One of my favourite TV shows of all time has got to be “the secret life of machines” by Tim Hunkin and Rex Garrod. Hunkin starts this episode about radio by stating that “there’s something rather magical about radiowaves. They’re actually a sort of invisible energy”. It’s this idea of invisible energy that has proved to be a feeding ground for all kinds of odd superstitions about wireless media. It’s these superstitions and their origins that I want to explore in this post.
Let’s start with the origins. According to John Durham Peters, who wrote the book “speaking into the air: A history of the idea of communication“, the concept of (wireless) communication has a history that is strongly intertwined with that of spiritualism and the supernatural. The word”aether” itself was originally used to denote the invisible substance through minds were connected (page 78). God and angels, ghosts and the dead, all were said to communicate telepathically. It was imagined that the mysterious ways in which God worked weren’t all that mysterious, they were just invisible, kind of how sound waves moved through substances. Many ‘scientific’ experiments were done that explored this field, such as those on the healing powers of magnetism by Franz Mesmer.
This invisible connection to each other and to the supernatural might seem like superstition, but this idea is still very much alive and kicking. Wireless technology, through it’s invisible nature, is ideally suited to play host to these dreams of connection. In many ways the ether is still seen as the Aether.
Let’s look at some examples. Wired magazine published this top 10 of dubious gadgets in which almost all the entries in some way claim improvement through or protection from wireless signals. My favourite has got to be the spray that contains “Magnetic Defense Complex”.
It’s easy to make fun of it. The reality is that, from a sociological point of view, these aspects of wirelessness should be taken very seriously. In China for example, the practise of Feng Shui is ubiquitous. It’s common to get the advice of a Feng-Shui expert on the placement of, well, practically every aspect of a new building.
Interestingly, the idea of Qi that is at the center of Feng Shui seems to have some roots in magnetism, while others connect it to cosmological radiation. Whatever the case may be, it’s another example of the intertwining Peters pointed out. In this great discussion on wireless media, the supernatural shouldn’t be ignored. After all, all this wireless stuff does seem a little magical, when you think about it.