Eric Kluitenberg, “The Network of Waves: Living and Acting in a Hybrid Space”

flash mob? via YouTube

While the extent of the Internet’s impact on the conception of the public sphere remains debatable, traditional boundaries have certainly become blurred between the physical and the virtual as well as the public and the private. But if wireless technology is largely invisible, it largely eludes a politics of representation. Eric Kluitenberg, perhaps best known for his whimsical Book of Imaginary Media (Make sure to watch the DVD with Peter Blegvad’s unforgettable performance!), develops a critical approach to wireless politics in “The Network of Waves: Living and Acting in a Hybrid Space.”

Building on Manuel Castells’s formulation of the “network society,” Kluitenberg questions the dichotomy Castells proposes between two kinds of spatial logic: “the logic of material places and locations (space of place) and the logic of intangible flows of information, communication, services and capital (space of flows)” (9). Kluitenberg critiques the ahistoricity of Castells’ model, and contends that Castells’ binary of material “spaces of place” and immaterial “spaces of flows” hardly squares with the current tendency of information technologies to blur these very distinctions between materiality and immateriality. As a corrective, Kluitenberg proposes the concept of “hybrid space:” “the hybridity of this spatial concept refers not only to the stratified nature of physical space and the electronic communication networks it contains, but every bit as much to the discontinuity of the ‘connectivity’ or degree of connection between the multiplicity of communication networks” (10). Not all networks are created equal, and each network links up with another at a different scale: local, regional, or global.

In tandem with this critique of network studies, Kluitenberg develops a critique of the limits of visual culture studies. The “Diktat of Visibility” excludes the invisible operations of wireless technologies, and tends to frame the limits of visual culture in terms of the “screen” (11). Beyond the visible public sphere, wireless transmitters and receivers play a key role in the creation of “augmented space” (e.g., wearables, sensors, remote activation). As a result, new regimes of controlling public and private space have come about: RFID cards are used for public transportation; ID chips are implanted in pets and workers; all of which allows for data collection. According to Kluitenberg, whenever technology becomes invisible, we stop being aware of it and considering it as a construct, which opens up the possibility of authoritarianism. Initiatives are increasingly distributed between producers and consumers; and more and more decisions are made at the nodes of  networks, rather than at the hubs, which creates a space in which a sovereign subject can shape his or her own autonomy.

To intervene in the creation of these hybrid spaces, Kluitenberg proposes eight main strategies (14-16):

  1. “tactical cartography,” a form of psychogeography that makes local area networks visible;
  2. “disconnectivity,” or “the right and power to be shut out, to have the option, for a longer or shorter time, to be disconnected from the network of waves,” as Evgeny Morozov will also insist on;
  3. “sabotage,” or intentionally disrupting public and private infrastructures;
  4. “legal provisions, prohibitions,” presumably governing wireless networks and spectrum sharing;
  5. a “reduction in economic scale” designed to prevent continued increases in economic scale;
  6. shifting our focus from privacy to “accountability and public transparency”;
  7. “deliberate violation of an imposed spatial programme,“ meaning mass-scale civil disobedience;
  8. “the creation of new social and political players – public action,” or using public spaces for strategic purposes.

One main implication of Kluitenberg’s treatment of these strategies and practices is that the politics of wireless networks depends largely on non-technical interventions. His examples of flash mobs, the “Reclaim the Streets” movement, and perhaps even the Xchange network differ strikingly from Jussi Parikka’s discussion of hardware modifications. For Kluitenberg, even in a wireless world, “presence” remains the main catalyst of political change.


Kluitenberg, Eric. “The Network of Waves: Living and Acting in a Hybrid Space,” Open 11: Hybrid Space (2006).


Jussi Parikka, “Critically Engineered Wireless Politics”

"Packetbrücke" via Flickr (
The Weise7’s “Packetbrücke” via Flickr

Media studies often assumes a naive attitude toward its objects of study, taking concepts like “communication,” “circulation,” and “access” as ideals. In “Critically Engineered Wireless Politics,” Jussi Parikka challenges this common attitude through an engagement with contemporary media theory and an extended discussion of a 2011 exhibition at the Transmediale by the Berlin-based Weise7 group.

The aim of Parikka’s article is partly to demonstrate an alternative, more critical stance toward media, which he designates with the umbrella term “evil media.” In the same turn, Parikka prefers the particular term “critical engineering” to the more common “hacktivism” due to the former’s resonance with the main concerns of modernity (3). This critical, engineering stance toward evil media requires shifting our attention from “the idealistic discourse of media as communication” to “interruption, hijacking and the engineered parasitical event” (2). In contrast to what might be termed the “benevolent media” of communication studies, evil media designates a field of opacity, “trickery, deception, and manipulation” (ibid.). Significantly, the field of evil media is not exclusively the domain of media theory and written texts, but also encompasses engineering practices, such as writing code, creating devices, and intervening in network services. At one point, Parikka even refers to these practices, just as Brian Holmes might, “as an exercise in the psychogeography of code: it is to do with mapping the architectures in which mind and body control work” (13).

