Welcome to The Nor, a series of essays by James Bridle commissioned by the Hayward Gallery in 2014/5. In order, the essays are: All Cameras Are Police Cameras, Living in the Electromagnetic Spectrum, and Low Latency, as well as an Epilogue. These are accompanied by photographs and a map, and additional content can be found throughout this site.


January 8, 2015 | Walking |

The MIRRORCITY exhibition closed last Sunday, and with it the Nor residency. But I had unfinished business. On October 30th, while I was attempting to walk the perimeter of the modern London Wall, I was stopped and held by private security guards and questioned by the police, for the suspicious activity of taking photographs: for the potential crime of paying attention.

Thanks to that intervention, I failed to complete the day’s journey, so on Monday I set out to close the circle. From Vauxhall to King’s Cross via the Elephant, the Old Kent Road, Tower Bridge, Aldgate, Shoreditch and the City Road. As before, I set out to photograph every camera I saw, which could possibly see me. There were 562 of them. (And the Map of the Nor has been updated with the lot, as well as previous expeditions.)

(I’ve since been reminded that there are official British Transport Police posters warning people to be suspicious of people like me, those crazy paranoids who pay too much attention to the infrastructure of a surveillance society:)


This territory is one I’m intensely familiar with, yet is always rendered strange and new by every passage. There are the paranoid landmarks – the unmarked MI5 Buildings on Kennington Road, the emergency broadcast speakers on the Minories – and the more pleasant curios, like the Freedom Bookshop in Whitechapel and Joseph Grimaldi’s grave in Islington. For the first time on a Nor walk, I had no run-ins with security, private or otherwise; instead there was a sort of shit half-hearted junkie mugging attempt on Tower Bridge Road, just where unreconstructed Bermondsey meets the new gentrified zones. But it was the latter that were more terrifying.

While I was walking, the internet and then the media were much exercised by a promotional video for one of these schemes, a psychotic power fantasy by the developer Red Row Homes, in which a dead-eyed cypher ascends to his rightful place in the Archersphere. But if you walk, these attitudes are hardly new. From Cityscape on Commercial Road to Bézier at Old St (a design so weakly inhuman it’s named after a computer drawing tool), all of these developments promise some variation on exclusivity and luxury. Lexicon on City Road, improbably engineered by the same team as the Burj Khalifa, promises to be “the place to write your own story”, while Eagle Black just down the road is “fearless and unapologetic”. It’s “fun at the top” apparently, in one of the 22 “decadent residences and penthouses”. Meanwhile at the Elephant, as expertly documented by Dan Hancox, the enclosure of public space and the eviction of the local population continues apace.


Over it all watch the cameras, some two thousand of them, at a guess (I took 896 photos, but many of them contain multiple cameras). For a twelve mile loop, that’s one every 30 feet. Whose they are, what they’re looking for, or even why they’re there, is often hard to figure out.

Beyond the many private cameras, a series of Freedom of Information Requests reveals that Transport For London alone operates 1,517 automated number-plate reading cameras; 646 for the Congestion Charge, 342 for the enforcement of the Low Emission Zone, 498 for general traffic tracking, and 31 speed cameras. Like TfL’s road cameras, all of this information accrues to the security services as well.

Why elide development and surveillance in this way? What do they have in common beyond the generally unpleasant shadow they cast over those of us who still operate on the ground – or what the signs at Canary Wharf charmlessly refer to “street level”? For me, both processes represent an abstraction from everyday life, the retreat of power into unquestionable, unassailable, and unseen elevated spaces. They share a contempt for the everyday, for the shared space of the city, for its history and fabric, for its living.


This is supposed to be an epilogue, but there is so much more that is unsaid. One theory bleeds into another. During the third expedition, as I rode through Cutthroat Wood on the long ridge towards Ruislip, shotgun blasts echoing through the woods behind me, I realised I had a clear view down onto the runways of RAF Northolt, which I’d already written about, but not visited, in the second essay. Across the tarmac I could see the hangars where the Islanders are parked – across from them, the Netjets zone, haunt of oligarchs and, on bad days, mullahs. By the time I came to close the loop around London, I was done with cameras; all I could see were aerials on the rooftops. I wanted to look up; and further up; and further still. I want this ringing in the ears to stop.

Two days after Christmas, pushing out of London on the Greenway, I stopped in the bright morning light in the middle of the Olympic Park. Here’s where it starts and ends, in case you haven’t noticed, among the ghosts of Sinclair, Petit and Keiller; Williams, Lanham and Mubenga. There’s no metaphor left in this frozen ground. Filtered, bulldozed and regenerated, the land is exhausted. Even the match factory rocket towers seem too still, too obvious. Nothing moves in the still air but the flickering, unseen waves of energy overhead.

If there’s one thing I’ve learned, it’s that nobody cares. Everything is true and nobody cares. “Conspiracy”, as Carl Oglesby wrote, “is the normal continuation of normal politics by normal means.” The Nor ends here, for now: what was supposed to be a performance and a purging ritual bound up once more with new turned-over secrets. See you anon.

Low Latency

January 4, 2015 | Walk Three | Tags: , , ,

This essay is the third in a series of reports from The Nor, an investigation into paranoia, electromagnetism, and infrastructure, undertaken as part of MIRRORCITY, an exhibition at the Hayward Gallery in London.

On Wednesday 17th and Monday 29th of December 2014 I made two expeditions by bicycle, the first of forty miles from Slough to the City of London, the second of forty-five, from the City out to Basildon in Essex. The locations and associated documents appear on the map of the Nor, while documentary photographs from the expeditions are available on Flickr.


In July of 2012 I found myself on London Bridge, some time after sunset, among some thousands of other Londoners, awaiting the opening of the Shard, London’s – and briefly Europe’s – tallest building. Citizens had been promised a spectacular son et lumière show, complete with lasers illuminating the landmarks of London, and been urged to watch the spectacle via video feed on Facebook. Despite that, huge crowds had turned out in person to watch – and they were destined to be disappointed.

At the appointed hour, the crowd was tense with expectation. And, spectacularly, nothing happened. The great glass monolith briefly changed colour. A couple of weedy green beams, as if from handheld torches, danced on its facade. As a comment on the Shard’s Facebook page stated, before being hastily scrubbed: “poo”. It was at about this time that I unveiled a large placard bearing the words “ALL HAIL SAURON”, but that is another story.

What did happen, however, after the crowds had gone home, was that an entirely different story was told in public. The next day, the newspapers and news sites were filled with stories of the “dazzling” show, and even pictures of sharp beams of light cutting through the night sky. They reported an event which did not happen; they showed pictures of a thing which nobody had seen.

