Canadian Journal of Communication Vol 37 (2012) 173-177
©2012 Canadian Journal of Communication Corporation


Research Overview

Two Pebbles and a Poem: The Landscapes of the Mobile Telecoms Industry

Laura Watts

IT University of Copenhagen

Laura Watts, a writer and ethnographer, is Assistant Professor at IT University of Copenhagen, Rued Langgaards Vej 7, DK-2300 Copenhagen S, Denmark. Email: lauw@itu.dk . Website: www.sand14.com .


I was inside: inside a mobile phone manufacturer research and development campus. The world I had left behind disappeared beyond the event horizon of the security gate, my visitor pass and long-negotiated non-disclosure agreement propelling my body with ease through the fortification of the electrified fence. From now on I was forbidden to use my cameraphone, forbidden my voice recorder. All I was allowed was this: my ethnographic notebook and pencil.

I took a long careful breath, tasting the air of this enclave of mobile phone designers and engineers, a few minutes’ motorway drive from Heathrow Airport, near London. The air was thick with the coltan scent of wireless transmission (Smith, 2011), of Wi-Fi and 3G pulse-coded modulations, thick with the exhaust of 737s, whose metal pulses of people transported employees daily around the corporate network of the company.

The walls of the three buildings before me were white stone, their thrice-dimmed, fact-neutralizing windows chlorinated clean green. The patches of grass and low bushes were clipped and manicured. CCTV cameras curled out in bold filigree from every edge and cornice.

In this landscape future mobile telecoms devices were given form and function. This was a place where the future was dreamed, designed, and demo-ed. And I was here, as an ethnographer, to experience those moments in my bones, to write of that experience.

I stepped up to the revolving glass door entrance. Sun glittered through the summer gauze of cloud and, for a moment, there was a glittering reply at my feet. I looked down. Where the stone wall met the earth there was a soil bed of silica-rich pebbles, a boundary that encircled the whole building. I reached down and hefted one in my hand (Figure 1), watched as the mica grains winked back at me and the sky.

Pebbles, what did they evoke? I wondered. What enchantments did they weave for the designers within? I crossed their siren call and went in to listen.

Fig 1

The design studio was high up a staircase, and then behind a glass door that few people were allowed to enter. The mobile phone designers were huddled together at the heart of the studio; many had flown in from overseas, would leave at dusk. They sat in the corkboard-walled room, surrounded by magazines, photos, and sketchbooks. They were dreaming of a device for five years in the future; this was a design meeting to imagine a new cameraphone. I listened, noted down their conversation:

“Lightness in materials, in playfulness, in tension: skin and bones, not demanding as a concept … Ecological, in a material sense, [means] is natural.”
“Choice of natural has integrity, do it [incorporate it as part of the design] where the need for flexibility has a rationale.”
“Stone is more natural than white … White is ageless…”
“Products [need to] look like they are in motion … Pebble shape has motion.”
“Beach glass is already worn, the more you touch it the better it gets.”

Pebbles, beaches, beach pebbles. And yet this was also the landscape evoked at my feet outside. The designers’ aesthetic desire was for a pebble landscape—that was the shape of their dreams, a place where the beauty of the mobile phone PCB (printed circuit board) and user interface was made invisible, a place where glass was not craft-blown but burnished by the sea, where only purified, de-cultured natural forms of silica existed (Latour, 1993): pure pebble.

I stepped back, into the main design studio, looked around at the white walls, the anti-glare windows, my body already thrumming with the roar of photocopiers, printers, mouse-clicks, air-conditioning. I can only speak of that moment in poetry.

Ethnography of a Design Studio in the Mobile Telecoms Industry

Burgundy chairs. Black desks. White walls. Grey air.
Incessant constant: whirr howl rustle roar:
air-conditioning, Minolta photocopier, projector, printer, Mac.

Emptied window, in-corporate sky: the brand penumbra:
no shadow, no light. No line, no shape, no limb: dismembered.
De-fleshed. De-juiced. Leached.

