Background and foreground

Adrian Mackenzie begins his discussion of wirelesses (Mackenzie 2010) with ‘Wi-Fi’, noting that the trademark caries instructions as to how the logo should appear. The 45 page brand guidelines (PDF) state that the space around the logo should be equal to three times the width of the (lower-case) ‘i’ which, Mackenzie notes: “seems apt. Wireless network very much concern the interval between people, or the space around ‘I.'”

Wi-Fi, like jpeg is a standard emerging from an industry body. In the case of Wi-Fi, the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers, in the case of jpeg, the Joint Photographic Experts Group. Both set the rules for play. Routers and gadget software, telephones and PC software must meet the standards in order to ‘work’. A wireless chip that works to a different standard will still function but will not enable other protocols such as TCP/IP (Galloway 2004) to come into play in Starbucks. A CCD chip or camera software that encodes light falling through the lens as an Olympus RAW (or any other RAW standard) file will still imag(in)e but will not work on Flickr, Facebook or a Google search without the intervention of other code or software to turn it into a usable form.

What perhaps separates the two standards is their position as brand, their visibility. The Wi-Fi logo and the name is ubiquitous even to the extent of Wi-Fi becoming synonymous with ‘network’ itself: “is there a Wi-Fi network here?”.The Wi-Fi site, a far slicker and more corporate space than that of the Joint Photographic Experts Group, talks of a trade association, trademarks and brands. It says: “The Wi-Fi CERTIFIED logo is today’s best assurance of device interoperability. Businesses seek it. Consumers demand it. And we provide it”. Here a standard is protected, policed and deliberately visible, marked on coffee shop doors, station platforms and domestic equipment. Interestingly the practice of publicly identifying open wireless networks by a chalk mark on the pavement (warchalking) was also built around a visible sign, a sort of anti or even no logo.

Jpeg on the other hand is transparent. It not only withdraws from view in an ontological sense, it retreats semiotically. The technical standard, the jpeg protocol retreats behind the label ‘jpeg’. The language around jpeg is one of images: “this card will hold 5,000 jpegs”, “send me a jpeg” etc. Here the standard, the protocol, the compression is transparent. It is the final image, the outcome of jpeg compression, that is visible.

The alliances that form around Wi-Fi are the same as around jpeg. The corporate interests represented by the Wi-Fi alliance include Microsoft, Nokia, Apple and imaging companies such as Nikon – although not what Jarvis has identified as ‘platform’ businesses like Google and Facebook (Jarvis 2009). These companies have a stake in Wi-Fi and in jpeg but they are articulated in different ways. In object-oriented terms, the alliances are forged slightly differently.

In both cases Wi-Fi and jpeg need to be seamless. The Wi-Fi logo represents a guarantee of network readiness. Jpeg in the menu or the instruction manual guarantees interoperability, seamless uploading and sharing. In the case of Wi-Fi those alliances are very visible. This is a brand alliance: “our software or gadget will work ‘out of the box’ with the network”. The protocol (even if it not understood as such or even at all) must be present as logo if a consumer is to choose my Wi-Fi ready phone over my competitor’s 3G only one – I can watch iPlayer over my latte whereas my friend cannot. Wi-Fi is network. It is connection. To choose Wi-Fi ready is to choose networked.

Jpeg however should remain invisible or at least only visible as a suffix, an add-on to the image that is paramount. Not only does no-one need or indeed want to know that the protocol is removing information as it compresses, the most powerful alliances within which jpeg works are platforms, social businesses where the rags ’n refuse of content and their connections are paramount. A consumer does not need to know that the phone ‘shoots jpegs’ (sic) only that it can upload directly to Facebook or Flickr. It is not just the ubiquity of the standard but rather its secondary importance. Google, Facebook, Apple, Nikon et al have no interest in foregrounding jpeg. They want the iPhone, 14-28 zoom, search box or adverts as the focus. While the jpeg standards makes all those technologies, relations and business practices possible, it can remain in the background.

  • Galloway, 2004, Protocol: How Control Exists after Decentralization, MIT Press, Cambridge, Mass.; London.
  • Jarvis, J., 2009, What Would Google Do? Collins Business, New York.
  • Mackenzie, A., 2010, Wirelessness : Radical Empiricism In Network Cultures, MIT Press, Cambridge, Mass..