Category Archives: Infrastructural Theory

charismatic megaprojects / Infrastructure fictions elsewhere

I recently republished the text and slides of my 2013 talk “An introduction to Infrastructure Fiction” here on VCTB (under the Essays heading, which isn’t entirely accurate, but better than nothing for now).

I was reminded of this (and thus prompted to remind you) by yesterday encountering a post at good ol’ Metafilter which mentioned a couple of what are definitely infrastructure fictions: one is a recent Dutch proposal to enclose the North Sea using two massive dams, one between Scotland and Norway, another between Cornwall and France; the other was an earlier proposal to raise an island out in Doggerland and populate it with wind turbines and so forth.

While the Doggerland notion may well have been at least in part serious — it bears some relation to similar projects I’ve seen doing the rounds on the continent in recent years — the Dutch proposal, from the Royal Netherlands Institute for Sea Research, is quite upfront about its rhetorical purpose. It’s trying to say “OK, look, we could take a gamble and spend all this money and effort and skill on a batshit engineering project like this in the hope of making things more environmentally stable over the next however-many years… or we could, like, reduce our carbon emissions, which is comparatively cheap and really bloody easy?”

I still think there’s a value and utility to the infrastructure fiction approach. But much like BoZo’s many bridges, the risk of proposals like this is they attract the excitement of people who want to have their concretised metaphor and eat it, so to speak. Charismatic megaprojects are an easy sell (and very science-fictional), whereas the sociotechnical project of reconfiguring consumptive practices, while arguably even bigger in true scale, lacks the glamour of building a big exciting thing, and worse still smacks of effort and/or privation on the part of the audience, rather than some imagined engineer.

Forestalling that misinterpretation, insofar as it’s even possible, is one of the challenges of the form — one that it has, of course, inherited from design fiction itself.

protocols > platforms

I used to read Techdirt, and Mike Masnick in particular, with genuine reverence when Futurismic was still a running concern. He was tech-critical long before it was fashionable to be so, but from a position that challenged my own thinking quite a bit, and still does: in short, Masnick’s about as close to First Amendment Fundamentalism as I’ll go. (I used to go a fair bit closer than I do these days; insert your own wistful reminiscences of more innocent times on the still-somewhat-utopian internet of the Noughties here.)

These days my greatest and enduring interest in Masnick’s work comes from his maintaining the old (and seemingly all-but-forgotten) distinction between protocols and platforms. As presumably foreshadowed by the preceding paragraph, this is largely in service of “free speech” — though Masnick’s notion of free speech is notably more thought-through and pre-problematised than the one you encounter most often. I guess we might say he’s one of the last intellectually honest techno-libertarians.

Here’s Masnick introducing a long piece at Columbia U’s Knight First Amendment Institute, where he argues in favour of a return to an internet based on open protocols rather than proprietary platforms:

Moving to a world where protocols and not proprietary platforms dominate would solve many issues currently facing the internet today. Rather than relying on a few giant platforms to police speech online, there could be widespread competition, in which anyone could design their own interfaces, filters, and additional services, allowing whichever ones work best to succeed, without having to resort to outright censorship for certain voices. It would allow end users to determine their own tolerances for different types of speech but make it much easier for most people to avoid the most problematic speech, without silencing anyone entirely or having the platforms themselves make the decisions about who is allowed to speak.

In short, it would push the power and decision making out to the ends of the network, rather than keeping it centralized among a small group of very powerful companies.

Now, regular readers will likely have picked up some hints in recent years that I no longer assume competition between commercial actors will necessarily, or even possibly, result in the emergence of an optimal solution. (YA RLY.)

That said, I think there’s an argument to be made that a lot of the sociopolitical issues we’ve seen in the last decade have been exacerbated by the ubiquitous reach of certain proprietary platforms of communication. A very reductive way of putting it might be to observe that if a platform and the set of rules by which it is used (which we might call its interface) are considered as a game, then two things are likely to happen: a) highly motivated people will find a way to win the game by pushing at the edges of the rule-set, and b) highly motivated people with access to money will lean on the curators of the rule-set to make their pushing at its edges more successful. All of this will happen within a broader ecology where almost all the strong incentives to action tend to be driven by and towards the accumulation of profit and/or power.

(Or, more succinctly: Facebook, and its abuse for political and financial influence, is inevitable in a capitalist context which does not actively mitigate against the existence of Facebooks.)

But Masnick’s spot on when it comes to the power of protocols — because both he and my anarchist self recognise that replacing Facebook with a state-run monopoly platform, however well intended, would result in similarly dysfunctional results. (This is another sense in which the big comms/tech companies are infrastructures, and thus very similar to the rapacious railway companies from which they are descended.)

