The Protocological Surround

The protocological surround: reconceptualising radio and architecture in the wireless city

Fuller + Harley

University of New South Wales, Australia

Heavily reworked version of “Contactless Contact” paper (thanks to great readers’ comments and criticisms) for forthcoming From Social Butterfly to Engaged Citizen (MIT Press)

Moving within an architectural surround, a person fashions an evolving matrix, an architectural surround not entirely of her own making. (Arakawa and Gins 2002, 40)

1. Sensual integration in the mobile wireless city

This chapter proceeds from an assumption that the widespread introduction of wireless devices into the urban environment involves the formation of new relationships between bodies and practices of power. Here we want to initiate some discussion around the ontological and sociological implications of ubiquitous networks, especially as they pertain to an engagement with mobility and wireless technologies.

With the increasing prevalence of WiFi, RFID, Bluetooth and other novel radio technologies, a new kind of electromagnetic space is becoming integral to the life and shape of the urban environment. We are not so much concerned with the history of radio broadcasting as we are with redeployment of radio across urban environments in novel and unexpected ways. The contemporary electromagnetic spaces discussed in this chapter now occupy the banal and increasingly pervasive geometries of super-distributed control a barely discernible ‘surround’ that inaugurates a new politics of ubiquity.

Following Arakawa and Gins, we propose that the “characteristic features for an immensely large architectural surround such as a city will be everything that makes it a city, including those bustling or ambling through it” (Arakawa and Gins 2002, 39). Increasingly this surround is becoming informationalised, involving the dispersal of processing power into the everyday environment what Adam Greenfield terms ‘everyware information processing’ (Greenfield 2006). It forms part of a protocological ensemble that enables the automatic opening of doors, the registering of identity data, or the enabling of credit card transactions, telephone calls and access to tollways to happen (apparently) seamlessly. This increasingly pervasive surround harnesses “all of the power of a densely networked environment, but refining its perceptible signs until they disappear into the things we do everyday.” (Greenfield 2006, 26) Surrounded by an electromagnetic spectrum thick with information, the technologised atmosphere has drafted the body into the service of the urban infrastructure.

This chapter is an attempt to reconceptualise radio and architecture in contemporary urban environments, to consider some of the emergent architectural and protocological surrounds sometimes “not entirely of our own making” (Arakawa and Gins 2002, 40). We ask how this evolving interpenetration of architectural surfaces, bodies, signals, and waves (utilised by the mobile devices that guide and track a wide range of constantly moving human bodies and material objects) can be seen to create new kinds of social engagement and ‘forces of relationality’.

This interpenetration occurs in two ways. Firstly, communicating devices are in the business of exchanging information (and not meaning), and thus operate under the non-representational governance of protocol. Secondly, the negotiability of semantic systems give way to the non-negotiability of code. As Alexander Galloway puts it, “protocol is a circuit not a sentence” (Galloway 2006). Moreover, the increasing integration of mobile bodies within multi-sensate urban infrastructures (visible and invisible, tactile and contactless) requires a body that moves in certain ways and at certain times in order for the whole to be able to function. City, device, and body become prosthetically interrelated, part of a greater assemblage of mobile organisation (Terranova 2004; Galloway 2006; Manning 2007).

The much-vaunted ‘freedom’ offered by wirelessness is enabled by achieving what appears to be the total ubiquity of body-network relations. Always-on and always-connected, wireless technologies offer considerable freedom of movement by collapsing previously disparate spatial locations of labour (home, office etc.) into the mobile space of flows we now occupy (Castells 1996). What holds us in place is not the disciplinary fantasy or the architectural backdrop of modernity. Today our bodies are held in place by a dynamic architecture that is enabled in part by the novel use of radio spectrum and wireless communication. The move from disciplinary to control societies has been understood (cf Deleuze 2006 and Foucault 1996) in terms of the breakdown of one form of confinement into another “mechanism of control as rigorous as the harshest confinement” (Deleuze 2006, 178). Here we want to explore how the ‘protocological surround’ enabled by wireless technologies invokes a different power relation irreducible to the logic of surveillance or control but within its genus in both that is based instead on conditions of ‘smooth’ mobility and wireless connectivity.

This chapter seeks to explore the ways in which ubiquitous wireless technologies recalibrate the experience of urban spatiality. We propose that these new forms of situated computing cannot be understood outside of specific modes of social engagement, and that this is best framed in terms of a reconsideration of the interplay between radio, urbanism and architecture.

