A cell tower rises alongside a highway
Untitled (Cell Site 2), Emeryville, 2017. Rian Dundon

A new photo series depicts and questions how ubiquitous telecom infrastructure is in our lives.

In Rian Dundon’s latest untitled project, cell towers rise from the pavement like futuristic trees and transmission boxes huddle tightly against poles, lit as though they’re underwater. The Oakland-based photographer is interested in the ways technology dominates our landscapes, so he set out to capture the lurking presence of Silicon Valley’s telecommunications infrastructure.

It wasn’t hard to find. “Once you start looking, you see these things everywhere,” he said. All he had to do was drive along a freeway, and towers and transmitters would pop up alongside him. In an age when phones can fit into our palms and everything seems wireless, Dundon worries that people are not thinking about the ways in which technology is tangibly present in their physical communities—and the repercussions that obliviousness could have.

Untitled (Cell Site 10), San Francisco, 2017. (Rian Dundon)

His project was partly inspired by California’s recent Senate Bill 649, which would have given wireless service providers nearly free reign to install refrigerator-sized equipment on public street poles at a below-market rate. Telecom companies said that they need more physical infrastructure in order to give users faster data and higher speeds. Such access, they explained, could help give high-speed internet to poorer families in both rural and urban areas. Opponents, however, argued that the measure would take away authority and revenue from local communities, saying that there are no provisions to ensure that broadband would actually reach the low-income homes that need it most. Some, like Dundon, also worry that the towers and transmission devices that pop up are part of a “much bigger physical network that may or may not be existing fully on altruistic terms.”

Untitled (Cell Site 7), San Francisco, 2017. (Rian Dundon)

Ultimately, 649 failed to breathe life into telecom tower proliferation when Governor Jerry Brown vetoed it last October. But, Dundon warns, “This is going to keep popping up. Similar bills have passed around the country, and in the senates of other states. This is the trajectory.”

If that sounds ominous, it’s a sentiment that pairs well with the tone of the photographs, some of which look like they could be stills from a too-on-the-nose episode of Black Mirror.

Untitled (Cell Site 1), San Francisco, 2017. (Rian Dundon)

All of the photos in the series are taken within the bounds of Silicon Valley, and Dundon acknowledges the implicit weight to that.

“We wouldn’t all be walking around with cell phones, and we wouldn’t need these towers, this access to data, if it weren’t for Apple,” he said. “There’s a very clear cultural legacy here.” But Dundon also stressed that the series could have been set anywhere in the country, where telecom’s bones are scattered in “the inbetweenness on the side of freeways, tucked between buildings.”

Untitled (Cell Site 8), Oakland, 2017. (Rian Dundon)

Dundon isn’t advocating that we all renounce technology and burn down the antennas and cables that hover over our cities. But he is hoping that his photo essay, “an illustration of the proliferation of power in the public space,” will serve as a startling reminder of how ubiquitous technology is—not just in our personal lives but in our communities, too.

This photo essay was supported by the Economic Hardship Reporting Project.

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