Some months later, I first watched the artist Omer Fast’s film 5,000 Feet is the Best. In it, an actor recounts the testimony of a military drone pilot, a man who has watched militants and civilians from the air for days at a time, and, sometimes without knowing which is which, opened fire on them. During his monologue, he recounts the laser targeting of a suspected IED site:

“We call it in, and we’re given all the clearances that are necessary, all the approvals and everything else, and then we do something called the Light of God – the Marines like to call it the Light of God. It’s a laser targeting marker. We just send out a beam of laser and when the troops put on their night vision goggles they’ll just see this light that looks like it’s coming from heaven. Right on the spot, coming out of nowhere, from the sky. It’s quite beautiful.”

I couldn’t find any pictures of the Light of God, so I looked up images of laser targeting and night vision systems on the internet, and, in Photoshop, made this one:


Immediately after making it, I realised what I was looking at, what I had missed in the baffling recreation of the Shard’s non-event. The laser beams put out in honour of the Prime Minister of Qatar and the Duke of York were not meant for human eyes, but instead were perfectly calibrated for the long exposures of high-end cameras, the devices owned by newspaper snappers and professional photographers. It was a hack, but a professional one: power speaking directly to power through the electromagnetic spectrum.

Likewise, those Marines in the desert witnessing the Light of God were accessing a privileged segment of the spectrum through the deployment of expensive night vision goggles. The standard military issue AN/PVS family of night vision optics use a gallium arsenide photocathode to extend photon sensitivity into the near-infrared, where the illumination of the night sky, and more laser wavelengths, can be seen, and cost some three to four thousand dollars a piece.

The scientific precursor to the Laser was the Maser, a device which produced oscillations not in the visible light (L-aser) frequencies, but in the microwave (M-aser) range: the Super and Extremely High Frequency bands beyond the infrared. Today, microwaves are used extensively for point-to-point telecommunications – that is, communications which require a high-bandwidth, high-speed link between two points, rather than a wide broadcast – because their small wavelength allows them to be focussed into narrow beams. If you look up to the roofs of tall buildings, it’s not hard to spot small, deep dishes nestled among the tall rectangular antennae increasingly scaffolded upon them. The tall bars are most likely mobile phone receptors; the dishes are microwave relays, backhauling their take to the network’s centre.


In the epilogue to his 2014 book Flash Boys, American writer Michael Lewis goes for a bike ride too. He’s accompanied by four members of the Women’s Adventure Club on an expedition to the Appalachian mountains in Pennsylvania, where the tour group encounters a tall tower, festooned with microwave dishes, on a rugged and remote peak. Lewis is enigmatic about its purpose, stating only that “a day’s journey in cyberspace would lead anyone who wished to know it into another incredible but true Wall Street story, of hypocrisy and secrecy and the endless quest by human beings to gain a certain edge in an uncertain world.” (For those dying to know, the internet has the follow-up.)

Flash Boys tells the story of the rise of High-Frequency Trading, a form of algorithmic trading on stock exchanges which relies primarily on arbitrage: making the most of small differences in the price of financial instruments. The speed of contemporary computation means that HFT traders need hold their positions for only fractions of a second in order to make a tiny profit – but they can hold millions of these positions every day. Furthermore, the speed of communication between exchanges and traders becomes a huge factor in the market. The trader who is “first to market” with any news, or knows about an event on another exchange before anybody else, is at a huge advantage. Speed can literally be turned into money, and so speed itself becomes desirable, and highly valuable.

There is nothing theoretically new in this. Paul Reuter used carrier pigeons to move financial information between Berlin and Paris faster than the post train and the still evolving telegraph network, exploiting this information arbitrage to build the foundation of his news agency. Later, he persuaded incoming ships captains passing the south-western tip of Ireland to throw canisters containing news from America into the sea, so it could be telegraphed to London from the station at Cork, arriving before the ships themselves.

The explosion in High-Frequency Trading in the last decade has been driven by infrastructure. First came high-bandwidth fibre optic cables, which shoot light through hair-thin cables, and then came shorter fibre optic cables: the speeds at which HFT operates means that advantages of less than a millisecond can translate into vast profits. Hence the fame of Spread Networks, which between 2009 and 2011 spent millions of dollars digging a more direct tunnel between Chicago, home of the Mercantile Exchange, and Carteret, New Jersey, home of the NASDAQ. Spread’s shorter route shortened the round trip time between the two exchanges from 14.5 milliseconds to 12.98: one and a half thousandths of a second. But the HFT firms quickly realised that even shorter times were possible. Light in glass travels much slower than light in air; data in fibre optic cables travels about 50% slower than microwaves beamed through the atmosphere. Hence Lewis’ discovery on the Pennsylvanian mountain top.


Another consequence of HFT is that trading no longer happens between people but between machines, and geography is virtually irrelevant. So while we still think of the capital-C City of London as the financial heart of the metropolis, the real action happens on the fringes, out beyond the orbital motorway in the adjoining counties, in Berkshire and Essex. It happens inside machines, inside great halls of machines, behind high fences and windowless walls, connected by invisible – but increasingly direct – microwave pathways. The holy grail is Low Latency: the least possible elapsed time between locations, between trades, between coins.

In the town of Slough twenty-five miles to the west of London, the sprawling Slough Trading Estate is home to the Equinix LD4 datacentre, the London Stock Exchange’s extramural home. In 2013, the LSX announced that, in partnership with NexxCom Wireless, it had constructed a microwave path directly from LD4 to the rooftop of its London datacentre on the edge of the City, just behind Liverpool Street Station. This service, it boasted, would “operate over an optimised path that deviates only 3% from a straight line between the two locations. This will enable clients to transmit 30% – 50% faster than traditional fibre connections.”

The area around LD4 feels like its being terraformed. On every street in every direction old factories and machine shops are being torn down, the ground levelled, and in their place are rising vast datacentres, information fortresses, physical instantiations of the internet and digital communications. A google search does not do it justice: as so often, you have to seek the ground truth. That truth is that a new industry is being built upon the old, more private and more obscure than its predecessors, but furiously gleaming, powered by data rather than people. If you think that London’s skyscraper boom is impressive – the Shard, the Walkie-Talkie, the Cheesegrater, the Gherkin – go to Slough. It is not height that matters, but bandwidth.


At one corner of LD4 a tower rises up, barnacled with microwave dishes. Through planning applications and radio licenses it’s possible to trace the routes these signals travel: each license lists the start and end location of each point-to-point link. Follow these lines; follow the money.

Westwards, the lines head for the transatlantic cable points at Porthcurno and Brean; eastwards, the first point is close: a thicket of dishes atop the old Slough parcel sorting office. Nearly deserted, a grimy notice is taped to the gatepost. It’s a planning application: “CHANGE OF USE OF BUILDING FROM POSTAL SORTING OFFICE (SUI GENERIS) TO DATA CENTRE (CLASS B1)”. Nearby, traffic roars around HTC Roundabout, planted with topiary in the form of the mobile phone manufacturer’s logo.

