Mapping The Emerging Urban Landscape

"Trace: Mapping The Emerging Urban Landscape" by Alison Sant is an interesting article if you're interested in the whole debate about digital traces and how wireless networks and mobile devices are "reforming our contemporary notions of urban place". It deals with a topic I am interested in, which is the boundaries of wireless technology. As the authors says, they have deep implications for our notion of space even though they are not physically obvious. Sant describes in this paper a project called *TRACE* which make the wifi topography visible, revealing "the intersection of the physical and immaterial infrastructures of the city" (I don't know why they say it's immaterial... as WiFi nodes are all but immaterial). Moreover, the project also reveals the fluctuating character of the wireless network, an important characteristic as it challenges the notion of "a purely static notion of public space". This sort of "Hertzian landscape" is represented as follows, with "binary qualities of being on and off the network, in locked or unlocked zones, and in areas of unique or default node name".

For instance, it can be represented like this, with the shapes are uniquely suited to each node and are at varying angles:

The process of building these viz also allowed the author to observe very interesting practices:

"The decision to leave a WiFI node locked or unlocked or to rename a base station communicates a bias to those that "see" these nodes through wireless devices. In addition, WiFI node names and encryption states become vehicles to express disparate attitudes about public access. An inflammatory declaration of privacy like "Go Away!" may be opposed by an open invitation to logon in the form of a web site address "go" (...) Our understanding of physical space becomes complicated by traces of electronic signals, the way they are formatted, and the information they project to us. The wireless network suggests a new subtext to urban space. In turn, these transmissions change our fundamental understanding of location. Instead of responding purely to the physical space around us, we also become engaged with the fleeting qualities of wireless signal. These "states" of the network begin to inform and direct our interactions with the urban landscape as significantly as the material landmarks on city maps."

Why do I blog this? I like how the author describes this wireless layer as an hertzian fooprint that is dynamic and reconfigure our relationship to space in novel ways. Very much in line with similar projects such as Anthony Dunne and Fiona Raby's "Tunable Cities" (Architectural Design 68*, No. 11/12, pp. 78-79, November-December 1998):

"". . . [H]ertzian space is actual and physical even though our senses detect only a tiny part of the electromagnetic spectrum. Images of footprints of satellite TV transmissions in relation to the surface of the earth, and computer models showing cellular phone propagation in relation to urban environments, reveal that hertzian space is not isotropic but has an 'electroclimate' defined by wavelength, frequency and field strength. Interaction with the natural and artificial landscape creates a hybrid landscape of shadows, reflections, and hot points.""

That issue is important to me as there is an intriguing paradox with the advent of the "digital city" (which gets lots of visibility in the media) and its relative invisibility practically speaking.