocom, based in Gauteng, South Africa, sells antenna trees to clients in Uruguay, Brazil, the US, Portugal, France, the UK, Holland and Turkey. And the Turkish company Preserved Palm, based in Ankara, has signed deals with clients in Dubai, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Egypt, United Arab Emirates, Moldova, Kazakhstan and Germany among others. A global industry has formed to conceal wireless infrastructure and these new products have been installed in different sites for different reasons. Given this growing trend, we might ask what is at stake in this concealment? When technologies remain hidden or obscure they remain beyond public concern. Only when cell towers became visible in neighborhoods and national parks did citizens take an interest in them and their effects. Most people notice infrastructures only when they are put in the wrong place or break down. This means that public knowledge of them is largely limited to their misplacement or malfunction.

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Antenna tree ready to be planted

While concealing infrastructure sites may be a viable aspect of urban planning (as has long been the case of sewer, electricity and water systems), one of its effects is to keep citizen/users naive about the systems that surround them and that they subsidize and use. Because of this, it is important to devise other ways of visualizing and developing literacy about infrastructures and the relations that take shape through and around them. Are there ways of representing cell towers that will encourage citizens to participate in sustained discussions and decisions about network ownership, development, and access? What is it about infrastructure that is aesthetically unappealing? What form should infrastructure sites assume? Should they be visible or invisible?

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Palm tree with antenna palm tree

While manufacturers and carriers have devised ways to conceal cell towers, some artists have created works designed to draw our attention back to them. German photographer Robert Voit has exhibited a series of photographs entitled “Enchanted Wood” that were taken between 2003 and 2005 in the US, Great Britain, South Africa, Korea, Italy and Portugal. The photos draw upon the conventions of landscape photography and scientific illustration to present an inventory of cell towers that have been camouflaged as different tree species in different settings. Each photograph represents an antenna tree in isolation, whether cactus, pine, palm or cypress, as well as the environment surrounding the tower whether a desert floor, grassy field, parking lot, or mobile home park. ((Some of Robert Voit’s photos are available online.)) The photos work to expose an infrastructure site that has been carefully designed to blend in with the environment, while also subtly alluding to the imperceptible signal transactions that traverse geophysical and electromagnetic territories.

The politics of infrastructural invisibility that take shape around the antenna tree involve citizens’ concerns about neighborhood aesthetics, health and property values, environmentalists’ protection of national parks, global corporate enterprises, and artists who challenge us to reflect upon the contexts and effects of infrastructure concealment. Though these groups are situated around the antenna tree in different ways, they all draw attention to and help to generate dialogues about it. Perhaps the ultimate irony of the antenna tree is that it actually exposes more than it hides and in this sense can be thought of as a site for generating further public knowledge about the materiality of wireless and other network systems. We are socialized to know so little about the infrastructures that surround us, even though many of us use mobile phones each day. Would our experience of mobile telephony change if we knew more about the architectures of signal distribution? It is difficult to say, but we certainly would have a different relation to the technology if we understood it as something more elaborate and expansive than something that rings in our purse or vibrates in our pocket. The emergence of wireless telephony has involved the sale and lease of public and private property, the allocation of space in the electromagnetic spectrum, the redefinition of urban, suburban and rural environments, and the alteration of patterns of daily life. By thinking around the antenna tree, perhaps it is possible to begin cultivating new critical approaches to the study of infrastructure and its relation to cultures of everyday life.

Lisa Parks revisits her column for Flow Favorites:

As cell towers have become part of the built environment many issues persist. Rebecca Pierce’s suggestion that NIMBY’s tend to form in affluent communities is a point well taken and there are practices of environmental racism that have historically formed in relation to infrastructures of various kinds, from railways to sewer systems, from freeways to cell towers. Infrastructures are installed in particular places for a variety of reasons including the efficiency of network routing, aesthetics, security, and property values to name a few. Nicole Starosielski is finishing a fascinating dissertation about transoceanic cables in the Pacific that explores some of these issues.

Image Credits:

1. Photo by Lisa Parks
2. Photo by Lisa Parks
3. Photo by Lisa Parks
4. Photo by Lisa Parks
5. Photo by Lisa Parks
6. Photo by Lisa Parks

Original Comments:

Tiff said:

Rarely do I ever think about how I am receiving any time of communication signal. Like you mention, people only seem to pay attention when something doesn’t work or it encroaches on personal space, but now I want to go around and try to spot all of these antenna trees. I’m curious as to how wildlife deals with this man-made structures that are trying to fit in with the “natural” environment. Thanks for the interesting columns and excellent pictures.
-March 6th, 2009 at 7:29 pm


Ed Schmidtke, M.A. said:

Lisa–

What an interesting piece! I especially enjoyed its underlying ‘tongue-in-cheek’ tone. Several thoughts come to mind. First, if ever humankind arrives at an alternative technology to acomplish what these towers currently do, what will be done with these monstrosities? I wonder just how many ‘antenna trees’ we, as a nation, will have in the next 10 to 20 years. Next, one has to be somewhat grateful for the effort to disguise these things. And what of the effects of RF radiation on the surrounding wildlife? Congrats to you for a well written and very thought-provoking piece.
-March 10th, 2009 at 8:10 am


Lisa Parks said:

Ed and Tiff -Thanks so much for taking the time to read the piece and comment. Ed, your question– what will eventually happen to this stuff?- is something I think about a lot in relation to satellite dishes, especially after reading The World Without Us. Where ceramic pottery chards are the most common artifacts of the ancient world, in the future maybe the satellite dish will be discovered as one of the ruins of the our time. Who knows what will happen to antenna tree plastics – I guess they could always be recycled and transformed into plastic grocery bags or DVD cases? Let’s just hope they don’t end up floating in the gigantic gyre in the Pacific Ocean along with the 10 million tons of other plastics and junk! For more info: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/G…..bage_Patch
-March 10th, 2009 at 1:45 pm


Patrick Burkart said:

Thanks, Lisa. Love the topic.

