Visiting the ‘Making the Modern World’ gallery at London’s Science Museum, the inhabitant of this modern world is confronted with carefully and sometimes wittily curated cabinets – one need only examine the section charting the evolution of our engagement with sexuality, starting with Mills & Boon romantic novels, through condoms and abortion campaign badges to baby wipes. These cabinets display ‘Technology in Everyday Life’, giving a flavour of the evolution of objects from 1750 to 2000. The modern dweller, however, might be struck by the absence of one object that has come to be so pervasive in everyday life, informing the ways many people work and live, like few objects before it.
Yet, the performative role of this object is strangely at odds with its visual presence, or rather its near visual absence, and indeed its absence from the display cabinets that line the walls of the exhibition space. Should it not occupy a prominent position in the gallery space, considering the prominent role it takes in the making of the modern world day to day?
Where is the wireless router?
It is about six and a half metres up, just to the left of the black Morris Minor of 1950. It is simply attached to the column in between two strips of lights that illuminate the gallery, creating the bright light that bounces off the shiny surfaces of the carefully placed and polished exhibits. It is barely noticeable in its white plastic shell, a tiny green light flashing every now and then, signalling… well, signalling the signal. Its slightly off-centre position high up on the square column demonstrates a carelessness in the way it is positioned, which suggests that it is not at all intended to be noticed.
The wireless router, although in some respect the culmination of many of the inventions in this gallery, has retreated from the display cabinets and remains a mere piece of infrastructure that does not draw attention to the possibilities it creates in our Modern World. Its design makes it easy for it to hide in this manner – a slightly clunky white box with six antennae protruding from it at right angles, giving it the grace of a crab that has landed on its back and is struggling to regain balance. It might be viewed as a slightly unfortunate piece of product design, and is certainly not one that will add much wonder and amazement to the current display of artefacts in the glass cabinets. The design is certainly not guided by ergonomic principles; there is little need for a user interface and the user merely tends to have an indirect relationship with the router. It’s not an object one engages with physically on a regular basis; instead, one is hardly ever aware of it, and only looks at it – and then finds oneself having to look for it in the first place – when it has ceased performing satisfactorily.
The physical presence of a wireless router has become somewhat secondary to the graphic advertisement of the availability of the wireless signal it produces. The immateriality of wireless connectivity is popularly represented by a small circle with three offset lines radiating from it. This by now easily recognisable sign is frequently placed at the entrance to a café, or in the waiting area of a train station, while the router itself tends to be hidden away, much like the one in the ‘Making the Modern World’ gallery at the Science Museum. The sign representing the performance of the object overshadows the object itself, making its physical form even more secondary to its performative role. This step in the evolution of the router towards an altogether less material object is evident in the various ways in which it makes an appearance. In interior public environments, such as museums or along Underground platforms in central London, the crab-like exemplar may still be found attached to walls or to the curved surface of the tunnel. In private houses, the visually rarely desirable object often poses the problem of where to put it in order to minimise the impact of its physical presence. In outdoor environments across the city, however, the wireless router has already developed more radical strategies and turned into a parasite that has disposed of its shell entirely, in favour of inhabiting existing structures.
One increasingly comes across telephone booths that have been retrofitted to accommodate the capabilities of the wireless router, advertising these using the aforementioned graphic language. Models such as the Kiosk KX100 of the mid-1980s, that lack the charm, and ultimately the heritage value, of the Giles Gilbert Scott designed red telephone box, seem to have been given a new lease of life. Considering this parasitic inhabitation, the router and the phone box have entered an unusually symbiotic relationship. The analogy of the crustacean might be more appropriate than initially anticipated, as the wireless router adopts the phone box much like a hermit crab, and at the same time enables its new shell to remain a somewhat useful piece of urban infrastructure in the age of mobile phone communication. At the same time, we know that such hidden devices might be deployed to gather information from wirelessly connected gadgets – in the same way that the interactive bins that now litter the City of London have been collecting data from passers-by, whose devices are automatically reaching out to the nearest source of WiFi. Has the wireless router simply become an object of surveillance, keeping a close watch on visitors to the museums in Albertopolis?
In any case, given that it is not explicitly positioned as a part of the exhibition, one might be led to question what a wireless router is doing in an exhibition space that is designed and curated with the intention of allowing visitors to experience artefacts face-to-face, rather than virtually, in the first place. It might simply have fallen victim to the ambition to make public places wirelessly connected to the internet, regardless of whether this in some respect runs counter to the ambition of the Science Museum to offer an immediate, rather than a mediated experience.
Returning to the absence of the wireless router from the curated exhibition, however, it might not just be its un-recognisability, the lack of design quality, or its hiding within other objects of everyday life and the range of guises it therefore assumes, that have led to its exclusion from the cabinets lining the walls of the gallery. Perhaps the curators decided that it occurred as a piece of ‘Technology in Everyday Life’ only after the Millennium, the end point of the span of time the exhibition aims to cover – too late to fit in? Or perhaps they simply failed to notice it, its parasitic tactics so far evolved that it simply went unnoticed as an object in its own right? It certainly is the hidden exhibit – the one that views the visitor, more than it is seeking to be viewed, the hermit crab of modern technology.
Have you seen any objects that intrigued you lately? Perhaps you have encountered something that piqued your curiosity in a museum or gallery (or in a shop or in the street?), or as part of your art or design practice, as part of your research, or as part of your daily life. Please don’t be shy! We welcome submissions on objects of all sorts, between 500 and 1,500 words, and we do ask that you own the rights to your images or use those belonging to the V&A. If you aren’t sure if your idea is right for our column, it certainly never hurts to ask, so please get in touch with us: firstname.lastname@example.org
Benjamin Koslowski –
Benjamin has a background in architecture and is a doctoral researcher at the Royal College of Art, where his work focuses on how communication technology changes our cities, and in particular how we understand privacy and the way we relate to other people, both in digital and physical environments. In addition to his research activity, Benjamin is teaching in Interiors at Middlesex University.
© Benjamin Koslowski, 2014. All Rights Reserved.