Canadian Journal of Communication Vol 36 (2011)
©2010 Canadian Journal of Communication Corporation


Vincent Manzerolle
University of Western Ontario

bookThe Wireless Spectrum: The Politics, Practices, and Poetics of Mobile Media. Edited by Barbara Crow, Michael Longford, and Kim Sawchuk. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2010. 240 pp. ISBN: 0802098932.

The radio spectrum is to communications today as is land to crops and water to fish. It is a peculiar natural resource, one whose politico-economic and social aspects have been largely ignored by social scientists. Like all other features of the human environment, it must be looked at in its relationship with people.  (Smythe, 1981, p. 300)

Smythe’s considerations on the centrality of the electromagnetic spectrum to contemporary communication technologies are even more applicable today as we move into 4G mobile networks and devices. That the spectrum must be examined as a phenomenon productive of social relations invokes a key paradox of media research; namely, that technical media—and particularly spectrum-based technologies—(re)produce relationships through both connection and separation (Tomlinson, 2007). Under careful analysis, the different modalities by which connection and separation take material form reveal the pervasive biases of a given media system (Innis, 2008). In the case of mobile media, the modalities of connection and separation are largely defined by the technical exploitation of the spectrum. Indeed, the spectrum itself embodies this key paradox, being at once invisible yet omnipresent, evanescent yet substantive. Perhaps due to these seemingly incommensurable qualities, conventional academic analyses of this process generally fall into two approaches: one focuses on macro-socio-economic configurations (for example, Castells, 2007), and the other focuses on the micro-personal world (for example, Goggin and Hjorth, 2009). Indeed, most treatises on mobile media take the spectrum for granted and treat its allocation as a fait accompli, rather than as a defining and material starting point.  Wireless Spectrum: The Politics, Practices, and Poetics of Mobile Media offers a welcome third avenue of analysis. This collection of articles seeks to make visible the invisible natural resource that constitutes the foundation for our perpetual connectedness. Although as users we are confronted daily with a variety of devices and their respective “surface effects”1 linked into this natural resource, as Kittler (2010, p. 46) might note, this is only the “outer skin of the onion.”

As a collection, Wireless Spectrum emphasizes the malleability of the spectrum and related technologies. To that end, this multidimensional offering—assembled under the careful supervision of Canadian academics Barbara Crow, Michael Longford, and Kim Sawchuk (all of whom have contributed important work to the study of mobile/wireless media)—explores the wireless spectrum in four thematically grouped sections: “Spectral Genealogies,” “Mobile Practices,” “Locative Media,” and “Wireless Connections.”

“Spectral Genealogies” begins by framing the study of spectrum technologies within broader social and historical frameworks. Will Straw’s opening piece foregrounds a “circulatory turn” in media studies. At the macro level, analyses of urban life and wireless technologies foreground questions of circulation—of information, goods, and people—and therefore require us to address the means (or media) of coordination, cooperation, and communication. While Straw directs our attention to the circulatory pressures associated with the analysis of spectrum technologies, and how, consequently, we might understand the flows that constitute contemporary urbanism itself, these theoretical considerations have historical antecedents within popular consciousness. The postwar era, as Kim Sawchuk lucidly describes in her piece “Radio Hats, Wireless Rats, and Flying Families,” was a moment of collective dream-making in which the potential of wireless media—in its most general sense—would be fulfilled through the consumerism of postwar white suburbia. This prospective wireless utopia had implications for the postwar realignment of race, class, and gender as it provided an outlet for the white flight of suburban middle classes. Here the theme of connection and separation is reiterated by the creation of a womb-like media sphere within the family home, safe from the dangerous world beyond suburbia.

