Opening up the “ness” of wirelessness

Adrain Mackenzie’s subject is ‘wirelessness’, the assemblage of practices, forces, ecologies and affects set in motion by Wi-Fi’s technical and cultural workings. He defines it as “an experience trending toward entanglements with things, objects, gadgets, infrastructures and service, and imbued with indistinct sensations and practices of network-associated change”(Mackenzie 2010: 5). His reading of William James drives him towards a focus on experience as a way of approaching the practical “inseparability of thinking and the things” (p14). Wirelessness here is a matter of “transitions and feelings of being in transition” (p39) the same themes that are at the heart of James’ radical empiricism. He often cites James’ insistence: “The relations that connect experience must themselves be experienced relations, and any kind of relation experience must be accounted as ‘real’ as anything else in the system” (James 1996: 42). James dynamic philosophy in motion, with its flat ontology is, for Mackenzie a useful tool to approach the dynamic spaces and relations of wireless urban experience which requires an acceptance of things and thinking as objects of analysis and, it could be argued object-actants.

What is important is how he sees code as part of this conceptual structure. Mackenzie, as in his previous work, is not afraid to deal with the “monstrously complicated” scales of software studies (Mackenzie 2008: 48) whether that is video codecs (2008), languages (2005, 2006) or algorithms (Mackenzie 2006). Here too Mackenzie feels it necessary to draw an account at the scale of algorithms in order to not only present a full picture of the experience of wirelessness but also in order to be able to trace the power relations in operation that his radical empiricism demands remain open and at the centre of analysis.

He argues that Digital Signal Processing (DSP) algorithms, “if acknowledged at all, {…] are treated as the most abstract aspect of electronic media and communication technologies, the part that lies closest to mathematics. We need a much more sensitive treatment of their becomings” (Mackenzie 2010: 66-67). Here algorithms, or protocols, are not looked at as background or foundation or dangerous supplement. Rather it is their ‘becomings’ that is at the heart of the arrivals, departures and transitions within networks and wirelessness as well as network and wireless experience. “They transduce realities,” he says (p67). In my terms they imag(in)e. We will come on to address the subtle difference between Mackenzie’s reading of radical empiricism and object-oriented philosophy but what is important to note here is first that Mackenzie treats software as implicated and in/enfolded in the “ness” he is looking at, within the different scales. Secondly it is important to note that he treats the algorithmic/protocol scale of software as at the heart of the issue. It is here where imag(in)ing works. It is here where analysis and ontology can develop and it is these objects (in his case the fast Fourier transforms, that also under[pin jpeg, and the convolutional coding-Viterbi  decoding (pp72-77)), that open up that “ness” experience, that black box, to analysis.

  • James, 1996, Essays in Radical Empiricism, University of Nebraska Press, Lincoln.
  • Mackenzie, A., 2005, The Performativity of Code : Software and Cultures of Circulation, Theory, Culture & Society, 22, pp. 71-92.
  • Mackenzie, A., 2006, Cutting Code: Software And Sociality, Peter Lang, New York.
  • Mackenzie, A., 2006, Java: the practical virtuality of internet programming, New Media & Society, 8(3), p. 441.
  • Mackenzie, A.,  2008, Codecs, in Fuller (ed), Software Studies : A Lexicon, MIT Press, Cambridge, Mass., pp. 48-54.
  • Mackenzie, A., 2010, Wirelessness: Radical Empiricism In Network Cultures, MIT Press, Cambridge, Mass..