Are there other examples of telecom infrastructure (v. architecture) that mimic natural forms? I’ve noticed that low-to-the-ground green plastic boxes and posts have been popping up in the front yards of houses in my neighborhood, courtesy of the cable company (Suddenlink). Maybe we cable customers should insist that these housings resemble the native cacti.

Here may be a sign that the growing number of cell phone towers may be topping off, at least in some places (the UK). The telecom regulator has some influence in this case:

http://www.guardian.co.uk/busi…..bilephones

– Patrick
-March 11th, 2009 at 10:00 pm


Lisa Parks said:

Thanks for the comments, Patrick, and for your interesting question, which I don’t know the answer to. But it makes me think of the disposable cell phones that are being manufactured (s/ support from Motorla) to disintegrate. They can be buried and turned into flowers. Here is a photo: http://news.cnet.com/Photos-Ph…..79713.html . I enjoyed your White Space piece!! — Lisa
-March 12th, 2009 at 11:27 am


Jeffrey Sconce said:

It’s interesting how in the home, media have shed their wood grain cabinetry and colonial styling to become more hi-tech looking, while outside the trend is to wrap up towers in fake greenery. There must be something there to think about in terms of private and public taste, since municipalities can simply assume that a fake tree is preferable to bare metal. Also, I can only imagine the impact this trend will have on conspiracy theorists and the paranoid who already suspect potential control through the infrastructure. Hiding it (albeit in plain, tacky sight) will only fuel their anxieties that something is afoot.
-March 12th, 2009 at 2:31 pm


Ariell said:

I have to say that I have never noticed antenna trees before. It makes sense that the only time that there is objection to cell towers is when they are aesthetically unpleasing. This makes me wonder how often an antenna tree can be found in poorer areas. They must be most commonly found in wealthy residential areas or popular national parks. Therefore, they are probably dominantly in areas visited by white middle- to upper-class peoples, seeing as how minorities have less wealth and less say in what is built in their backyards.
-March 12th, 2009 at 10:21 pm


Nokaoi said:

Lisa-

Congrats on the wonderfully amazing article that you call Antenna Tree. I would like to hear your thoughts on what sorts of camo the wireless companies will think of next. Will it become harder and harder to identify our new infrastructure? Perhaps there are wireless towers that have been completely overlooked, like a sailboat bobbing in the harbor broadcasting through its large central appendage (the mast). Do you feel it is more ethical disguise our cell towers as man made object instead of poking fun at nature with our synthetic trees.
-March 13th, 2009 at 10:48 am


Austin Sweeney said:

Lisa Parks’ informative article, “Around the Antenna Tree: The Politics of Infrastructural Visibility” is an interesting yet overall disappointing examination of concealed infrastructure. The subject matter of the article is appealing enough for me to recommend it, and Parks does indeed have an engaging voice in her writing, but she had the material to make a potentially great paper and instead ended up with something only solidly good. It’s not a matter of high standards, a good paper is still a good paper, but when an article has the potential of greatness and misses, the reader feels more for the loss of a great paper than the gain of a good one.

The Flaw in “Around the Antenna Tree” is that Parks hits on an issue involving infrastructural visibility and public passiveness, but instead of digging further into her subject and applying it to various infrastructures worldwide, she instead chooses to focus mainly on the infrastructural niche of cell towers. Parks details the history of cell towers being erected in various domestic areas around the U.S. including many residential communities and national parks. Understandably the public was quick to complain about the towers in their hometowns citing lowered housing costs and health risks as their reasoning. And despite the complaints of many visitors to national parks such as Yellowstone, the cellular companies owned the right to build their towers on federal lands, including the national parks. What’s more, the cellular companies provided the parks with annual land payments which economically was good compensation. In response to these complaints many cell phone companies began disguising their towers so as to look reminiscent of trees according to their individual environments. These “antenna trees” as they were nicknamed, stopped the complaints in most metropolitan areas and it has since been increasingly adopted in other forms of infrastructure.

Parks’ overview on cell towers is admittedly very fascinating and her article is particularly worthy of praise due to her conclusion of the ramifications of infrastructural visibility (or invisibility, to put it more accurately), but as stated before this important speculation of potential consequence is only mentioned in passing and thus a paper which could have gone on to pose some highly significant questions concludes pre-climatically. So the obligation falls on the reader to ask, “what can be said of the public if their opposition to infrastructure is based only on superficial reasoning?” The public, when in the face of physically unappealing infrastructure protested citing potentially hazardous environmental effect, energy and maintenance costs, etc. But simply by redesigning the infrastructure so as to make it more aesthetically pleasing, not by solving any of these problems, did the cellular companies prevail. What are the connotations of this? That the more companies hide their infrastructure (and thus means of operation) from us the less we will complain? Call me melodramatic, but this resonates to closely to brave new world/blind sheep metaphors for personal comfort. The public needs to be aware of what, and more importantly how infrastructure is being implemented for mass use. If we allow ourselves to passively go unquestioning of company development what then will happen when those companies develop environmentally harmful infrastructure, or inflate energy consumption and costs? What if we unwittingly become dependent on such harmful methods of production? These are the questions that barely scratch the surface of Parks’ article and it is for this reason alone that I both condone and condemn her article. It introduces the questions, but does not make them clear and instead relies on the reader to ask them. And ironically, if the readers are as passive as those individuals mentioned in the paper, then these questions will continue to go unasked.
-March 13th, 2009 at 8:36 pm


