Recovered Writing: Undergraduate Technologies of Representation Essay on Present Technology, Airport Express, Oct 28, 2004

This is the twelfth post in a series that I call, “Recovered Writing.” I am going through my personal archive of undergraduate and graduate school writing, recovering those essays I consider interesting but that I am unlikely to revise for traditional publication, and posting those essays as-is on my blog in the hope of engaging others with these ideas that played a formative role in my development as a scholar and teacher. Because this and the other essays in the Recovered Writing series are posted as-is and edited only for web-readability, I hope that readers will accept them for what they are–undergraduate and graduate school essays conveying varying degrees of argumentation, rigor, idea development, and research. Furthermore, I dislike the idea of these essays languishing in a digital tomb, so I offer them here to excite your curiosity and encourage your conversation.

In the next few Recovered Writing posts, I will present my major assignments from Professor Kenneth J. Knoespel’s LCC 3314 Technologies of Representation class at Georgia Tech. LCC 3314 is taught in many different ways by the faculty of the Georgia Tech’s School of Literature, Media, and Communication, but I consider myself fortunate to have experienced Professor Knoespel’s approach to the course during the last phase of my undergraduate tenure. The ideas that we discussed in his class continue to inform my professional and personal thinking. Also, I found Professor Knoespel a great ally, who helped me along my path to graduation with side projects and independent studies.

This is another example of a WOVEN multimodal essay assignment. In it, I used WVE/written, visual, electronic modes to discuss a specific technology. These essays (focused on past, present, and future technologies) gave me a chance to use technology to explore the meaning behind and impact of technologies. The next essay will focus on a future technology of my own design.

In this essay assignment, we were tasked with exploring an example of a present technology. I chose to write about Apple’s Airport Express, which my roommate Perry Merier had recently purchased. At the time, the idea of an extremely small computing/routing/audio device was new and innovative. Also, it was incredibly useful.

Jason W. Ellis

Professor Kenneth J. Knoespel

LCC3314 – Technologies of Representation

October 28, 2004

Artifact of the Present – Apple Airport Express

Apple Airport Express (Image from Apple Computer)

Apple Airport Express (Image from Apple Computer)

The Artifact

The Apple Airport Express is a multifunction wireless Internet router (i.e., base station) that first hit shelves in June 2004.  It can serve as a wireless Internet base station, extend the range of an existing wireless network, receive streaming music and transfer that to a home stereo, and share a USB printer on a wireless network.  It can do all of these things and yet its small rectangular shape can be inscribed in the circumference of an audio CD.

Description

The Airport Express is only 3.7 inches tall, 2.95 inches wide, and 1.12 inches deep.  It is about the size of a Powerbook G4’s power brick (AC to DC converter).  If you do not need the included power cord extender, then the Airport Express is completely self-contained.  Unlike most other wireless routers, the Airport Express has its power converter built-in.  The electronics that allow it to juggle all of its functions lie within the glossy white plastic housing.

On the back edge of the Airport Express there is a fold-out AC power connector.  The power prongs fold back into the unit so that it is easily carried in a bag without snagging on anything.  The bottom edge has three connectors.  The first is the ethernet RJ-45 connector.  This can be connected to a DSL or cable modem so that the Airport Express can wirelessly transmit Internet access to computers with wireless capabilities that are within range.  Next is the USB connector.  This can be hooked to a USB printer so that the printer can be shared with anyone on the wireless network.  The last connector is an audio mini-jack that supports both digital and optical audio output.  This can be connected to a home stereo so that music can be streamed from a computer running iTunes to the Airport Express.  In the event of a lockup, there is a small reset button on the bottom of the device.  The front edge of the device has an LED.  This LED lights up as amber or green.  The color of the LED and its state (i.e., on, off, blinking) can indicate different things about the status of the Airport Express.

Airport Express Connectors (left) and Airport Express Plugged-In (right)(Images from Apple Computer)

Airport Express Connectors (left) and Airport Express Plugged-In (right) (Images from Apple Computer)

The components inside the Airport Express are tightly packed.  A good deal of engineering had to go into making function follow form in this artifact.  Home wireless routers are usually two or three times the size of the Airport Express and they have an external power brick (that may be the same size as the Airport Express).  This device has to contain a power converter, wireless networking components, wired networking components, network routing components, USB printing components, and audio components.  Some of these parts are combined on a single piece of silicon to save space on the circuit board.

