More-than-Human Hotspots by Rachel O'Dwyer


There is no spot now where a man may go,
Be it burning desert or polar snow,
But there the voice of a friend will come,
Bidding him hope for aid;
There is no place now where the world is dumb
Or lonely, or left afraid….
There’s a message goes through the trembling air,
“Hello”…”Are you there?”
[from Max A., Miltiaides, Quoted in ‘A Unique Record’ October 1912, The Marconigraph, p. 275.]

Once I found the council cutting down trees /
and then I found out it was for 5g/
and then I found out about electromagnetic radiation/
and how it leads to cancer and sterilisation/
and I said fuck the fucking fuckers, fuck the fuckers!

and then I found out about the internet of things/
and how everything is going to be collected/
and its going to go bing-bing-bing-bing-bing
and I said fuck the fucking fuckers, fuck the fuckers!
[Anonymous, Song performed on Instagram, April 28, 2021.]

On Instagram, an old friend from art college has borrowed her son’s guitar and is singing about the evils of 5G in a ballad that rhymes ‘electromagnetic radiation’ with ‘cancer and sterilisation’. ‘Where are you? The world is turning into a dictatorship. A. Technocratic. Dictatorship. where are you?’

The vision of 5G emphasizes speed and capacity. It promises speeds 100 times faster than those of 4G. And partly because of these speeds, it also promises to connect everything, from trees and cows to human bodies, cars, lampposts, and pigeons. Stock images tend to show a global meshwork of point-to-point signals doming a night sky. For the most part, 5G uses what are known as ‘millimetre waves’ to carry signals between things and other things and between things and the cloud. These waves have the same properties as light waves, but they are invisible. They are smaller than a centimetre in length. They intermingle with and are shaped by the surrounding environment. While some radio waves are many kilometres in length, bending around objects and following the contours of the earth, these millimetre waves are so small that they are easily absorbed into buildings, bodies, plants and even raindrops in the atmosphere. Due to their size, they are also unable to travel long distances. The result is that 5G requires new kinds of physical infrastructures to move signals from place to place - smaller base stations every hundred metres or so, blended into street furniture, traffic lights, road signs, and brickwork, sometimes disguised as fake plastic trees dotting the landscape.

The coronavirus pandemic has blended ongoing anxieties about electromagnetic radiation with those about viruses, pathogens, and inoculation. It’s the fear of transmission, a contagion from everything that’s circulating ‘out there’ in the ether with everything ‘in here’, our inability to draw a hard line between the body and the bad air. 5G signals, conspiracy theorists argue, are structurally weakening our immune systems, making us susceptible to new pathogens like covid 19. Others claim that human sweat ducts behave like an array of ‘tiny antennae’ when exposed to these wavelengths, making the very surface of the skin conductive3. Others still argue that the pandemic and resulting mass vaccinations are simply a ruse to insert microchips into the bodies of the population, turning us all into “human hotspots” for next-generation networks. Across the US and the UK, 5G masts are being torn down or burned in the night.

But networks have already imagined humans as hotspots. WiFi and 4G have experimented with various kinds of mesh topologies, where data is routed, not through fixed nodes in the built environment, but through mobile humans taking the train to work or stopping off in a supermarket to do their grocery shopping, passing in the street, mixing, and clustering, coming together before going their separate ways, a kind of epidemiological contact tracing in reverse, where what we might now call a ‘super spreading event’ equals greater throughput. These designs are sometimes proposed for disaster relief situations where physical infrastructures is destroyed and humans remain. They were trialled in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina in 20054. In 2012, BHH Labs rented bodies to solve the problem of Wi-Fi congestion at the South by Southwest (SXSW) Conference in Austin Texas. The company hired thirteen volunteers from a nearby homeless shelter to wear micro base stations on their bodies, donning t-shirts emblazoned with slogans like ‘I’m Clarence, a 4G hotspot.’ The intervention met with mixed reviews, on the one hand horror at the reduction of the most marginalised and precarious in society to street furniture, on the other, lauded as a possibility to return the ‘human hotspot’ to the dignity of an honest day’s work, the chance to connect with others, the potential for new kinds of encounter between Clarence and the visitors to SXSW. .

