Frank Meeuwsen’s exploration of the world of newsletters surfaced this interesting conversation with Steve Lord. Steve writes a twice monthly newsletter The Dork Web about tech subcultures. What stood out to me was this statement:

COVID and climate change impacts will drive the creation of new subcultures. Two areas I know of are radio and self-sufficiency. COVID taught us how brittle our supply chains are. Climate change and de-globalization will exacerbate that. Global demand for online amateur radio exams far outstrips supply. I imagine many readers will have at least tried to bake this year. Some will try to go back to their lives as they were before. Some will keep baking, growing food, staying on the air. These people will build the subcultures of the 2020s.

Wait, what? “Global demand for online amateur radio exams far outstrips supply“? Steve’s remark on the let’s call them ‘selective pressures’ of pandemic and the climate emergency on tech subculture development sounds likely. But a rise in demand for amateur radio jumped out at me. I am very curious where that observation comes from.

The recent Dork Web issue Propaganda, Pirates and Preachers: The Weird Wide Web Of Shortwave Radio is full of interesting links to follow, and I assume Lord came across the interest in ham radio exams in the course of researching that edition.

I became fascinated with short wave radio in my pre-teens, and involved with ham radio by the end of primary school (my dad saw my short wave listening efforts and introduced me to a colleague of his who had a radio license). The original promise of short wave and ham radio to me, looking back now, was that the technology mediated access to information (short wave), and brought novel connections (ham radio). I was too young then to get an operator’s license, but got my license after I entered university (and was on the board of the still existing university’s ham radio club), now just over 30 years ago.

I also encountered internet at university at the end of the 1980’s, and that eroded my interest in ham radio, as it enabled both access to information and new connections on such a different scale and in such a more effective way, compared to ham radio.

Ultimately, while the technology is fascinating, there is not much actual agency in ham radio. You can connect to other people, but such connections are scattered, unpredictable if not random, and it doesn’t enable you to do things other than explore the fascination of the tech itself (much like metablogging actually I must say), with others.

There are of course edge use cases where ham radio does provide immediate agency, namely in the case of large scale emergencies. Situations where regular communications are sure to break down under demand (mobile phone networks are the first to falter when everyone really wants to make a call…). Having let my radio license lapse with time, I renewed it 3 years ago, and I do have VHF/UHF ‘walkie talkie’ style transceivers handy for just such a scenario. My callsign now is the same as it was 30 years ago: PE1NOR.

More recently IoT developments and e.g. LORAWAN do also use radio in an agency inducing way. I run a LORAWAN gateway, allowing any radio enabled IoT device in the area to connect through it to the internet so the IoT device can reach the database its operator wants the collected data end up in. And I have a sensorkit in the garden that uses that gateway to send temperature and humidity measurements to a city wide citizen science network, the results of which are used in our city’s climate adaptation efforts.

So if, as Steve Lord suggests, “Global demand for online amateur radio exams far outstrips supply” and is feeding into new tech subcultures, I’m curious. Curious to see how it might find new ways of providing agency.

I’ve subscribed to The Dork Web, not as a newsletter, but through its RSS feed. I’m more of an RSS guy than a newsletter reader. Sorry, Frank! 😉