I am following the lines attributable to Optiver, a Dutch proprietary trading firm reputed to have some of the best – i.e. shortest and thus fastest – links in the business. Optiver is a classic High Frequency “market maker”, arbitraging different markets to provide bid and ask positions to buyers and sellers, but holding no positions of their own for more than minutes at a time: a man-in-the-middle operation made possible by being milliseconds ahead of the competition. Hence the Slough post office, hence the lonely outcrop of Evreham Adult Education Centre on Iver Heath. the bare metal of the Hillingdon Fire Station transmission tower, the watertower in Perivale.

Each of these sites appears on a license or planning application filed by Optiver in the last few months. Some of them have microwave dishes mounted, some of them do not – it’s not uncommon for low latency providers to apply for a range of sites and licenses, and then fill in the most direct route they’ve managed to put together.


The road out of Slough to Iver gets urban-rural fast: muddy tracks, scrap metal yards, horses grazing on scrub beneath pylons. My bike bogs down but the sound of heavy traffic is not far away. I pass through The Orchards, a neat and compact “park home” of pre-fab bungalows for the retired – it’s quiet, but then it’s cold. The microwaves are silent overhead. Atop the hill at Evreham, the highest thing for miles around is the Adult Education Centre, whose three stories are topped with an array of aerials. According to a report to the Buckinghamshire County Council’s Education, Skills and Children’s Services Select Committee in November 2014, the county’s Adult Learning programme has an annual budget of £5.6m, serving a population of half a million people at some twenty centres from local libraries to sports centres. Optiver, who have been granted a license to site a microwave link on top of the Evreham Centre, published profits of £136 million in 2013. Their total trading income was £365 million, while employing just 600 people.

On the next hill over from Iver is Hillingdon Fire Station, whose radio mast is another licensed Optiver site. Hillingdon is not one of the ten London fire stations scheduled for closure under the Fifth London Safety Plan, although it will have to take up the slack from the loss of those stations, as well as that of 14 further engines and some 552 firefighters, a proposed saving of just £29m, while the firefighters themselves are having their pensions slashed.

On the road between these two sites I pass Hillingdon Hospital, a towering slab erected in the 1960s on the site of the original eighteenth century Hillingdon workhouse. At its opening it was hailed as the most innovative hospital in the country, and as of 2008 it is the home of the experimental Bevan Ward, a cluster of special rooms researching patient comfort and infection rates. Despite this, the hospital today comes in for frequent criticism, like many others of its political and architectural era, for crumbling facilities, poor hygiene, high hospital infection rates, bed shortages and cancelled operations. The most recent report from the Care Quality Commission voiced concerns about staff shortages, and the safety of patients and healthcare workers due to lack of maintenance on the ageing premises.

In 1952, Aneurin Bevan, founder of the NHS and namesake of the experimental ward, published In Place of Fear, in which he justified the establishment of a National Health Service: “The National Health service and the Welfare State have come to be used as interchangeable terms, and in the mouths of some people as terms of reproach. Why this is so it is not difficult to understand, if you view everything from the angle of a strictly individualistic competitive society. A free health service is pure Socialism and as such it is opposed to the hedonism of capitalist society.”


Atop Hillingdon hospital are two large microwave dishes. The current site licenses are for emergency services network Airwave, and the mobile phone networks EE (Annual turnover 2013: £6,482m) and Vodafone (2013/14 revenue: £43.6bn). Both of those companies trade on the London and New York stock exchanges, and given its position, it’s no surprise that Hillingdon Council’s website reveals an application from Decyben SAS to place four more half-metre dishes on the hospital’s roof. Decyben is a shell company for McKay Brothers, the largest and fastest High Frequency Trading network provider in the US, and now a keen competitor in Europe. When McKay opened their dedicated New York – Chicago microwave path in 2012, their partner Aviat Networks stated that “a single millisecond advantage could equate to an additional $100 million a year to a large high-frequency trading firm.” McKay’s link gained them four.

Bevan also wrote in 1952: “We could manage to survive without money changers and stockbrokers. We should find it harder to do without miners, steel workers and those who cultivate the land.” Today, those changers and brokers perch atop the very infrastructure Bevan laboured to construct.


On the other side of London, the microwaves emanate from the unmarked London Stock Exchange datacentre on Earl Street. On a bright, cold winter’s morning between Christmas and New Year almost everything is closed, but the datacentre hums away, cooling vapour crystallising in billowing white clouds overhead, the condensation of money itself. At weekends in the City you can dowse for datacentres by the air conditioning alone, the loudest thing for streets around.

From here out east towards the Thames estuary the links are similar too: microwave dishes perch atop a council tower block next to West Ham stadium, an office block in Basildon, a Gold’s gym in Dagenham, railway depots and vacant industrial estates in Upminster and Laindon. The territory these links pass over is depressed as well: the East London borough of Newham is the city’s most populous, most diverse, and poorest, by any measure, and has been particularly targeted by the coalition government’s austerity cuts, expecting to lose up to 25% of its budget between now and 2016 (in the least deprived areas of the country, the average cut is just 2.5% over the same period).

This line ends at another unmarked facility: the New York Stock Exchange’s datacentre in Basildon, Essex. Inside this vast windowless hall is seven acres of computing space, including the matching engine for the NYSE Euronext exchange, and the machines belonging to the companies which trade on it. Its location halfway to the east coast of England puts it closer to the microwave links which reach across the Thames estuary to Sheerness and Dover, across the channel to Dunkirk and Nieuwpoort, and ultimately across Belgium to the Deutsche Börse exchange in Frankfurt, the most important European trading hub. The NYSE is the world’s largest stock exchange with a £16.5 trillion market cap in December 2014. In 2013, £110 billion was traded on average every single day.

Numbers, numbers, numbers. It’s grim out here. The road is cracked, the hedgerows are filled with rubbish thrown from car windows, I am accosted again by private security guards who don’t want me looking at their building, who threaten to call the police when I object to their request to run background checks on me. But the sun is shining; it is a beautiful winter’s afternoon. If you want a mirror city, this is it right here: billions upon billions of pounds being beamed across the rooftops of council blocks and crumbling hospitals, the haunts of pirate radio DJs now the domain of private hedge funds, and the once buzzing city centre finance sector displaced to silent halls on ring roads, staffed only by angry men in high-vis tabards.


In the late 1980s, on the corner of a dull, industrial British Nuclear Fuels complex in Capenhurst in Cheshire, there rose up a narrow, cylindrical, thirteen-storey tower. To the casual observer it appeared to be part of the BNFL works, which produced and still produces enriched uranium for Britain’s nuclear power stations. But in fact the tower was built by the Ministry of Defence, on a specially purchased patch of land, which sat on an especially particular line of sight, between Gwaenysgor in North Wales and Pale Heights in Cheshire.

