28 May 2014

Why wavelengths are the new billboards

Hey – hear that? It’s the Bluetooth signal from your phone, sending a song to your neat little wireless headphones (it’s at about 2.4GHz). Here’s another: the Wi-Fi signal, gunning along at 60 GHz as it carries your email off to a nearby receiver.

We can’t hear them, of course, as they’re outside the human ear’s range – but it’s all of these undulating waves that actually stand behind so much of the technology we rely on every day, from mobile phones to satnav.

Who is in charge of them all? And why does it matter? I started thinking about it after a friend forwarded me an article written in 1960 by advertising guru Howard Gossage (who, disappointingly, bears little resemblance to Don Draper.In it, Gossage unleashes a stinging attack on billboard advertising, arguing that by taking over space in the public view they are effectively an invasion of privacy. Sure, he says, we don’t have to look at them, but why should we be forced even to avoid doing so? He’s basically arguing against the commercialisation, not of public space, but public eyelines.

It’s an interesting argument, though clearly one which didn’t result in the bonfire of billboards for which Gossage seems to be lobbying.28_geoffblog_g_w

I see the same issues emerging though in the frequencies on which our gadgets operate. These wavelengths don’t “belong” to anyone, they exist in the ether all around us – yet certain sections of them have been roped off for use by Bluetooth, WiFi, 3G mobile phones and so on.

We all benefit as a result (after all, it’d be a nightmare if your phone didn’t know which frequencies to communicate on). But increasingly those wavelengths are being exploited for commercial gain. We saw it in the WiFi tracking of shoppers, something now being achieved in cities and malls across the country. We will soon see it in the use of Bluetooth networks which send ads to our phones.

Are you happy with this? If not, do you even know who you’d complain to? Perhaps it’s a debate that will never take place, just as Gossage claimed billboards had “acquired an easement across our minds”.

There is one difference though: Gossage jokingly predicted (not realising his prescience) that people would one day collect billboards as a piece of nostalgia. You can’t quite see the same thing happening with digital adverts.

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