Interestingly, the “wireless politics” under discussion here are framed as a part of the field of “network and platform politics” (4; my emphasis). Conceiving of wireless as a “platform” means taking into account hardware, software, and networking protocols. While the theory of affordances would have it that wireless networks are “for” creating real-time communications, the critical engineering approach to wireless networks would highlight the disjunctures and gaps inherent in establishing these connections. To establish the significance of this alternative approach to wireless networks, Parikka paraphrases Adrian Mackenzie’s work on “wirelessness:” “Despite that [i.e., people’s lack of interest in, or experience of, wireless technology], their sensations of connection, their awareness of service availability, and their sometimes conscious preoccupation with connecting their wireless devices via service agreements or other devices all derive from the handling of conjunctive relations in data streams implemented in wireless signal processing chips” (6-7). Hacking, or “critically engineering,” wireless devices can make these processes more tangible.

Several Weise7 projects focus explicitly on re-engineering wireless technology (e.g., “Packetbrücke,” Vasiliev’s “Netless,” a wireless book, and the group’s “Networkshop”).  In doing so, they attempt to create an experience of imperceptible phenomena, “an imperceptibility that connects to the ontological regime of wireless communication, part of the discourse of wirelessness since the 19th century. Imperceptibility relates to the sphere of secrecy and paranoia” (12-13). Critical engineering “exposes how infrastructure is in most cases less stable than it seems. It also leaks data on many fronts, intervening in negotiations of public and private, also more broadly in wireless infrastructures across cities” (15). A critically engineered wireless politics would expose the invisible operations that inform network infrastructures, just as critical theory exposes the invisible forces of society, history, and ideology that constitute culture.


Parikka, Jussi. “Critically Engineered Wireless Politics.” Culture Machine 14 (2013).


Lisa Parks, “Around the Antenna Tree: The Politics of Infrastructural Visibility”


Visualizations of networks in the form of “flow diagrams” usually place more visual emphasis on the paths in these networks than on their nodes, thereby creating a representation of spatial relations without any sense of what elements the infrastructure is actually composed of. For Lisa Parks, the main consequence of this approach to network infrastructures is a trade-off between an overview of the entire network, and a more local understanding of the nodes in that network. To return our attention to this overlooked aspect of network infrastructures, Parks uses the antenna tree as a model for a “node-centric and materialist approach to the study of infrastructure” (1).

An antenna tree is more than a communication tower; it is a “symptom of processes of fabrication and installation, state and local regulation, community deliberation, and spatial transformation.” Specifically, disguising modern technology so that it blends in with nature not only conceals the communications infrastructure from view, but even more significantly, “keep[s] citizens naive and uniformed about the network technologies they subsidize and use each day” (ibid.). While Hannah Arendt would define modern technology through the layman’s ignorance of its inner workings, Parks deplores the tendency toward infrastructure illiteracy—which, admittedly, may not necessarily be the same as ignorance about technological hardware. “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” (ibid.).

Park’s brief history of antenna trees frames them as a response to public debates about the installation of more traditional antenna towers in the 1990s. Presumably to increase coverage and handle cellular network traffic, the growth of cellular services required the installation of new antenna towers. In response, groups of concerned citizens protested the perceived harm to neighborhood aesthetics and the potential health risks of wireless transmissions. In addition to these residential disputes, groups protested the installation of cellular towers in public spaces like Yellowstone National Park. As Parks observes, these developments complicate the usual rhetoric of wireless advertising (“You can talk anytime anywhere”) by highlighting the conditions of possibility for increased signal coverage: “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” (2). All of these are visible for traditional antenna towers.

Antenna trees, on the other hand, conceal these debates, which tend to arise due to the visibility of cellular towers, and they attempt to appease citizens by making communications infrastructures invisible. As Parks admits, some urban infrastructures are commonly, and perhaps necessarily concealed from the public, as is the case with sewer, electricity, and water. However, any practice of concealment raise questions about how to promote infrastructure literacy: “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?” (3)

As a possible remedy to the common governmental practices of concealing infrastructures, Parks places hope in the work of artists like the German photographer Robert Voit, who produced a series of photographs of antenna trees under the title “Enchanted Wood” in 2005. Beyond this example, the form for infrastructure literacy to take remains open. While they rarely admit as much, scholars of media studies often take for granted that more knowledge about technology would necessary enrich our experience of it. Though I generally agree with this position, I still tend to question its assumption about representations. More visibility may not necessarily promote greater knowledge, and uncovering the invisible politics negotiations that go into the formation of antenna trees may not necessarily put citizens in a better position to make informed decisions about them.