The relationships between architecture, movement and the city have long been discussed in terms of regimes of vision for instance the panoramas of railways, the idea of the cinematic city, or framing devices of all kinds. Anne Friedberg wonders whether there is “a new logic to vision as our windows, frames, screens are ever more fractured and virtually multiplied? Which technologies will break through the frame and have us climb out through the virtual window?” (Friedberg 2006, 242). Eric Gordon has argued that radio ‘reframed’ the modern city by dint of its inherently networked architecture, which broke the enframing regime of vision through the foregrounding of scale. Transmission towers strung together new connections that were beyond the horizon ‘out of sight’. The urban imaginings invoked by radio’s invisible connections and increasingly active air (Sloterdijk 2009) were made concrete in the aesthetics of a nascent mobile modernism in which electrical, telegraphic and radio transmission towers rose up to harness the invisible power of the air. The broadcasting of audio via radio waves also saw the inauguration of new soundscapes that challenge the dominance of visuality in the urban realm. The ‘invisible empire of the air’ was made visible through an acoustic aesthetic that “prioritised connectivity over isolation and mobility over stagnation” (Gordon 2005, 265). This invisible relational dynamic remains crucial to the role wireless networks play in media change today. Adrian Mackenzie asserts that wireless networks “[t]heir connectivity, intermittent, unstable and uneven as it often is, lodges in many of the overlaps, overflows and outgrowths badged as convergence, mobile media, and pervasive or ubiquitous computing. (McKenzie 2008)

The new deployment of low-powered radio generates an intimacy which strangely may not always be felt directly upon the body, but which nevertheless affects the body’s ability to act. That is, we may not perceive the invisible radio waves of the electromagnetic spectrum and may not feel the constant touch of machines registering our details, but they invariably affect how we move. In a sense, it this dance between what is perceived, what is known and what is registered that provides the experiential foundations of everyday life.

The potential spatial and social implications of new ubiquitous infrastructures have been noted by a number of researchers. Anthony Townsend reminds us that the “pervasive deployment of telecommunications networks was one of the defining characteristics of the 20th century city in the developed world” (Townsend 2007, 396). As the 21st century sees the pervasive deployment of new location-aware computing and telecommunications that is reshaping the geography of many sociospatial activities, “urban form has responded to the new spatial freedoms allowed by pervasive telecommunications”. (Townsend 2007, 396)

Dodge and Kitchin similarly argue that pervasive computing and the rendering of everyday objects into smart objects represent a major new regime, but from their perspective it is one of recording (after the previous regimes of writing and the printing press). Mundane and routine, this embedding of computing power into our everyday lives will constitute new pervasive “sociospatial archives” capable of recording details about all the places a mobilised individual has been. They situate this as part of the historical shift from surveillance to what they call sousveillance “the internal counter to external surveillance” (Dodge and Kitchin 2007, 432). Under the pretext of efficiency of movement, congestion reduction, or discourses of security, this new regime of recording is not top-down, but rather inside-out and bottom-up.

Echoing the work of Thrift (2004), Dodge and Kitchin frame their studies of mobilised pervasive computing in terms of trying to capture “the outlines of a world just coming in to existence, one which is based on continuous calculation at each and every point along each and every line of movement.” (quoted in Dodge and Kitchin 2007, 432) They highlight the shift from watching (surveillance) to recording of “capta” ie those “units of data that have been selected and harvested from the sum of all potential data” and typically derived from the use of swipe cards, the logging of computers, the tracking of vehicles by way of on-board locational devices and so on. (Dodge and Kitchin 2004, 854) These automated networks “produce particular and new sociospatial formations” and so far do not fill out the whole space of the city. (Dodge and Kitchin 2007, 434) The question remains to what extent ubiquitous computing will create novel sociospatial effects that may include the creation of “a mobile panopticon (as opposed to the partial oligopticon)” of the urban metropolis. (Dodge and Kitchin 2007, 436)

Loaded with our various radio-enabled peripherals (mobile phones, key fobs, e-tags, contactless smart cards, and other remote keyless systems) our senses are becoming more diffuse yet more interconnected. We beep unknowingly, register data, upload personal information, download encryption signals, or transmit passwords and identity codes. Our senses now engage with peripherals and systems of ‘dataveillance’ that have become essential to traversing urban networks and architectures and these devices are themselves increasingly integrated into the hard- and soft-ware of the city. We experience this in the form of tollbooths, automated door sentry systems, RFID gantries, and cell towers to name but a few of these new topological constants that trace and record (and in some instances block) our every move. One’s becoming is ‘becoming networked’, ‘becoming relational’. In order to be actualised, presence must be partial situated and sensate, cybernetically sensitive to feedback within the system (Munster 2005, Terranova 2004).

