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Reviewed by:
  • Down to Earth: Satellite Technologies, Industries, and Cultures ed. by Lisa Parks and James Schwoch
  • Janet Vertesi (bio)
Down to Earth: Satellite Technologies, Industries, and Cultures Edited by Lisa Parks and James Schwoch. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 2012. Pp. x+312 $29.95.

Down to Earth focuses on satellites as objects of cultural production that inhabit contested border zones at the boundaries of geopolitical and commercial regulation. Rather than seeking to expose the technical apparatus, history, or launch of any one satellite, the book asks questions of satellites grounded in cultural theory, media studies, and critical geography. How did the regulation of orbital and geostationary trajectories reflect, project, trouble, and produce existing geopolitical lines? What clashes occur when satellite radio and television stations attempt to enter existing broadcast markets? How do satellites challenge our scholarship about vision and visibility, spatiality and regulation, knowledge and power?

Each of these questions requires consideration of the technologies involved on a basic level. We learn, for example, on which bands these satellites [End Page 1008] broadcast and to which degree of geosynchronous orbit they are assigned. Media studies scholars will no doubt praise this volume for considering not just the content, but the distribution mechanisms involved in media consumption, with all their attendant infrastructural and political considerations. Historians of technology, on the other hand, may find the objects of study—the satellites themselves—to be conspicuously absent from the story. There is no detailed history of technical decisions leading to the certification of specific bandwidths or the facilitation of geosynchronicity in the first place, for example. Yet, the media studies perspective raises important considerations for the history of technology that apply beyond the satellite domain. For these reasons, the volume should be of interest and application in technology studies more broadly.

The essays pay close attention to the complex regulatory environments that may not shape the objects themselves, but that dictate their possibilities for use. Describing these regulatory battles, we get the sense of how existing national policies—whether airspace regulation frameworks or broadcasting rules—are challenged and stretched to their limits by these new entrants on the scene. Christy Collis’s contribution on the critical legal geography of geostationary orbit is especially rich in sociotechnical detail, while essays by Naomi Sakr, Alexander Russo and Bill Kirkpatrick, Brian O’Neill and Michael Murphy, and Ben Aslinger describe battles over satellite broadcast regulation in the United States, Canada, South Africa, and across the Arab diaspora, confronting not only cultural differences, but stark regulatory contrasts. Such essays offer suggestive paths for considering technologies in use in transnational contexts and cross-cultural spaces, as well as shifting political environments. In fact, the volume seems to suggest that satellites cannot be considered without their specific regulatory frameworks, demonstrating another way in which technologies and social rubrics must be considered together and brought into functional, if awkward alignments in order for the technology to work. This is especially important for the analysis of other invisible, commercial, regulated infrastructural technologies.

Several essays engage the tools of critical geography in powerful and instructive ways. How do these new visual technologies transform what is and can be seen? What kind of opticism and power is this? And how does space and spatiality change due to the positioning of the satellite? Lisa Parks beautifully compares central Asian satellites to show how different countries express national visions with and through their satellites and regulations, while Barney Warf discusses satellite ocularcentrism and modernist regimes as they encounter other ways of seeing, and James Schwoch discusses the significance of the Kármán line in the determination of spacecraft and debris, safety and threat. Across the volume, authors put theories from the likes of Foucault, Barthes, Jay, Lefevre, or Harvey and Cosgrove to good use in the analysis of these technologies as cultural artifacts [End Page 1009] that not only express cultural form, but actively reconfigure space, territory, and governmentality. For those who study the wide range of practical technologies that engage shifting concepts of space, time, or work, these essays prove instructive examples for how best to consider these cultural reconstructions.

The use of critical theory in the text is by...


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pp. 1008-1010
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