Signs of connectivity

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Cellphones are called cellphones in some places (In Burma/Myanmar, where I lived for several years, it was referred to as a “handphone”, one of my favorite monikers, being that a “hand” is an instantly recognizable and more universal concept than “cellular” or “mobility”. I find the term “handphone” to be somewhat in the spirit of how Tricia Wang embraces “human” rather than “user” as a term in her work.

Nomenclature aside, handphones are, by definition, mobile as well. This is usually a desirable feature, except for when one’s signal (and corresponding conversation, streaming song, or television episode) suddenly evaporates into the ether as one walks, eclipsed by some unseen hand (usually a building, a wall, or a signal jammer around certain sensitive areas).

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This makes me call into question the underlying logic of signs such as these, which convey that one’s (if one has a China Mobile/中国移动, at least) signal is at peak strength here. Were this a particularly pleasant place to wait and have a conversation, such a sign might be more useful. The particular places these several signs are located include next to a brick wall outside of a restaurant, at the entrance to a parking garage, above a bunch of bushes behind an academic building on the campus of Chongqing University, and in a tight alleyway filled with garbage and discarded pieces of battered furniture. How did the signs end up at these particular places, though? Was this the physical result of a human-determined demand, or simply a robotically adhered to algorithm, an assignment followed unquestioningly word-for-word directing the worker to attach signs to the wall nearest to areas of peak signal strength?

It seems as pointless as saying “This is a nice spot to stand in when it is raining.” When one is outside in the rain, one is not (usually) there by choice, but rather going somewhere else (sometimes with a very limited time to arrive there). The virtue of identifying a spot to stand in where signal is good or where one wont get rained on is silly – for the most part, when one is at street level on a cellphone call then one is also in motion. One’s conversation can take one through areas where the signal ranges from “full bars” to non-existent, all across the unpredictable range of frequencies determined by the shapes of the surrounding urban landscape. Seeing as a cellphone is constantly evaluating signal strength anyways, and that stopping to read a sign takes roughly the same time/effort as pulling out one’s phone and checking one’s signal (and is not nearly as useful when one is not actually engaged in a cellphone call), these signs serve no apparent purpose. Identifying a place as good to stand in the rain is not particularly useful – in downpours, patches of dry ground would be the better indicator anyways, an emergent property of the urbanscape that only becomes visible in the precisely correct moment of greatest utility.

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One of the only roles I could envision them serving is if the subscriber of competing telecom company’s signal were to suddenly go dead in close proximity to one of these signs, at which point they may look around for the source of the signal lapse and notice that were they a subscriber of China Mobile that they would likely not have encountered such a problem. Perhaps this is simply cunning and subtle form of advertising, and I’m not giving China Mobile enough credit. What would it cost to hire someone to stand next to such a sign, wearing the t-shirt of a competing telecoms company, screaming into a handset that their signal is lousy and imploring the (non-existent?) person on the other end of the line to speak louder? I’m getting ahead of myself, though.

An additional possible function is that if one is already a subscriber to China Mobile and one’s signal is not full whilst standing next to one such sign, then it can be assumed the fault lies with one’s phone (or with whomever affixed the sign to the wall). Possibly helpful, to someone, maybe?

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Another problem exists for these signs: given the rate of change in urban China, the likelihood that a structure will spring up in close proximity (disrupting the signal), or that the structure upon which it is mounted will be demolished is not insignificant. In this vein, perhaps my initial judgment as to these signs’ seemingly nonsensical placement is not the fault of the worker (or algorithm) that placed them in such seemingly unpleasant places to converse. Such sites could have once been more suitable for conversation – equipped with seating, or shelter, or a nearby electrical socket – but have since had those desirable features removed. These signs may just speak to the speed of urban evolution – perhaps the sign posted out front of the elevated entrance to a parking garage used to be a different place, maybe an open, elevated plaza or a car-free pathway, sacrificed to China’s booming automobile culture.

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This haphazard and halfhearted solution to a problem does get me thinking, though. What if there were a mapping utility that laid out optimal “signal pathways” on a given course, allowing one to plan a walking or driving route based upon the criteria of cellphone signal strength? Alternatively, an application on your phone that warns you that you are approaching an area of little signal, or that your cellular signal has just rapidly decreased in strength. These would be useful when navigating an unfamiliar urban environment, and would certainly aid someone either on an important call (or expecting one) or downloading a critically important file to one’s phone.

Similarly, carrying on the above example of seeking shelter on a rainy day, a comparable app (or function of a mapping program) could be dialed in to account for rainy weather, where the overall most “dry”/sheltered path to one’s destination is mapped out for the pedestrian.

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