Introduction to PhD dissertation

In this thesis, I investigate wireless communication from an architectural perspective. The built environment is used as a lens through which the complexity of interactions between people, space and seamless infrastructures can be observed. Thus the effects of wireless communication and architecture on the experience of space can be observed. These effects are described through the notion of architecturality, introduced in this thesis. They are further explored through an iterative design practice, offering tangible interaction with wireless communication signals. The design experiments are at the same time points for collecting quantitative data on network traffic and qualitative information on people’s experience. The data is then analysed through the conceptual framework and also evaluated in terms of research through design methodology.
The working title Emperor’s New Architecture addresses the ignorance towards electromagnetic phenomena, often encountered in architectural practice and theory. It suggests a reading of wireless communication signals as pretend architecture, while questioning the mannerism with which architecture increasingly addresses the environment, failing to recognize the importance of these new technologies in the organisation of space.
The methods developed for this research are specific to the question it sets to answer: how do wireless networks perform architecturally in space? The investigation of architecturality of wireless communication signals relies on explorative and practice-based methodologies looking at the performance and perception of wireless connectivity in space. Different design prototypes were created to explore possibilities for tangible interaction with wireless network traffic. These prototypes also aim to contribute to the discourse of research through design with a focus on the use of design or artistic artefacts in research, their role and potentials as well as problems such research faces with reference to its legitimacy and contribution to knowledge. The critique of the (r)evolving role of design artefacts in practice-based research is supported through a concrete example of a transformation of the research question into a design brief, into a research artefact. I offer criteria for evaluation of these artefacts, in their specific relationship to this thesis.
The discussion an architecturality is based on what at first appears as a weak argument: that wireless signals, like architecture, incorporate agency. The weakness of this argument resides mainly in the fact that agency is not the most perceived property of architecture – it is a contested feature and requires complicated argumentation. Nevertheless, I will demonstrate how it is exactly here that we should build foundations for a model for evaluating the effects of wireless communication on the experience of space. Wireless network infrastructure – built from scattered devices, base stations, repeaters, access points and ‘a bouillon of waves’ that connect them – has a prominent place in our interaction with the environment and with each other. Whether or not this new layer reconstitutes our experience of the ‘real‘ world or recomposes social interactions – we have to recognize the difficulty in reading its impact on space and people. One way to address this problem is to examine waves as agents, delivering connectivity to people and devices across built environments. I examine the materiality of connectivity – a phenomenon beyond mere functioning connection – the form given to wirelessness through action.
Wireless communication is characterised by the expectancy of its complete obscurity to our perception. Infrastructure is anything that resides in the background of other work. I examine some basic properties of infrastructures, through the perspectives of network engineering, ethnographic work of Suzanne Leigh Star, and Armand Mattelart’s political and strategical account of network evolution.
From the early days of signal transmission across long distances (Marconi’s transatlantic communication experiments) to the contemporary excess of wireless devices, wireless communication infrastructure has developed significantly. Does this electromagnetic environment reflect the physical in which is it contained? In order to question this, I discuss spatiality of wireless networks, from the point of view of three studies that focused on network coverage and its dynamics. The studies found a correlation between space and signal propagation but also pointed at the complexity of its accurate representation and social implications. An account of spatiality of wireless connectivity is also given in ethnographic studies of the use of networks in work and other everyday practices These studies put forward more daring conclusions about networks reconfiguring space in a number of ways.
Systems become infrastructure when they work sufficiently well so that we stop noticing them. Wireless communication networks (Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, NFC, GSM, 3G, 4G) are part of such a system, functioning in the background and allowing for ubiquitous computing to be seamlessly embedded in the environment. Against the trend of seamless connectivity, I put the concept of seamful design, as introduced by early human-computer interaction (HCI) researchers and designers. Advocating the intentional design of seams which appear at edges of connections and territories, such design encourages user engagement and understanding of the resulting combined space. Some contemporary design practitioners oppose the myth of immateriality and disappearance of interfaces. Smoothing out the edges and seams entails a loss of agency for designers and computers as well as for users. I use the concept of seamfulness to discuss possibilities for re-engaging with wireless communication. I will offer a reading of such practices as tactics in Michel de Certeau’s tradition, put against the infrastructural aspect of antennas and providing of signal, which is a strategic activity.
Every new technology has been subject to inflated expectations. Scholars, writers, artists, and architects have explored how the new digital layer, created through the proliferation of wireless-enabled gadgets, could reconfigure our experience of space and recompose social interactions in it. In reality, although significant, the effect of wireless technology has not been that spectacular. I dedicate one chapter to the design and artistic practices attuned at understanding and articulating the interplay of social, digital and physical infrastructures. These artistic and design artefacts outline a tangible territory of interactions and contribute to our understanding of the physicality of wireless communication and its coexistence within built architecture. Aesthetic experiments, playful interventions, and critical designs all conceptualise interaction with an otherwise un-sensible infrastructure. I identify common threads in the ways these artworks manipulate the wireless ‘material’ with a focus on the underlying motivation and resulting outcomes. Based on this, I discuss these practices in the light of their relevance for and reference to architecture.
In the following chapter, I present interactive prototypes, involving physical surfaces, light, sound and movement as interactants between people and network traffic. For the majority of tests and presentations, data were collected using a smartphone (Android) application which served as a location aware traffic counter. I presented the results of these design investigations to the public in different settings – some were tested at research symposia, others were shown at cultural events, others yet in internal lab settings. All these presentations were followed by discussions, in the form of open-ended interviews. I used notes from presentations (interviews and behaviour observations), next to network traffic data generated by the same audience, for a generalisation on how people, networks, and space perform together and on each other.
The relationship between the way wireless signals spread in the environment and space they occupy is not simple. The signal’s propagation model is the difference between the ideal signal propagation model, the actual permeability of buildings as well as the movement of bodies and people’s communication activity. As opposed to analogical thinking, which I describe as the “this is like that ” problem, it is necessary to preserve an irreductionist view of the phenomenon of waves propagating through space. To account for all the different actants, I needed both to intersect a conceptual framework (relying on the work done in the fields of architecture theory, digital humanities, science and technology studies) with a practical prototyping framework. Design artefacts developed over the course of this research offer unexpected insights but also afford certain risks involved with such openness. They provide an explicit feedback about their use and the experience they invoke. In terms of design, they are like code with a lot of debugging statements. The process of design is the furthest from linear and is usually characterised by decisions changing along the way, what Krogh and colleagues called drifting. Research through design is giving agency to artefacts.
The insights gained from this complex examination of wireless networks are important for architectural design, as a way to better account for the desired signal propagation through buildings. The experience of internalising wireless networks in the process of design engenders sensibility in designers towards the presence of wireless communications in space. This sensibility, similar to the one we have for the distribution of natural and artificial lighting, will be needed in the ever more challenging design of the built environment.

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