Mediapolis Q&A: Rahul Mukherjee’s Radiant Infrastructures

This is the first entry in a two-part conversation between authors Germaine R. Halegoua and Rahul Mukherjee on their recent books on media, culture, and urban geographies. In this installment, Dr. Halegoua leads a discussion with Dr. Mukherjee, the Dick Wolf Assistant Professor of Television and New Media Studies at the University of Pennsylvania, on his book Radiant Infrastructures: Media, Environment, and Cultures of Uncertainty (Duke University Press, 2020). The discussion will continue next week with Mukherjee moderating a conversation with Halegoua on her book  The Digital City: Media and the Social Production of Place (NYU Press, 2020).

Germaine Halegoua: This book is compelling and timely for so many reasons that I hope become clear through our discussion. One thread that weaves together your impressive fieldwork and analysis is the construction and circulation of imagination and imaginaries – of the nation, of progress and futures (and who has access to shaping both), of media and urban infrastructures, of uncertainty, of publics and visibilities – and you argue that “intermediality” plays a significant role in articulating these imaginaries. Could you distill why it’s important to shift our focus from “media” to “medial systems” when studying radiant infrastructure imaginaries? Or perhaps when studying any infrastructural imaginaries?

Rahul Mukherjee: While studying environmental controversies related to nuclear reactors and cell towers, the two radiant infrastructures I deal with in my book, I soon found out that no single media genre or format could account for how these infrastructures were presented to the wider public. Studying one particular medium would not help me understand the kinds of infrastructural imaginaries being created about them. I needed to study connections between/across various media. Infrastructural imaginaries exist at the level of embodied encounters of people with infrastructures in their everyday lives (city denizens talking on the phone negotiate cell antenna signal while walking on the street). These infrastructural imaginaries also exist at the national level because radiant infrastructures are considered by many to be crucial for the (promise of) development of the country. The media system or assemblage that operates across these scales—bridging the micro-level bodily encounters with infrastructures and the macro-level discourses circulating about them is composed of a variety of interconnected media objects, genres, and formats.

For example, if there was a pedagogical cartoon show extolling the virtues of nuclear power, it would be followed by a documentary film criticizing atomic power plants by showing their negative effects on fishermen’s livelihoods. A talk show discussing cell tower radiation would be followed by a lifestyle show depicting the formerly talk show guest (earlier in a television studio) now next to a cell antenna on their apartment terrace. The intense crackling of a Geiger counter suggesting a specific place is a radiation hotspot will be intermedially relayed by a TV series to a wider audience, and an electroencephalogram graph demonstrating interference of wireless signals with human bodies is carried further by a journalistic feature report. Hence, I tried thinking of intermediality both as a concept and as a methodological approach to studying the interconnections across a media system. The move from media to medial makes one more attuned to the connections across media flows. I was also interested in the in-between-ness aspect of “inter” in “intermedial.” Since I was studying wireless signals which drifted through the in-between medium of air on their way from cell towers (media infrastructures) to cellphones (media objects), it helped me conceptualize the atmosphere as medium as well. Overall, my hope is that intermediality provides a more wholesome notion of mediation that appreciates the pervasive and ephemeral quality of imaginaries.

GH: I appreciated how this intermedial approach established a framework for studying the imperceptible or invisible and allowed for the identification and analysis of media ecologies and experiences with cell towers and nuclear reactors that might have been overlooked by other researchers. For example, your attention to “vernacular translations” and “vernacular mythologies of the everyday” in regard to radiation and the role of stories (told from a variety of media forms, sources and perspectives), affect, somatic and molecular level mediations in shaping environmental publics. How did you begin your extensive fieldwork? Could you also share a bit about what first sparked your interest in radiant infrastructures in India and how you cultivated your interdisciplinary approach to critical infrastructure and media studies?

RM: Thanks for this question about fieldwork, which is something I very much value as it helps me to tie together anecdotes and I find them particularly helpful in trying to understand ordinary people’s everyday (embodied) encounters with infrastructures. The book is based on about seven years of fieldwork, and the research was spread over time. I realized that the environmental issues I was studying would keep reconfiguring: at times, the issues would be out of circulation for a while and then reemerge, prompted by the announcement of a new policy measure with respect to cell towers, a newspaper report about a cell antenna turned in the direction of a celebrity’s balcony, or corruption charges related to buying nuclear equipment. So, I would keep going back to the stakeholders and affected communities, and ask them what has changed in their lives since I last met them. Often, I would find myself visiting rooftops/terraces of houses and apartments as they were the disputed sites rented by cell tower builders (from building owners) to install cell antennas. I went to workshops organized by resident apartment associations where there would be presentations using microwave ovens and radiation detectors to make the presence of cell tower signals palpable. The cell tower radiation issue was at once a national issue and a hyperlocal issue as many people were wary of having a proximate cell antenna next to their house or locality. I decided early on to focus not just on big cities like Mumbai and Delhi, but also smaller cities, where the influence of local newspapers (writing in languages beyond English) can be felt, and interviewed journalists who were reporting on this issue. There is a big urban-rural divide in India, and examining the nuclear reactor-related environmental issues took me to rural areas, as atomic power plants are mostly constructed outside dense urban areas.

