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Stephen Lewis on Infrastructure, Identity, Communication, and Change

Archive for August, 2008

A Strategic Retreat Into Yesterday’s Imaginings of an Analogue Tomorrow

Posted by Stephen Lewis on August 17, 2008

After a frustrating week of wrestling with generative and applianced digital technology — including T-Mobile’s inadequate tech-support and customer-care overlay on international Blackberry service and the foibles of a premium-priced, too-many-mega-pixel pocket camera plagued by miserable “noise” at high ISOs and near-comic barrel distortion at the wide end of its zoom range — I’ve found a mid-summer panacea for the disappointments of the digital age: Visions of an analogue tomorrow as once foreseen in the now-yellowed pages of Modern Mechanix Magazine.  Happy nostalgia for a better future!

Posted in History, Media, Photography, Telecommunications | Leave a Comment »

A Zittrain Dilemma: Appliances, the iPhone, and the Solidification of National Boundaries

Posted by Stephen Lewis on August 12, 2008

I just finished reading Jonathan Zittrain’s book “The Future of the Internet and How to Stop It” (click here for Zittrain’s weblog of the same name)  … and now wish we could turn back the clock.

Zittrain’s thesis is that the internet has come to a turning point at which the collaborative and open and “generative” nature of the Net is being undermined by bad code, increasing complexities, and greater and lesser cyber-crime.   Fear of all three drives many of us to turn towards “applianced” devices in which a  trusted vendor controls hardware, software, and … content.  In the “generative” world we are threatened by malevolent outlaws, in the “applianced” world by monopolists and potential dictators.

Apple’s iPhone is a paradigmatic  “appliance.”  Apple ensures that the  iPhone’s physical form and the software that animates it unite into an powerful, capable, and aesthetically pleasing whole.  Apple also ensures and protects the safety of the device … albeit by controlling sources of content and deciding which applications can run on an iPhone and which cannot.

Apple also controls the iPhone’s connectivity.  In each national market in which the iPhone is sold it is permanently “SIM-locked” to the network and policies of a single “telco” thus depriving users of the possibility of switching SIM cards (i.e. the very “souls” of their phones) and, as a result, their carriers. To those who rarely travel or who live in large countries this is no tragedy.  Within each country, carriers’ price plans, coverage, and quality balance out more or less.  But in an international context, chaining users to a single provider prevents them from switching cards and carriers when crossing borders, thus holding them captive to roaming charges that are astronomical for voice calls and cataclysmic for data traffic.

The effect on monthly phone bills of overseas data roaming and push email is so extreme that even Apple’s US iPhone partner AT&T now posts on its website a warning advising customers to turn off the data and email capabilities of their iPhones when traveling abroad.  This spares customers the shock of outlandish bills but it also defeats the integration of capabilities and seamless connectivity that is the supposed hallmark and benefit of the iPhone.  The only alternative for loyal or compulsive iPhone users is the purchase of additional iPhones for each and every one of the countries they visit or work in.

Thus, the iPhone (and the manner in which it is brought to market and made connective) is so “applianced” that its forces users to conform to the arbitrary national boundaries we inherit from the 19th and early-20th centuries.  The irony: Within national markets the iPhone is a device that optimizes connectivity; seen internationally, however, the distibution and connectivity of the iPhone lead us on a retreat from the universality and border-transcending interconnectedness that many of assumed the merger of telecommunications and the internet would enable.

Posted in Books, Infrastructure, Innovation, Internet, National Identity, Telecommunications | 2 Comments »

Infrastructure and the Artificiality of Nations: The Internet, Balkan Crossings, and Border Radio

Posted by Stephen Lewis on August 10, 2008

Over the last few years I have been involved part-time in the study of the origins and consequences of national identities and nation states.  Countries organized around homogeneous “peoples” united by common religions and languages and sharing common histories, destinies and exclusive title to geographic entities are artifices that came to the fore during the Romantic Age, that solidified during the 19th century, and occassioned wars and genocides in the 20th.