Gwaenysgor and Pale Heights are the locations of two British Telecom microwave towers, and between them flow, some forty metres above the ground, all telephone communications between Ireland and the British mainland. Situated well within the slowly spreading beams from these towers, the Capenhurst tower was operated by GCHQ, and used to intercept and monitor all communications between the Republic, Britain and Europe. It did this by simply poking its top storeys into the beam, and recording everything that flowed through the atmosphere around it, in much the same way that GCHQ’s Tempora system intercepts fibre optic communications at Bude in Cornwall and elsewhere today. (The Capenhurst tower, built at a cost of some £20m, was sold and eventually demolished just ten years later when Irish telecommunications were switched to a different system.)

What would it take, I wonder, to dip into the traders stream of money, to divert a little of the fatty order flow towards the people it passes over, towards the hospitals and homes, towards the small-c city itself? Could one fly kites, loaded with receiving equipment, from fields on the edge of London, from the horse paddocks of the Dagenham Chase or the marshes of the Colne Valley, nosing into the beamfield, nudging the numbers a little left or right, or downwards towards the folk who actually live, oblivious, at ground level? Above estates and wards, retirement parks and schools across the city, great mylar-coated barrage balloons bob in the winter breeze, their silver surfaces reflecting just a little of the vast wealth passing unseen through the thick atmosphere.

Bevan, again: “Discontent arises from a knowledge of the possible, as contrasted with the actual.” Inequality is engineered, and deliberate. It is an arbitraging of social conditions, a perpetuation of the existing situation by those who seek to profit from its differences.

As we have seen throughout our exploration of the Nor, whether in the hidden cameramen of the metropolis, the field scaffolds of the airways, or the canopied eyries of the oligarchs, technology is used to obscure and efface systems of control and profit, but it also reveals itself, startlingly clearly, if one knows where to look. I have attuned myself to hidden oculi, to radar, to rooftop aerials, and to the motion of waves in the electromagnetic spectra; each just an outgrowth, a prosthesis, of deeper legal, political and social systems. On the train home from Essex, muddy, cold, and weary, the last of the December sun sparks across a field of solar panels and the countryside catches fire.


* For this episode of the Nor, I am particularly indebted to the work of Alexandre Laumonier, a Belgian anthropologist and academic studying HFT, who has catalogued at length the infrastructure, physical and legal, of High Frequency Trading on his blog, Sniper in Marwah. For much more fascinating background on the engineering and politics of this world, see the series of posts entitled “HFT in my backyard”.

** I also built my own tool for querying Ofcom’s licensing data. It doesn’t work everywhere or very well, but it can be found here: NOR Spectrum Analyser.

Walk Three: Low Latency

December 18, 2014 | Walk Three |

Nor Mic 01

The architecture of Slough, twenty five miles outside London, has never been judged kindly, but today the sprawling acres of its Industrial Estates grow more monstrous, vaulting, and walled-up every day. On Henley and Dundee Roads, Buckingham and Edinburgh Avenues, cranes peck at vast, unmarked developments, replete with huge transformers and racks of cooling equipment. They’re building the Internet here, and other systems: systems built from time and money; systems which generate money out of time itself.

Scaffolds, once again, reach into the skies. Between here and the City, between 2 and 25 GHz, another airborne network, made of point-point microwave transmitters, needles over the streets and houses. Over community centres, trailer parks, fields of cows and horses, over hospitals and fire stations, another architecture imprints itself unseen on the landscape, piggy-backing on the crumbling edifice of the state. Invisible as radio waves: offshore investment funds, private news feeds, corporate algorithms. A parasitic infrastructure of value extraction.

The microwave network arches over the countryside, displacing stock exchanges to sheds in market towns. The shortest route from here to Porthcurno, to Frankfurt, to Marwah, to the bank. The real, refracted, collapses into light. Coming soon: The City, the state, and the microwaves: the third journey into The Nor.

Nor Mic 02

Living in the Electromagnetic Spectrum

December 8, 2014 | Uncategorized |

This essay is the second of a series of reports from The Nor, an investigation into paranoia, electromagnetism, and infrastructure. It results from a series of excursions undertaken on the 3rd, 17th, and 29th of November, 2014. The locations and associated documents appear on the map of the Nor, and photos are available on Flickr.

If you take the back off an old transistor radio – one of the battery-powered ones, with a physical tuning dial – you’ll see a couple of coils of copper wire. Tune the radio to a station high up in the FM band, take a screwdriver and gently separate the wires, and you’ll hear the station start to fuzz out. As you spread the coils further apart, and turn the dial, other voices come into range. A plane circles overhead, and you hear the pilot speaking to the tower. A scratchy, recorded voice details cloud levels and visibility ranges. Bleeps and whistles invade the spectrum.

The coils of copper wire control and limit the frequency range of the radio, confining it to the FM band, which in most countries is between 87.5 and 108.0 MHz. By spreading the coils a little wider, the range moves up into the Civil Aviation Band, or Airband, between 108 and 138MHz. Heathrow Tower is at 118.5. ATIS, the recorded weather information, is on 113.75. At 113.60 is the Heathrow VOR.

Heathrow VOR


I spent much of this summer on a rooftop in South London, engaged in a project called The Right To Flight. I was flying an eighteen-foot balloon over the city, in memory of Gaspard-Félix Tournachon, in mourning for the web we lost, in hope for the network we might build.

Tournachon – aka Nadar – was a French photographer, journalist, novelist, and balloonist. In 1858, he took the first ever aerial photographs, from a balloon of his own design. In 1866, he published a book entitled Le Droit au Vol, which laid out his belief that the balloon was the ultimate democratic instrument, in which mankind would float free of servitude and tyranny. His friend Victor Hugo agreed, stating that flight would “bring an immense and totally peaceful revolution. It will bring a sudden golden dawn, a brisk flinging open of the ancient cage door of history, a flooding in of light. It will mean the liberation of all mankind.”

In September 1870 the Prussian forces of Crown Prince Frederick III laid siege to Paris. The citizens ate rats and horses, and Nadar petitioned the city fathers to set up the first European military balloon corps, the No. 1 Compagnie des Aérostiers of the République Français. Over the course of the emergency, which lasted until the end of the January, over sixty flights left the besieged city, carrying mail and dignitaries – and also providing crucial surveillance of the enemy lines.

The American Civil War had already seen aerostats in action for several years, in the form of Thaddeus Lowe’s Union Army Balloon Corps. Carrying a telegraph aloft with him at the First Battle of Bull Run, Lowe directed artillery fire onto the Confederate encampment.

