Listening to the Bluetooth

The unexpected delay – excused by the accusatory complaint of technology ’misbehaving’ is familiar occurrence before a conference begins, a teacher starts class, or an artist or musician initiates a performance. The electronic hum or dropped connection elicit remarks that highlight the expectation for technical equipment (especially audio-visual equipment whose functionality is directly monitored through observation) to serve its purpose without exhibiting qualities, potentials or connections beyond those we have designated as purposeful. As one approach to machine aesthetic, I propose focusing on technological mischief towards considering how the desired non presence, the expectation of invisibility and inaudibility outside of predetermined parameters, masks a perceptual potential – which machines invite us experience. The description of technology’s misbehaviors, however, aligns with what philosopher William James description of “substituting a lot of static objects of conceptio­n for the direct perceptual experiences.”[1] Considered through an analysis of Bluetooth protocol performance of specific signal organization we describe as ‘disobediences’ assumes a surprising resonance with William’s James’ conceptual proposal for ‘radical empiricism’. James’ philosophy both suggests a fuller approach to the aesthetic of the technology, while Bluetooth simultaneously provides as a useful case study towards considering the value of James’ approach, which I will describes through the enactment of the Bluetooth technology below.

Bluetooth is a common, accessible and prolific protocol technology which can be experienced ’misbehaving’ in a variety of different ways and at multiple points of transmission. Disruptions can occur in receiving a transmitted signal (a phone call, headphones) or, when being used to transmit, in the signal that is sent over to a receiver. This signal variation ranges from loud intermittent sounds, distortion, to complete interruption of the transmission. However, the Bluetooth protocol is designed to organize devices into piconet with each piconet only having a 1/79 chance of choosing the channel of an existing piconet. A piconet is a grouping of 8 devices, organized into one master node and the up to seven slave nodes. (Slave node devices synchronize around the signature master node clock but can also participate in other piconet, thereby establishing communication between piconet called a scatternet.)[2] As devices have proliferated however, interference is increasingly attributed to other Bluetooth devices. But because Bluetooth technology uses short-wavelength UHF radio waves at the 2.45 GHz, a frequency shared by common technologies such as Wi-Fi, cell phones, usb cables and microwaves, there have always been multiple sources that con complicate the transmission, causing devices to behave strangely, and squelch or beep in seeming protest to a signal being buried under a larger wave of silent frequency.[3]

James proposes that “to be radical, an empiricism must neither admit into its constructions any element that is not directly experienced, nor exclude from them any element that is directly experienced. For such a philosophy, the relations that connect experiences must themselves be experienced relations, and any kind of relation experienced must be accounted as ‘real’ as anything else in the system.”[4] This is an empiricism that is intent not to cut continuities, relationships and experiences into artificially discrete parts by inserting representations into the “gaps.”[5] The ‘misbehavior’ of a technology is just such a representation, the characterization preserves the identity of the device (or machine, signal, protocol or program) as singular, rather than maintain and contend with the reality of a shared frequency, and the continuous larger experience that contains both the person describing the perception and other actors effecting the transmission of the frequency as they are in relation. (Technicians will sometimes flip the identity of the actor at fault however – accusing ’user error’). James’ empiricism also has radical implications for perception of subjects because in insisting on the conjunction as real; as James explains, this “will save us is an artificial conception of the relations between knower and known.”[6] Subject and object have long been treated as discontinuous according to James, a false representation that elicited false remedies and explanations. This approach forefronts what is present in relation as subject, preserving an experiential understanding that seems to expand the potential of perception and subjectivity.

When describing how often rationalist falsely inscribe separateness to continuity, James provoked that “we ought to invoke higher principles of disunion, also, to make our merely experienced disjunctions more truly real. Failing thus, we ought to let the originally given continuities stand on their own bottom.” I think a similar attitude of challenge was present in my exploration of Bluetooth behavior. I took on the task of trying to elicit interference, skipping, disconnection and crossed signals from as many Bluetooth devices I could gather. I thought of it as a sort of orchestration, a choral assembly, and because it was essential to make the ‘misbehavior’ perceptible, a technical challenge akin to ghost hunting; to make this invisible presence appear at will. As I feared, interference was more difficult to orchestrate intentionally, and it became a task as much about finding new ways to amplify the transmission of the inaudible, and thereby learning what the inaudible was, both haptically and through research (amazing FCC graph included below). A whitepaper put out by IBM in 2012 held an important key “The purpose of this document is to create an awareness of radio frequency interference to wireless devices operating in the 2.4 GHz ISM band as a result of certain USB 3.0* devices and cables. This is a guide to customers of the USB 3.0 RFI mitigation options that are available.”[7] Their mitigations were my blueprints for disruption. Plugging in multiple USB 3.0 cables worked to amplify signal interference at an audible level if filtered through the hand recorder and into the camera and output to my headphones. It was nothing more than clicks in the room, but even if recording with no volume, the Bluetooth almost entirely overpowered any outside noise once amplified electromagnetically.

The experience, of purposefully forcing overwhelm of the 2.4mhz signal by interference was also surprisingly sensitizing. After leaving the studio at the end of the last session on the second day, I felt that when I entered the room again, I could sense the Bluetooth without hearing it. I had sought to hear it long enough to develop a feel for its presence, or at least a sense of recognition of what I only could unconsciously hear or feel. I felt a strange danger to gather all the devices and prompt a sort of dysfunction; perhaps would I scramble them? If so, who or what was in danger? When my camera shut off during in an especially loud moment, before I confirmed the battery had been drained, I quickly imagined the signals had somehow overpowered the camera own receiver – itself also possessing the power to transmit and recite at 2.45GHz.