On the work front, I am now involved in a project to create an institute for the study of the history and future of infrastructure — especially the infrastructure of “connectivity” as manifested in the Internet.  Issues of internet infrastructure, national identity, and nation states overlap.   On the surface, the Internet appears to transcend geographic boundaries that delineate nation states and also has provided a platform for enabling individuals to shape their identities and live their lives according to self-defined clusters of interests and allegiances separate from the nationalities stamped on their passports. But, the cables and fibers that comprise the infrastructure on which the Internet rests remain divided and clustered according to national boundaries and regulated and controlled within the contexts of nation states — just as are water, energy, and telephony.

Balkan Crossings

The absurdities of dividing infrastructure — traditional and new — along nationally-defined lines becomes palpable as one moves from the centers of nation states to their edges.  I often travel by night train from Sofia in Bulgaria (once a part of the Soviet Bloc and now a member state of the European Union)  and Istanbul in Turkey (a country that, in its post-1923 incarnation, developed its economy and infrastructure largely on its own).  Trains in both directions between Sofia and Istanbul approach the Bulgarian-Turkish border at 3 a.m.  State-railway-owned electric locomotives are removed from the trains just before they enter the infrastructure-less strip of no-man’s land that parallels the border itself. The trains are then shuttled from one country to the other by jointly-maintained diesel-powered locomotives. Passengers’ passports and baggage are checked once at the Bulgarian checkpoint and again on the Turkish side.  The glowing lights of towns visible from stations on both sides of the border are lit by separate nationally-defined power grids and their residents drink from separate nationally-defined water supply systems.  Telephoning or checking email from the border can be shockingly expensive, a glance at the screen of one’s mobile phone shows that signals switch back-and-forth between those of Bulgarian, Turkish, and Greek service providers (Greece’s northeastern border with Bulgaria and Turkey is only a few kilometers away).

Border Radio

Last month, US National Public Radio’s On the Media program broadcast The X Factor, a piece on the history and phenomenon of Border Radio.  Border Radio refers to the radio stations whose immense towers sprouted on the Mexican side of the US-Mexico border during the 1920s and 1930s.  Most of these stations were “fugitives” on the run from US broadcasting and truth-in-advertising regulations and were welcome in regulation-free Mexico in part due to the revenues they produced.  The first of the Border Stations was set up by a patent medicine peddling Kansan with an MD degree from a diploma mill in Chicago and a thriving practice in curing male impotence through goat gonad transplant operations. The station was established as the doctor’s own proprietary advertising and marketing device for gonad transplants and associated medicines but soon became a thriving business in its own right.

As more such stations were founded, other flamboyant figures flocked to Border Radio including faith healing preachers who talked in tongues and announcers who moved beds into their broadcasting booths so they could have sex while speaking on the air.  More profoundly, as Border Radio grew it came to reflect the mood and tastes of the American heartland.  East and West Coast based  mainstream radio with its big-band music, movie-star guests, and limp comedies and soap-operas fared well in New York and Los Angeles but the rural states of the former Confederacy and the dust-bowl stricken plains needed a voice of their own.

From its physical location just outside of the US, Border Radio came to mirror rural America and also to reshape it.  Border Radio played a role in solidified and promoting commercial country music and, through the legendary Brooklyn-born disk-jockey The Wolfman, spread rock ‘n roll through the American heartland.  On the political front, Border Radio’s religious programs brought the worldview of rural pentecostal Christianity into the age of broadcasting, feeding the creation of what ultimately became America’s powerful religious right.

Central to the influence of Border Radio was its infrastructure– million-watt clear-channel frequencies whose waves were said to be strong enough to fry flocks of birds in mid-flight and whose signals not only blanketed  America’s heartland but also caromed off the stratosphere to listeners in the South Pacific and in KGB listening posts in Moscow.  Like the Internet, national boundaries were superfluous to Border Radio and, also like the internet, by creating an alternative to the mainstream of its time, Border Radio shaped a new mainstream in its own image.

More on this theme in subsequent entries …

Posted in Bulgaria, History, Identity, Infrastructure, Internet, Media, National Identity, Popular Culture | Leave a Comment »

Infrastructure of Commerce and Manufacturing: It’s All in the Heavy Lifting

Posted by Stephen Lewis on August 4, 2008

Often it is the most traditional infrastructure and the oldest technology that underlies and determines the fates of seeming innovations.