The circuit was made, the air militarised, and Nadar and Hugo’s potential new utopia became a domain of warfare, and surveillance.

Sitting on that Peckham rooftop on long, sunny afternoons, I watched the planes and tuned my radio, dowsing the flight paths into Heathrow and City Airport. Depending on their departure point and the prevailing weather, planes approaching Heathrow are guided by National Air Traffic Control to one of four stacks on the edges of the urban conurbation. Clockwise from the North-West, these are Bovingdon, Lambourne, Biggin and Ockham: vertical waiting rooms, where the planes await clearance to land. Each stack is named for the navigation beacon at its base: the VOR.

Lambourne VOR


In his book Spycatcher, disgruntled MI5 officer Peter Wright detailed the RAFTER program, a joint effort by the MI5 and GCHQ Radiation Operations Committee. The ROC was tasked with monitoring Soviet communications with KGB agents in the UK, and RAFTER was a secret technique Wright developed for detecting when radios were tuned to a particular frequency. By transmitting on the same frequency as the KGB’s signal, RAFTER could pinpoint the location of the receiver. In the late fifties, vans packed with radio equipment trawled the streets of London for the squawk of illegal traffic.

RAFTER took to the air as well. ROC arranged for a Royal Air Force transport plane to be fitted with the same equipment as the vans, which made regular sweeps through the airspace over the city. When signals were detected, the area below could be flooded with vans to pinpoint the signal. Agents on foot stalked the suburbs looking for unusual aerials puncturing the rooftops.

“The RAFTER flights were a kind of agony,” recalled Wright. “I spent night after night up in the indigo sky, listening to the signals coming in from Moscow, insulated from the deafening sound of the plane’s propellors by headphones. Down below, somewhere amid the endless blinking lights of the London, a spy was up in an attic, or out in a car, listening too. I knew it. I could hear him. But I had no way of knowing where he was, who he was, whether he worked alone or as part of a ring, and, most important of all, what Moscow was telling him. I was caught between knowledge and the unknown, in that special purgatory inhabited by counterespionage officers.”

From my South London vantagepoint, the sky is filled with aircraft. There are the transatlantic flights into Heathrow, the 747s and cetacean A380s. Cityjets dip towards City Airport. The Metropolitan Police, Air Ambulance, and traffic helicopters dash across the skyline; more purposeful private ones buzz towards the heliport at Battersea. Occasionally, smaller planes, unmarked Cessnas, wing in from the south and perform rapid low-altitude circles over the capital. Over East London, I watched a flight of Britten-Norman Islanders loiter high in the sky for hours. Sometimes the Cessnas pop up on the publicly-accessible civilian radar. The Islanders, not so much.

Brookmans Park VOR (2)

Brookman’s Park

The world’s radio infrastructure is extensive, but visibly declining. One of the consequences of the switch to digital is a new infrastructure of datacenters, carrier hotels, fiber optic cables and satellites, vast and mostly hidden: warehoused, anonymised, buried or in-orbit. This apparent distribution is also a canalisation, a redirection and constraint of what were once radiant signals, beamed out in all directions and detectable across huge areas.

The digital infrastructure is in the process of replacing the older one, built of radio masts and antennae. The elephant cages at Chicksands, Augsburg and Misawa. The HAARP array in the sub-arctic. The Duga radars in Ukraine and Siberia, whose sharp, repetitive 10 Hz rapping earned them the name of Russian Woodpeckers. An entire architecture dismantled, bull-dozed, run down or trucked away, amenities to a ghost town, as the spectra it served goes dark.

The VORs originate in the 1950s, first as mechanically-rotated, colour-coded visual and audio signals, and later as pure solid-state radio transmissions. From the 1960s, they became the dominant radio navigation system. Unlike non-directional beacons, which emit a constant reference point which must be combined with the aircraft’s own course data to produce a heading, the VOR produces its own direction information: a constant, omnidirectional master signal is broadcast at the same time as a sweeping, phased directional signal. Due North of the site, the two signals are perfectly matched. As the beam sweeps around, the difference in phase between the two signals gives the bearing relative to magnetic north.

The VORs are waymarks on the airways, intersections and turning points. Before the development of radio navigation, these signals were physically marked on the ground. In the 1920s, British air routes from Cairo to Baghdad followed fifty-foot route numbers painted on remote plateaus. Scattered across the United States, cast concrete arrows embedded in the earth pointed the way across the country for early airmail services. Today, aircraft travelling the jetways pass from VOR to VOR, criss-crossing the globe, their passage marked only by the sound of engines, and while they last, the grounded scaffolds of the VORs themselves.

Ockham VOR


During the first decade of the war in Afghanistan, concerns started to be raised about UK nationals fighting alongside the Taliban and al Qaeda. In 2009 a Birmingham man, Rashid Rauf, was killed in a CIA drone strike in Pakistan. Rauf was believed to have escaped from a Pakistani prison in 2007, and was wanted by British police in connection with a plot to bomb transatlantic airliners in August 2006. “He’s not the only [British Muslim] to die out here,” commented a security source.

For some time, RAF Nimrod R1 surveillance planes circling over Afghanistan had been picking up Taliban radio communications, and they often heard Bradford and Birmingham accents. As surveillance evolves, so does the target. Terrorists and drug dealers alike had learned to frequently swap mobile phones and SIM cards to make themselves electronically untraceable (a technique pioneered in Colombia, in the drug wars of the 90s). But the human voice is as unique as a fingerprint: in response, the security agencies developed techniques for searching vast quantities of voice traffic for people who sounded like suspects. A voice sample captured from an al-Jazeera television interview was used to pinpoint and capture Ramzi Binalshibh, a senior al-Qaeda operative, in September 2002.

In response to the fear of British Taliban, RAF aircraft with similar listening equipment began circling over British cities, looking for matching voice prints to those picked up in Afghanistan. Some time before, three Britten-Norman Islander aircraft based at RAF Northolt in West London were fitted out with the descendants of Wright’s RAFTER programme – wide-band receivers with the capacity to hoover up all the mobile voice calls in a city, coincidentally, “the size of Bradford”. The recordings are then shipped to GCHQ, whose vast supercomputing resources process the take, searching for voices heard far away, calling home to loved ones and potential accomplices.

Such operations have of course been going on since long before the current panic: a picture taken in 1999 shows MI5 agent Steven Lanham in a flight suit, leaning up against one of the Islanders. Lanham was killed in a motorbike crash in London later that year. Disguised as a courier, he was killed when a vehicle swerved across his path – ruled an accident, Lanham is nevertheless memorialised on the wall of those killed in action at Thames House, MI5’s Vauxhall headquarters. The latest wide-band receivers installed on the Islanders were developed in part by Gareth Williams, the GCHQ employee found naked and dead in a North Face holdall in the bathtub of an MI6 safe house in Pimlico in August 2010. Williams’ inquest found that his death was “unnatural and likely to have been criminally mediated.” A subsequent Metropolitan Police re-investigation concluded that Williams’s death was “probably an accident.” Williams also worked on electronic defences for the City of London’s banking systems, and had been seconded to Menwith Hill and Fort Meade. Today, light aircraft continue to circle over British cities, listening to all the phone calls, but like the VORs, they’re just the last few electromechanical avatars of far more pervasive covert infrastructures.