Airport Express split in half.  Note the circuit boards on the left and power converter on the right.  (Image from ipodding.com)

Airport Express split in half. Note the circuit boards on the left and power converter on the right. (Image from ipodding.com)

Social Significance

Apple Computer introduced its Airport technology in July 1999.  The choice to use the name “Airport” was a deliberate one.  It is easy to remember and it evokes certain images of what the technology is able to do.  The bits of data seem to fly through the air on invisible radio waves.  Airport technology is the place where these bits take off and land–from the base station to the computer and vice versa.  Speed, travel, and mobility are some of the images that Apple intended the Airport Extreme to conjure for potential buyers.

The Airport Express uses the two most widely adopted wireless networking standards:  802.11b and 802.11g.  A working group within the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE) established those standards.  The IEEE 802 standards committee develops the standards for local area networks as well as for metropolitan area networks.  Work group 11 focuses on wireless networking standards.  Publicly available standards such as these are part of the success of computer and networking hardware.  Standards allow for components manufactured by different companies to be interoperable.  Because the Airport Express uses several open standards it will work along side other wireless hardware and it will work with Macs as well as PCs.

The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) and the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) regulate the radio frequency spectrum.  The NTIA is part of the Executive Branch of the US Government that “manages the Federal government’s use of the spectrum” while the FCC is an “independent agency” that “regulates the private use of the spectrum” (NTIA).  The 802.11b and 802.11g wireless networking standards are approved by the FCC to use the 2.4GHz radio band for transmitting and receiving bits of data carried on radio waves.

The US Radio Spectrum Frequency Allocations.  The red ellipse approximately marks where in the spectrum 802.11b and 802.11g operate. (Image from NTIA)

The US Radio Spectrum Frequency Allocations. The red ellipse approximately marks where in the spectrum 802.11b and 802.11g operate. (Image from NTIA)

Each person with a computer with wireless capability, a copy of iTunes, a stereo, and an Airport Express is in effect a one-person radio station.  Music can be streamed from the computer to the Airport Express which passes it along to the home stereo via an audio cable.  Digital music is now freed from the computer and transferred back to the home stereo.  This capability points to one of the Airport Express’ weaknesses.  Music streaming from a computer can only be played on one Airport Express at a time.  There is no technology barrier keeping more than one Airport Express from receiving the streaming music so there is some reason that Apple restricted this capability on the Airport Express.  If this were enabled customers would buy more than one Airport Express so that they could stream music to multiple rooms.

The music travels wirelessly to the Airport Express and then to the stereo via wires.  (Image from Apple Computer)

The music travels wirelessly to the Airport Express and then to the stereo via wires. (Image from Apple Computer)

The Airport Express’ limitations might be due to pressure from the music industry.  Apple gives the music playing software, iTunes, away for free.  It can play CDs, MP3s, and it can access Apple’s Online Music store.  This software can copy (i.e., rip) CDs that may or may not be owned by the iTunes user.  Additionally, iTunes will play legitimate MP3s as well as those that are obtained in violation of current copyright law.  The Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) and some music recording artists find this unacceptable.  Apple has tried to work on the side of the consumer, but they have to appease the music industry as well.  To do this Apple has integrated special encryption in music downloaded from the Apple Online Music Store so that only the authorized buyer can play those MP3s.  Additionally, iTunes establishes a secure connection to the Airport Express by encrypting the music stream with Advanced Encryption Standard (AES) encryption, which is in turn protected by RSA encryption.  This prevents others from recording an iTunes music stream.

Encryption is also employed to protect the wireless users on the Airport Extreme’s network.  Part of this protection comes from encrypting the wireless network traffic and the other part comes from the built-in firewall.  The older encryption is called Wired Equivalent Privacy (WEP) and the newer security is called Wi-Fi Protected Access (WPA).  WPA was built to supercede WEP.  The built-in firewall uses network address translation (NAT) to create a network that uses private IP addresses instead of public (and thus directly connected to the Internet) IP addresses.  NAT exchanges data between the public world and the private network.  Generally, only the NAT server can directly connect to the computer on its private network and not a computer in the outside world.

