Category Archives: Infrastructural Theory

The interface and the illusion of control

Most obviously, in using [smartphones] to navigate, we become reliant on access to the network to accomplish ordinary goals. In giving ourselves over to a way of knowing the world that relies completely on real-time access, we find ourselves at the mercy of something more contingent, more fallible and far more complicated than any paper map. Consider what happens when someone in motion loses their connection to the network, even briefly: lose connectivity even for the time it takes to move a few meters, and they may well find that they have been reduced to a blue dot traversing a featureless field of grey. At such moments we come face to face with a fact we generally overlook, and may even prefer to ignore: the performance of everyday life as mediated by the smartphone depends on a vast and elaborate infrastructure that is ordinarily invisible to us.

(Ordinarily, and also purposefully; Clarke’s Third Law is an implicit and nigh-ubiquitous directive in contemporary interface design, and in that enduringly popular branch of genre fiction known by its practitioners as “technological forecasting”.)

Beyond the satellites, camera cars and servers we’ve already identified, the moment-to-moment flow of our experience rests vitally on the smooth interfunctioning of all the many parts of this infrastructure—an extraordinarily heterogeneous and unstable meshwork, in which cellular base stations, undersea cables, and microwave relays are all invoked in what seem like the simplest and most straightforward tasks we perform with the device. The very first lesson of mapping on the smartphone, then, is that the handset is primarily a tangible way of engaging something much subtler and harder to discern, on which we have suddenly become reliant and over which we have virtually no meaningful control.

Adam Greenfield. The screen is the site of the Spectacle.

No organism can be reduced to its own action

… the obsession with ‘selfish genes’, that is, the neoliberal theory of action parading as biology, makes it impossible to follow Lovelock’s reductionist call. When you really believe that externalities — to locate this philosophy of biology where it belongs: namely economics — cannot be internalized by selfish individual agents, how could you possibly understand what it is to be a lichen, a worm, a bacteria, a gas, a climate, a coral reef or a cow’s rumen? Impenetrable agents, able to calculate their interest and externalize the rest, are not biological creatures, but an invention of a long line that includes Locke, Smith, Spencer, transmogrified through three centuries of intermingling with political philosophy into the only inhabitants of planet earth. When you take Richard Dawkins for a biologist, no wonder that you might misrepresent Lovelock as a mystic!

Latour, B. (2016). “Why Gaia is not a God of Totality.” Theory, Culture & Society 34 (2-3), pp61-81

The ghosts of infrastructures past

Somewhere along Brindcliff Edge Road in Sheffield, you can still see this wonderful infrastructural relic:

That’s a sewer-gas destructor lamp, of which there are maybe a dozen or so remaining in the city, though only a very few of them are a) undamaged, and b) still lit. Destructor lamps took a tricky infrastructural problem (the way in which noxious gases would accumulate in sewer sections near the top of hills) and solved it in a way that had a useful function (mixing said sewer gas with town-gas and burning it to light a street). I have a particular soft spot for this one because of the way it has been incorporated into the wall.

The Metamedium

From a review at the Los Angeles Review of Books:

“Zielinski argues that what he calls “media” (a dense composite notion encompassing both discourse and its material supports) has vanished from the horizon because it is now ubiquitous.”

Obviously I need to read the whole book to make this claim more solidly, but nonetheless: this chimes with a chunk of my own infrastructural theory, where I claim that what we think of as “media” – which are themselves highly complex and increasingly emergent socio-technical systems – flow over and through a medium-of-media, a metamedium. That metamedium is the tangle of infrastructural socio-technical systems to which I refer as “the metasystem”, which has also been pulling a very effective disappearing trick over the last century or so.

Indeed, these two systems are effectively the public and private faces of a single coin. The metasystem is the screen upon which the Spectacle is projected; it is the conceptual veil which allows the enduring Western fiction of the social/natural dichotomy to persist, the discursive prestidigitation which distracts us from the (spatially) distant consequences of our technologically mediated consumption.