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Reading a Wave Buoy

Fri, August 31, 11:00am to 12:30pm, ICC, E5.10


The ocean’s properties and processes are these days mostly known though distributed networks of sensors. Among the most widespread are wave-measuring buoys. Such buoys are deployed by national meteorological organizations, state militaries, multinational corporations, and everyday citizens, creating a weave of delegated sensing terrains, diffracting jurisdictions, and layered captures of ocean dynamics. This paper examines the Directional Wave Rider, the world’s most widely used buoy, manufactured since 1961 in the Netherlands. I am interested in this buoy’s material qualities and networks of use, its life within legal frameworks, and its media ecology. Material qualities: in the digital age, the Wave Rider retains something of a steampunk cast, depending upon interior ratios of glycerin and distilled water, which now couple with accelerometers keyed to Internet relays. Legal frameworks: the Wave Rider — which can be read as a mechanical remainder or trace of the Dutch empire, as part of Cold War infrastructure, and as a cybernetic sentinel for sea level rise — may only be deployed in line with maritime laws and may transmit data only in particular portions of the electromagnetic spectrum. Media ecologies: Wave Riders float nowadays in a sea of many competing sensors, generating representations that circulate into multiple communities of practice. Wave Riders structure what will count as “waves” and produce depictions not only for humans but also for computers and for weather predicting algorithms. Maritime flows and the borders to which they are attached come to be apprehended as combinations of the actual, digital, virtual, and political.