I don’t have the time (and you likely don’t have the patience) to revisit some of the more woolly implications of my PhD thesis today, and in the end the protocol/platform distinction didn’t make as strong a showing in the final work as originally expected — but nonetheless it’s a distinction that matters a great deal in my theoretical model of sociotechnical change. To simplify hugely, the reason why a state-run monopoly platform is little better than a privately-owned monopoly platform is not that they are both monopolies; on the contrary, any geographically inelastic distribution system (be it a railway or a communications network) should, nay MUST be a monopoly, because breaking the network up into subnetworks reduces both its functional and its economical efficiency.

Rather, the problem with platforms is that, to use my preferred theoretical nomenclature, they control both the infrastructure layer and the interface layer. A protocol, by contrast, is provided as an open opportunity (or capacity) by an infrastructure layer in order that all comers are able to to develop their own compatible interfaces thereto; those interfaces will work with the clearly delimited capacities and potentialities of the infrastructure layer, and package them in such a way as to fulfill the teleology of a particular practice-as-performance.

(Regrettably, the full elucidation of my theoretical work has yet to make it into any publications, and I’ve not had the time to write it up for its own sake. I’m hoping that an SI proposed in the aftermath of last year’s RGS conference, plus a paper I’m hoping will be accepted for this year’s Petrocultures, will give me the chance/reason to get this stuff down in print and out in the world.)

Looping back to Masnick, then: my theory broadly agrees with him on the point about “pushing power out to the ends of the network” — but with the proviso that the network (which cannot be disentangled from the organisation charged with running and maintaining it) must necessarily be a closely regulated and functionally restricted monopoly in order for his proposed freedom of use-cases to be possible; the total organisational separation between the infrastructure layer and the interface layer must be maintained. This is not an ideological position, but an argument from function which can be illustrated with pretty much every infrastructural development in history.

And that’s the core thesis one of the handful of books I’d really like someone to pay me to write… but as no one’s gonna even think about paying me until it’s been written, I guess I’d better find the time to write it while I’m being paid to do other things, eh?

leveraging their putative goodness / the psychopathology of private infrastructures

You may remember Joel Bakan from such influential Noughties non-fiction books/movies as The Corporation. Well, Bakan’s back, and his earlier thesis — that corporations, if considered as people, are basically psychopaths — is no less true than before. In fact, he claims it’s worse, because concepts like “corporate social responsibility” have merely encouraged them to become superficially charming psychopaths.

The fact is, despite all the celebratory talk, corporations will not – indeed, cannot – sacrifice their own and their shareholders’ interests to the cause of doing good. That presents a profound constraint in terms of what kinds and amounts of good they are likely to do – and effectively licenses them to do ‘bad’ when there’s no business case for doing good.

The further problem – and this is the part about democracy – is that corporations are leveraging their new putative ‘goodness’ to support claims they no longer need to be regulated by government, because they can now self-regulate; and that they can also do a better job than governments in running public services, such as water, schools, transport, prisons, and so on.

This later point is not original to Bakan, but it deserves to be repeated — and furthermore demands to be appreciated more thoroughly than it is:

For many tech players, monopoly is built into their business models. Facebook, for example, has to be the place everyone goes for social connection. Amazon needs to be the platform for all shoppers and retailers. Google, the search engine everyone uses. The value of these companies is based on being the one place where everyone goes. That gives them a monopoly on the two things that have value in the tech space – attention and data.

It also incentivises them to go beyond their sectors, to invade and dominate other sectors…

These companies are infrastructures. They are also media. (These terms are not contradictory.)

The unstoppable logic of monopoly should be familiar from the hey-day of the rail barons, but we carefully (and, it seems, very deliberately) chose to forget all of that as we slipped into neoliberalism’s vampiric embrace during the latter third of the twentieth century. But the analogy is so clear, it’s almost absurd: think back to the way in which the railways colonised last-mile delivery, lodgings and hostelries, materials extraction and processing; recall the collusion of rail barons in buying up land alongside the routes their track would follow.

(Heck, recall that the seed of the comms network that we erroneously and reductively call “the internet”, namely the telegraph, first emerged as an internal function of the railways themselves, and was subsequently expanded and spun off once the railways themselves had stopped being so exciting to investors and capitalists alike.)

This is not malice, though it might well be greed; the contextual incentives of capitalism produce these effects almost inevitably. It is a Skinner box we collectively built around ourselves, and it’s been there so long that for the most part we question it no more than a fish questions its immersion in water.

