telephone lines as the ultimate utility in an information society
I can never tell what they are thinking / If they are thinking /
I know they are transmitting thoughts / is that any different? /
I wonder what it is they are transmitting / at the same time /
I could give a damn

the lines

I have telephone lines hanging right outside my bedroom window. So close that I could use them as a drying line if I wanted to.


The forms of these structures do not give away what they are carrying. Have you ever looked up at a telephone line and recognized what it was carrying? Probably not. Unless you have intimate knowledge of what each wire carries along this social nervous system. Imagine I’ve just taken some wet clothes out of the washer. Cables hanging outside my window could just be used a clothesline but I do not go trying to drape my clothes over them. No, these cables still dry my clothes but the method is more abstract.


The sprawling, endless web of cables, ceramic caps, buckets of wires that a telephone line consists of does not give away their concrete purpose. That is, the layman cannot decipher what each given cables is carrying. They cannot even tell the service company coursing through those cables. Their form is such that those kind of questions are not stirred. What is coursing through those cables is us as a species. We are not just our bodies, we are all we consume as well. It is not often recognized that every man-made invention becomes an extension of our abilities. These extending cables in particular are what weave together our society into a fabric of productivity and comfortable convenience.


the grid

From messenger pigeons to the Pony Express, humans have always tried to overcome the time sensitivity and distance involved in modern communication. As a public demonstration, Sam Morse was given a sum of money to prove that he could instantaneously transmit a message with his new technology. During his initial attempt to lay cables underground, it turned out they were defective. He took on a suggestion offered to him of hanging the cables. Subsequently plans were drawn, cables hung and a message, “what hath God wrought?” was instantaneously transmitted. Thus in May 1844, foundations for the grid as we know it were born.


It is easy enough to forget that real people put up the grid. Easy to forget it even had a beginning. Instead of always being irritated by their sight-blocking tendency. It might actually be more worthwhile to look up and admire the handiwork that keeps our society running.


joint utility poles

Acting as a backbone for modern life with its suspended, sprawling cables lines like nerve endings, transmitting blinks. Joint utility poles are ubiquitous in North American cities and in the vast stretches of land in between. They are most commonly made of wood. Trees cut down from the forest for this purpose are usually the Southern Yellow Pine but Douglas Fir and Western Red Cedar can be seen too. Trees are marked during an initial walk through of the forest. They are judged for primarily height and straightness. Poles are then cleaned of their bark and straightened. The logs are then treated against fungi and termites and then kiln dried. Various holes are bore into the log mostly for attaching a crossbar.


When the production process of the utility pole is considered in the context of its form, the infrastructural system reveals itself as a replanted forest of undead trees. These magnificent forces of life, mediums of breathable air are chemically stripped of anything that resembles that very life they help maintain. This replanted forest suspends a new type of cloud and transforms a different kind of energy. No wonder people see them as eyesores, we are living in a forest of crucified trees.


Joint Utility Poles are most common in the U.S. with two hundred million in use today. These poles are made of treated wood and usually sport crossbar. The real estate on these utility poles is organized on a spectrum from most dangerous cables to least respectively from top to bottom of the pole. The more dangerous cables carry electricity and power. This supply space, like the other level of cables, is shared by a number of companies, channelling services such as gas, heat, electric, and fiber-optics.


It is not really our business to care about who is powering the street or traffic lights as long as they are working. This lack of identification and branding is rare to find in our current visual environment. We are used to far more visual stimulation than utility poles offer us. Objects like this that are ubiquitous with our surroundings, are manmade and yet call no special attention to themselves. They are easily overlooked. Based on their origin, their design did not stem from an intention of fading into the surroundings. Rather, it was in order to correct a blunder with cables that they had run underground. Perhaps it is because the design of utility poles hasn’t changed in the 175 years since the first was erected that they just fade into the background. They are as old as time in comparison to the rate of change we are now used to. There is a required 30 inches of safety space for people working on the cables in between the energy supply zone and the communication zone. Below this space, our virtual avatars zip around, Jetsons-style.


As long as the street and traffic lights are working, it is fair to say we don’t need to worry about who is owning the given cables. But, as we well know now, those cables are carrying other kinds of information. They are providing us with gas and electric as well as make connection to the internet possible from our homes. These cables are constantly transmitting our digital information just dangle there vulnerably.


closing thoughts

Utility poles are ubiquitous in any American city. It inevitable upon brief glances to take for granted what their provide as well as take their form for a nuisance. They deserve attention and appreciation. Our society pivots around the axis that is the utility pole. At this point in technological advancement synonymous with daily life, the utility poles and their cables are fundamental to any most any sort of production. The system they suspended by this utility poles is one we have created and they should be symbols of the internet and the cloud rather than an aesthetic burden or completely ignored. The very existence of telephone lines paved the way to the internet as we well know it. Just as the American infrastructure system of telephone lines built upon that of the roads and rails, our seemingly omnipresently ephemeral digital world is built on the the beeps and boops transmitted by our system of utility lines. It is a system that physically does surround us constantly.

/ writing, photographs and
design by Katherine Kisin
December 2018 /