The anecdotes that I was able to gather taught me that there is a way in which people living close to nuclear reactors and cell towers are attempting to make sense of radiation, and there are interweaved phenomenological and cultural ways of coping with real uncertainties about levels of radiation, the effects of radiation, and gauging the spread of radiation. That is when I started using terms like “vernacular mythologies of the everyday” or “cultures of uncertainty.” For example, a person said he did not completely trust the telecom officials when they said they have reduced the signal levels emitted by a cell antenna next to his house. He would monitor the signal levels using a radiation detector, but remained unsure. It was when peacocks returned to his garden that he felt reassured that the signal levels were indeed low. More than the word of telecom operators, more than the efficacy of EMF detectors, he believed in the peacock’s sensitivity to wireless signals. This is how I have found people coping with uncertainties in their lives.

GH: Did you find that the tactics for negotiating uncertainty around cell towers and radiation in urban environments map onto other pre-existing or particularly urban ways of experiencing and negotiating uncertainty, technology, or urban problems in cities? I kept thinking about Ravi Sundaram’s discussion of media urbanism in Delhi in his book, Pirate Modernity, where he describes popular tactics (mainly among urban poor) for disrupting imaginations and initiatives of urban progress, appropriations of media technologies by urban populations to “pirate” urban development, as well as the role of media and media narratives in shaping images of urban disorder and accidents, fear and uncertainty as well as efforts toward resistance and control. Many of these efforts, especially in terms of resistance or disruption of particular forms and dangers of urbanism, seemed to be organized at the neighborhood level as well. Is there any connection?

RM: Ravi’s book is a classic study of how media technologies impact urban socialities (with Delhi as the focus), how pirate cultures and informal arrangements shake up or frustrate state driven top-down ways of population control. In some of his later work on “post-postcolonial sensory infrastructure,” Sundaram continues in this trajectory and discerns that from the late eighties/early nineties “a volatile, sensory infrastructure emerged, combining pirate tactics, media forms, and paralegal space” that rendered governmental regulation of public affect simply not possible. While in some of my other work on memory cards and music video cultures, I borrow more explicitly from Sundaram’s oeuvre, in this book his influence can be implicitly felt in some of the case-studies I discuss. For example, I explore the regulation of electricity distribution in relation to nuclear reactors. A large group of low-income households in India simply cannot afford electricity at the present rates. An informal workaround is devised by katiyabaaz(s) who can switch or extend electricity connections for a small amount of money. Such an activity, which appropriates distribution technologies lies in the grey zone between the licit and illicit, legal and illegal, and reconfigures regulation policies. These (un)sanctioned/piratical practices of cuttings and re-wirings undertaken by katiyabaaz(s) speaks to something that Sundaram’s work also gestures toward, which is that attending to the informal/piratical modes of operations might help in thinking of infrastructures not as top-down projects, but as bottom-up interventions.

Tangled Cables and Compromised Electric Meters in Old Delhi (Snapshot from Are-Vah!, 2014) [Courtesy Sarah Irion].