It’s not software that’s eating the world; software is merely the interface to the hardware, the functional mask of magical provision draped atop the infrastructures that are eating the world and vomiting the chunks back up in our mailboxes. Long before fibre, it was the railways eating the world — until eventually their miraculous bubble of profit popped against the pin of practicality. It always turns out that you can’t make a profit from infrastructure if you want it to be fair and efficient — though you can profit by riding the wave of expansion and making impossible promises.

And when that wave crashes down, and you’ve long since cashed out, the world will be faced with the necessity of funding the upkeep of what you built — because what you built ate the world that came before it. The disruption you worship, the legacy you crave, the transformation you dream of… it’s already achieved.

But just like any other male western hero, you’ll walk away and leave everyone else to deal with the aftermath, because maintenance isn’t sexy, and there’s no way you’re going to be the one who carries the cooking kit.

The corporation is a psychopath, because heroes are psychopaths, and we’ve become accustomed to the entrepreneur as the hero of our age.

Time to turn the page.

empty, ersatz nature

Damn, but Kate Wagner is a good writer. Here she is on the aesthetics of ruination for The Baffler:

Unlike images of nature’s reclamation of Chernobyl, there is no righteous, morbid, fetishistic pleasure to be found in Superfund sites whether or not they’re remediated. In a secular world free of mysticism, they are perhaps the closest approximation to what it means for a place to be haunted—by invisible poisons that destabilize communities and the bodies that inhabit them. Remediated sites, with their empty, ersatz nature mottled with the uninteresting sump-pump infrastructure of monitoring and purification, offer no decaying buildings or strewn-about gas masks to aestheticize. Often, the only titillating feature is a humble sign attached to the fence dutifully informing the observer that what they are looking at is indeed a Superfund project. The rather mundane reality can be underwhelming—we want to see visual symbols of death and decay caused by our misdeeds against the land. It is unfair that poisoned earth so often looks like the perimeter of an airport.

I know that “uninteresting sump-pump infrastructure of monitoring and purification” that Wagner mentions; Shirebrook Valley Nature Reserve is peppered with it, if you’re willing to look, as are many such green spaces around Sheffield and Rotherham.

We don’t really have an equivalent to the Superfund site in the UK, as far as I know — but we probably should have. Indeed, I’ve been living not far from one for the last seven years, and what was once the famous Orgreave colliery and coke-works is now half “nature” reserve (which proves every point ever made about the social/natural dichotomy) and half housing estate. I’m told that the Rother, which wends its way across the washlands just down the hill from my front door, was once reckoned to be the most polluted river in Europe (though I find that hard to believe, given the continued state of the Don, which still reeks of wrongness after heavy rainfall); you’d not know it now from a casual glance.

But who knows what lies beneath the silt and mud, lurking in the water-table, sucked up into the buddleja and brambles? A lot of industrial “remediation” projects in this country seem to involve either leaving a place overgrown and neglected for a few decades, or bringing in a layer of heavy topsoil in a manner analogous to capping a moribund landfill site… we can only hope that it’s enough, I guess. Every time I walk around Waverley, I wonder how many of its residents know what once occupied the land their homes are sat upon. Hell knows there’s little or nothing there to tell them about it.

(As a side note, much is made of Sheffield’s status as “England’s greenest city”, not least by the council itself. Less often mentioned is that many of the green spaces within the city boundaries are the sites of former coal pits; these spaces remain undeveloped largely because the excavations beneath make them unsafe and/or toxic, rather than due to the desire of the council or the development industry to make the city “greener”. But hey, if you’ve got a sow’s ear, you might as well make a silk purse of it, right?)

nontransparent, unspiderable

Nicholas Carr on Page and Brin’s vanishing trick:

They were prophets, Larry and Sergey. When, in their famous 1998 grad-school paper “The Anatomy of a Large-Scale Hypertextual Web Search Engine,” they introduced Google to the world, they warned that if the search engine were ever to leave the “academic realm” and become a business, it would be corrupted. It would become “a black art” and “be advertising oriented.” That’s exactly what happened — not just to Google but to the internet as a whole. The white-robed wizards of Silicon Valley now ply the black arts of algorithmic witchcraft for power and money. They wanted most of all to be Gandalf, but they became Saruman.

Cf: my riff on the wizards of innovation, and the relation between infrastructure and stage magic. The hero’s journey of tech is a ubiquitous generic form — presumably because it has a great deal in common with investor storytime, and fits well with the generally individualistic worldbuilding of capitalist realism. The G**gle guys are merely the most successful iteration of the sorcerer role to date — the wizard’s wizards, if you will.

I owe Carr an apology, really; back in the Noughties, when I was still a fully signed-up Sil-Val Kool-Aid consumer, I gave his book The Big Switch a kicking for what seemed to me to be a very pessimistic and negative take on the brave new world of web two-point-nought etc. I wish I had paid closer attention earlier on.