Journal: News & Comment

Monday, March 05, 2001
# 9:59:00 PM:

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Something (okay, many things) in the air

Last night I finished my first major project since I started working exclusively on contract in February. It's a 42-page document for Sierra Wireless Inc. about Cellular Digital Packet Data (CDPD) -- which is a standard for connecting to the Internet wirelessly, using the same infrastructure and radio frequencies as analog cellular phones.

Having immersed myself in the subject of wireless data communications for two weeks, I was obviously interested when I spotted an article in today's online edition of the New York Times called "Locating Devices Rise in Popularity But Raise Privacy Concerns"(free registration required). It announces that a long-time science fiction idea is now upon us: being able to pinpoint a person's whereabouts precisely, almost anywhere on earth. This development has both benefits (call 911 and they'll know where you are within a few metres, even if you can't speak) and drawbacks (your employer always knows where your company vehicle is -- even if it's the parking lot of a strip club).

The discussion also reiterates something I've been thinking of for some time. The air around us is thick with invisible information:

  • radio and TV broadcasts.
  • cell phone calls of several different analog and digital varieties.
  • police, firefighting, marine, aircraft, military, taxi, dispatch, and other two-way radio.
  • wireless data in a whole bunch of guises.
  • the electromagnetic detritus of all the motors, signals, power lines, and miscellaneous gadgets we live with.

All these signals are modulated, multiplexed, layered, and intermixed into a cacophanous soup -- but one that none of our natural senses can detect. Yet does it affect us? It seems not, but we're not sure yet. Then again, the last century exposed human beings to many new things (plastics, antibiotics, puffed food products) and we live longer than ever.

For all but the latest brief, infinitesimal slice of human history -- the previous hundred years -- the radio spectrum on earth was nearly silent. The only radio waves we'd find interesting today were, generally, from space. Now we spew so much out that radio astronomers are looking longingly at the far side of the moon, because the only thing that can block the constant radio buzz from our planet is a whole moon's worth of solid rock.

As Madge would say, "You're soaking in it."


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