Bovingdon VOR


You notice a lot of things just looking around – looking up, scanning the frequencies, poking screwdrivers into things, googling, or going out and walking the territory. The activities elide: a newspaper story leads to a planespotters forum leads to a wet carpark in Hertfordshire, watching people being loaded onto planes in the middle of the night. A lamp-post leads to a freedom of information request leads to a long-shuttered shop leads to a radar report loaded over 3G in another carpark on the other side of the city. Things happen in front of you. There are no secrets, only lazy researchers. I went out looking for VORs. I didn’t want to know it was all true.

The Ockham VOR is in a beetroot field. It’s cold and quiet, except for a Southern Electricity van coughing beneath the scaffolding. I tune my radio and at 115.30 MHz it squeals, the loudest noise for acres around. In another quiet field, besides a cemetery, a warm-looking house doesn’t know what its address connects it too, across a field of documents, a sheaf of insurance documents and requests for identification. William was from here – that one. The most obvious explanation is probably the right one.

At Lambourne, the VOR is marooned on a distant hill. You can circle it, but not approach it. It sits at the southern edge of Stapleford Airfield, where prospective pilots take off on wobbly dual flights, performing bumps and runs in the cold, clear air. Stapleford is the home of London Executive Aviation, whose 13-seater Embraer Legacy private jet was hired by the British government for some £50,000 to deport radical cleric Abu Qatada to Jordan, a country known to routinely use torture to extract confessions from suspects. (The deportation was conditional on a treaty regarding torture between the UK and Jordan; this treaty was subsequently ignored by the Jordanian courts.)

At Brookmans Park, the muddy track through woodland is festooned with surveillance warnings. Watch out for illegal tipping. An £80 penalty for littering. Rusty fences collapse into the dead autumn leaves. “The English horror of the countryside,” wrote Waugh, “its solitude and self-sufficiency, its bloody recreations, its darkness and silence and sudden, inexplicable noises, the kind of place where you never know from one minute to the next that you may not be tossed by a bull or pitchforked by a yokel or rolled over and broken up by a pack of hounds.”

Driving against the low sun through Hertfordshire, great tethered masts rear against the sky. The BBC’s Brookmans Park transmitting station is a strange outpost of the city in the regions: Reith’s own 1920s imposition on the landscape, “symbolising the status of broadcasting as a part of national life”. It was designed by Wimperis, Simpson & Guthrie, architects of Fortnum and Mason on Piccadilly and faced with Portland Stone, squatting among two hundred foot T-antennas and a forest of satellite dishes. Monumentally quiescent, Brookmans Park screams into the spectrum. Local residents, like those who live alongside Bessborough Gardens or in the shadow of Canada Square, hear the ghosts of radio programmes in their telephone calls, see them on their television screens. Radiators, wires and metal buckets close to the high-power transmitters sing out their signals.

Local ground truth is deceptive. The maps promise public pathways and private land intervenes, here as much as the metropolis. Perhaps more so. The Bovingdon VOR was built, like the others, in the 1960s, at the edge of an airfield. Like many of England’s airfields, it was established and run for the RAF’s bomber fleet in the 1940s, and transferred to the USAAF in 1942, initially as a base for the 92nd Bombardment Group, “Fame’s Favoured Few”. Eisenhower’s personal B-17 was based at Bovingdon, and Clark Gable, James Stewart and William Holden were all posted there. Today, mostly derelict, Bovingdon advertises itself as a filming location and a weekly market, cars parked on its kilometre-long runways punting bootleg DVDs and broken kettles.

Walking down the public right of way which runs beside the East/West runway, I am accosted by a man who roars up in a four-wheel drive. He gets out and stands, trembling with anger, fists balled, two feet away. What am I doing here? Why am I taking photos? He might have kids over there. I might be a paedo. The sun is setting and the English countryside radiates with colour. I am in the middle of a vast field edged by ancient woodlands and if I’m from the council he’ll take that camera and shove it up my arse. I give him my card. It says “Artist” on it. He does not give a fuck.

We’re scared of cameras when they have a man behind them; when that man is visible. (It’s almost always a man; at least when we see them. Ask other, but related, questions about the invisibility of Grace Hopper, of Hedy Lamarr, of so many others). The camera captures all of our misdeeds, it freezes them in time, makes them identifiable and attributable. But if we can’t see the person behind the camera; in the plane, vibrating at high altitude between the propellors, the person who takes the tapes out of the plane, who couriers them to Cheltenham, who feeds them into the water-cooled machine, who transfers that data into vast databases, who performs transformations on that data, who reads it, signs off on it, lives with the implications, associations and affects of that information – if we don’t see them, then we don’t attribute to them to the agency their role deserves.

Tune the dial. We live in such a tiny fragment of the electromagnetic spectrum. There’s cheap space there, and potential commons, but we’re afraid to talk about them. You walk into things, situations, that make you a little bit afraid. The Pompey Lads. Farnborough. The Nor. A trail of inference and messages on forums that say things like “OK Can we please stop the post on this frame… it might be safer.”


November 30, 2014 | Walk Two |


“Extensive searches have been carried out but the cause of the reported noise remains a mystery.”

Walk Two: Up in the Air

November 20, 2014 | Walk Two | Tags: , , ,


In the old Surrey village of Ockham, on the edge of the woods, you hear planes all the time. Helicopters too, ferrying the rich from Battersea out to Farnborough where the private jets are parked, but mostly the bigger planes. You hear them particularly here not because of the airports – although there are plenty in the area – but because of this. A scaffolding structure in a beetroot field, throbbing in the electromagnetic spectrum.

This is a VOR – a VHF omnidirectional radio – one of thousands around the world which form the waypoints in the global air highways. VORs broadcast two signals: a constant identifier in all directions, and a second signal which varies with every degree from North, allowing aircraft to determine the bearing to each known waypoint.

The field is quiet. High above Ockham, a constant stream of planes bound for Heathrow zero in, turn and circle, unseen in the low cloud. In the airband radio, just above the FM frequency, air traffic control chatters, and the VOR itself pulsates. But what is visible is the mud track, the green leaves, this quiet machine. We live in such a tiny scrap of the electromagnetic spectrum, a muffled room in a vast mansion.