Security and privacy is a growing concern for people in a more wired world.  Identify theft is becoming a boon for some (e.g., the thieves, private investigators, lawyers, politicians) and a bust for others (i.e., the person whose identity is stolen).  One way that a person’s private identifying information is stolen is by an individual “sniffing” a wireless network’s data traffic for that precious information.  New industries and groups have grown out of this problem of identity theft.  Wireless devices like the Airport Express need to have protections built-in so that a user’s private information will be better protected.

The physical construction of the Airport Express involves electrical engineering, computer engineering, and industrial design.  Electrical engineering and computer engineering overlap in a project such as this.  Custom chips have to be designed and built that handle data traffic, digital-analog conversion of sound, configuration software, controlling of a radio transmitter/receiver, and print control software.  Simplicity and elegance of design are demanded in order to fit such a feature rich artifact into a very small package.  Apple has a history of taking an artifact that is assumed to look or work in a particular way and transforming its appearance into something new and fresh (e.g., the original Macintosh, iMac, and iPod).  Airport Express works similarly to any other wireless router, but it pushes the elements of design (both as a physical artifact and with the internal circuits and chips) so that it is identified by the user as something more than its function.

Sleek and new shapes also reinforce the perception of speed.  Airplanes are fast and this artifact is the Airport (sending and receiving these fast airplanes of data) Express (quick, fast, simple).  Computer technology has been a long progression of speed.  How fast does this computer perform the tasks that I will be using it for?  Can it play Doom 3?  The same is true for networking technologies.  Wired networking is hands down the fastest networking technology so wireless has to compete with wires in speed, but it can distinguish itself by its convenience.

(Photo by John M. Dibbs.)

(Photo by John M. Dibbs.)

These new designs effect a change in the way people think about their computer technology.  Soft colors, translucent plastics, curves and gentle transitions give technology a friendlier “face.”  It isn’t imposing and the technology can now fit into a color scheme in your home.  Computer technology shifts from utility to lifestyle.  Apple brings together these networks of technology, government oversight, music industry muscle, and industrial design principles so as to provide customers with the technology desired but in a package that makes it less technical and more like a streamlined appliance.

Works Cited

“Airport Express Gallery.”  Ipodding.com.  2004.  October 26, 2004           <http://ipodding.com/modules.php?set_albumName=album10&op=modload&na            me=gallery&file=index&include=view_album.php>.

“Apple – Airport Express.”  Apple Computer, Inc..  2004.  October 26, 2004 <http://www.apple.com/airportexpress/&gt;.

“Apple – Support – Airport Express.”  Apple Computer, Inc..  2004.  October 26, 2004 <http://www.apple.com/support/airportexpress/&gt;.

Dibbs, John M..  “Concorde Takeoff.”  Planepix.com.  October 26, 2004    <http://www.planepix.com/pp/servlet/template/Detail.vm/id/2940&gt;.

“Myths vs. Reality.”  National Telecommunications and Information Administration.       October 14, 2004.  October 26, 2004             <http://www.ntia.doc.gov/ntiahome/myths.html&gt;.

I am a professor of English at the New York City College of Technology, CUNY whose teaching includes composition and technical communication, and research focuses on 20th/21st-century American culture, science fiction, neuroscience, and digital technology.

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Posted in Apple, Georgia Tech, Recovered Writing
Who is Dynamic Subspace?

Dr. Jason W. Ellis shares his interdisciplinary research and pedagogy on DynamicSubspace.net. Its focus includes the exploration of science, technology, and cultural issues through science fiction and neuroscientific approaches. It includes vintage computing, LEGO, and other wonderful things, too.

He is an Assistant Professor of English at the New York City College of Technology, CUNY (City Tech) where he teaches college writing, technical communication, and science fiction.

He holds a Ph.D. in English from Kent State University, M.A. in Science Fiction Studies from the University of Liverpool, and B.S. in Science, Technology, and Culture from Georgia Tech.

He welcomes questions, comments, and inquiries for collaboration via email at jellis at citytech dot cuny dot edu or Twitter @dynamicsubspace.

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