HAUNTED MACHINES

Georgina Voss, The Howling Wind & The Swerving Air

Drive out of Los Angeles, and go east; go east down Interstate 10, towards Palm Springs, towards Joshua Tree National Park, towards, eventually, Colorado. Go east, and the freeway trammels into the San Gorgonio Pass, a corridor cutting through the circle of mountains. This stretch of road is an enormous wind funnel which channels the coastal flow from the North Pacific Ocean through the gap east, eastwards into the dust and desert of the Sonoran Valley. This is one of the windiest places in the US.

Look up then - look up at the hills on the pass and see the scores of wind turbines looming above, over three thousand in all. Up to one hundred and sixty feet high, the turbines line the hilltop to form an enormous windfarm, capable of generating up to 615 megawatts of electricity - enough to power over 15 million lightbulbs - as the wind roars around the enormous blades. Down on the road the cars struggle and swerve against its flow, dragged by invisible forces far bigger than them.

There is a long history of the wind being used for seeing and scrying. Austromancers look to the currents to predict what might come next; other forms of aeromancy tugs at what can be read from the clouds, from the thunder and from the lightning. What do the storms sound like? What does it mean to feel the petrichor against your teeth?

Divinations offer insight and sensemaking from the seemingly disjointed and chaotic (the breeze from the west is very strong); and in doing so, they proffer visions and expectations (which augers well for those who would do battle today). Visions offer up guidance about the pathways one might choose to go down and what might be at the end of them. Expectations are performative - they are the wishful enactments of a desired future, and they are inscribed into everything. As one cannot act without making assumptions about that act, and what it means expectations influence attitudes and shape behaviours (so bring my horse and my axe to the gate).

Cognitive, material, and social factors shape what we expect from technology and the shape of the technology itself - what visions are offered up, who endorses them, and the action they promote, driving and steering change.

In 1987, Australia built its first commercial windfarm. By the end of 2013, ushered in by renewable energy targets, there were over 60 in operation. The strong winds moving in from the coasts and over elevated lands provided a solid supply of the necessary constant but non-turbulent currents.

And then the complaints started about the noise, the light. Complaints that the audible and sub-audible sounds generated by the blades damaged human health, leading to annoyance, stress, sleep disturbance. Complaints that the 'shadow flicker' of the sunlight passing through the rotating blades affected illumination inside buildings, and could even cause epileptic fits. 'Sick buildings', sick people, psychological disturbances, distressed sleep, all seemingly wrought into reality by these looming glossy white creatures, churning the howling air into electricity.

Any new technology carries the unexpected in with it, like a bright pin on the jacket. Health researchers picked at what might be happening between the blades, the noise, the infrasound, the electromagnetic fields. What They Found May Surprise You. Plot out the complaints onto a map, and you'll see that they don't actually line up against where windfarms are, nor of the size of the turbines themselves. Trawl back through the peer-reviewed literature on 'wind turbine annoyance' and again, see no causal relationship between people living in proximity to wind turbines, emitted noise, and physiological health effects.

What there are instead, by the barrel, are expectations. The majority of complaints in Australia took place well after the farms had been up and running for several years, but shortly after anti-wind farm groups became vocal about health concerns. Visions and sounds do not exist in a vacuum, but are given meaning by the very personal context in which they arise - what you see and what you hear depends on what you expect.

You retire. You sell your house in the city; you buy a larger one in the countryside, in England's green and pleasant land. Rolling fields, local pubs, long shadows on cricket greens, (you are perhaps John Major). Blackbirds warbling in the trees. Peace. Quiet. And then there on the horizon, on the hill past the new home, is a bloody great wind turbine. Cold white metal, looming like a bastard over your lovely landscape. You see it when you wake in the night and open your curtains. You see it in the morning when you come downstairs and look outside. You hear it. (You think you hear it).

A wind turbine can be quieter than a blackbird, but cause far more disturbance and upset. That blackbird warble is meant to be there, enhancing the very countryside-ness of the countryside, deepening its flavour. The swishing, whistling, resounding, pulsating, throbbing sound of the turbines does not sit so comfortably, and is thus perceived to be louder. What you expect to see and hear in the landscape affects how you see and hear the things that are actually present.

This is also true for the turbines themselves. See them as benign, economically valuable, providing jobs and clean energy, symbolising the environmental friendliness of wind power, or simply as magnificent feats of engineering (I fall into the latter camp) and chances are that the sight of a parade of turbines will cause your heart to soar. See them as malevolent, costly, inefficient, unsightly, lowering house prices (although they don't), and ultimately out of your control, and they become damaging monsters, wreaking migraines and misery with each swoop of their blades. We do not simply see or hear - we give meaning to our sensory experiences.

Windfarms are thus nocebos - inert substances that cause harmful effects arising from whatever expectations are loaded onto them and what effects they are perceived to cause. Those who complained of the windfarms were those who had heard frightening information about how the turbines would harm their health; those who don't like wind farms; and those who simply, from their window, from the door, could see them.

Expectations and visions are generative - they guide activities, making the inert matter of the world become psychically active, shaping material realities.

I remember my first drive down the San Gorgonio Pass as a 26 year-old, steering a car too big with unfamiliar controls, on a road with too many lanes to seem real, driving fast as the wind roared around me. And how the heft of the car, which had seemed enormous when I picked it up from the dealers, suddenly became small and light as it was dragged across the asphalt by the unseen swerving air.