Rebecca Pierce said:

This article and the various community reactions to the issue of concealed telecommunications antennae mentioned within it, bring up an interesting issue involving environmental racism and consumer responsibility. Not in Our Back Yard groups are often started by members of affluent communities with enough free time and disposable income to plan meetings and stage events protesting what they see as a threat to their health, property values, and aesthetic pleasure. While these type of groups do good work for their communities, such as preventing the construction of known health risks like chemical plants, oil refineries, waste processing plants, and superfund sights, they also unwittingly force this type of development into low income areas whose residents do not have the resources to protest that kind of construction. While these sites pose a health risk to everyone in close proximity to them, their construction is often in response to some demand that comes from the greater area they service, a demand which stretches fairly evenly across various socioeconomic backgrounds. Subsequently, and unfortunately for low-income communities, decisions about the placement of these sights cannot be made simply by looking at who uses them.

In the case of telecommunications towers, however, demand is rooted in a community’s use of telecommunications technologies, which are more widely available to those with larger wallets. Wireless companies would not be taking the time and money required to build cell towers if they did not stand to gain from their use, which is dependent upon their proximity to people with cell phones. Given that the health effects of cell towers are unknown, and thus cannot be designated as harmful or not, the issue regarding them is more, as stated in the column, about aesthetics. While it is understandable that people would not like the views from their front door step to be marred by a giant metal tower, growing use of cell phones and related products requires that kind of infrastructure be built. So if people want to use cell phones, they are going to have to put up with the things that help them to function. Since the people who use cell phones the most are those with disposable incomes they are the ones who will have to have cell towers installed in their communities. This is one example where “Not in My Backyard” groups are ineffective, so instead of banishing cell towers to low-income communities, community leaders simply choose to cover them up. While hiding cell towers within higher income communities is not much better than banishing them to low income communities, it does bring us one step closer to fair allocation of controversial infrastructure.
-March 14th, 2009 at 2:02 am


Christian Sandvig said:

Belated reply to Patrick Burkart’s comment: Bill Mitchell once commented that “cities celebrate their infrastructure” — things that could be interpreted as mundane or ugly are often dressed up either by advertising them (cf. any mass mailing from your city council) or by decorating them (those white lights on the Brooklyn Bridge are not in any way functional… see: http://www.touchnote.com/files/assets/ANDE009.jpg ). In a way I guess a city *ispublic infrastructure so it is promoting itself and its importance by making infrastructure visible. But Mitchell’s comment only works for some infrastructures and not others (e.g., not garbage collection). And cell phones are private infrastructure, not public. But I can imagine an alternative scenario where cell towers were celebrated as a sign of progress the way smokestacks were once featured prominently on business cards and company logos. But things haven’t gone that way. –Christian
-April 16th, 2009 at 3:54 pm

Please feel free to comment.




When Satellites Fall: On the Trails of Cosmos 954 and USA 193
Lisa Parks / UC Santa Barbara

Debris from space

Debris from space

During the past 50 years approximately 17,000 human-made objects have re-entered the earth’s atmosphere. Most of these objects incinerate as they tumble toward the planet, but many fragments fall upon the earth. On a few occasions rogue satellites have fallen, raising concerns about public safety and posing threats to the natural environment. In this essay I discuss two incidents when satellites that were falling back to earth became high-profile media events. The first was a Soviet radar satellite, Cosmos954, in 1978 and the second a US spy satellite, USA193, in 2008. These events are significant moments for media studies for several reasons. First, they draw attention to publicly-funded secret satellites that have historically been used to image the earth and manage geopolitical tensions. Second, they reveal the deeply intertwined relation of satellite media to issues of global security and serve as a reminder, as Jim Schwoch has shown, that the greatest global communication technologies emerged alongside the most dangerous technologies of global destruction. ((Jim Schwoch, Global TV: New Media and the Cold War, 1946-69, Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 2009, p. 130.)) Finally, these moments provide an opportunity to contemplate the high costs of satellite failure, which result not only in communication breakdowns and huge financial losses, but can have detrimental effects on the environment as well.

Cosmos 954

On January 24, 1978 a Soviet radar satellite, known as Cosmos 954, plummeted into the Great Slave Lake area of the Northern Territories in Canada (roughly the same area where the television show Ice Road Truckers is now shot). The satellite was launched from a facility in Kazakhstan on September 18, 1977 and by October 29, 1977 NORAD monitors revealed that Cosmos 954 was out of orbit and predicted it would re-enter the earth’s atmosphere sometime in April 1978. The primary concern about Cosmos 954’s tumble back to earth was the nuclear reactor it had on board. Because the satellite was carrying 110 pounds of enriched uranium, some officials predicted Cosmos 954’s crash could result in the “worst nuclear contamination since Hiroshima and Nagasaki.” ((C. A. Morrison, Voyage into the Unknown: The Search and Recovery of Cosmos 954, Stittsville, Ontario: Canada’s Wings, Inc., 1982, p. 7.)) Since US and Canadian officials were uncertain where Cosmos 954 would land, they decided not to issue a public announcement detailing the nuclear concern. When it became clear, however, that Cosmos 954 would fall months earlier than predicted, the US State Department on January 18, 1978 relayed a secret message to its NATO allies and to Australia, Japan and New Zealand informing state diplomats about the matter.