In other rooms, other voices. In a service store in Surbiton, ten miles away, a mailbox. Two forms of ID, a dead drop for documents. Documents about the air. The second walk of the Nor.


All Cameras Are Police Cameras

November 7, 2014 | Walk One | Tags: , , , ,

This essay is the first of a series of reports from The Nor, an investigation into paranoia, electromagnetism, and infrastructure.


On the morning of Thursday, 30th October 2014, I set out to walk the perimeter of the London Congestion Charge Zone, a journey of some twelve miles around the centre of the city. I began at King’s Cross, and walked widdershins, down the Euston Road towards Paddington. At its Western end, the Zone’s edge turns down Edgware Road, runs down Park Lane, Grosvenor Place, and Vauxhall Bridge Road, before changing course again across the river towards Elephant & Castle, Tower Bridge, Spitalfields, Shoreditch, and returns to Kings Cross once more by City Road.

For reasons that will become clear, I did not complete this walk within the day. I did however document the portion which I undertook – roughly, half of the total – in the form of 427 photos of surveillance cameras. I photographed every camera which I saw, which could see me (consider this a gross underestimation of the total). You can explore all of these photographs at Flickr, and this interactive map.

The Congestion Charge Zone covers the area enclosed by the Third London Wall. This Wall continues the transformation, begun by the Second, from a physical into an electromagnetic entity. It is made of bits, electrons and radio waves, becoming less and less visible even as it becomes more pervasive.


The First London Wall was built in the late 2nd century by the Romans, in response to a political crisis. Following the murder of Pertinax in 193 – the Year of the Five Emperors – the Empire split into civil war. Clodius Albinus, governor of Britain, allied with Septimius Severus, commander of the troops in Illyricum and Pannonia, but soon turned against him, proclaiming himself Emperor with the support of the legions in Britain and Hispania.

When Albinus narrowly escaped assassination by one of Severus’ messengers in 196 he put himself at the head of a 150,000 strong army and ordered the construction of fortifications around the city. Albinus did not last long: sailing to Gaul, he met Severus’ army at Lugdunum (modern Lyon). In short order he was defeated and beheaded, his headless body tossed into the Rhine, and the head sent to Rome as a warning to other usurpers.

The Romans and their successors rebuilt and refortified the Wall for the next thousand years. Enclosing some 330 acres, the Wall forced all visitors to pass through seven narrow gates which connected the city to the Roman road system. Following the Blitz, the remaining fragments of the Wall were among the highest structures still standing in the City, and can still be found extant at Barbican and Tower Hill.


The Second Wall was erected some 1800 years later on the orders of the City of London Police, following the bombing of the Baltic Exchange in 1992 and Bishopsgate in 1993. Rather than the Kentish ragstone which made up the First Wall, the Second Wall was built of sentry boxes and roadblocks, with access streets narrowed to chicanes to slow vehicles at designated choke points. (As with the redesign of Oxford Street following the Gordon Riots of 1780, and in contrast to Haussmann’s strategy in Paris, London pioneered the use of congestion as a tool of state control, which, if nothing else, is true to the sclerotic nature of the city itself.)

The Second Wall, commonly known as the “ring of steel”, extended only slightly beyond the boundaries of the first, as the new loci of value, the towers of global finance, were broadly contiguous with older forms of wealth and power. In 2003, following the September 11th attacks on New York City, but preceding the 7 July 2005 bombings on London itself, the Police described the likelihood of a terrorist attack on the city as “inevitable” and widened the ring slightly, but ever since the 1996 bombing of Docklands it had been both obvious and inevitable that a physically static Wall would not be sufficient. Instead, the wall must expand, and diffuse.

Much like its predecessor, the Second Wall still stands, but it has been entirely subsumed within the territory of the Third. Its sentry boxes are frequently left vacant, its gates left open. The only permanently operating components, its video cameras, form an inner processing ring reinforcing those of its successor.


The Third London Wall – that which surrounds the Congestion Charge Zone – was completed in February 2003, and extended the traditional zone of the Wall from the financial district of the Square Mile to the West End, the commercial and entertainment district. In this manner it follows, predictably and admittedly somewhat belatedly, the expansion of capitalism itself into the realm of everyday life.

The core technology of the Third Wall, again pioneered but only partially implemented by the Second, is Automated Number Plate Recognition, or ANPR. Installations of over 800 ANPR cameras record the unique ID of every vehicle which enters the Zone in vast databases for later analysis. When the Wall was initially constructed, the public were informed that this data would only be held, and regularly purged, by Transport for London, who oversee traffic matters in the city. However, within less than five years, the Home Secretary gave the Metropolitan Police full access to this system, which allowed them to take a complete copy of the data produced by the system.

This permission to access the data was granted to the Police on the sole condition that they only used it when National Security was under threat. But since the data was now in their possession, the Police reclassified it as “Crime” data and now use it for general policing matters, despite the wording of the original permission. As this data is not considered to be “personal data” within the definition of the law, the Police are under no obligation to destroy it, and may retain their ongoing record of all vehicle movements within the city for as long as they desire.

The ANPR cameras which operate on, within, and beyond the boundaries of the Congestion Charge Zone capture several pieces of data at once, in two forms. The first is raw information: the unique plate number of the vehicle tracked, the date and time of the tracking, and the location. The other two are images: a cropped image of the plate itself, for supporting the automated “read”, and a wider image of whole vehicle at the moment it is tracked, which may also include other vehicles, the roadway, the driver, passengers, and passers-by.

The gradual vacation of the human sentry boxes of the ring of steel, and their replacement with the automated eyes and minds of the ANPR system are mirrored, out of sight, by the replacement of rooms of watchers with databases, and of cartographers with LIDAR systems atop cars, and sensors aboard satellites in low earth orbits. Watching robots, camera drones, these seeing systems operate continuously, beyond the range of human interest and endurance. And they operate, always, from above, giving them the privilege of surveillance.

Surveillance images are all “before” images, in the sense of “before and after”. The “after” might be anything: an earthquake, a riot, a protest, a war. Any system reliant on flow, which is all networks from vehicle traffic to commercial supply to video feeds to the internet itself, views disruptions within the same negative moral context. Surveillance images attain the status of evidence for unknown crimes the moment they are created, and merely await the identification of the moment they were created for. Automated imagery criminalises its subject.


Suspicion is a global variable. Once triggered it bubbles upward through the entire system. Walking down Park Lane, I was accosted by a man in a suit who demanded to know what I was doing. He took out his mobile phone, pointed it at my face, told me he was going to “circulate my description”.

Shortly afterwards, a colleague of his physically restrained me and called the police. Both men worked at the Grosvenor House Hotel, whose cameras were among those which had been trained on me as I walked, and so are included in my documentation.

