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Antenna Trees

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The new issue of the scholarly media journal Flow is online, and includes an interesting article by UC Santa Barbara associate professor Lisa Parks on cell phone antenna trees. Titled "Around the Antenna Tree: The Politics of Infrastructural Visibility," the essay charts the history of cell phone tower concealment since its beginnings in the 1990s when residents protested the installation of bare towers for aesthetic, health and economic reasons. In response to complaints, cell phone companies resorted to crafting "stealth towers" designed to hide the true purpose of the steel structures. Parks notes that, in addition to various kinds of trees, towers have been camouflaged as "flagpoles, church steeples, mosque minarets, crosses, and grain silos among other things," adding that one company even created a custom tower that looks like an osprey nest. What's the big deal?

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Parks argues that hiding these towers has an impact. "We are socialized to know so little about the infrastructures that surround us, even though many of us use mobile phones each day," she says, asking, "Would our experience of mobile telephony change if we knew more about the architectures of signal distribution?" She answers in the affirmative, noting that phones have dramatically altered basic patterns of everyday life; why shouldn't these changes be visible? And why shouldn't we be empowered to understand the basic functionality of communication? Not knowing leaves us disempowered, and perpetuates a myth of seamless, invisible technology, and encourages us to leave vexing questions of cost, access and infrastructure to the "professionals." That said, the camouflaged trees are fascinating as objects... The image above was taken by Parks.

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