Fragments of Cosmos 954

Fragment of Cosmos 954

On January 24, 1978 the world’s news agencies sent reporters to the icy tundra near Yellowknife to investigate the “killer satellite.” Journalists reported on the massive size of the debris field, the fragments that had been recovered, the nature of the retrieval mission and the Canadian government’s attempts to communicate with Inuit communities in the vicinity of the crash whose water and food supplies were in danger of exposure to radiation. After the satellite fell, the US Departments of Energy and Defense banded together with Canadian agencies to mount a five-month retrieval mission called Operation Morning Light that utilized U2 and KC-135 aircraft to help locate concentrations of radioactive particulate and recover the satellite’s fragments. Since the Soviets were tight-lipped about the satellite’s composition, some suggest the recovery effort was as much about investigating the current state of Soviet satellite technology as it was about retrieving radioactive debris.

Operation Morning Light logo

Operation Morning Light mission logo

In the months following the crash the Canadian government sought compensation from the Soviet Union in the amount of $3 million (Canadian) under the 1972 Convention on International Liability for Damage caused by Space Objects. This international law holds satellite owners liable for the damages caused when space objects fall back to earth. The Soviets fought this case claiming that Cosmos 954 had broken up by the time it fell to earth and thus could no longer be recognized as a “satellite” when it landed in the Northwest Territories. The fall of Cosmos 954 not only established an occasion to test satellite liability law, but Operation Morning Light became a prototype for future satellite recovery missions.

USA 193

Almost exactly thirty years after Cosmos 954 fell, another satellite drifted out of orbit and began to move toward Earth. USA 193 was a classified spy satellite (also known as NROL-21) that had been launched on December 14, 2006 from Vandenberg Air Force base in California. Communication with the satellite failed shortly after its launch. Rather than allow USA 193 to fall to the earth’s surface, the US government devised an elaborate scheme to intercept and destroy it with an SM-3 missile. US officials expressed concerns about the 1000-pound tank of hydrazine fuel on board the satellite and claimed it could form into a toxic cloud the size of two football fields if the satellite were to crash and pose a serious public health risk. Many were skeptical of this claim and speculated instead that the US did not want this classified satellite to fall into foreign hands because future US spysat fleets were slated to use similar technologies. Still others interpreted the US satellite shoot-down as a geopolitical showdown in which the US set out to demonstrate its anti-satellite (ASAT) missile capabilities following a controversial and high-profile test the Chinese had conducted in 2007.

Screen capture of video showing missile strike USA 193

Screen capture of video showing missile strike USA 193

Despite the various speculations, on Feb 20, 2008 a missile launched from the US Navy vessel USS Lake Erie blasted into USA193 as it passed over an area west of the Hawaiian Islands in the Pacific Ocean. Like Cosmos 954’s crash into the Northwest Territories, the interception of USA 193 became a media event as news agencies emphasized the risky nature of the satellite shoot-down, used Google Earth to predict and map where the fragments would land, and evaluated public health risks. After the strike, the US Defense Department held a press conference and released a video showing the missile strike USA 193 as it turned into an incandescent gaseous blob. Amateur satellite trackers in different parts of the world had also been tracking and photographing the secret satellite (along with many others) since its 2006 deployment. ((USA 193,” Sattrackcam Leiden Station Blog, Dec. 26, 2007; John Schwartz, “Satellite Spotters Glimpse Secrets and Tell Them,” The New York Times, Feb. 5, 2008; and Trevor Paglen, Blank Spots on the Map: The Dark Geography of the Pentagon’s Secret World, New York: Dutton, 2009, pp. 97-125.))

Amateur satellite tracker photograph of USA 193 shot from a rooftop in the Netherlands

Amateur satellite tracker photograph of USA 193 shot from a rooftop in the Netherlands

Cosmos 954 and USA 193 are just two of hundreds of satellites that have failed since the late 1950s. These failures, I want to suggest, are symptomatic of the kind of dandelion capitalism that underpins the satellite economy. Just as fast as the capital to manufacture, launch and operate a satellite accumulates and the technology takes shape, it can be blown away in a blinding flash, its fragments either floating into the oblivion of space or darting cataclysmically toward the earth. The satellite economy has long been structured around such failures, and, as a result, has one of the most complex and expensive insurance industries on the planet. Insurance premiums are typically a satellite operator’s second largest cost. For any given satellite there can be 10-15 large insurers and 20-30 smaller companies involved in issuing policies for different phases of the satellite’s development, transport, launch and in-orbit operation. In 2003 a basic premium for a satellite worth $250 million cost between $40-55 million. ((Andrea Maleter, “Strategies to Mitigate High Satellite Insurance Premiums,” Satellite Finance, Issue 64, Dec. 10, 2003, p. 46.))

Dandelion

Dandelion

While much information about USA 193 remains classified, it is known that the satellite was part of a satellite design scheme called Future Imagery Architecture, involving Boeing and Lockheed Martin, for which the US government paid over $10 billion. (( Noah Schactman, “Rogue Satellite’s Rotten, $10 Billion Legacy,” Wired, Feb. 20, 2008.)) The shootdown operation for USA 193 alone cost US taxpayers $40-60 million. ((Jamie McIntyre and Mike Mount, “Attempt to shoot down spy satellite to cost up to $60 million,” CNN, Feb. 15, 2008.)) Capitalism operates in the satellite economy such that extremely expensive machines are made and installed in orbit without public knowledge only to be spectacularly blown away and become “total losses” right before our eyes. Given such scenarios the study of satellite failures, finances and futures remains a vital path for further investigation.