More generally, I have been interested in regulation of radiant infrastructures, and such concerns intersect with perceived threats of urban order and disorder. The cell towers in urban India were caught up in messy entanglements with regulatory bodies, housing societies, and radiation debates. These antennas were both public and private technologies: they were privately owned and were a source of rent for apartments hosting them, but their signals moved through public places, and served the mobile phones of a variety of customers making their way through the street next to the apartment. Furthermore, the “electromagnetic pollution” of cell towers became perceived as a health risk.1The results of the World Health Organization’s Interphone Study in the pages of the International Journal of Epidemiology in 2010 based on international, population-based, case-control study across thirteen countries concluded that “there were suggestions of an increased risk of glioma at the highest exposure levels, but biases and error prevent a causal interpretation. The possible effects of long-term heavy use of mobile phones require further investigation” (Cardis and the Interphone Study Group 2010, 675). Medical oncologist Siddhartha Mukherjee (2011) reassures us that, at the low power levels of cell towers and mobile phones, it has been epidemiologically difficult to establish that radio-frequency energy at nonthermal intensities causes cancer. That being said, scientific studies have not overruled the possibility that chronic exposure to cell antenna/mobile phone signals can stimulate chemical reactions that might aggravate or accelerate tumors or physiological (e.g., brain glucose) activity. Since I was interested in cell antennas, and such antennas are often on top of apartments, I became intrigued by housing plans, and also how “resident welfare associations” would organize formal and informal public interest litigations (PILs), right to information (RTI) inquiries and eviction drives. There is substantial work in this area by geographers and urban studies scholars of South Asia like Gautam Bhan (on “planned illegalities”), D. Asher Ghertner, and particularly on the issue of “bourgeois environmentalism,” by Amita Baviskar. Baviskar is critical of such urban elites who are impatient with bureaucrats and government ministers for not doing enough to remove cell towers, hawkers, and “illegal” slums who are all perceived/labelled to be “polluters”: their environmentalism is restricted to removal of anything they apprehend to be a threat to their immediate habitat. Since they pay significant taxes to the government, such elite urbanites believe that the government should address (and prioritize) their concerns about the condition of their locality, and undertake expedited evictions of so-called “unwanted” elements.

GH: Forms of “bourgeois environmentalism” around cell towers were palpable in your examples of middle-class urbanites as participants in environmental publics, their political actions and expectations, their exchanges with media outlets and journalists. Their entanglements with cell towers and radiation reflected tensions between other middle-class desires like requests for stronger cell phone signals and protecting personal health and lifestyle and property values in some cases. These populations seemed to be copacetic with the existence of cell towers and their imperceptible emissions more generally, as long as the tower was not in their neighborhood. These experiences and perspectives felt very different from the construction of radiation and environmental concerns represented in the documentary films you analyze, for example, and very different from rural relationships and, I imagine, experiences of urban poor with radiant infrastructures and public cultures of uncertainty. Much of your analysis of environmental publics and media urbanism is shaped by class and privilege, which is evident in your chapter on ruptures and intersections between civil society and political society in interesting ways. Through your research, do you have a sense of what would be different if radiant infrastructures and environmental publics were studied among the slum dwellers and street hawkers that your participants regard as a “nuisance”? Where are urban poor located within discourses of radiant cities, radiant infrastructures, and environmental publics?

RM: The problems faced by urban poor and how they approached cell towers as infrastructures is something I have now begun researching. During my book research period, most of the media coverage did focus on urban elites and their apprehensions about living in proximity with cell towers. There was a lack of coverage of the impact of cell towers in slums. While some upper middle-class resident associations did equate cell towers and slums as polluters, the middle -class reaction cannot be generalized. As I have mentioned in the book, several concerned citizens including newspaper editors were worried about the impact of cell towers in the tenements, and especially so, because they reasoned that slum dwellers would most likely not be able to afford treatment for health problems caused by cell towers. That said, the agitation to have greater regulations on cell tower emissions was a movement of upper middle-class urbanites who were its dominant members. And, the anti-nuclear movement had significant participation of rural poor. The National Alliance of People’s Movements (NAPM), an alliance of progressive people’s organizations and movements, in its flagship magazine regularly raises several rural and urban problems that marginalized poor face in India. It is important to note that they did not focus on the cell tower radiation issue, suggesting perhaps, it was not a priority for subaltern populations. Some NAPM activists were also committed to collective struggle, and felt that the movement for eviction of cell towers was too individualistic, tinged with NIMBY-ism. In Radiant Infrastructures, I have discussed Partha Chatterjee’s concept of “political society” in relation to rural poor, in how they make infrastructural claims on the government not always through civil society procedures. In Nikhil Anand’s book Hydraulic City, some of these concepts have been used to think about how urban poor in Mumbai make legitimate claims about water supply (and the infrastructure of water pipes running through the city) not always through formal and legal means.

Cell Antenna at Bandra-Worli sea link (Mumbai) [Photo by Author].

All this said, there were a couple of media reports, certainly rare, which did include discussion of cell towers in slums.  One study, conducted in June 2010 by Tehelka, a magazine known for investigative journalism, mentioned examples of cell tower emissions being above threshold levels in Mumbai’s largest slum area, Dharavi. Unlike other areas of Mumbai where cell antennas were installed on rooftops, the reporters found one antenna inside a person’s room in Dharavi. This report also mentioned that antenna signal levels were safe in another slum Dongar (Andheri) in Mumbai. Several academic studies and media reports acknowledge that urban poor do use cell phones, and therefore it is not surprising that cell antennas will be located in tenements. Furthermore, some scholars also note that while cellular infrastructure has found its way into slums, other infrastructures (which are perhaps more necessary) like public toilets have not been built with much rigor in these areas. Such a disparity is often noted as suggesting that Indian policy makers are not properly assessing what the country’s infrastructural priorities should be. This infrastructural comparison and its varied interpretations need more research and analysis, and this is something I am working on presently.

