Mobile communication networks, seemingly the most invisible of infrastructures, have an enormous potential impact on the physical environment of the city. As wireless usage skyrockets, the capacity of the network is pushed to its limits, and the technologies that control and transmit the signals must adapt to meet the demand.
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To begin to comprehend the ways that this infrastructural layer has already spread across the city and how designers can involve themselves in its future form, Michael Chen, a principal of Normal Projects and adjunct assistant professor at the Pratt Institute School of Architecture, and Justin Snider, a designer and researcher, embarked on a research project they call Signal Space. The project is part of an ongoing inquiry into broadcast and antenna infrastructure by Chen and Snider, which involves sensing, simulation and visualization methods, a public data-gathering event series and an upcoming piece in BRACKET [goes soft]. Here, Chen shares some of his research so far: an investigation into the physical, spatial, technological, public, private, governmental and design significance of this new stratum of urban space — signal space.
As recent reports have widely publicized, mobile phones and base station computers store significant personal data. That information, coupled with the emerging spatial and user sensitivities of the infrastructure itself, could be understood as a unique form of spatial memory. Proposals to embed sensors into mobile phones for sniffing out bioterrorism agents or nuclear radiation are indications of the network’s potential to support crowd-sourced passive surveillance, but also to retain memory of the activities of the city at particular locations and in relation to particular spatial environments.
In his work Simulacra and Simulation, Jean Baudrillard recounts a fable by Jorge Luis Borges where a great empire creates a map of its territory so exact that it approaches the size of the territory itself. In many ways, the memory built into signal space reflects Baudrillard’s observation that in contemporary societies, the simulacrum supersedes the actual territory itself. In 2003, New York City’s Department of Information, Technology and Telecommunications collected information about signal quality by inviting New Yorkers to report areas with poor cell phone reception, so that they could be reported to mobile carriers. More recently, in a 2011 paper, researchers at AT&T Labs have proposed that cell phone user data has the potential to dramatically change the future of urban planning, noting that “cellular networks must know the approximate locations of all active cellular phones in order to provide them with communication services. Given the ubiquity of these phones and their almost constant proximity to their owners, cellular networks can be used to opportunistically sense the locations of large populations of people. They thus provide a means to monitor city dynamics frequently, cheaply and at an unprecedented scale.”