Bland…

Expanding, pressing, reaching, swallowing.
(I am) partially digested. Burgundy stained. Raging.

Ethnography is never objective.

The living landscape of the mobile phone designers was filled with humming PCBs and noisy user interfaces, and was lined by bundles of copper coax and optical fibre—all the socio-technics that were necessary to transform a beach pebble shape into a mobile phone. But all that social and technical richness, which impressed itself onto my body with such force, they desired to be invisible. All that defined the difference between the chamfered curve of a mobile phone and the cut edge of a stone, between a design studio and a pebble beach, they sought to erase.

A paradox: one that gnawed at me, demanded a voice, and asked questions of me. Or, as is often asked in social studies of science and technology, how could it be otherwise?

So I decided to follow the beach pebble dream of the mobile phone designers and fled to the north coast, north until I could go no farther, and then over sea to a beach of pebbles in the remote archipelago of Orkney, off the north east coast of Scotland.

I sat on the chill beach (Figure 2), the turquoise sea folding over my feet, and picked up one of the pebbles, still wet and glistening from the waning tide. On the horizon the ferry was sailing south. Beneath my feet the telecoms and electrical cables tethered the island to the rest of the world. Everything on the island, the digital bits, the analogue letters, all had to seek passage under this pebble or over this sea. One bad storm and the lights and telephones went out, the ferry stopped: no more digital bits, no more text messages, no more letters.

Fig 2

On this pebble beach, telecommunications were tenuous and visible.

The weight of this Orkney pebble in my hand, so desired by the mobile phone designers, was imprinted with all the socio-technics of infrastructure (Star, 1999). This pebble, here, made the technology visible, not invisible. On this island, encircled by pebbles, the natureculture of connectivity was fragile and precious, not unwanted and erased.

This was not the imagined pebble beach of the designers. Their imagined future was a romantic purification of a thrumming always-on Wi-Fi and 3G world. Their future refused both the harsh reality and the technological sublime, which made always-fragile telecommunications, signalling from hilltop to hilltop, possible.

The “choice of natural” did not have “integrity” here in Orkney.

I wondered if I should put the Orkney pebble in my bag and take it back to the mobile phone designers near Heathrow. But then it would become just one more pebble, one more texture and shape. I remembered that “we know as we go” (Ingold, 2000, p. 230); we know the world as we move through the landscape we live within, and so we must also dream the future as we go. Landscape and future are irrevocably entwined. This island was a different kind of socio-technical landscape, one that made the beauty and fragility of mobile telecoms visible, a landscape that might make a different mobile telecoms future. It was not the pebble that had to move through a different landscape, it was the mobile telecoms designers and engineers. Here they might dream of other futures.

And this ethnographic piece of writing, its poem and its pebbles, its practice of the always creative work of weaving fiction and fact in empirical research (Haraway, 1997), its silica landscapes, suggested that the future could be otherwise in other places (Watts, 2008)…

References

Haraway, Donna. (1997). Modest_Witness@Second_Millennium.FemaleMan©_meets_OncoMouseTM. London, UK: Routledge.

Ingold, Tim. (2000). The temporality of the landscape. In The perception of the environment: Essays in livelihood, dwelling and skill (pp. 189-208). London, UK: Routledge.

Latour, Bruno. (1993). We have never been modern. Hemel Hempstead, UK: Harvester Wheatsheaf.

Smith, James H. (2011). Tantalus in the digital age: Coltan ore, temporal dispossession, and “movement” in the Eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo. American Ethnologist, 38(1), 17-35.

Star, Susan Leigh. (1999). The ethnography of infrastructures. American Behavioral Scientists, 43(3), 377-391.

Watts, Laura. (2008). The future is boring: Stories from the landscapes of the mobile telecoms industry. 21st Century Society: Journal of the Academy of Social Sciences (special issue on Future Matters: Futures Known, Created, Minded), 3(2), 187-198.




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