The prosthetic devices we are referring to here reach out and touch other devices (without ever actually touching them) across a scale that can no longer be contained by ‘frames’. These sensing devices activate both near and far, light and heavy, untethered and encumbered to “an empire of functions” (Thrift 2008, 9) in which antennae and algorithms reorganise contemporary practices of experience. An ‘awareness of the network’ an ever-present possibility of another connection has now become built into everyday experience. In the process, these sensing devices are folded into the network; they are integrated into the city and into the “cloud of electromagnetic radiation that bathes us in information” (Varnelis 2008).

2. Radio on.

This process occurs in physical realms that some scholars call ‘Hertzian space’: the space of radio signals in everyday environments. In order to understand this in more detail, we need to turn to a discussion of radio’s genealogy and transformation into a new procedural system for the construction of contemporary spaces.

Some recognition of the history of radio can help us contextualise recent developments over the last decade or so of ubiquitous media. In terms of the presence of electromagnetic spectrum, radio is part of the late nineteenth century scientific discoveries. Since the mid 1880s when the German physicist Heinrich Hertz identified what we now call radio waves, technologists have been concerned with practical issues to do with “what kind of device it would take to modulate and detect such waves and how far they would travel” (de Sola Pool 1990, 25). Wave-based and invisible, radio had a significant social impact and was quickly brought within legislative and regulatory frameworks that sought to minimise the impact of interference among a swelling number of transmissions. The regulation of airwaves and spectrum was from the very outset a hot political topic. “Interference by broadcasters with one another quickly became so severe that the industry appealed to the US governments to set up some system of licensing so that radio stations could be alone in their segment of the spectrum.” (de Sola Pool 1990, 26) It was not until the mid 1980s that low-powered radio devices (operating at certain frequencies in a very limited part of the spectrum) were deregulated and opened up for unlicensed use.

Radio is the technical apparatus of Hertzian space the atmosphere of electromagnetic radiation that surrounds us in information and the space that makes panoptical technologies (but not regimes of vision) obsolete. As Eric Gordon’s work demonstrates, early responses to radio (and its electro magnetic invisibility) in New York illustrate how the separate fields of radio and architecture have changed eg where they have come from, how they have previously been theorized, and particularly in relation to networked technologies of the past. Light, sound and data all ride the electromagnetic forces that are now infusing the gravitational forces of classical and [post]modernist architecture. How is this new use of the spectrum clashing with, flowing alongside, and resisting the other non-corporeal forces of power that are warping and folding the fabric of urban experience?

Anthony Dunne puts it this way. Radio,

meaning part of the electromagnetic spectrum, is fundamental to electronics. Objects not only ‘dematerialise’ into software in response to miniaturisation and replacement by services, but literally dematerialise into radiation… Whereas cyberspace is a metaphor that spatialises what happens in computers distributed around the world, radio space is actual and physical, even though our senses detect only a tiny part of it. (Dunne 2005, 101)

Simply put, we are concerned with looking at how bodies are becoming bound to the fabric of the city through the invisible, silent and sometimes unregulated waves of radio. We want to trace its connection to the emergent logic of touch which appears around ‘contactless technologies’ enabled by electromagnetic fields using technical procedures drawn from the fields of radio and radar engineering (Finkenzeller 2003, 7). In recent years, automatic identification procedures have transformed distribution logistics, service industries and material flow systems. Their evolution from barcode and optical character recognition to silicon chips has ushered in a range of electronic data-carrying devices that allow for the contactless transfer of information between the device and its reader. Because of the procedures used for the transfer of power and data, contactless ID systems are called Radio Frequency Identification (or RFID) systems.

