Thursday, February 02, 2006

Iridium: Something In the Air

A paranoid's take on Iridium

by Carla Diana

BLOOMFIELD HILLS, MI, March 19, 1999 -- We [Image]
citizens of the late 20th century have become
pretty jaded toward new technology. Today's average adult
has witnessed the manifestation of countless products
once imagined only in fiction. What's more, the cost of
these innovations invariably plummets so quickly that
they're affordable to the average Joe in just a few
years' time.

Despite our nonchalance, every once in a while a
technology comes along that has the potential to really
blow one's mind -- if its cultural implications are
closely examined. The Iridium satellite phone system,
which provides wireless communications anywhere on the
planet, is just such a technology.

My fear is that we've become so accustomed to wireless
technology, particularly due to the soaring popularity of
digital phones, that we'll take in stride the changes to
our world -- both good and bad -- that Iridium will
bring.

What's the big commotion?

Iridium closes a gap in space and time by allowing us to
call anywhere, from anywhere, at any time. No location is
too distant or secluded to be out of reach; geographical
boundaries can no longer serve as a barrier to
information. (Even though the Internet has opened new
vistas of communication, it is still dependent on a
system of phone lines whose layout is dictated by
geography).

As such, the Iridium phone represents a new kind of
freedom in communication. It is a freedom from
maintaining a central base of operations, which in turn
allows for more alternative, "off-the-grid" lifestyles.
For example, one could live in a different city every
month of the year because this "communication without
borders" would present fewer logistical hassles.

It shouldn't be long before Iridium accessories include a
modem for laptop computers, which will give the
modern-day nomad more legitimacy than ever before. "Have
satellite phone, will travel" could become the
catchphrase of the 21st century, because one will be able
to live in the wilderness yet still communicate with
anyone on the planet.

But there's a downside...

On the other hand, a product like the Iridium phone
destroys any remaining possibility for the existence of a
true wilderness. Many of the parks and natural preserves
in this country already include areas that are wired for
electricity and pay phones. The Iridium takes the concept
of a wired wilderness to its inevitable conclusion. Soon,
we simply may not be able to "get away from it all," no
matter how far into the woods we go.

And while it's easy to understand how the Iridium phone
offers a level of freedom never before imagined, further
reflection reveals that it also represents a new type of
limitation -- a literal, physical restriction in the form
of a net of satellites around the planet, 485 miles from
Earth. It's a claustrophobe's apocalyptic nightmare. I
can imagine control of this system -- and the attendant
power -- ultimately becoming a bone of contention among
nations.

Some impressive astronomical phenomena have already
resulted from the presence of the Iridium satellites.
While it's true that humans have been sending various
objects into orbit for several decades, a recent article
in Hotwired News reported that "brilliant flares ...
caused by sunlight reflecting off the antennae of the
Iridium satellites ... can brighten to an intensity that
outshines everything else in the night sky." The Visual
Satellite Observers Home Page reports that these alleged
Iridium flares "can last up to 20 seconds [and] the
reflection can be 30 times brighter than Venus."

Some astronomers consider the lights a form of "space
pollution." The scientific community (including the
astronomers at Kitt Peak National Observatory in Tucson,
AZ) is also greatly concerned by the satellites'
interference with telescopes that track radio waves of
objects in space. Iridium is reportedly working on
agreements with a number of observatories to minimize
interference.

Never mind the radio astronomers -- what about the poor
animals that have no idea what's going on and could
become increasingly frightened by the strange flashes in
the sky? Are we due for a global animal freakout?

On the other hand...

When I calm my paranoia, I can get really excited about
the pros of the Iridium phone. All right, I admit it. I
do want one. Sure, the awesome implications of this
system are a real mind-boggle, but considering that
Nostradamus predicted a dismal 1999 anyway, maybe it
makes no sense to ruminate about one particular brand of
doom versus the other.

Please feel free to post your comments in Your Two Cents,
a folder on our Message Board.

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This column is an etown.com exclusive.

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