It was only leaving this territory of ghosts, memories, and bitter class clearances, that the digitally expanded city revealed itself, if only partially, within in a coincidental alignment of moments. Heavy vibrations amplified through the riveted panels of an iron bridge, a heady exaggerated perspective of tracks and electricity cables raced towards their vanishing points, a yellow brick post war tenement block topped with transmitters and a collection of satellite dishes pointing to the sky and a man wearing an embroidered white dashiki shirt and trousers with a kufi cap, probably a recent arrival from West African judging from his gestures, tended pink flowers on the balcony below. I tried to take a photograph but the metadata reveals more than the blurred and ill composed image.
I was passing the centre of the bridge that connects platform 1 and 2 of Hackney Central overground station when my attention was grabbed by the heavy low rumbling that reverberated through my feet and deep into my body. The Iron railings had been covered with painted grey chipboard blocking my vision and forcing me to rise up onto my toes to look over the high sides of the bridge. I watched the slow movement of yet another freight train passing below. Containers with strange names and a very particular pallet of colours that have become familiar by the frequency and repetition of their passage through this area heading north from Tilbury docks or London Gateway;
HAMBURG SUD, HAMBURG SUD, MAERSK, MAERSK, EVERGREEN LINE, MAERSK, COSCO, HAPAG-LLOYD, P&O/Nedlloyd, P&O/Nedlloyd, MAERSK SEALAND, COSCO, HAMBURG SUD, P&O/Nedlloyd, COSCO, HAPAG-LLOYD, EVERGREEN LINE, HAMBURG SUD, MAERSK.
Tilbury to Birmingham, Bristol, Coatbridge, Felixstowe, Leeds, Liverpool or Manchester.
London Gateway to Birmingham, Liverpool, Manchester, Leeds and Coatbridge with an ad-hoc service to Bristol.
The African guy was cleaning his already spotless balcony with sharp whip like movements of a white cloth that seemed to amplify the weight of transmitters only metres above his head and emphasise the oversaturation of his pink flowers which struck me as anachronistically out of place in October. A sudden bright spark illuminated the bridge and burnt a temporarily blind spot onto my retina as the connecting strips of the pantograph arm momentarily disconnected and reconnected the Freightliner engine to the suspended power line. The ionised air and the visceral presence of the usually invisible electricity made me recall a passage from Gilbert Simondon’s On the Mode of Existence of Technical Objects in which he meditates on the relationship between a traction engine and its varied geographic environments;
‘The traction engine doesn’t simply transform electrical energy to mechanical energy; it applies electrical energy to a geographically varied world, translating it technically in response to the profile of the railway track, the varying resistance of the wind, and to the resistance provided by snow which the engine pushes ahead and shoves aside. The traction engine causes a reaction in the line that powers it, a reaction that is a translation of geographical and meteorological structure of the world’.
The freight train continued to rumble below my feet as I contemplated the invisible electrical mapping produced by the train within its connected power line, not just of the physical environment but also rendering social and economic flows. The added weight of commuters at certain times of the day moving in one direction then the other or the alterations in the power line between commuter trains and freight. Either the electrical substation or the train itself must be engineered to counter the effects of these cartographic fluctuations, but if the system could be hacked at that key point a form of rhythm analytics could be extracted revealing the invisible geographies produced in the power lines through the socio-economic and environmental rhythms of the train network.
The endless freight continued to flow below me. The physical length of these trains is impressive but can induce an overwhelming sense of monotony. My mind started to contemplate wider invisible geographies. The African man had disappeared indoors but I’m pretty sure that my mobile phone was secretly communication with the mast that is sited above his flat. My limited knowledge of the mobile phone network informs me that these masts constantly broadcast their system identification code and mobile phones are set to listen and check in, even when they are not in use.
I had a moment of epiphany. The digitally expanded city that I was searching for and had failed to locate is, just like the relationship between the train and its power cable, in part invisible. It is not accessible through the normal human sensors, only disclosing its presence through its absence. Those moments of low signal or lack of wifi connection. As I walk Hackney I have been enmeshed in an invisible geography of machine to machine communication, I have been creating invisible disturbances in a whole host of systems, casting data shadows, a personal trail of involuntary meta-data has accompanied my walk as my phone broadcasts and receives its secret messages, revealing my presences in an unseen cellular network and creating fluctuations within the electro magnetic fields that I pass through. My phone has communicated with satellites in order to log the location and altitude of my photograph and layered wifi zones have been mapped and charted, routers contacted and interrogated. It now becomes clear that the digital devices and interactions that form the tangible aspect of the digitally expanded city atop a vast invisible infrastructure. Where the Industrial revolution had transformed space through the construction of impressive physical structures the digital revolution overlays space with an invisible geography.