When they arrived, the police officers explained that carrying a camera in the vicinity of Central London was grounds for suspicion. I might be a terrorist who posed a threat to the good citizens of London – my own city. Equally I might be casing the joint for some future crime, studying its defences in order to circumvent them.

Carrying a camera thus justified the suspicion of the security guards who stopped me and performed a citizen’s arrest, detaining me until the arrival of the police. This suspicion in turn justified the actions of the police, who threatened me with arrest if I did not identify myself and explain my actions. For carrying a camera, I was told, I could be taken to the station and charged with “Going Equipped”, a provision of the 1968 Theft Act which determines the imprisonment for up to three years of anyone carrying equipment which may be used to commit a burglary.

Of course, the threats of the policemen were utterly baseless. Of course the use of cameras in public, as dictated in numerous statements by the Metropolitan Police themselves, is not, and should not be construed as, a crime. But, as anyone who has ever encountered the police in an analogous situation knows, the law comes a distant second to the exercise of power itself.


The Fourth London Wall will be made of transponders carried in the vehicles themselves. Various forms of these are already on trial in the United States, where the E-ZPass system has migrated from toll bridges and tunnels and out into the wider city, where it can track the passage of vehicles with radio waves. The introduction of diagnostic data ports in cars has lead to the uptake of consumer monitors which also transmit location data, as do many common GPS systems. These systems will soon be formalised in the eCall platform, which will be mandatory in all new vehicles by the end of 2015.

It is also being seen in the development and deployment of roving ANPR, fitted to every police vehicle and soon onto the bodies of council operatives themselves. Finally, the Wall loses all physical definition, becoming a truly ubiquitous zone, rather than a fixed barrier.

As the intentionality of the camera’s image disappears into automation, and the Wall becomes ethereal and obscure, so the image itself dissolves, replaced by data. Cameras no longer see in pictures, but record and process information: the string of numbers on a car license plate, the dimensions of a human face, the IMEI of a mobile phone, the infrared reflectivity of plants, the depth and tonality of a voice.


Around the time of the Fifth Wall, the system (which once contained actual human sensors, men with spears atop its ramparts), will regain the ability to see individuals. At first, this will be done through the medium of mobile phone tracking, which is also already present within the Zone. The swift shut-down by the City of London of the Renew ’spy bins’ which tracked the movements of passers-by belies the widespread existing implementation of the system in shops and retail zones across the city, continually monitoring the movements of shoppers and passers-by.

At the same time, camera systems deployed at the airports in the outer reaches of the zone have already developed the ability to read human faces, irises, expressions and gaits in exactly the same manner as their ANPR predecessors, and build unique, storeable profiles from them. While it’s always amusing to think of how such systems could be evaded through the use of masks or disruptive patterns, it should be noted that Section 60AA of the Criminal Justice and Public Order Act 1994, deployed across Central London on the night of 5th November 2014, gives the Police the right to define a zone in which anyone refusing to reveal their face may be imprisoned for up to a month.

Each Wall, and the Abstract Wall in its totality, is a model-mirror of social processes. As the Third Wall is the natural product of the expansion of financial systems and logics from the banking sector into every other, and the Fourth Wall addresses the mechanisation of the supply chain and the domination of logistics systems, so the Fifth goes hand in hand with the rapidly expanding privatisation of public space, the latest weapon being deployed against Londoners’ lingering desire for the freedoms of city life.


I finished my walk at Vauxhall, as my detention on Park Lane had cost the better part of the early afternoon. I hope to complete the walk at a later date. The decision to stop was made, appropriately enough, in the shadow of Vauxhall Cross, the headquarters of the Secret Intelligence Service, MI6. The blazing red spot on the map, denoting a concentration of cameras, is accounted for by this – and by the far more mysterious building at 1 Bessborough Gardens on the other side of the river, blank-faced, festooned with cameras, whose neighbours regularly complain of electromagnetic interference.

For contrast, see the statistically unlikely dearth of cameras shown in the area south of the Grosvenor Park Hotel, on the lower half of Park Lane. Of course, there aren’t fewer cameras there. It’s a high-risk area. An area attractive to thieves, and terrorists. But when you’ve been physically restrained by blank men in suits, lectured and threatened by police officers, you really just want to get away from there as quickly as possible. When you get in trouble for looking at the cameras, you stop looking at the cameras. But you should really be looking at the cameras.

One of the defining characteristics of the Wall is that it is not, and cannot be, voluntary. While some of the strategies listed here are based on cooperation with the Wall system (tachyometers, navigation and check-in apps, fitness monitors and wearable computers), these are always the accompaniment or introduction to mandatory systems, and are best seen as elective, collaborative trials rather than early adoption or individualistic disruption. Each successive Wall is only erected when the relevant technologies and social systems have arisen that no longer depend on consent.

The Sixth Wall will be built from the things you wear on your body and arrange on the shelves in your bedroom. Nest, QOL, Hue. Automatic. Smart TVs. HAPIfork. Vessyl. Autographer. Memeto. Glass. Dropcam. Jawbone. Fuel. Withings. Fitbit. Healthkit. Little policemen in your pocket, little policemen on your skin.

The Sixth Wall will be made of intelligent dust which settles in the folds of your clothes and communicates your position and heart rate to orbiting satellites. London’s citizens will dream, and the images of their dreams will dance on the telescreens of Piccadilly Circus, and be found wanting.


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Walk One: The Opening

October 27, 2014 | Walk One,Walking | Tags: , , ,


This week I will undertake the first walk of the Nor, a journey around London’s Congestion Charging Zone, the oculus of automated surveillance.

For the background on ANPR and automated surveillance in London and Britain, see this article I wrote in 2013: How Britain exported next-generation surveillance.

Initially installed in 2003, the CC Zone consists of over 700 cameras which monitor and record the details of all vehicles which pass through it. While it was promised that this system would only be used for traffic reduction, in 2007 the government signed a certificate of exemption that grants the Metropolitan Police permission to record and store all data from the cameras, twenty-four hours a day.

[Image source: Rorschmap]

Urban Paranoia

October 13, 2014 | Research |

Urban Paranoia

Ideas in Psychoanalysis: Paranoia, David Bell, 2003

The Nor: Preview

October 7, 2014 | Rubric |

The Nor is an online/offline investigation by James Bridle, as part of MIRRORCITY at the Hayward Gallery, London, 14 October 2014 – 4 January 2015.

The Nor: lines of power inscribed on the city, physically and digitally. Ley lines and fibre optic cables, microwave trading relays, airfields and datacentres, dead letter drops and dark email addresses.

The sense of being watched is a classic symptom of paranoia, often a sign of deeper psychosis, or dismissed as illusory. In the mirror city, which exists at the juncture of the street and CCTV, of bodily space and the electromagnetic spectrum, one is always being watched. So who’s paranoid now?

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