Visionaries of the Invisible
Issue #48, March 2000
Back in 1936 the research department at RCA (the Radio Corporation of America) received an emphatic letter from an anonymous woman. She pleaded with them to launch a study into the mental radio signals she'd been receiving. "This may seem crazy to you," she wrote "but there are many of us." "Mental radio is real, and you are the only people who can help me." Perhaps she had fillings, perhaps she was crazy, or perhaps there is such a thing as mental radio. Regardless, her letter and countless other writings like it suggest that in radio's golden age, its wireless characteristics made it a captivating metaphor or even map of dimensions of reality that we could neither see nor touch. Radio and invisibility have a long history together.
Today the metaphor for the mind (and more precisely, the brain) has shifted to the computer, but wirelessness is enjoying a veritable rebirth. Only a few years ago, the image of the information age was a person Wired (as in the formerly-bleeding edge magazine of that name), plugged in, turned on. Today's image is IBM's man on the park bench screaming 'Sell! Sell!' with his wireless headset and eye-sized video screen. As John Brady argues, he sits as a self-congratulatory icon of contemporary capitalism, but also points to the continuing need and vitality of public space. Cellular phones proliferate everywhere and in some countries are making an end-run around hardwired telecommunications. Geoff Sauer's tour of Pittsburgh with his 900MHz headphones illustrates the pervasiveness of wireless telecommunications -- all these tiny little broadcasts, all these voices calling out into space. Hearing these transmissions together renders apparent the artificiality of our atomized lives, our false senses of privacy and individuality.
But the wiring is here, and it has gone underground. An invisible landscape may simply be a hidden ground upon which people tread, but is apparent only to those who know. Ewa Pagacz's tale of bribery culture in Poland explores the manifest but invisible politics of money. Despite official denials by bureaucrats and politicians, people know that bureaucracy cannot be navigated without unspoken lubricants of gifts or money. The mythical State of Jefferson -- sort of located in Megan Shaw's home state of Oregon -- blends radical and conservative ideas into a unique secessionism. Mark Harrison explores the almost-visible place at the end of history -- offered either as global catastrophe in the overhyped Y2K scenarios, or as a union of body and spirit in the virtual space of the computer. Once again our souls are to be found in the form of machines -- or they are to be found between the spaces carved out by mass culture. Mike Mosher's microgenerations essay reflects on those moments of cultural history and collective memory that can wind up as banal market segments or powerful grounds of self-definition.
Wirelessness and invisible landscapes also evoke thoughts of policing, security, and America's hidden millions in prisons. Police radio was the bleeding edge of automotive telecommunications technology, and the landscape of police movement is to this day shaped and coordinated with movements in the ether. Rick Prelinger offers a brief history of police radio and suggests that it provides a continuous, realtime narrative of the use of force in our cities. Carrie Rentschler explores the role of the security industry in an age of telecommunications convergence. She finds that the booming market in home security is part a product of fear, and part a product of the commercialization of force. Karl Macrae takes us to one of the most frightening invisible landscapes of all, the American prison system. Though the United States has the largest incarcerated population in the so-called free world and a booming sector of prison industries, most Americans outside the walls are still sadly unaware of what goes on within. His essay offers a glimpse of the invisible world of prisons as economic and social force and lived experience.
The same year RCA was urged to explore the possibility of mental radio, Rudolf Arnheim published an essay called 'In Praise of Blindness.' He said that radio's absence of images made it a truly new and modern art. Timbre, volume, inflection, effect, the detail -- all the stylistic elements of radio served to stimulate the imagination in its lightless contemplation. Today we need praise neither blindness nor the endless flow of images that masquerade as insight. We need only to attend to those landscapes just beyond our own perceptions to learn the lay of the world a little better -- and maybe to change it.
Jonathan Sterne is a member of the Bad Subjects production team and an assistant professor of Communication at the University of Pittsburgh. Geoffrey Sauer is an assistant professor of New Media at the University of Washington, and the webmaster for Bad Subjects.