Nine years ago, at the height of millennial enthusiasm occasioned by the “Dot Com Boom” and the financial sector’s disposal of billions of dollars of other people’s hard-earned money floating  “IPOs” of  internet-related start-ups without viable business plans, Malcolm Gladwell wrote a seemingly wet-blanket piece in The New Yorker that presented the then sacred-cow of e-commerce as a mere twist on the mail-order business and as nothing more than a new front-end to the US Postal Service.  In Clicks and Mortars, Gladwell proposed that the real innovation behind e-commerce was the 19th-century invention of the road-grading machine that made possible government-sponsored Rural Free Delivery of post which in turn lead to the giant mail-order houses of Sears and Roebuck and Montgomery Ward (Neckermann would be Europe’s closest equivalent) the success of which led to mass manufacturing of ready-to-wear clothing.  The computer on the front-end of e-commerce was little more than a neat twist on the cataloger and payment sides of an old formula.  In the end, goods remain goods and delivery remains delivery.

The same goes for globalization.  Smart last-minute inventory systems, clever financial management, flouting of labor laws, and cozy arrangements with corrupt third-world heavies made globalized manufacturing possible but, in the end, goods need to be moved and delivered.  A summary take on the effects of rising oil prices on the house of cards that is globalization can be found in this recent report in the New York Times.


In keeping with the proud eccentricity of the New Yorker, the full text of the Gladwell article is not available online.  To find it, stop by your local bricks-and-mortar library or invest in the New Yorker’s proprietary full-archives-on-a-single-USB-hard-drive, a solution worthy of Eustace Tilley (the magazine’s emblematic 1920s dandy) in the internet age.

Neckermann, by the way, is the current incarnation of what was once the family business of the forebearers of pop singer Billy Joel.  The Joel family’s Berlin-based mail order house, which grew from their original dry-goods store in Munich, was “Aryanized” (read: stolen and plundered) by the Nazis and their hangers-on during the 1930s.

Posted in Economy, Infrastructure, Internet, Media | Leave a Comment »

Strolling with Obama and Sadat and Reading Rather than Browsing

Posted by Stephen Lewis on August 1, 2008

In Obama: The New Sadat? on Atlantic.Com, Jeffrey Goldberg quotes US Democratic presidential hopeful Barack Obama as saying: “Actually the most important thing you need to do is to have big chunks of time during the day when all you’re doing is thinking.”  Goldberg reports the late Egyptian president Anwar Sadat lived by the very same principle, taking time out each day for a long stroll along the Nile.  Indeed, Goldberg suggests, it was on one such walk that Sadat envisioned his peace mission to Jerusalem.

I am proud to find myself in the company of Obama and Sadat both.  Wherever I may be, I try to make hours-long urban strolls part of my routine most days of the week.  The walks provide opportunities for self-reflection, for plotting out and articulating thoughts, for envisioning images to photograph, and, not least, for observing urban realities, absurdities, and change.

In each of the cities along my well-trodden path of work and projects, I have my favorite habitual routes: In New York: Westward across the Brooklyn and Williamsburg Bridges and then through lower Manhattan or eastward out to Brighton Beach, either “cross-country” from Prospect Park or via Sunset Park to Bay Ridge and from there along Brooklyn’s seemingly endless waterfront.  In Istanbul, as often as not, my strolls take me from Tophane through now-fashionable Cihangir and Beyoglu down to the conservative quarter of Kasimpasa and finally back to Taksim or along the Golden Horn from Karakoy across the Galata Bridge to Eminonu and then via Fener and Balat to Ayvansaray. In Sofia, Bulgaria, I invariably wander along the romantic tree-lined side-streets of Iskr and Exarch Iosif, into the Women’s Market, past the late-19th-century shopfronts that line Pirotska Street, through the one-time Jewish quarter of Uc Bunar, and finaly through the Ilenden and Zakharna Fabrika quarters to the Zapadna Park at the city’s western extreme.

Long walks occassion long thoughts, not unlike the leisurely unfoldings of plots and intertwined ideas one experiences when one reads long books.  Also in the current edition of Atlantic.com, Nicholas Carr revisits to the oft-asked question “Is Google Making Us Stupid?” with a fresh take on linerar reading vs. associative surfing and on the difficulties many of us experience when switching from one form of thought and attention-span to the other.

Posted in Articulation, Books, Cities, Media | Leave a Comment »