2017-01-15

I've been stewing on infrastructure and abstraction. This is probably because I spent a few long days in Providence with my friend Nic around the holidays, and these are the two broad topics we talk most about. In this post I'll try to untangle some thoughts.

Both infrastructure and abstraction are afforded by systems. That is, when dealing only with anecdotes or one-offs, they are not necessary. They work only at scale.

I'm with Saul Griffith in thinking that infrastructural change is humankind's surest bet for establishing a new (sustainable?) baseline in the midst of climate change. Physical infrastructure is one of the few touchpoints we have in building more intention and visibility into massive-scale patterns of consumption and use.

Infrastructure is always engaged with entropy, stupidity, and necessity. Awareness of infrastructures, its mechanisms, and its human interfaces is increasingly necessary to avoid stagnation or subvert exploitation.

Monica Smith in Infrastructure as Dialogue:

Nobody builds their own infrastructure. You don’t build your own highway, train line, water pipe, your own sewer. Those are things that connect you and your household to everybody else sequentially in your neighborhood, in your region, from the city out into the broader hinterlands. Infrastructure as that physical connective tissue is what I’ve called a materialized dialogue between people in authority who organize the development of infrastructure and people who are the end users of infrastructure.

People talk back through infrastructures—in repurposing, desecrating, celebrating, or otherwise. They interpret infrastructures far beyond imagined use of their designers. Construction of personal infrastructures and modification of existing systems are instances of what Nic calls subjunctive architectures within infrastructure: structures that can reflect use patterns and user desires.

Ostensibly, public infrastructure is civil in nature and use. But, increasingly, publicly-owned services may not be the default, and technological alternatives or subjunctive architectures appear necessary to return ownership to human-scale stakeholders.

Whether run by co-op or monopoly, infrastructure is necessarily an abstraction. Our intuitive end-user interfaces at the faucet, electricity meter, and sidewalk are only peep-holes into networks of scale. But they are peep-holes at a scale with which we can connect.

Those working in infrastructure at a high-level talk about network upkeep and integrity and my hunch is, though I am very possibly wrong, that the activity at this level generally keeps individual user action at an arm's length of abstraction away. This is to avoid getting overwhelmed; the details go to middle management. Abstraction is a tool for compressing complexity into templated forms that make use of economies of scale in thought.

(Mathematics notation is an amazing success story of abstraction: our symbols—while far from perfect—allow us to teach bleeding-edge 17th-century mathematics to 15-year-olds. This symbology has condensed logical patterns and modes of use and meaning into easy-to-use objects and ideas. Calculus notation is a control panel designed to do calculus.)

The power of abstraction comes with risk too. We are shocked, often, when large organizations make dehumanizing decisions, when algorithms consider populations rather than individuals, and when systems crush individuality. Humans get abstracted away. It is easier to fire the Content Marketing Team than it is to fire Lisa, your friend down the hall.

Infrastructure is a crucial component of development and one that inherently lies at the intersection of humanity (who use it) and abstraction (which governs it).

I absolutely devoured Keller Easterling's Extrastatecraft in 2015, which is the stem of many of these thoughts.

(Tangentially, the abstraction in the book is crucial; another conversation with Nic settled that Extrastatecraft shouldn't be taken as raw fact, but rather read almost as prose, analogously to watching Adam Curtis' films.)

A major component of Smith and Easterling's arguments is the recognition of cultural norms and use as infrastructure—just one in flow rather than fixed as with physical infrastructure.

"Cultural Infrastructure"—yep, it's Ideology

Something I'm curious about is how to consider nomadic civilizations and their relationships with infrastructure. At first pass nomadism might seem "infrastructure-free," but of course traveling people need traversable landscapes, and patterns of use necessarily embed themselves in the land (often through livestock).

I linked to this article on landscape in the anthropocene in an earlier post, but the relevant takeaway here is viewing land as the ur-infrastructure; it is the infrastructure on which other infrastructures build, and it is indestructible. Ecologies might die, but in their ruins the land beneath will be exposed. Thank goodness for geography.

I know next to nothing about nomadic civilization historically or in present-day, but I wonder if some research could yield interesting reflections on their approaches to infrastructure. Toby wrote a great article on homeownership and "digital nomads" to tackle that sphere.



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