While RFID technologies are increasingly prevalent, they are not without controversy. Bruce Sterling’s long-running “Arphid Watch” blog contains a good summary of one persistent objection:

Many aspects of RFID interaction are fundamentally invisible; as users we experience two objects communicating through the ‘magic’ of radio waves. This invisibility is also key to the controversial aspects of RFID technology; once RFID antennas are hidden inside products or in environments, they can be invoked or initiated without explicit knowledge or permission. (Sterling 2009)

This invisibility requires a new conceptualisation that is not based on visuality, but rather, is founded on distributive principles that deal in waves, frequencies, and modulations. For us, the protocols of radio offer a crucial way to understand emergent networks of ubiquity. A number of authors have discussed very similar issues in publications that have sought to make a contribution to what might be termed “new media urbanism” (Graham 2007, Townsend 2000 and 2006, McCullough 2007, Zook and Graham 2006, Sassen 2001). As this issue has developed as a topic it has become clear that the reality of an invisible technological un-boundedness is far more complex and differentiated than many proponents of ubiquitous or pervasive computing acknowledge.

We might also usefully recall Lewis Mumford’s prescient studies of invisible infrastructures such as sewage and communication systems which can be viewed in the same manner: “Beneath the visible city, an invisible city grows apace: a buried city of waterpipes and sewers and gas mains and electric cables and steam pipes and telephone wires” (Mumford 1938, 239). More recently Stephen Graham raised many of these issues discussed in this chapter in the book Telecommunications and the City (Graham 1996).

Ubiquitous media and the changing social relationships that frame their use can also be seen as providing another variable geometry of everyday urban environments. As Crang, Crosbie and Graham argue, these changes present “opportunities for restructuring the time-space dynamics of everyday lives, service supply regimes, and the broader time-space patterns of urban development. The dynamic and relational geographies of such transitions reconstitute cities as key spatial pivots within telescoping scalar relations, operating at near instantaneous speeds, from the scale of the body to the transnational” (Crang, Crosbie, Graham 2006, 2552). They posit a “multispeed urban landscape” that structures urban areas in an uneven, accelerated and differentiated fashion. The urban morphology which has been effected by new communications technologies is also in a process of “unevenly reconfiguring the logistical time-space practices of everyday urban life” (Crang, Crosbie, Graham 2006, 2554).

As McCullogh has it, although the “dematerialized and tunneling effects of global communication certainly exist, the local integration and tuning of crossovers between these and preexisting infrastructures also becomes an important competitive advantage for a city” (McCullough 2007, 389). In response to Castells, McCullough argues that “not all is flow in the space of flows… the flows of people, goods, and information require fixed channels, switches, and fittings to become most effective” (McCullough 2007: 390). As can be witnessed with many location-based services (such as RFID, onboard navigation systems, intelligent transportation systems and the like) the issue of control or ‘access’ within the use of such technologies is different depending on the technology used and where you use it.

There are a number of different technological systems that employ spread-spectrum radio technology to create these new mobile architectures associated with ad-hoc networks, personal area networks and wireless systems such as Bluetooth, RFID and WiFi. The 802.11 family of over-the-air modulation techniques (commonly known as WiFi) was first released in 1997. WiFi is a particular type of unlicensed spread-spectrum technology, made available by the deregulation of certain radio frequencies for unlicensed use in 1985. Confined to a narrow part of the spectrum, this technical standard allows devices to operate on the 2.4 GHz band without a license. Although initially conceived as a small experimental project, wireless local area network devices based on the international 802.11 standard became popular as a non-regulated use of radio spectrum. WiFi allows for a range of wireless network practices to emerge, based on a set of global standards of interoperability. It is because of this technical standard that WiFi networks have become so popular as a connective and enabling technology, ‘free as the air’ (despite the fact that many networks are closed or only available via credit card).