Section two—“Mobile Practices”—comprises examples of how the evanescence of the wireless spectrum is congealed into specific political economic configurations and social practices. The interdependency of the two is raised in Sandra Buckley’s piece on keitai (“belonging-without-being-with”) culture in Japan—a set of social practices crystallized around NTT Docomo’s i-Mode mobile platform—wherein these practices reflect the extension of just-in-time production principles into the realm of social relations. In this piece we see how developments in Japan, with its specific protectionist application of the wireless spectrum and isolated geography, have created a unique set of social practices quite divergent from the growth of Internet-enabled smartphones in other regional markets. Such success might be contrasted with the narrative described in Judith A. Nicholson’s “The Third Screen as Cultural Form in North America,” where we read about the tortured path taken by mobile media in their transformation into a visual mass medium, a platform that can at once facilitate cultural production and consumption. Building on the themes of social and cultural practices, Darin Barney’s analysis of an interactive art installation at the University of British Columbia describes a setting in which mobile media become a medium by which the space becomes one of flows, of poetic realizations and omissions, where urban landscape, natural environment, and aesthetic design converge into a unified space. Like the other contributors in this section, Barney argues that spectrum itself is a floating index of potential by which we might realize deeper aspects of human existence and communality—an application that at once separates us from and connects us to our surroundings in a saturating flow of information. Thus, in redefining the boundaries of connection and separation we might find a deeper aesthetic dimension of the wireless spectrum.

Section three—“Locative Media”—provides pieces detailing how mobile media might be used proactively to reshape place/space. For example, Minna Tarkka’s piece, “Labours of Location: Acting in the Pervasive Media Space,” outlines not only the artistic stakes of locative media, but also the ways in which new forms of labour might be constituted in and through such media. In a related piece, Barbara Crow interviews spectrum activist Julian Priest who provides a refreshing perspective on the question of spectrum policy, and describes a fascinating art installation meant to demonstrate publicly—that is, make visible—the social, political, and economic interests that have governed, and continue to govern, the allocation of spectrum. In the process, the resulting installation becomes a “fossil record” of the often invisible, yet highly significant processes that have carved up this finite resource.

The final section of the book—“Wireless Connections”—begins appropriately with a reprinting of the “Wireless Commons Manifesto,” a decade-old clarion call that tried to set the tone for the public appropriation of wireless technologies, but is perhaps more worthy of consideration now than ever before. From here, Alison Powell offers a brief history of community-based wireless initiatives surrounding the diffusion of wi-fi as a slow process of small victories and disappointing setbacks. The following piece by Andrew Herman provides a speculative meditation on the future of wireless spectrum as commons, a topic of great importance, yet sorely missing from discussions of the future of mobile media, spectrum allocation, and related public policies.

I highly recommend Wireless Spectrum for researchers, activists, and theorists looking for new and novel approaches to mobile media. This collection should not be taken for a conventional academic study of mobile media. Its real limitation is that this collection is merely a jumping-off point since Wireless Spectrum is not about a specific technology, brand, company, political economic context, or set of cultural practices. Rather, it is about identifying potential lying within the spectrum when loosed from conventional political economic analyses and/or structures. This is both a strength and a weakness. It is, however, a particularly good resource for those who are already familiar with the main texts and theoretical approaches to the subject. I would also recommend the text to outsiders looking to engage with the topic, albeit by an unconventional route, because while Wireless Spectrum does not exhaust the range of academic approaches to mobile media, it does offer the reader an eclectic variety of entry points into the topic for both the uninitiated and the entrenched researcher.


1. “[S]urface effects known to consumers as interface” (Kittler, 1999, p. 1).


Castells, Manuel. (2007). Mobile communication and society: A global perspective. A project of the Annenberg Research Network on international communication. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Goggin, Gerard, & Larissa Hjorth eds. (2009). Mobile technologies: From telecommunications to media. London, U.K.: Routledge.

Innis, Harold Adams (2008). The bias of communication (2nd ed.). Toronto: University of Toronto Press.

Kittler, Friedrich A. (1999). Gramophone, film, typewriter. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.

Kittler, Friedrich A. (2010). Optical media: Berlin lectures 1999 (translated by Anthony Enns; introduction by John Durham Peters). Cambridge, U.K. ; Malden, MA: Polity Press.

Smythe, Dallas Walker. (1981). Dependency road: Communications, capitalism, consciousness and Canada. Norwood, NJ: Ablex Pub.

Tomlinson, John. (2007). The culture of speed: The coming of immediacy. Newbury Park, CA; London, U.K.: SAGE.

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