The mobile phone in your pocket or purse is part of a vast communications system that is mostly beyond our vision, much like the internet. But as journalist Andrew Blum explains in his new book Tubes: A Journey to the Center of the Internet, the bits and blogs of the seemingly wireless internet still travel to us on hard infrastructure and get stored in physical places. Similarly, the voices and texts and data that we regularly zip back and forth on our cell phones travel as radio waves we can't see and are connected through fiber optic cables buried beneath our feet. They rely just as much on a physically wired infrastructure as the internet, but we don't often see it. But, wait. Look up.
On the corners of buildings or the side of parking structures or the steeples of churches or semi-camouflaged as metal trees, you can see the visible element of the cell phone communication system: the antenna. These narrow bars are often groups on poles or on rooftops, both ambiguous and not, blending into the urban environment like telephone wires or air conditioning units that you only really notice if you're looking for them. If you look for cell phone antennas, you'll probably start to see them all over the place. You'll also see the many ways that we have tried to hide or at least doll up their inherent ugliness.
We call them cell phones because they operate as part of a cellular system. Individual antenna cells are networked so that they can send their radio waves between one another, transferring our 'hellos' and 'where u ats' and Google Maps from place to place to the screens we hold in our hands. Just like the cells in our bodies, one of these antennas on its own isn't particularly useful, but a whole bunch of them linked up can let us jabber for hours on a cross-country car ride or even as we meander through our own neighborhoods.
To get this seamless network of connectivity, cell phone antennas and towers have to be sprinkled across all the areas we want to be able to get service. And the more people relying on that service, the more antennas are needed. In dense urban areas, they may need to be as close as a quarter-mile apart. What results is literally hundreds of rooftop arrays or building corner add-ons of 6 or 10 of these long white bars.
In the picture below, you'll notice a rooftop array of cell phone antennas on this corner building in Toronto. You'll probably also notice, in the background, the massive CN tower – for many years the tallest free-standing in the world. What's interesting about this particular view is the shared qualities between these two infrastructures and also the stark differences between them.
The CN Tower, at roughly 1,815 feet tall, is an elegant and slightly bombastic piece of utilitarian infrastructure. Receiving the television and radio signals above the forest of skyscrapers in downtown Toronto, the tower serves our desire to broadcast entertainment and information from one place to another, but also creates a truly impressive piece of architecture. Indeed, it's arguably the icon of the city. On the other hand, the rooftop cell phone antenna array similarly plays the role we need it to of getting messages from one place to another, but there's about zero panache.
The aesthetics of these antennas has not gone totally ignored. In may be the most widespread attempt to rethink the way this infrastructure appears, countless antennas have been configured onto poles and structures in the size, shape and color of trees.
You've probably noticed one on the side of a freeway or next to one of those windowless utility buildings. The best is when they're towering over other actual trees in order to get uninterrupted service yet emphasizing their fakeness. There's a company in Arizona that designs this "utility camouflage," and has a fleet of cell phone tower concealments ranging from palms to pine trees and even a 35-foot Saguaro cactus.
These companies are even painting on their camouflage to try to blend the antennas into the buildings they're mounted on.
It's become a popular way to try to reduce the visual blight of this infrastructure. But, let's be honest, nobody's fooled, and the result is pretty tacky.
In Vancouver, the novelist and artist Douglas Coupland is hoping to bring some actual design sense into play. He's proposed the V-Pole, a "modular utility pole connected to underground optical wiring" that can provide "wi-fi and mobile wireless, LED street lighting, electric vehicle charging, parking transactions and can act as an electronic neighborhood bulletin board." Though there's no plan to start installing V-Poles around the city, Coupland's idea has the backing of Vancouver Mayor Gregor Robertson.
The V-Pole idea is a big step forward. Instead of trying to hide the infrastructure, it embraces it. The fact that we have so many tucked-away rooftop arrays and fake trees is evidence of a widespread denial we're all in – that somehow the infrastructure that's so important to our interconnected and information-heavy lifestyle is to be shunned. Both the fake trees and the V-Pole underscore the reality that these things can't be hidden. And maybe they shouldn't be.
High design has one solution, but given the likely millions of these antennas scattered around the world, maybe it would be easier to simply start embracing them. Rather than trying to hide them, maybe cell antennas should be better integrated into the designs of buildings or facades or even public sculptures. Maybe we could even make a scaled-down version of the design effort we put into TV towers like the CN Tower in Toronto or the newly opened Tokyo SkyTree, now the second tallest structure in the world. Surely, we don't need the world's tallest tower to hold a few cell phone antennas, but maybe we should start to grant them a little more stature or respect as we continue to scatter them across the built environment. Given how important these antennas have become to our lives, it's a little rude not to.
Top image: Flickr/Benimoto