Disconnection NoticePosted: January 13, 2017
New York City did the seemingly impossible this month, activating free WiFi and cellular service throughout its underground subway stations. In 2017 it didn’t seem like any filthy corner of everyday life still remained for the internet to invade and conquer, but that’s because we were so accustomed to not having service in the frantic pathways of the Union Square station as the morning-commute cannon fired us through them every day. Useless now is the metis by which each of us navigated our microwindows of access on subway rides, jacking in just long enough to refresh our email inboxes or fire off the message that we’re running ten minutes late. For residents of New York, airplanes are now the last bastions of disconnectivity, along with deep woods excursions and Faraday cages.
Activating WiFi service somewhere new is an obvious benefit for all involved. Even more obvious is that it’s inevitable. How did any urban space get this deep into the millennium without it? More than anything, though, it’s boring: I haven’t felt a personal shortage of connectedness in years and would jump on a plane just to hide from it, though I know many don’t share this attitude. Today, there’s no need to explain why New York subway stations need WiFi—it’s axiomatic that every inch of the world needs it.
The last mile before Link (source)
A more interesting project along these lines was LinkNYC, New York City’s effort to blanket the city with free public WiFi above ground and replace thousands of decaying pay phones with shiny kiosks for web browsing and device charging. The opportunities for increased surveillance are clear, but that’s OK because we should all feel like we have nothing to hide, except that those who should feel like they have something to hide tarnished the experiment by openly watching porn at the kiosks. In general, the demographic for whom the kiosks would be most useful, those less able to afford internet access in other domains, seemed to catch the most heat for actually using them, evoking Anatole France’s observation that “in its majestic equality, the law forbids rich and poor alike to sleep under bridges.” As for surveillance, if LinkNYC doesn’t monitor our movements, someone else will, so it’s hard to complain.
The obviousness and inevitability of the internet becoming more and more ubiquitous gets a fascinating treatment in Venkatesh Rao’s “Fortune at the Edge of Network” thread. He explores the concept of the “last mile”—the messy part of any network where efficiency dwindles as the end user actually makes contact with the network (for example, the UPS delivery guy parking the truck and running the package to your doorstep). The last mile is where a closed, streamlined system encounters the real world, and it’s the home of weird and archaic structures and behaviors that the network’s core would never tolerate.
As various infrastructural systems, but especially the internet, extend their reach, the last mile becomes the last hundred feet and then the last millimeter, Rao writes—the distance between the iPhone screen and the eye, or even less. As these systems colonize more space, they extend rationalized market forces into territory previously ruled by social norms. If this sounds sinister to you, he’s fairly optimistic, or at least fatalistic: “It isn’t between free individuals and an enslaving techno-capitalist cloud. You never were that free an inch from your face. You were merely the captive of non-economic forces.” Rao sees opportunity at this junction: the chance to inhabit and rule your own last mile, using technology to increase your own agency rather than resisting its inexorable creep or trying to hide from it. More so if the non-economic forces you traded away were particularly oppressive.
I haven’t yet embraced Rao’s advice: I entered the new year with the goal of reclaiming some scraps of my immediate space from digital/rational/market logic, purging half of the apps from my phone and trying not to hold it in my hand at all times. For example, I deleted Shazam. If I hear music in public, I thought, I’d try asking someone what they’d put on instead of antisocially querying the cloud. The opportunity to test this approach came last week at a coffee shop: I heard some jazz I liked and asked the barista what she was playing. “A Spotify jazz playlist” came the monotone reply and bored look. Thanks for nothing. So it’s possible that the space recovered by pushing back the networks isn’t always so great. Or maybe we’ve already hollowed it out beyond repair.