These human hotspots are present from the beginning of commercial wireless. Even in the earliest days of the Marconi company, wireless communications were imagined for Imperial expansion into far-flung colonies. Local people were put to work rolling out radio stations, carrying materials up half-finished roads from the railway station to the summits where the masts were to be erected. Wireless waves infiltrated the bodies of Empire, used to keep tabs on local unrest, to coordinate rubber shipments from the Amazon at one turn and Whaling in the Antarctic at the other. I spent a good part of the Summer of 2019 scrolling through accounts like these in digitized issues of The Electrician and Wireless World. Gradually it seemed as though there were two histories emerging – the history of Imperial and commercial wireless and something more spectral, a kind of non-instrumental, ‘more-than-human’ radio. For every article on unruly natives and computer supported cooperative seal clubbing5 there was an account of amateur wireless activities, of home-made crystal sets and imperfect antenna designs, of exploring and listening to the ether, of interacting with the materiality of signals. These more-than human networks are spectral to the globalised mesh of today’s vision of 5G connectivity. They are a way of networking otherwise.

Long before radio was pressed into service and used to carry human communications, amateur scientists listened to the material glitches of natural radio, electromagnetic bursts caused by distant stars and weather patterns transduced into electrical current. Later, ‘amateur listeners’ (users of radio who had no commercial designs on the technology) habitually tuned into these so-called atmospherics, ‘Xs’, or ‘Parasites’, and tried to identify their environmental origins. In an address to the Wireless Society of London in 1920, Philip R Coursey broke these parasites into three categories, described onomatopoeically as ‘clicks’, resulting from lightning and similar electric discharges in the atmosphere; ‘hisses’, a form of static resulting from interference with the antenna itself, rain falling on wires, electromagnetic induction from highly charged clouds etc.; and ‘grinders’, which seems to include all kinds of disturbances that don’t fit into the other two categories6. The parasite was anything outside the intended signal, the interference of rogue radio events, distant planets and rain transduced through the aerial, of matter itself. Matter could speak, and radio, for the first time, translated it into a human register. Theories of communication frame these events as ‘noise’ - something to be managed or filtered out. But others were listening closely.

Amateurs also shared details on antenna design. From Wireless World, to magazines for CB radio enthusiasts, and later, forums for community wireless networks, amateurs have gathered to explore the best designs and workarounds for homemade antennas. This is often less about harnessing signals so much as producing a dynamic conversation between bodies, resonant materials, and the airwaves. Because the mathematics of radio propagation is complicated and imprecise, it’s often difficult to calculate and predict how exactly radio waves will interact and be shaped by bodies and buildings, trees and weather in a particular environment. Waves are leaky; they are lively and uncertain.

Early radio amateurs constructed crystal sets from pots and pans, piano wire, and Quaker oats tins. S9 Magazine instructed readers in accessing homebrew gear from decommissioned military aircraft and military electronics surplus. It also included descriptions for making antennas out of everyday materials you might have lying around: Make a Dorsey antenna out of beer cans8, out of coat hangers9, make a stealth antenna for your windowsill from a coke bottle10. Roll your own dipole antenna11. Today, maker sites detail homemade WiFi antennas with coffee cans, electric fans, Pringles tins, and kitchenware for constructing homemade antennas and ‘waveguides’, homemade structures to conduct, shape or guide radio waves. The dimensions of a WiFi wave is about 4.7 inches12. They fit to an adult’s hand span and consequently to lots of everyday devices made for human hands like sieves, plastic bottles, potato steamers and colanders.

Once the antenna is made from whatever conductive materials the user can find, they usually engage in sniffing, or ‘stumbling’13 to find the best possible location for a wireless device. This is an imperfect process, involving feeling and sensing more than perfect calculation. There’s a give and take to all this listening and sniffing, to this fumbling and stumbling and tinkering and trial and error. The nature of the wave as it bounces off and is absorbed into different bodies and materials creates conditions that can’t be fully controlled. There’s an uncertainty that co-creates alongside the qualities of electromagnetic waves, found materials, the conductivity and wave shaping properties of everyday things. This uncertainty produces an abundance or excess of possible material relations, subverting prescribed function, collapsing the expected relations between familiar objects and opening new connections between people and things.

These kinds of homemade practices are often invoked in visions of a ‘wireless commons’. Harking back to the medieval tradition of the commons, where so-called commoners shared land and other resources and gleaned from the surrounding countryside, the wireless commons14 imagines radio as a shared resource free from commercial or state intervention. It was the very fact of the radio waves openness in the early days of wireless - that is had not yet been fenced off for commercial use - that allowed for this free play.15 The vision is that if enough people built and managed their own individual hotspots, we might produce a shared alternative to Eir or Vodafone. Arguably their real radical potential lies not in their vision of technical mastery or scale, but in this inventive materiality that evokes forms of networking at a highly local, embodied level, that coproduces the network with people and environments and things. This is not a ‘network commons’ as a set of shared resources or a technical fix. Instead, as Patrick Bresnihan argues, ‘commoning, in this context, involves the messy, necessarily incomplete, give-and-take that inheres wherever humans and non-humans (partially) rely on each other .16

Japanese radio artist Tetsuo Kogawa is the father of mini-FM. The 1980s movement, inspired by Free Radio in Italy, made use of a particular loophole in radio regulation that allowed for extremely low-powered broadcasts such as those produced by wireless garage door openers and children’s toys. Kogawa used the loophole to develop extremely situated, low-fi, low-power radio stations, transmitting only a few feet, transmitting only within the body, sometimes circulating only within the human hand. For Kogawa, radio art was concerned less with radio as a platform for broadcast and narrowcast transmissions, but with ‘intervening directly in the material called “airwaves””.17 In Kogawa’s performances the airwaves and the body act ttogether.

