Infrastructure should be
- Embedded: Infrastructure is “sunk” into, inside of, other structures, social arrangements and technologies
- Transparent: Infrastructure is transparent to use, in the sense that it does not have to be reinvented each time or assembled for each task, but invisibly supports those tasks.
- Reach/scope: This may be either spatial or temporal – infrastructure has reach beyond a single event or one-site practice. Occurs across multiple places.
- Learned: Strangers and outsiders encounter infrastructure as a target object to be learned about. New participants acquire a naturalized familiarity with its objects as they become members.
- Links with conventions of practices: Infrastructure both shapes and is shaped by the conventions of a community of practice (e.g. the QWERTY keyboard).
What is infrastructure even?
- which came first, the infrastructure or the applications that depend on it?
- things that use infrastructure or technology
- is any infrastructure ever new?
- is everything derivative?
- is thought ever new? or is it recombinatorial
- neuroplasticity of culture and language?
- “near-ubiquitous accessibility” (Carter and Acker)
- “infrastructure as potential energy held in suspension” (Boyer)
- “infrastructure as congealed labor and expertise, such that an electrical grid represents the entanglement and perpetuation of engineering expertise and also a history of materials science and manufacturing that make available substances such as steel, concrete, ceramic, and silicon”
- “living mediation of what organizes life: the lifeworld of structure” (Berlant)
Do we need to define infrastructure?
Thus, infrastructure design requires a more subtle approach: creating the right incentives, environments, and dependencies to encourage well-being while preserving user autonomy.
Infrastructure can be emergent
“I have admiringly called this the “Procrastination Principle,” wherein an elegant network design would not be unduly complicated by attempts to solve every possible problem that one could imagine materializing in the future. We see the principle at work in Wikipedia, where the initial pitch for it would seem preposterous: ‘We can generate a consummately thorough and mostly reliable encyclopedia by allowing anyone in the world to create a new page and anyone else in the world to drop by and revise it.'”
Hard and soft infrastructure
Hard infrastructure refers to hard rules and goods (e.g. parks, laws, highways, etc.)
Soft infrastructure is upheld as a social protocol, an institution whose maintenance relies on dedication and value alignment. More closely related to social contracts
“So the internet was a recipe for mortar, with an invitation for anyone, and everyone, to bring their own bricks.”
This absence of central control, or even easy central monitoring, has long been celebrated as an instrument of grassroots democracy and freedom. -> did this arise out of the counterculture?
Gap of responsibility: Their designs naturally create gaps of responsibility for maintaining valuable content that others rely on.
“It’s not trivial to censor a network as organic and decentralized as the internet. But more recently, these features have been understood to facilitate vectors for individual harassment and societal destabilization, with no easy gating points through which to remove or label malicious work not under the umbrellas of the major social-media platforms, or to quickly identify their sources.”
“10 years ago, a third-party bookseller offered a well-known book in Kindle format on Amazon for 99 cents a copy, mistakenly thinking it was no longer under copyright. Once the error was noted, Amazon—in something of a panic—reached into every Kindle that had downloaded the book and deleted it. The book was, fittingly enough, George Orwell’s 1984. (You don’t have 1984. In fact, you never had 1984. There is no such book as 1984.)”
“Indeed, Wikipedia suffers from vandalism, and over time, its sustaining community has developed tools and practices for dealing with it that didn’t exist when Wikipedia was created. If they’d been implemented too soon, the extra hurdles to starting and editing pages might have deterred many of the contributions that got Wikipedia going to begin with.”
To oblivion and beyond: Imagining infrastructure after collapse
An alternate take on creation vs maintenance
Infrastructures do not function forever. Like everything else, they lose in the universe’s constant battle against entropy.
As Boyer (2016) argues, infrastructures possess a temporal persistence that “points deathward.” Oil refineries along the Texas Gulf Coast, for example, take part in a system of resource extraction that hastens climate change; at the same time, climate change threatens the continued functioning of these refineries, and oil companies have requested federal funds to protect their facilities from the destructive environmental phenomena that they have a hand in creating (Associated Press, 2018).
- Cruel optimism: the experience of placing hope in an object that perpetually prevents the realization of that hope
- Angry optimism: “does not attempt to escape or control the dangers of the present or to return to the comforts of the past but instead looks forward to the possibilities of a time beyond these”
Not just maintenance, but rebuilding. In the context of infrastructure and collapse, cruel optimism is the belief that rebuilding is a way to heal. “Breakdown might instead represent an opportunity to create futures that do not resemble the past.”
Lifetime of an infrastructure doesn’t just cover its functional lifespan. Many components to this:
- Service life (assuming ongoing maintenance, duration of functionality)
- Risk analysis and modelling is one way of calculating thius
- Material life (how long will it take for the material of the infrastructure itself to degrade and erode)
In fact, for the vast majority of infrastructures, the material life of an infrastructure will far outlast its service life (e.g. concrete aqueducts of the Romans almost 2000 years ago).
Repair, they argue, is just an excuse for returning things to what they used to be rather than see it as a chance for change. Berlant’s worry is that the repair of infrastructure merely reinstates a comfortable yet crisis producing past
A new form of utopianism in science fiction: “if present conditions lead inexorably to collapse, how can that collapse be used as a resource from which to build more equitable ways of life”
The commons: Infrastructures for troubling times
The common usually refers to an orientation toward life and value unbound by concepts and divisions of property, and points to the world both as a finite resource that is running out and an inexhaustible fund of human consciousness or creativity
Sensus communis: “‘common sense’ is merely the bourgeois order of truth standing in for the universal, what Stoler calls ‘‘a folk epistemology.’’”