Within the space constraints of this chapter, a short mention of what privacy means and how it is affected in relation to issues of freedom and control is warranted. Beyond the obvious issues to do with who has access to the network and the personal data that may be present, there are also new questions concerning the potential for wireless technologies to create a mobile panopticon. Dodge and Kitchin point to a number of concerns that pertain to the embedding and interconnecting of RFID-type devices into the everyday environment:

This location information will be generated at a fine spatial resolution, pinpointed to (potentially) within a few millimetres through pattern recognition, wireless triangulation to fixed sensor nets, and GPS, and will be dynamically collected so that the precise path of an individual can be recalled. All manner of things will `know’ where they are at all times, while many other `dumb’ objects will be routinely `chipped’ using RFID … technologies, making them instantly locatable on demand. Such rich capta will have the effect of opening up new time-space queries that were previously impossible. (Dodge and Kitchin 2007, 236)

The layers of radio communication operate at a series of scales, from long-distance high-powered radio signals to low-powered near-field signals. They form part of the creation of a machine-readable world that captures, stores and exchanges vast amounts of highly granular personal data about mobile bodies, objects, transactions and territorial units in urban environments. Across a variety of different technical protocols, layers, and devices, automatic identification and tracking of devices by readers operates in an apparently seamless fashion. A high density of private information is packaged, processed and recognised by a number of quite different technical systems, each of which has its own parameters and ability to share personal data it collects and records. This new kind of machine communication is defining an emergent architectural matrix that is both background and foreground a new type of ‘protocological surround’.

Protocol is by nature ‘indifferent to the content of information’ that it enables, publishes and distributes (Galloway 2006: xvi). We do not use the term ‘protocological surround’ metaphorically. Thus a protocological surround is a requisite condition for the type of sousveillance that Dodge and Kitchin discuss, inasmuch as it describes a network of material actions and processes, and also in the way that protocols are layered, stratified, sometimes ‘blatantly hierarchical’ (Galloway 2006: xvi). This type of protocol also highlights the regulated nature of information flows across multiple scales.

This protocological surround should not be confused with an enclosure, as it is as fragmented and dynamic as the bodies with which it coheres. An enclosure is merely one term in a semantic myriad of ‘surrounds’ which includes a variety of perspectival terms (like foreground, background, fore-middle-ground, periphery), navigational terms (such as path, enabling, blockage), volumetric terms (such as full and empty), as well as a host of other ‘atmospheric surrounds’ (like clear, polluted, spooky or tense). Thus the surround is as open as it is closed.

Operating under these wireless protocols, large and small devices constantly exchange data, creating new info-spatial formations that are perpetually shifting, impermanent and flexible. The scale of this protocological operation is more personal, domestic, and intimate. It is often related to the movements of our bodies in their own idiosyncratic quotidian movements. This flexible movement partly defines the protocological surround: it is a type of machine chatter that creates an enormous amount of background ‘conversation’ we hardly ever hear, let alone see.

Machine recognition is largely achieved today through a technological ensemble that utilises the radio spectrum in ways that confound traditional understandings of radio. Miniature transponders are embedded in an increasing array of everyday objects, which are typically ‘read’ by data capture devices (known as ‘interrogators’ or ‘readers’). An interrogator typically “contains a radio frequency module (transmitter and receiver), a control unit and a coupling element to the transponder… [M]any readers are fitted with an additional interface to enable them to forward the data received to another system (PC, robot control system etc)’ (Finkenzeller 2003, 7). The old conceptual models of broadcast radio and the regulatory practices of government are no longer appropriate to describe or understand the present plethora of radio-based identification systems that are shaping the new topologies we are exploring.

For this reason, this broader reconceptualisation of radio cannot be reduced to the increased use of two-way functionality. The multiplicity of today’s radio has little to do with the singularity of ‘the radio’ which we’ve come to associate primarily with AM or FM radio stations. New radio technologies such as WiFi, Bluetooth and RFID show us how some of these potentialities are being realised. The liveness and invisible aesthetics of classical radio also have little to do with the rapid evolution of the new urban surrounds that are emerging out of these contemporary technological and social formations. Mostly importantly in the context of this discussion, they draw our attention to the changing relationship between bodies and spaces. For Parisi and Terranova, ‘what bodies are thought to be’ is “a matter of an historically specific organisation of forces bought into being by capital and discursive investments” (cited in Clough, 2007,16). With this in mind, then how is the disciplinary body as ‘organism/self/subject’ that was enclosed within the multiple architectures of the Foucauldian ‘great confinement’ reorganised by what we might call the ‘enforced mobility’ of the ‘great connection’ (in which material walls and optical regimes reconfigure as wireless channels and hot spots built out of air and numbers)?

