When I first thought about restarting a blog, I saved something an old friend had posted to Twitter, complaining that his complex set of networked devices weren't working together perfectly. I'm glad I lost it, because it's hardly fair to single one person out for a wider tendency. The tendency, though, is still worth talking about.
The Internet, that plucky band of networked servers, works together pretty well, almost all of the time. Well, at least as far as the average user can tell: go ask your sysadmin. In our homes, though, we have all sorts of networking protocols in operation - I can see Bluetooth, 3G, GPS, wi-fi, and RF-enabled devices from where I'm sitting as I write this. These mostly work together well, thanks to a whole host of regulations that again, most of us never have to think about. But because we don't have to think about them, because we're so used to being able to click a button on our computers and watch live simul-translated video online, when these networks in our homes fail to work, people sometimes don't understand what's wrong. Why can't my router in my home office provide a reliable wi-fi signal to my bedroom? The four walls and part of another apartment between the two things might be part of the problem, no?*
Working making things that have all sorts of radios inside of them, dealing with physical constraints like "these radios have to be at least 20cm center-to-center apart from each other, or the thing won't work" has given me a new respect for the difficulty of making things talk to one another, and how difficult it is to work with a material you can neither see or touch. That's part of the source of my admiration for the Immaterials: Light Painting Wi-Fi project that Matt Jones & Jack Schulze of BERG London pointed to in their talk at SVA last week, and also for the Dan Hill project that is, if not Immaterials' direct ancestor, then certainly its nerdy uncle. They do the hard work of making the workings of the world directly visible to us. They ask us to see the connections between the technological underpinnings of our networks and the ways in which we go about our everyday lives. They show us what we're swimming in, and where the edges of the ocean are. Not a bad place to start.
*That's my apartment. I'm fine now, thanks