Incidental Detection

[Image: Aura WiFi burglar alarm].

A new home and office alarm system detects disturbances in WiFi to warn residents of potential burglars. The Aura, as it’s known, picks up “disruptions in the invisible radio waves that make up your home’s Wi-Fi network” to determine if someone—or perhaps something—is sneaking around inside, uninvited.

When Cognitive Systems, the Canadian tech firm behind Aura, began discussing the project publicly back in 2015, they suggested that WiFi is basically an invisible shape inside your home, and that “distortions” or deformations in that shape can be detected and responded to. There is your home’s interior; then there is the electromagnetic geometry of WiFi that fills your home’s interior.

Although the alarm is capable of differentiating between an adult human being and, say, a loose piece of paper blowing down a hallway or a house plant swinging in the evening breeze, the system can apparently be thrown off by complicated architectural layouts. Perhaps, then, in the techno-supernatural future, particular homes will find themselves unavoidably haunted by nonexistent burglars, as alarms are unable to stop ringing due to an unusual arrangement of halls and closets. A new Gothic of electromagnetic effects, where the alarm is detecting the house itself.

Of course, if devices like the Aura take off, it will almost undoubtedly lead to crafty burglars developing WiFi-shape-spoofing tools as ways to camouflage their entry into, and movement through, other people’s homes. A black market economy of signal-reflection and WiFi-dazzling clothing takes off, allowing humans to move like stealth airplanes through complex electromagnetic environments, undetected. The opposite of this, perhaps.

Stories of one thing unexpectedly being used to detect the presence of another have always fascinated me. In this case, it’s just WiFi being used to pick up potential criminal trespass, but, in other examples, we’ve seen GPS satellites being repurposed as a giant dark matter detector in space. As if vast clouds of invisible matter, through which the Earth is “constantly crashing,” might set off some sort of planetary-scale burglar alarm.

[Image: GPS satellites, via MIT Technology Review].

There are so many examples of this sort of thing. Recall, for instance, that subatomic particles (or, rather, their absence) can be used to map otherwise inaccessible architectural interiors, or that an experiment in the 1930s designed “to find out what was causing the static that interfered with trans-Atlantic telephone calls” inadvertently kicked off the field of radio astronomy, or the fact that tree rings can be used to detect both sunspots and earthquakes. Or even that LIGO, the gravitational-waves detector, at one point was accidentally being set off by wolves, or that the collapse of the Twin Towers on 9/11 was picked up as an earthquake by regional seismographs.

Imagine scrambling all this; you wake up tomorrow morning to find that WiFi burglar alarms are detecting dark matter walls in space, telephone calls are picking up signs of unknown rooms and corridors hidden in the buildings all around you, and scientists outside studying wolves in the American wild have found evidence of celestial phenomena in the creatures’ tracking collars.

In fact, I’m tangentially reminded of the internet subgenre of what could be called things inadvertently captured on wildlife cameras—ghostly forms in the wilderness, lost children, “unexplained” lights. These are trail cameras that were placed there to track wildlife, either for science or for sport, but then these other things allegedly popped up, instead.

[Image: Via Outdoor Life].

I suppose this often absurd, Photoshop-prone field of purportedly occult photography comes about as close as you can to a new technological folklore, devising myths of encounter as picked up by systems originally installed to look for something else.

Yet it leaves me wondering what the “spooky trail cam” genre might produce when mixed with WiFi-enabled home burglar alarms, dark matter detectors in space, etc. etc.

In any case, the CBC has a great write-up about the Aura, if you want to learn more.

Skywalker Village


[Image: Tsovkra-1 via Google Maps].

“Flanked by the Caucasus Mountains on the highest plateau in Dagestan,” Kate Sutton wrote for the February issue of Artforum, “the village of Tsovkra-1 has parlayed the perils of its topography into a peculiar claim to fame: that every able-bodied member of its roughly four-hundred-person population can walk a tightrope. While locals say that this skill was first developed simply as a way to traverse the region’s slopes and crevices, tightrope walking is now considered an integral part of the republic’s cultural heritage.”

It’s like a deleted scene from, or an alternative version of, Italo Calvino’s Baron in the Trees, this village with such a precarious natural and geological setting that everyone becomes an acrobat.

The origins of the town’s peculiar talents are disputed. According to The Week, it might have been all about love: “While no one in Tsovkra-1 knows exactly how the tradition began, the most popular story is that more than 100 years ago, the village’s young men tired of trekking across the valleys that separated them from their female love interests in a neighboring community. So the men strung up a rope between the mountains and, after first pulling themselves across, eventually began to walk the rope, displaying their prowess for their waiting admirers.”

I would love to know the extent to which this has simply been overblown by curious journalists, especially as the only consistent takeaway from coverage of the town is that no one seems to know where the tightrope skills came from—although “all agree that it happened more than 200 years ago” and all seem to agree that Tsovkra-1’s acrobatics are on the verge of disappearing.