Author’s Note: This is an excerpt of a longer essay that will appear in the forthcoming book Down to Earth: Satellite Technologies, Industries and Cultures, co-edited by Lisa Parks and James Schwoch from Rutgers University Press.

Image Credits:

1. Debris from space
2. Fragment of Cosmos 954
3. Operation Morning Light mission logo
4. Screen capture of video showing missile strike USA 193
5. Amateur satellite tracker photograph of USA 193 shot from a rooftop in the Netherlands
6. Dandelion

Please feel free to comment.




Around the Antenna Tree: The Politics of Infrastructural Visibility
Lisa Parks / UC Santa Barbara

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An antenna tree

Communication infrastructures are frequently visualized as flow diagrams that are designed to approximate the spatial relations of a network. As a result, there is a tendency to overlook the uniqueness of particular nodes in a network, whether their physical form, the stories of their development, or the practices which surround them once they are activated. The antenna tree, I want to suggest, represents the potential to develop a more node-centric and materialist approach to the study of infrastructure. As a cell tower disguised as a tree, the antenna tree draws attention to the materiality of infrastructure in the very process of trying to conceal it. People often chuckle at the sight of these uncanny objects that have been designed to soften the severity of the steel tower with botanical plastics. This tower in disguise not only relays signals, but it is implicated in an array of industrial, legal and socio-cultural relations. Each antenna tree can be understood as a symptom of processes of fabrication and installation, state and local regulation, community deliberation, and spatial transformation. Thinking around the antenna tree, then, involves considering the fields of negotiation that are produced as an effect of infrastructure development and placement.

In this column, I explore what is at stake in hiding infrastructure and how such practices may end up trading technological awareness for a highly synthetic version of “nature.” By disguising infrastructure as part of the natural environment, concealment strategies keep citizens naive and uninformed about the network technologies they subsidize and use each day. We describe ourselves as a “networked society” and yet most members of the public know very little about the infrastructures that support such a designation – whether broadcasting, web or wireless systems. This issue of infrastructure literacy becomes more prescient as we enter an era of ubiquitous computing in which many different kinds of objects and surfaces will be used either as relay towers and/or web interfaces.

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Antenna without leaves

Cell tower concealment began in the US during the early 1990s as wireless carriers installed new infrastructure in cities across the country. These coverings or concealment strategies, as they came to be known, were marketed as a way of disguising unsightly towers that were installed in the midst of urban and suburban areas. As cell towers sprouted up, citizens groups nicknamed NIMBY’s (not in my backyard) formed in communities across the country to protest tower installation especially in residential districts. Such groups expressed concern not only about neighborhood aesthetics, but were worried about potential health risks since the federal government authorized tower installation without conducting trials to assess their effects on people living in their vicinity. Others feared that cell tower installation near their homes would reduce property values. By 2005 there were at least 500 formal complaints filed in communities across the US protesting cell tower installations. Some communities (such as Redmond, Washington) passed ordinances mandating the concealment of towers installed in residential districts and Connecticut created a Siting Council to regulate cell tower placement throughout the state.

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Components of antenna trees

The opposition to cell tower placement was not limited to residential areas. One of the most controversial installations occurred in Yellowstone National Park. In 2001 Western Wireless Corporation mounted a 100-foot cell tower in close proximity to the beloved geyser Old Faithful. After the installation, it was impossible to look at the geyser without seeing the steel cell tower looming in the distance. In 2004 the environmental organization PEER (Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility) filed a petition trying to have the tower near Old Faithful removed stating that it was illegally installed and done without public comment. ((“Park Service Directors Silent as Cell Towers Grow in National Parks,” Omega News, April 27, 2004, accessed on April 10, 2007.)) When Congress passed the 1996 Telecommunications Act it authorized the construction of cell towers on federal lands. Cell tower installations have occurred in other national parks as well, and wireless corporations provide funds to the National Park Service by leasing these lands. For instance, Western Wireless pays $12,200 to the National Park Service each year to lease the land on which the tower near Old Faithful sites. ((Margaret Foster, “Height of Yellowstone Cell Tower Questioned,” Preservation Online, March 18, 2004 on available at mywire.com
A side effect of the 1996 Telecom Act is that private wireless carriers now provide operating revenue to the National Park Service.)) A side effect of the 1996 Telecom Act is that private wireless carriers now provide operating revenue to the National Park Service.

The installation of cell towers raises fundamental questions about the control of property, whether on the ground or in the spectrum, in neighborhoods or national parks. The cell tower only gained public attention when installed in the “wrong place”—that is, when it was perceived as violating the sanctity of a nationally protected forest or a valued neighborhood. Such controversies are useful in that they draw public attention to infrastructure sites and their relation to social, economic and environmental issues. Wireless infrastructure is defined not only as the capacity, as advertisers would have it, to speak on a phone “anytime anywhere”; it involves the (re)allocation of publicly-owned natural resources, the installation of new equipment on private and public properties, and the restructuring of lifestyles and communities.

