Yesterday, i was having a discussion about
Discuss and Critically Assess Community Built Communication Infrastructures as possible solution for Contested Territories.
So i am all proud that i have made some, not significant, but some progress! The pride came with the fact that i have spent the last 10 or so months with trying to understand something i knew absolutely nothing about, and that i was finally getting into a kind of near tacit groove. Beyond the obvious holes of this draft, and the egocentrism of pride which always blindsights, i encountered this -
Infrastructures are means to an end. You have to look at what the end is and focus on it.
Frig! Ok so i have been a bit absorbed . This response came from my overemphasis on trying to understand socio-technical relations, and worries about embedding a set of values into an infrastructure, and the social implications of exporting those values uncritically in that very infrastructure. This is however something i am very concerned about, particularly when i think of overseas development and appropriate technology, and the ease at which i/we get caught up in the momentum of a particular infrastructural trajectory - roads and fossil fuel dependence are a big one!
So i tried to figure out where this kind of thinking comes from, and was pissed that i did not have a decent response on the spot! Anyway, it seems to be an instrumentalist view of technology; technology is neutral and does what it was intended to do thus a set of tools to serve the purpose of their users. And depending on the place where it is used will serve that intended purpose. The technology is neutral but how it gets used is not. This view for infrastructures? These honkin’ complex socio-technical artifacts? Dam! and no way? As Hari Kunzru rightly points out if
we’re going to build a humane technoculture, instead of a Kafkaesque nightmare, we would do well to listen to what she [Donna Harroway] has to say.
"Technology is not neutral. We’re inside of what we make, and it’s inside of us. We’re living in a world of connections - and it matters which ones get made and unmade." (5)
Although i whole heartily agree that i have to focus on the reasons why i am looking at infrastructures in the first place, understanding the social, cultural, political elements of and in technology are really important to me/us. And when i say in and of i am explicitly referring to
gender in technology and gender of technology. In the former case, gender relations are both embodied in and constructed or reinforced by artifacts to yield a very material form of the mutual shaping of gender and technology. In the latter, the gendering of artifacts is more by association than by material embodiment.
The distinction does not have to only be about gender. The word gender can be replaced in those sentences with the word values, etc. This distinction is very important, the in implies values built right into a technology. Namely, that we can claim to be very progressive about Community Wireless Infrastructures, freedom, net neutrality, open source, new social interactions, and hacking firmware. And we can build very cool multisensory, critically engaging art and avant garde public art projects. Yet the machines and chips we choose to use to server our progressive purposes are made in icky slave labour factories in China and other nefarious slave labour countries. Yet i/we claim to be different, free, anarchists, socially minded etc.! Imagine manufacturing done differently! Ever see the movie the Take? Or think of greening the electronics? The of part relates to how we socially engage with the artifacts, some of it determinist, some of it momentous, but the relationships we have with and around them and how our lives consciously or not are shaped as a result.
Cyborgs, Haraway explains, "are information machines. They’re embedded with circular causal systems, autonomous control mechanisms, information processing - automatons with built-in autonomy." (6)
But also about who is involved in their construction, the infrastructures & techniques around them, along with their associated boxes, antennas, towers and wires - the who at the moment being boyz. Mostly nice boyz, but mostly boyz nonetheless. (and the odd kick ass girl - elektra). And questions like - does that make a difference, how it is aggressive to ask, yet each time a take a look at a speakers list, i rarely if ever see girrrrls there! Soooo…..
Technology is by no means neutral, apolitical or benign!
"I think the issues that really matter - who lives, who dies, and at what price - these political questions are embodied in technoculture. They can’t be got at in any other way." For Haraway and many others, there’s no longer any such thing as the abstract.
To illustrate the point, Haraway begins to talk about rice.
Imagine you’re a rice plant. What do you want? You want to grow up and make babies before the insects who are your predators grow up and make babies to eat your tender shoots. So you divide your energy between growing as quickly as you can and producing toxins in your leaves to repel pests. Now let’s say you’re a researcher trying to wean the Californian farmer off pesticides. You’re breeding rice plants that produce more alkaloid toxins in their leaves. If the pesticides are applied externally, they count as chemicals - and large amounts of them find their way into the bodies of illegal immigrants from Mexico who are hired to pick the crop. If they’re inside the plant, they count as natural, but they may find their way into the bodies of the consumers who eat the rice."
International border controls, the question of natural versus artificial, the ethics of agribusiness, and even the politics of labor regulation are networked together with the biology of rice plants and pests. Who lives? Who dies? That’s what Haraway means when she talks about politics being inside technoculture. We can’t escape it. It’s just that sometimes it’s hard to see. (4)
You Are Cyborg
By Hari Kunzru, Wired, Issue 5.02 | Feb 1997
For Donna Haraway, we are already assimilated.
Standards, designs, machine, labour relations, etc. used in the construction of infrastructures and infrastructures are a considered a means to an end. Yet their form determines their use to some extent, wide roads - hummers & trucks, thin roads - minis and bicycles - transport is the end.
Would a road be different if the pavement laying dudes refused to work with toxic tar & asphalt, and communities demanded planters zigzagging in the middle got their way, and there was a large corps of womyn civil engineers, and the heat island effect was taken into consideration, or the effects of copious amounts of hard surfaces affecting ground water, or if big trees are left in the middle while the cows slowly iddle along the highway? What if we actually cared?
Can infrastructures be means in and of themselves? We say this about artistic artifacts! True infrastructures tend to be way bigger? Or a good process is the result! Probably best for social movements and not large artifacts! Or learning by doing? Hate to learn to build a bridge that falls! Can the process of building a community wireless infrastructure, and the choice of who is involved and why, and what is used and why, be and end in and of itself? Perhaps? In other words, social movements do not necessarily focus only on the end results, but how they got there in the first place. Failure could mean some lost momentum and resources but new relationships i guess? I dunno about this part, i have to think about it some more. The concept of the Unknown Craftsman comes to mind to challenge this too - but that is another story!