Kogawa’s performances are open to the ‘indeterminacies of encounter’ to quote Anna Tsing.18 The aim is not to produce the largest broadcasting field possible, or to master the limitations of radiant light or human bodies, but to explore what emerges from their interactions. His micro performances use the body, and, in particular, his hands, as antennas for conducting and guiding, but also impeding, and disrupting radio waves. As Kogawa describes it “We have to ‘release’ myself (sic) towards things themselves: airwaves themselves”.19 Kogawa is a human hotspot. And the performance is precarious, not in the way that Clarence, the 4G hotspot is precarious, but in the sense that it is contingent and unsure, it surrenders itself to the thinginess of things and the waviness of wavelengths.

Some recent explorations have tentatively asked how we might design future communication networks in a way that decentres human agency. Artist Tega Brain designs wireless routers to function according to environmental constraints; perfect throughout is no longer the end goal. In a series of devices called Being Radiotrophic, Brain creates three wireless routers - devices normally designed to pick up broadband signals and transmit them as effectively as possible - and makes their signals contingent on natural elements. ‘An Orbit’ produces signals that wax and wane with the lunar cycle, while ‘The Woods’ is a hybrid hose plant router whose connective properties are disrupted if the plant isn’t watered enough. ‘Open Flame’ associates internet connectivity with a lit candle, cutting off throughout when the candle is extinguished. Much like Anthony Dunne and Fiona Raby explored electromagnetic connectivity and associated devices in Hertzian Tales, these speculative objects are material prompts to rethink connectivity.20 In Brain’s devices wireless is not the seamless, global mesh imaged by 5G. Instead, the devices probe, disrupt and speculate about the kinds of contingencies and more-than-human care that communications may require in the future. By creating network elements that are deliberately reliant, Brain asks if might emphasis aspects of communications beyond speed and extent. What else could we start to prioritize and value – networks of care, or relationality or environmental and ecological sustainability?

Sarah Grant and Danja Vasiliev have been making LANscapes, a different kind of local area network that acknowledges the human, but also the non-human. Instead of fake plastic trees disguised as base stations, the project, which they describe as a series of research experiments more than an artwork, explores the electromagnetic conductivity of “trees, plants, root systems, bodies and streams of water” as possible antennae or waveguides. These are intertwined communicating systems, inviting correspondences between the networked mesh of tree roots and those of global networks. The goal here isn’t to enlist humans or non-humans for greater connectivity, but to explore the possibilities that open up when we think of networking otherwise.

At the start of the first lockdown my family and I were in Clifden in Connemara, close to the ruined site of the Marconi Station at the Derrigimlagh blanket bog, one of the first colonial wireless stations established for transatlantic communications. The station was powered entirely by hand-cut turf, cut by locals form the bog. In 1907 the first commercial message was transmitted across the Atlantic to the station in Glace Bay, Newfoundland. You have to walk uphill through the bog to get to the site, over peat and cut turf, gorse and limestone. The railway built onsite, first to transmit building materials and later to transmit the turf that powered the station, is long gone. The signal tower is gone now too, just a pile of rubble almost reclaimed by the landscape. Sheep graze in between the foundations. The aerials once gave off sparks that could be heard from far away. My husband reads aloud from a sign that says locals liked to come and watch the sparks exploding in the night sky, like fireworks. I took a piece of rough terracotta away with me in my pocket. I put it on the desk we share and like to think about the waves that still resonate somewhere inside it.

Sometimes commons emerge not from human plans but despite them, writes Anna Tsing.21 For Tsing the commons is not exclusively human, but open to the “divergent ecologies” of parasites, “pests and diseases” in entanglements that might be supportive or antagonistic.22 What’s more, this commons isn’t something to strive for. It’s “here and now, amidst the trouble. And humans are never fully in control.”23 Often, when we speak about alternative visions of networks, it is about an alternative vision to the commercial ISP or to the public broadcast, the wireless commons as a set of resources or a scaled vision of community. But in these histories, we can trace a more radical vision of commoning, a way of networking that involves something more than human hotspots.