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Antenna trees without their greenery

Given the controversies that emerged around cell tower installation, manufacturers and wireless carriers resorted to the use of camouflages as a way to appease NIMBY and environmentalist groups. Increasingly, owners have concealed the technology in an effort to mitigate complaints. Larson Camouflage based in Tucson, Arizona devised the first “tree tower” in 1992. Since then other companies with names such as Steel in the Air, SpectraSite, Clearshot, Crown Castle, Treescapes, TeleStructures, and Pinnacle Towers formed and have sold and installed so-called “stealth towers” designed to look like different tree species, flagpoles, church steeples, mosque minarets, crosses, and grain silos among other things. One company customized a tower to look like an osprey nest. Another sells a “lightning tree” designed to look like a stump struck by lightning. These tower get-ups can cost up to $200,000, and securing permission for their installment can require elaborate planning and meetings with property owners, community groups, local political officials and representatives of wireless corporations.

With the globalization of wireless telephony, similar firms have emerged in different parts of the world that specialize in the international distribution of tree tower coverings. For instance, Envirocom, based in Gauteng, South Africa, sells antenna trees to clients in Uruguay, Brazil, the US, Portugal, France, the UK, Holland and Turkey. And the Turkish company Preserved Palm, based in Ankara, has signed deals with clients in Dubai, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Egypt, United Arab Emirates, Moldova, Kazakhstan and Germany among others. A global industry has formed to conceal wireless infrastructure and these new products have been installed in different sites for different reasons. Given this growing trend, we might ask what is at stake in this concealment? When technologies remain hidden or obscure they remain beyond public concern. Only when cell towers became visible in neighborhoods and national parks did citizens take an interest in them and their effects. Most people notice infrastructures only when they are put in the wrong place or break down. This means that public knowledge of them is largely limited to their misplacement or malfunction.

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Antenna tree ready to be planted

While concealing infrastructure sites may be a viable aspect of urban planning (as has long been the case of sewer, electricity and water systems), one of its effects is to keep citizen/users naive about the systems that surround them and that they subsidize and use. Because of this, it is important to devise other ways of visualizing and developing literacy about infrastructures and the relations that take shape through and around them. Are there ways of representing cell towers that will encourage citizens to participate in sustained discussions and decisions about network ownership, development, and access? What is it about infrastructure that is aesthetically unappealing? What form should infrastructure sites assume? Should they be visible or invisible?

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Palm tree with antenna palm tree

While manufacturers and carriers have devised ways to conceal cell towers, some artists have created works designed to draw our attention back to them. German photographer Robert Voit has exhibited a series of photographs entitled “Enchanted Wood” that were taken between 2003 and 2005 in the US, Great Britain, South Africa, Korea, Italy and Portugal. The photos draw upon the conventions of landscape photography and scientific illustration to present an inventory of cell towers that have been camouflaged as different tree species in different settings. Each photograph represents an antenna tree in isolation, whether cactus, pine, palm or cypress, as well as the environment surrounding the tower whether a desert floor, grassy field, parking lot, or mobile home park. ((Some of Robert Voit’s photos are available online.)) The photos work to expose an infrastructure site that has been carefully designed to blend in with the environment, while also subtly alluding to the imperceptible signal transactions that traverse geophysical and electromagnetic territories.

The politics of infrastructural invisibility that take shape around the antenna tree involve citizens’ concerns about neighborhood aesthetics, health and property values, environmentalists’ protection of national parks, global corporate enterprises, and artists who challenge us to reflect upon the contexts and effects of infrastructure concealment. Though these groups are situated around the antenna tree in different ways, they all draw attention to and help to generate dialogues about it. Perhaps the ultimate irony of the antenna tree is that it actually exposes more than it hides and in this sense can be thought of as a site for generating further public knowledge about the materiality of wireless and other network systems. We are socialized to know so little about the infrastructures that surround us, even though many of us use mobile phones each day. Would our experience of mobile telephony change if we knew more about the architectures of signal distribution? It is difficult to say, but we certainly would have a different relation to the technology if we understood it as something more elaborate and expansive than something that rings in our purse or vibrates in our pocket. The emergence of wireless telephony has involved the sale and lease of public and private property, the allocation of space in the electromagnetic spectrum, the redefinition of urban, suburban and rural environments, and the alteration of patterns of daily life. By thinking around the antenna tree, perhaps it is possible to begin cultivating new critical approaches to the study of infrastructure and its relation to cultures of everyday life.

Image Credits:

1. Photo by Lisa Parks
2. Photo by Lisa Parks
3. Photo by Lisa Parks
4. Photo by Lisa Parks
5. Photo by Lisa Parks
6. Photo by Lisa Parks

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Goodbye Rabbit Ears: Thoughts About the Digital TV Transition
Lisa Parks / UC Santa Barbara

Rabbit Ears

Rabbit Ears

The shift to digital television is scheduled to occur on February 18, 2009 in the US. This historic shift, often compared to the inauguration of color TV, has been referred to as “The Digital TV Transition” by the FCC and has been widely publicized for the past several months. As I write this column, the FCC website provides the countdown to the digital transition as 74 days, 13 hours, 4 minutes, 49 seconds. This is an important moment for television scholars: the future of television is in the public spotlight, and there are opportunities to draw attention to various TV-related issues ranging from media conglomeration to e-waste from writer’s salaries to spectrum allocation, particularly since the issue of media reform got lost in the 2008 elections. Further, following on important work by William Boddy, John Caldwell, and Lynn Spigel among others, we might also consider how this historic moment suggests new directions for TV research, whether on the relationship between the FCC and citizens/viewers, local and regional television, or the visualization of television technologies.