Parks, Lisa. “Around the Antenna Tree: the Politics of Infrastructural Visibility.” Flow, 2009.


Peter Schaefer, “Dematerialized Infrastructures: On the Ethereal Origins of Local Area Networks”


Peter Schaefer’s concise take on “Dematerialized Infrastructures” is a little history of the “ether,” from its origins as a concept in nineteenth-century physics to its incorporation into the portmanteaux “Ethernet” (“Ether Network”) in the 1970s. In either case, the ether functions as a material metaphor for the immaterial properties of wireless networking, thereby serving as a reminder of both the material substrate of wireless technology and the problem of sharing the medium of electromagnetic waves for multiple simultaneous transmissions.

The bulk of Schaefer’s archaeological analysis is concerned with the creation of local area networks, or “LANs,” from the 1960s to the present. In his media archaeology of LANs, Schaefer complicates the standard historical narrative of a transition from wired to wireless systems occurring in the 2000s by pointing out that networks from the 60s and 70s already used wireless modes of transmission. Histories of computer networks have tended to focus on wired infrastructures, which, in Schaefer’s analysis, “helps to promote a teleological narrative of physically connected data transfer systems progressing to lighter, cleaner networks that are increasingly disconnected from the natural world” (2). Interestingly, Schaefer shifts the blame for this teleological view from media historians to early computer engineers, who revived the term ether “to erase the physical components of the infrastructures they designed” (ibid.).

In 1973, Robert Metcalfe and David Boggs, two American electrical engineers working at Xerox PARC, coined the term “Ethernet” as a replacement for “Alto ALOHA Network,” the Hawaiian network created to connect universities on various islands through radio technology. According to Metcalfe, the Ethernet was coined in reference to Victorian physicists experiments with the ether, especially the 1887 Michelson-Morley experiment, which had been designed to detect the motion of matter relative to the stationary medium of the ether. In this respect, the ether metaphor referred not only to dematerialization—viz., the mysterious connotations of ether as an invisible substance—“but also to empirical efforts to uncover a hidden material reality” (3). Just like other physical substances (e.g., air, water, etc.), as Schaefer points out, the ether was believed to be capable of being polluted by too many signals. (A precursor of debates about “electrosmog“?!). Lastly, insofar as the ether was understood as a universal substance, it was considered as a candidate for “universal communication” (5), an ideal that would resurface in the New Communalist movement of the 1960s, which “turned away from the agonistic politics of the New Left…toward what they imagined to be a world interlinked by invisible systems” (11, quoting Fred Turner).

In tandem with this historical linguistic analysis of how the term “ether” was revived and adapted in the term “Ethernet,” Schaefer examines the concrete practices that informed that creation of computer networks in the 1960s and 70s. Taking a cue from Alexander Galloway’s exhortation to study information protocols, Schaefer examines the development of wireless LAN protocols and the formation of network topologies. As Schaefer explains, two main network topologies were developed in the 1970s: in a ring topology, the packet gets passed between stations, creating a continuous circuit; in a branching bus topology, on the other hand, the packet gets randomly retransmitted, linking all the computers to one connecting medium. A protocol was required to address the problem of sharing the communication medium of the electromagnetic spectrum—by creating an algorithm, on the one hand, and by establishing transmission policies, on the other. In handling the problem of network traffic, the Ethernet protocol detected conflicts among signals by making transmitters and receivers into “transceivers,” an operation similar to that of “full break-in keying,” common among radio amateurs.

Ultimately, Schafer urges media historians to reject the common linear narrative of “dematerialization” in favor of a more nuanced media archaeology of sites of conflict over the medium of wireless communications. These conflicts boil down to a tension between the ideal of perfect communication and the reality of the material substrate of wireless data transfer. One main implication of Schaefer’s treatment of the ether metaphor is that the symbolic dimension of language compensates for the real dimension of computer hardware. To put it somewhat reductively, historical negotiations of the term “Ethernet” amount to a recurring conflict between theory and practice: “the language used to describe communication infrastructure reflects both the utopian hope for communication that transcends the natural world as well as the practical reality of sending signals across time and space” (11).


Schaefer, Peter. “Dematerialized Infrastructures: On the Ethereal Origins of Local Area Networks.” Amodern, no. 2 no. 2 (October 4, 2013): 1–14.