Sunday, 27 February 2011

Tracing Angels - Satellites and Social Movements

What could be more luminous than a space traversed with messages? Look at the sky, even right above us. It's traversed by planes, satellites, electromagnetic waves from television, radio, fax, electronic mail. The world we are immersed in is a space-time of communication. Why shouldn't I call it angel space, since this means the messengers, the systems of mailmen, of transmissions in the act of passing or the space through which they pass? Do you know, for example, that at every moment there are at least a million people on flights through the sky, as though immobile or suspended - nonvariables with variations? Indeed, we live in a century of angels.
[Michel Serres with Bruno Latour: Conversations on Science, Culture, and Time]

It was a recent post on the Google Earth Blog that reminded me of French philosopher Michel Serres' curious angelology. The post relates to a Google Earth plugin that was created by a developer for Analytic Graphics by a developer called Matt Amato (visualised above). The plugin uses openly available data published by U.S. Strategic Command (USSTRATCOM) relating to over 13,000 man made objects orbiting the earth, including active and retired communications satellites along with other assorted space debris.

Fascinating as this is it doesn't help us penetrate the sense of Serre's opaque invocation of angels. While orbiting satellites are absolutely necessary for the transmission of global communications, if we sit back and track the relays we actually miss the messages passing invisibly between them. How do you capture angels in flight?

Created by Technorama on behalf of the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), the visualisation above used a data set provided by the Flight Stats website that tracked the departures and arrivals of commercial flights from approximately 9,000 civil airports over the course of 24 hours. While we appear to see a time lapse of the actual flight paths it is important to note that successive positions of each flight have been interpolated from the data concerning arrivals and departures. What we actually see then is only one possible flight path.

Here it strikes me that the trope of the angel was introduced by Serres' precisely to throw such idealisations into question. In the course of his conversations with Bruno Latour the figure of the angel was introduced in the context of the need for a means of describing the fluctuations of global events precisely in a situation where the 'the widest relationality is possible'. His concern is that in a world of global telecommunication it is necessary to be able to provide global descriptions, but without abstraction, reductionism or falling into the imposible task of trying to explain everything:
A verb or a substantive chosen from the galaxy of Ideas, from the categories either in consciousness or in the subject, spawns systems or histories that are static, even if they claim to describe a process of becoming. It's better to paint a picture of relations and rapports - like the percolating basin of a glacial river, unceasingly changing its bed and showing and admirable network of forks, some of which freeze or silt up, while others open up - or like a cloud of angels that passes, or the list of prepositions, or the dance of flames.
It is through this self-consciously constructed modern myth of the angel that he seeks to promote a sensitivity to the multiplicity of messengers and messages that is often overlooked in the supposition of a single overriding message or meaning, and an openness or hospitality to the contingent events that the fortuitous encounters of those messengers and their messages bring about. For Serres the virtue of angels is that they are 'restless', unsystematic' and cannot be pinned down. Though their passing can be traced, their location remains uncertain:
I imagine that for every angel there is a corresponding preposition. But a preposition does not transport messages; it indicates a network of possible paths, either in space or time.
Above, below, before, behind, amongst, inside or outside; the number of possible prepositions correspond to the number of media. And multiplying the media is likely to multiply the number of mediators. One interesting example might involve the innovation of the Sukey anti-kettling tool. What is amazing about the Sukey tolls are that all of the technology is openly available and requires only a relatively small amount of technical knowledge to set up. Through the combined use of mobile telephony, the internet, and old fashioned word of mouth, it enables the Sukey team to crowd source geo-located information on police positions at demonstrations and relay that back to users so as to indicate police positions relative to the users. All this is achieved without disclosing the users' locations to the police force attempting to kettle them. Electronic messages are relayed between protestors, whose own bodies are a signal or message to the powers that be by virtue of their co-presence on the streets.

I wonder then whether Serres' thought might have something to contribute to an understanding of the role played by online social networks such as Twitter and Facebook in the formation of new social movements and particularly the events unfolding in North Africa and the Middle East right now?

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