Though regulators and manufacturers have already made many of the key decisions about the future of television, technological negotiations remain for many consumer/citizens. There are an estimated 19 million US households still using analog television sets. (In technology studies we often hear of the “early adopters” and we might call this group the “diehard users.”) Owners of analog sets will have to decide how and whether they want to continue to receive a television signal and can either purchase a digital converter box or a television set with a digital tuner, or can subscribe to cable or satellite television. The federal government has subsidized the transition and the National Telecommunication and Information Administration is administering a $1.5 billion coupon program to support those who want to retrofit their analog receivers with converter boxes.

National Targeting for Digital Conversion

National Targeting for Digital Conversion

Despite TV scholars’ recent focus on cable, satellite, interactive and web-based TV, it is important to recognize that a significant chunk of the US TV audience—roughly 15%—has continued to receive “free” over the air signals for decades. What if the moment of the digital transition led to scholarly investigations of the analog diehards rather than the technophiles that raced to join the alleged digital TV “revolution”? Given the fixation on novelty in our techno-culture and often in our field, we have much to learn from consumers who, whether by default or by choice, continue to use machines simply because they still work. It’s too easy to equate the use of old machines with poverty or reticence.

Many assume that analog TV viewers are elderly folks who grew up with rabbit ears, and indeed some of them are. Yet a glance at the FCC digital transition website reminds us just how diverse the US TV audience is. Information about the transition is provided in the following languages: Amharic, Arabic, Bosnian, Cambodian, Chinese, Creole, French, Hmong, Japanese, Korean, Kurdish, Laotian, Navajo, Polish, Portuguese, Russian, Somali, Spanish, Tagalog, Vietnamese, Yupik. That this array of languages appears suggests that ethnic communities might be particularly impacted by the transition. Some of these communities have historically received local over the air programming in their own languages. Whatever the case, there have always been multiple “televisions”—whether the standards are analog or digital—shaped in part by the various communities that arrange and use the technology. Clearly, we need more research like Hamid Naficy’s study The Making of Exile Cultures: Iranian TV in Los Angeles (U of Minnesota, 1993) or Eric Michaels’ Bad Aboriginal Art (U of Minnesota, 1994). We need to understand what television technology means to different communities in urban and rural areas in the US and beyond.

Elderly Woman vs. Converter Box

Elderly Woman vs. the Converter Box

Over the past several months we’ve seen an armada of public service announcements heralding the transition. National and local organizations have gone to great lengths to communicate with viewers about it. One PSA that frequently airs on CNN features a sixty-something man strolling through a barren landscape, and, as the sun sets behind him, he announces the end of analog and birth of digital TV. Another stars FCC Chairman Kevin Martin with a direct address to TV viewers in which he bluntly states, “Your TV needs to be ready so you can keep watching.” Yet another presents a popcorn-munching family huddled around a suspense show that disappointingly turns into static. Finally, a parody reveals a sweet elderly woman trying to set up her converter box. After wrestling with tangled cables she asks, “Will all of this make Jack Benny come back?” She then snips a cable with her scissors and sticks her remote control in the microwave in a desperate effort to capture the digital signal. ((This aired on Fox’s Talkshow with Spike Ferensten, season 3, episode 3, available at Hulu.com)) This broad collection of PSAs, of which I’ve mentioned a tiny sliver, provides an important site for scholarly engagement because it registers the various ways in which the public has been encouraged to understand and negotiate the transition.

As someone long interested in the way technical knowledge about television circulates, I find these attempts to visualize or manifest the analog to digital shift quite fascinating. Not only PSAs, but also “how to” manuals, flow diagrams and maps have been used to guide citizen/consumers through the transition. One color-coded map puts these issues into cartographic perspective as it reveals areas in the US with a high density of analog TV users. A 2007 National Association of Broadcasters map illustrates the relative density of digital television stations in the US, showing the areas best prepared for the transition. Such visualizations are extremely useful documents for TV scholars and educators because they can help us comprehend and convey television’s spatial and territorializing properties. Further, each PSA or map is an attempt to translate largely imperceptible technical processes (which we are socialized to remain naive about) into intelligible forms that can be interpreted and discussed.

Digital Stations By DMA

Digital Stations By DMA

Thus we might think of the digital transition as a meta-moment in television’s history in that we are confronted with various manifestations of television itself. Rarely are citizens/viewers encouraged to think so carefully about how they get their signals and how their receiver works—to think so specifically about an object that is at once so familiar and so strange. This can be a useful moment, then, in that there is an increase in the circulation of technical knowledge about television in the public sphere. And the analog diehards, in particular, are being addressed, lest they be “left behind” or remain beyond what Mark Andrejevic has called the “digital enclosure.” ((Mark Andrejevic, I Spy: Surveillance and Power in the Interactive Era, (Lawrence: University Press of Kansas), 2007, 2-3.)) Still, several questions linger, even as new knowledge about television circulates. After the transition will citizens know not only what digital TV is, but what the FCC is and who its Chair and Commissioners are? Will they care about where their trashed analog TV sets and antennae end up? Will they insist that community television stations not die along with analog TV? And what will become of the white space—that part of the spectrum left open in the wake of analog TV’s termination? Finally, what does this mean for the future of television scholarship? It is my hope that we will continue our research backward and forward at once, and keep the enticing shimmer of the new – whether we call it the digital or something else – in perspective so that we can continue to explore the multifarious ways in which people in the US and beyond have (re)arranged, tinkered with, hybrized and defined television technologies in the past and will continue to do so in the future whatever its standard.

