FOREVER ALONE DRONE: Frank Swain takes a walk on the wild side

17 Dec

Simon Ings writes:

Now and again, editing Arc throws up a junket. For instance, a modish and very highly regarded arts festival has recently invited Arc along to discuss the fact that most of the universe is missing. Arc being me, of course (ha!), writer Tim Maughan (his story Limited Edition appeared in Afterparty overdrive) and a chap I’ve never actually met in person (he was Sumit’s find) called Frank Swain. Frank’s a science writer preoccupied with how our innovations shape our future and ourselves. He’s written for New Scientist, Wired, BBC Radio 4 and Bravo, among others, and his first book, How to Make a Zombie, is out next spring.

I’ll tell you more about that shindig on another occasion (the only reason I mention it now is to annoy Sumit, who’s so busy with New Scientist that he never gets to go anywhere).

The point is, though I’ve never met him, I reckon Frank’s going to be a top bloke to go junketing with. He has a more than passing acquaintance with the whole urban exploration scene, and I imagine us exploring Amsterdam’s secret rooftop world, its alluvian hinterlands, its secret, post-Imperial redoubts. No pressure, Frank, but your feature for Forever alone drone has whetted my appetite.

Frank thinks we’ve ceded far too much of our public space to private interests – so much so, that if we’re ever to navigate our home towns in the future, we’re going to have to learn a thing or two from the urban explorers who crawl through sewers and infiltrate disused subway stations.

Here’s a short extract:

Elevators can be hijacked with triangular lift keys and sent to hidden floors, such as the penthouse flats atop luxury hotels.

Alarm systems can be disarmed. A juice bottle cut into pieces can coax open the deadlocks on fire exits. A thin layer of UV paint left on a keypad will reveal the code when you return a week later. Locks can be picked. That takes time, but once you succeed, the lock can be stripped from the other side and all but a single pin removed, leaving it functional but easily picked on a return visit. A key that opens one door can be reversed-engineered into a master key for the whole building with nothing more than a few blanks and a hand file.

All this makes real security enormously expensive and time-consuming to achieve. The pretense of it is almost as effective and far simpler. And the more obedient the society, the simpler it is. Sites in Asia are often secured by nothing more than a knee-high fence. “We feel it’s wrong to be on property that isn’t ours,” says Snaps. “In Thailand, I was caught by a cop. The simple act of stepping over that fence infuriated him, because we’d dared to go somewhere we weren’t supposed to.”

It’s intriguing that the comparatively liberal UK bristles with stern warnings, razor-wire fences and omnipresent cameras. Perhaps such measures are needed to keep a less tractable population on the straight and narrow. “If shit was going down, if there was a genuine mass protest, or if something like the 2011 riots really did get truly out of hand, the social compliance side of things would fall apart,” Snaps says. “And then people would see that the security was an illusion – that the city is a sieve.”

You can read Frank Swain’s feature Beyond the city limits in full in Arc 1.4: Forever Alone Drone, out now

for iPads and iPhones

for Android devices, Windows and Mac computers

as a collectible print edition

and for Kindle.

And if I end up editing Arc out of a Dutch prison cell, you’ll know who’s door to knock on.

If you would like to write for Arc, check out our new competition.

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