Following the work of Nigel Thrift and others, we can say that these new systems we are describing are re-ordering life through new non-representational systems of classification, mediation and measurement, ‘qualculated’ world of continuous and ubiquitous calculation (Thrift 2008, 102). The qualculated body is one that is endlessly varying, in constant oscillation. It moves through the city as a mobile body. As Brian Massumi succinctly puts it, “when a body is in motion, it does not coincide with itself. It coincides with its own transition: its own variation.” (Massumi 2002, 4). Thus movement, the relentless flow of bodies and bits, becomes fundamental to thinking through both space and bodies: or “nothing but affects and local movements, differential speeds” (Parisi and Terranova 2008).

As Mackenzie notes, wireless networks operate through what he calls “prepositionality”; in other words, they govern and express spatio-temporal relations like ‘at,’ ‘in,’ ‘with,’ by’, ‘between,’ ‘near,’ etc. “Because of their prepositional power to connect subjects and actions, wireless networks act conjunctively, they conjoin circumstances, events, persons and things.” (Mackenzie 2008). This prepositional relationship is transductive, pragmatically stitching the potentials of semantics into an ongoing experience of the city. The prepositional realtionship is also in a sense ‘governmental’ and anticipatory, not only preceding the ‘thing’, the ‘noun’ etc, but in so doing, determines spatio-temporal relations. There is a big difference between being ‘in’ range to being ‘out of’ range in a wireless world.

Wireless technologies thus hold the multiple surfaces of bodies into an evolving matrix that controls a person’s experience of the city. And digital cities, with all their baroque foldings and multiple surfaces (each sensing each other and creating a riot of beeps, alternating lights and intelligent passages), are about experience. Wireless structures experience and does not construct stable objects or static space. In a dematerialising (ie radio/wireless) city, the quality of experience becomes paramount, increasingly measured by how mobile one can be. The experience of the city is where many of the prime forces of power operate. As Deleuze explains Foucault’s concept of power,

We can conceive of a necessarily open list of variables expressing a relation between forces or power relations, constituting actions upon actions: to incite, to induce, to seduce, to make easy or difficult, to enlarge or limit, to make more or less probable and so on. (Deleuze 2006, 70)

But here in the radio city, power itself is made ubiquitous, soliciting its subjects by way of speed and convenience. No stopping, no waiting no resistance, in all senses of the phrase. In other words, power makes things smooth by taking away the friction that previously slowed down the body and its associated disciplinary information (what are now its multiple datasets stored across interconnected networks of business and governmentality).

3. Wireless regimes and the lightness of touch

Under these new conditions, our understanding of touch needs to move from the intimate and localised sensation of body-on-body (in whatever form that body may take) to a type of haptic engineering in which touch (as a sense) is extended over larger and more public spaces. Following Manning, for us, touch is a prosthetic gesture:

Touch is a prosthesis through which our bodies make contact. Touch is the manner in which I navigate from a subject position (an imagined stability) to an in-betweenness where the line between you and me becomes blurred. To touch is to become posthuman. (Manning 2007, 156)

Touch is extending its sensory range as more surfaces are becoming touchable, ‘thresholding’ us increasingly into the logistical drives of architecture. Along with this transformation, our descriptions of tactile sensations such as ‘soft’, hard’, ‘hold’, ‘push’, ‘grasp’ etc. will also change their meanings (Thrift 2008, 103). True to the locative sense of the contemporary urban condition, we don’t ‘touch’ so much as we move in or out of touch. In terms of a cybernetic sense of targeting, we stay ‘in range’ of the machines we couple and exchange data with.

The increase of tactile surfaces available for connectivity is tantamount to an increase in the multiple prostheses available to produce certain types of relations and certain types of data. Following Bruno Latour’s ‘Parliament of Things’, we could say that our prostheses have voices in the datascape. Or as Bratton and Jerimenko note, as objects become ‘alive’ and give voice to information, they gain a public voice in our mobile civic lives (Bratton and Jerimenko 2009). We are touched by machines that touch each other, and in so doing create new intensities of force.

When we speak of people navigating a city, of scanning and being scanned, it is important not to monumentalise the nature of control society. From our present perspective, this is not a Big Brother style pat-down from a broadcast radio imaginary. Instead, we would like to suggest that our daily navigations through these radio-enabled networks are much more modulated than this. For the touch we are dealing with is, on the whole, a light and intimate touch that often happens in the background of other complex negotiations with the city/architecture. “I reach out to touch you in order to invent a relation that will in turn, invent me” (Manning 2007, vx). As we sign up for various plans and attach various wireless prosthetics to our already thoroughly layered skin/phone/car/subway assemblages, we reach out to institutions of transit, information, and architecture in a loaded ‘handshake’. The compulsory exchange of personal data has never been so easy or seemingly painless (for those who comply at least). The topology of this ‘surround’ however, is riddled with power relations.