Image Credits:

1. Rabbit Ears
2. National Targeting for Digital Conversion
3. Elderly Woman vs. Converter Box
4. Digital Stations By DMA

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The 2004 Presidential Election and the Dean Scream

by: Lisa Parks / UC Santa Barbara

What was missing in this campaign in my opinion was the lack of discussion of media industry reform, which is surprising given all the ammunition on the Democratic side to address such issues. Just to mention a few of the issues: the continual selling off of the electromagnetic spectrum under Michael Powell’s leadership at the FCC; the loosening or elimination of laws that restrict media ownership; the erosion of First Amendment rights; the refusal to take seriously the legal mandate to operate and regulate the airwaves in the public interest. The Center for Digital Democracy calls this FCC’s policy a “leave no media monopoly behind policy” or “the big give away,” and if there is not some intervention or media reform soon, those who rely on the Internet for news and information can anticipate surfing an increasingly corporatized cyberspace. In June and July, 2003, the FCC gave away so much spectrum that experts in the field predicted this would have to become a key campaign issue. But it didn’t.

This FCC is much more concerned about moral policing than ensuring citizens receive adequate information to be educated voters. This is manifest, for instance, in the way that Janet Jackson’s breast became more interesting to the FCC than television networks’ coverage of the presidential campaigns. The FCC fined CBS $550,000 for what Michael Powell called a Super Bowl “burlesque” show, but networks’ failure to adequately explain and differentiate the many candidates’ platforms or deliver thorough reporting about the war in Iraq goes on unnoticed. If we want to continue to call the U.S. a democratic society, we need to focus more on the issue of media reform and insist that our elected officials begin to treat the spectrum as public property. According to the Communication Acts of 1927 and 1934, the airwaves are to be operated and regulated in the public interest, however difficult to define “the public interest” may be. The airwaves are the equivalent of a natural resource like the ocean or a forest; some legal scholars have even suggested using public trust doctrine to return this property to its rightful owners – the people – instead of Time Warner, News Corp., or Disney.

While there is reason to be highly critical of television news, many intellectuals, liberals, and leftists never watch it. Most of their critiques are based on the assumption that the commercial ownership of broadcasting necessarily reproduces in its content the ideologies of corporate/political elites. While this may indeed be true, it is too simple a way to treat a medium whose history, uses, and viewers are so complex. Because of this, media literacy and education are more important than ever. But this involves a commitment – to take time to watch television news and to track and critique its contradictory paths of knowledge production.

We could think, for example, about Howard Dean’s scream after the results of the Iowa caucuses came in on January 19, 2004, because this moment tells us a lot about how the TV industry works. The scream became extremely lucrative for the commercial television news networks. So enthralled by its entertainment value, the broadcast and cable networks played the scream 633 times in the four days after his speech. They took it out of its context, isolated it as a brief clip, manipulated the volume, and used it to lampoon Dean and question his competency as a Presidential candidate, in effect sabotaging the campaign by referring to him as “angry,” “too temperamental,” “out of control,” “inappropriate,” “unpresidential,” and so on. TV news content is restricted to certain time slots. Segments will always be interpreted in relation to what precedes and follows them. And some things will always be emphasized over others. And Dean’s voice was cut down to a sound bite, played after other candidates who were speaking calmly, and accentuated because the microphone he used separated the scream from ambient noise making it sound much louder than it actually was heard. As a post on a website called Value Judgement observed: “when the media turns down the sound on the crowd, they are trying to do what they always do – turn down the volume of the American people.” Dean’s scream took on a life of its own online as websites sprouted up to correct what the TV news networks got wrong (with the exception of ABC’s Diane Sawyer who did her own detailed investigation into the issue.) It was sampled in hiphop songs, imitated on late night TV talk shows, and labeled the “I have a Scream” speech.

Perhaps more important, though, is the way this media event revealed something about the perverse political age in which we live. Why would we be so offended by Dean’s scream and not be offended by Bush’s use of an earpiece during the debates? Why would we be offended by the passion of a political candidate and not be offended by an administration that authorizes the torture of prisoners in Abu Ghraib or the massacre of Iraqis in Fallujah? 1200 have been killed during the past week alone. We can only imagine the screams that must reverberate there because they never make it to our TV screens. What is wrong with a presidential candidate exuberantly expressing himself before a crowd of cheering supporters? Our current president made an illegal declaration of war!! Give me Dean’s scream over Bush’s war cry any day!

But what this event also revealed unfortunately was a lack of vision and verve within the leadership of the Democratic Party, which treated it as an opportunity to edge Dean out of the race and scold him for being out of line. Some even withdrew their endorsements. The irony, of course, is that Dean may now be in contention for the position of chair of the DNC precisely because he was one the only candidates that had a platform based on substantive and meaningful differences from the Republican Party. Another irony is that Dean was one of the only candidates to take a position on media reform, boldly stating, “this government has given away our airwaves to the most powerful corporations, who are misleading the public. That is a dangerous thing for the promulgation of democracy, and that will be undone in a Dean administration.”

So the Dean scream is about much more than a wild howl. It’s a symptom of: the need to invigorate the Democratic Party with meaningful differences rather than centrist stances; the commitment to first amendment rights, which includes the right to express outrage over the current administration’s policies; the need for media industry reforms that treat the airwaves as a public resource instead of a corporate or military battlefield.

Links
Dean Scream Remixes
FCC
Dean For America
Democratic Party
Republican Party

Please feel free to comment.