GH: I read this book through the lens of Covid-19 (a framing that feels unavoidable to me at the moment) as the virus shares certain “radiant” qualities with the politics of (in)visibility and detection, uncertainty, and public health concerns you discuss and has drastically altered our relationships with media and the environment. Are some of the characteristics of environmental publics at work or identifiable in discussions of this current public health crisis? Are there similarities or anything we should especially consider when thinking about the cultures and geographies of uncertainty and exposure maintained and negotiated through media practices and texts within this present global epidemic?

RM: Covid-19 is an unprecedented public health crisis, a global pandemic on a scale never seen before. And, while both virus and radiation are invisible (and imperceptible) to human senses, they are materially very different. There have been many visualizations of the coronavirus, and am not sure if you are referring to the crown-like spikes of this virus family while noting their “radiant” qualities. Like the health/environmental controversy related to the non-ionizing radiation of cell tower signals, there still remain “epistemic uncertainties” among experts (immunologists, epidemiologists, public health scholars, virologists) about whether the SARS-CoV-2 virus is transmitted only through droplets exhaled while sneezing and/or coughing, or whether there are other routes, that is the accumulation of tiny droplets (aerosols) over time in the air. We simply do not know, as of now, whether the droplets theory will stand the test of time or will not be accepted as more research is carried out. For now, both aerosols and aerosol experts are part of the dynamically shifting environmental public of the Covid-19 health/environmental debate. Covid-19 and cell antenna signals are very different objects and phenomena, and they should not be conflated or related without contexts and caveats. Where I do see some connection is in the way different environmental publics gather around different health/environmental controversies.

In my book I discuss that there remain internal debates within the scientific community (oncologists, radiologists, public health specialists, and cell antenna engineers) as to the health effects of antenna signals: do such electromagnetic fields (including 3G or 4G signals) only cause heating effects or can they generate cell mutations? Can aluminum foils really reflect cell antenna signals? How similar are the health effects of microwave oven radiations with respect to cell antenna signals? What does it mean to add objects like aluminum foils and microwave ovens to the environmental public of the cell antenna controversy? Amidst these radical uncertainties, it is not surprising that there will be multiple media narratives, and possibilities of misinformation and rumor. Mediation creates further uncertainties with various platforms, news sources, and channels inflecting and framing medical information through new editorial filters and biases

The book’s emphasis with a concept like public cultures of uncertainty, is on everyday encounters of ordinary people with infrastructures, and how they cope with actual uncertainties, anxieties, and apprehensions about imperceptible threats like antenna signals. So, people are using radiation detectors, aluminum shields, and even relying on the electromagnetic field perception of peacocks. In the last couple of months amidst the Covid-19 health crisis, one can witness such everyday activities all around the world as ordinary families are trying their best to disinfect groceries and other everyday items bought from stores before putting them up in refrigerators and interior spaces of homes. Does the SARS-CoV-2 virus remain on surfaces and for how long? Nobody knows exactly, and some are using ultraviolet disinfectants, some others are using alcohol wipes for laptops and mobile phone surfaces, and Lysol for the dining table and kitchen surfaces, and still others are dipping vegetables in hot water treated with vinegar. These are everyday ways of coping with (the still somewhat) unknowable living in cultures of uncertainty. More recently, however, there has been concerted scientific push toward emphasizing that the Covid-19 infection primarily spreads through the respiratory system and much less so through surfaces.

Notes

↑ 1. The results of the World Health Organization’s Interphone Study in the pages of the International Journal of Epidemiology in 2010 based on international, population-based, case-control study across thirteen countries concluded that “there were suggestions of an increased risk of glioma at the highest exposure levels, but biases and error prevent a causal interpretation. The possible effects of long-term heavy use of mobile phones require further investigation” (Cardis and the Interphone Study Group 2010, 675). Medical oncologist Siddhartha Mukherjee (2011) reassures us that, at the low power levels of cell towers and mobile phones, it has been epidemiologically difficult to establish that radio-frequency energy at nonthermal intensities causes cancer. That being said, scientific studies have not overruled the possibility that chronic exposure to cell antenna/mobile phone signals can stimulate chemical reactions that might aggravate or accelerate tumors or physiological (e.g., brain glucose) activity.

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