Once locked into this grid of the ‘urban sensible’ we flex and move within a constant surround of touch, in which one threshold folds into another (apparently seamlessly). Bodies and machines generate and radiate electromagnetic waves in infinite compositions. However, as is often the way, the de-centering of bodies and subsequent de-institutionalisation results in an ever tighter integration into a modulated system of control that is both public and pervasive. Thus we are touched by the machine.

But what is it that is touched? Certainly it is a touch that extends beyond the skin. Touch is not just concerned with the literal laying on of hands though in the ubiquitous city, that also occurs with greater and greater frequency. For instance, at the airport, the security officer’s latex-gloved hands runs over your breasts and along the inner leg, as if the clinical semiotic of the glove miraculously de-sexes the body and eradicates a lifetime of taboos associated with intimate and uninvited touch by strangers. Of course if we’ve read the governmental fine print on our boarding pass, we have ‘consented’. In order to gain the ‘right’ to travel, we submit to the surrounding processes that form part of our conditions of movement. Or as Erin Manning says, “to touch is not simply to put the organs in contact with the world. Touch foregrounds the senses as machinic assemblages.” (Manning 2009, xxii). This is precisely a form of touching without touching; or in the terms of RFID technologies, it is a form of ‘contactless contact’.

In an increasingly seamless world of ubiquitous computing and low-powered radio transmissions, there are no more hard-line borders. There are just intersecting thresholds of intensity. While the recognisable architectural thresholds of window, door and entrance continue to be invoked in the construction of contemporary space, ubiquitous radio identification systems add a significant number of background thresholds into the equation. Often unnoticed (or at least not foregrounded in an obvious visible fashion), these transmissions between transponders and radio frequency readers have become pervasive in the background architecture of contemporary urban life. We are in touch with a highly variegated system of tracking and identification without being in direct contact with the surface of objects or places.

This ‘contactless contact’ is one of the key characteristics of low-powered radio and miniaturised ubiquitous modulation-demodulation procedures. The digital communication systems that facilitate the transfer of data are brought about by a series of intimate transmissions and signal decodings that are achieved by way of electromagnetic waves in the radio spectrum. This contactless transfer of data between the data-carrying device and its reader constitutes a new set of spatial and material protocols that give shape to the ubiquitous city.

“The centre is no where the circumference is everywhere at once”, says Paul Virilio (Virilio 1995, 36). From outer space to inner space, it has all been colonised and integrated precisely because everything is now so converged and connected. Of course, this is not always a good thing, as Vilem Flusser has noted: “An omnipresent dialogue is just as dangerous as an omnipresent discourse” (Flusser 2007,124).

4. Engagement and contact in the wireless surround

What kind of sensuous regime is in operation, when contact is not felt, noise is not heard and vision is conducted without optic techniques? When engagement is prosthetic? It remains for us to ask how citizens can engage with power under these new conditions of mobility and connectivity. As we have shown, many of the transactions and interrelations that make up the new architectural topology we are concerned with here occur outside the field of vision we might even say ‘under the radar’. The contactless contact we are describing assumes a body that does not itself need to be aware of the network.

The wireless body is connected, linked-in and fully operationalised and yet mostly it is unable to perceive the network and its own conditions of existence. The protocological surround of the wireless city, this ‘everyware’, operates at the scale of the body and at the scale of architecture. Despite this, we tend to engage with the city in a disengaged fashion, within a barely perceptible protocological surround. Under such conditions, the notion of citizen with all its incumbent rights is modulated back into the space of flows (in the same way that any other material object in this mobility system is). Here we might highlight the transformation of civil society to logistical society and ask what kind of engaged citizen we might imagine if citizenry isn’t even really aware of its engagement anymore?