Most importantly, I realized was my own listening to what I had characterized as the ‘dysfunction’ that prompted a recognition of the fact that, in terms of process, there was only function, and subsequent coherence of functions/signals could only be understood in relation to their new configuration.

This experience promoted a change in approach which activated my role in relation to the protocol; thus by accepting as whole and functional the phenomenal experience of the Bluetooth signals, my perceptual experience became heightened – in keeping with James’ reminder that “knowledge of sensible realities thus comes to life inside the tissue of experience.”[8] Bluetooth protocol was proceeding, the cables were proceeding, I was blocking and unblocking the signal with my body and through moving the cable. As James described the necessity of radical empiricism’s potential towards perception, he pleaded “but that percept hangs together with all our other physical percepts. They are of one stuff with it; and if it be our common possession, they must be so likewise. For instance, your hand lays hold of one end of a rope and my hand lays hold of the other end. We pull against each other. Can our two hands be mutual objects in this experience, and the rope not be mutual also?”[9]  By focusing on the continuities, connections, and overlaps a larger network was revealed that also included myself, and through this, a fuller understanding of the technology in a way that feels like it has more complexity and potential that the punishing description of misbehavior suggests.

The final performance I recorded is one that includes a variety of interference orchestration of Bluetooth over one 20 minute video. The interference, heard as electromagnetic amplification through a signal on a H-6 digital recorder, is an almost intolerable signal when disconnected from the process or exit the continuity, however I easily sustained attention to it (as I heard the same noise in my headphones) when I was part of its creation. How much do we label noise intolerable because of the common experience of its signifying the thwarting of a desirable signal rather than any kind of inherent somatic aversion? Listening to the interference I stopped hearing it as noise and rather as patterns that contrasted and started to have a relationship to function, the beat of a new device search, the pause of a play function, the drone of a connection being established. The attention and the seeking connection meant I listened for change. This shift also meant however, that bluetooth noise was transformed into information rather than its absence. The practice took on a strangely unintentional political valence. Since the summer, I have organizing a tenant union with central American immigrants in a complex in my neighborhood. I’ve become aware of their difficulty getting recognition from the landlord, an experience often attributed to the absence of Spanish speaking employees in the manager’s office. The tenants are consistently not acknowledged; phone, mail and in person visits and requests are ignored completely. In fact, everything is ignored except for late rent or perceived violations of the lease. The landlord’s active demand of invisibility from tenants is very real. Thinking on this fact after my time spent actively listening to Bluetooth interference was in keeping with James’ suggestion that sensible realities are “made; and made by relations that unroll themselves in time.”[10] Time spent in relation is itself transformative towards revealing the continuity of relations, the reality of experience. The landlords refusing acknowledgement of tenants is a denial of time spent in relation, and thereby a denial of the reality of the tenants in their relation to them. This is a denial that happens before language however, in the way that my hearing the Bluetooth differently came from a decision that came before listening. Bluetooth signals are constantly merging and being subsumed or combined towards forming a blockage or a unintentional audio 2.45 GHz moiré pattern. But there are other signals around us being blocked too that we describe as misbehavior; signals not even perceived, or distorted. Beyond a machine aesthetic, James’ radical empiricism offers an approach towards more fully realizing our reality as full, plural, shared – a liberation into perception of our common experience that feels, more than radical, essential.


Grimaldi, Simone, Aamir Mahmood, Mikael Gidlund, and Mário Alves. 2017. “An SVM-Based Method for Classification of External Interference in Industrial Wireless Sensor and Actuator Networks.” Journal of Sensor and Actuator Networks 6 (2).

Garg, Vijay K. 2007. “Wireless Personal Area Network — Bluetooth.” In Wireless Communications & Networking, edited by The Morgan Kaufmann Series in Networking, 653–74.

Scientific American. 2007. “How Does Bluetooth Work? – Scientific American.”

Tahir, Sabeen, Sheikh Tahir Bakhsh, and Abdulrahman H. Altalhi. 2017. “An Efficient Route Maintenance Protocol for Dynamic Bluetooth Networks.” Journal of King Saud University – Computer and Information Sciences 29 (4): 449–61.

Intel Corporation. 2012. “USB 3.0 Radio Frequency Interference Impact on 2.4 GHz Wireless Devices,” no. April: 22.

James, W. 1976. “Essays in Radical Empiricism (1910),” 162.

Munster, Anna. 2013. An Aesthesia of Networks: Conjunctive Experience in Art and Technology. MIT Press.


[1] James, W. 1976. “Essays in Radical Empiricism (1910),”

[2]  Garg, Vijay K., and Vijay K. Garg. 2007. “CHAPTER 19 – Wireless Personal Area Network — Bluetooth.” Wireless Communications & Networking, 653–74.

[3] Grimaldi, Simone, Aamir Mahmood, Mikael Gidlund, and Mário Alves. 2017. “An SVM-Based Method for Classification of External Interference in Industrial Wireless Sensor and Actuator Networks.” Journal of Sensor and Actuator Networks 6 (2). 2.

[4] James, W. 1976. “Essays in Radical Empiricism (1910),” 22.

[5] James, W. 1976. “Essays in Radical Empiricism (1910),” 22.

[6] James, W. 1976. “Essays in Radical Empiricism (1910),” 23.

[7] Intel Corporation. 2012. “USB 3.0 Radio Frequency Interference Impact on 2.4 GHz Wireless Devices,” no. April: 22.

[8] James, W. 1976. “Essays in Radical Empiricism (1910),” 24.

[9] James, W. 1976. “Essays in Radical Empiricism (1910),” 30.

[10] James, W. 1976. “Essays in Radical Empiricism (1910),” 30.