The logic of access, control, tracking, and supply chain management grant unique identifiers by way of radio waves that define new shapes for the city. They promise synchronisation, anti-collision protocols, and ‘automatic’ identification on the fly. Signal, spectrum, coding and modulation procedures fold into haptic relations and new possibilities of touch. Even when you’re not touching something you’re touching something. This is what happens when networks go mobile they have to graft on to you in a new way. There’s a contact of some sort, even if it’s ‘contactless contact’. Within the parameters of the new control society, we need to focus on the politics of touch. It is a politics and an aesthetics that has moved off the body (without organs) and shifted elsewhere. The sources of control happen within the realm of touch, and we need to think about this in terms of the politics of these new conditions.

We have highlighted the pernicious ubiquity of radio frequencies in everyday accessories of mobility: the car key, e-tag, bus card, and money cards that give us access (or not) to networks of data, objects, mobility, and highways. These diagrammatics and aesthetics refer to the ways we enter physical and data portals, pass through the threshold, open the door, enter the passenger section and so on. A number of thematics emerge: the inadvertence of the network; the ineluctable nature of data transfer; distributed processing; compulsory dialogue in the background of the ubiquitous-city. These machinic communications are largely unseen, unknown, but not unfelt. This thresholding activity is happening all around us and all the time. It is registered on bodies with the intensity of the communications handshake. And still, the lightness of touch and the intimacy of radio we are invoking here is highly charged. It is almost a sexual intimacy that emerges between you and the things in your pocket that can be ‘read’ by a machine. All of these things are associated with closeness, personalisation, the touching of the senses, or the penetration of a vibration that literally goes inside your body. Following David Bissell, we would say vibration is “not an intermediary force that is exerted by or forms a presence between more-or-less powerful objects. Rather the event of vibration as a process generates the very effect of different materialities whilst on the move”(Bissell 2010).

The topological constancies we are invoking here do not privilege the visual, but instead focus on the way that coding and modulation happens over a complex invisible assemblage. A new understanding of the wireless city is not about mapping the urban panorama; it is about mapping the ‘protocological surround’ that allows us to understand how the complex interplay of bodies, spaces and data interconnect to form new geographies and architectures.

The topological formation we are describing is also what we might call ‘membranic’. If classical radio is largely concerned with analogue wave and modulation procedures, digital modulation procedures invoke a concatenation of low-powered and spread-spectrum signals, coding and transcoding. Wireless architecture is thus also about about negotiating and understanding the different channels, ‘membranes’ and thresholds that we are folded into. In this sense there are multiple variations on the ‘wireless body’ and the ‘wireless city’ which is why architecture and urbanism needs to attend to this new topology. Hence we can say that the skin of architecture what we have been calling the ‘protocological surround’ is digitally modulated. It oscillates across a spectrum of code-signal that organises the body and architectural space in a variety of ways.

Under such conditions, the ‘freedom’ implied by wirelessness comes at a cost. The total ubiquity of body-network relations actually constrains freedom of movement as much as it appears to allow it. In the emergent wireless city, we are increasingly enmeshed in the informational loops of feedback and emergence that modulate boundaries between bodies and objects/spaces of all sorts. The wireless city is organised into differential degrees of speed and intensity that invoke new techno-social relationships between embodiment and information, between bodies and borders.

In this seamless world of ubiquitous computing, there are no more borders, only thresholds of intensity where the ambient reality of life in the city is formed through prosthetic desire for mobile momentum and easier connections; where our wireless lives (that seemingly free us in space) only bind us tighter to a digitally modulated geography of the air.


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Authors Bio:

Fuller + Harley are an interdisciplinary research-production team who fuse new media theory and practice in a variety of formats. For the past five years, they have been working on a multi-modal project that analyses the flows and network spaces of contemporary airports. Gillian Fuller, who trained as a semiotician and now specialises in new media geographies and mobile cultures, has worked in public radio, museums, now academia. She has published in journals such as Borderlands, FibreCulture and Social Semiotics and chapters in many international texts around topics of Mobilities, Airport cultures and politics and biometrics and biopower. She is co-editing the forthcoming book, Stillness in a Mobile World for the International Library of Sociology Series (Routledge). Ross Rudesch Harley is an artist and writer whose media work has been exhibited in venues such as at the Pompidou Centre, New York MoMA, Ars Electronica, and the Sydney Opera House. His writing has appeared in Art + Text, Convergence, Screen, Rolling Stone and The Australian. Their recent work, Aviopolis: A book about airports was published by Black Dog Publishing, London, in 2005. They are both researchers at the University of New South Wales, Sydney. For further information about their work, visit, and