Infrastructures Vanish


An infrastructure is literally a structure below the surface (‘infra’ is Latin for ‘below’), but while many infrastructures are literally buried in the ground this isn’t a defining characteristic of infrastructure in general. Paul Edwards writes: “The most salient characteristic of technology in the modern (industrial and postindustrial) world is the degree to which most technology is not salient for most people, most of the time.” (2003: 185) With this, he points to a fundamental principle of infrastructure: its withdrawal. Rather than the surface of the ground, Edwards indicates the tendency of technologies to pass below a surface of saliency or relevance. We might approach this at first from the perspective of conscious awareness: when I plug a kettle into a power socket, or pull the plug from a sink, I’m rarely consciously aware of the networks of supply and disposal I’m activating and relying on. These large technical systems do their work out of the light of my conscious attention. Even when they’re in plain sight—a line of transmission towers marching across a landscape, for example—infrastructures may not rise to my attention, occluded by the task at hand: making tea, washing the dishes. Infrastructures fall below the horizon of my attention. Infrastructures (as arguably do technologies in general) “reside in a naturalized background, as ordinary and unremarkable to us as trees, daylight and dirt” (Edwards, 2003: 185). The process of submergence, the metaphorical burial of infrastructure, needs to be understood in terms of this naturalisation, this backgrounding. Further, we need to see fading into the background as an explicit tendency, not just an accidental characteristic. That is, infrastructures don’t exist and then happen to withdraw from the surface of attention; this withdrawal is one of their fundamental characteristics. Infrastructures disappear not primarily in being buried or hidden, but in being occluded by the uses to which they are put.

Edwards, P. N. (2003). Infrastructure and modernity. force, time and social organization in the history of sociotechnical systems. In Misa, T. J., Brey, P., and Feenberg, A., editors, Modernity and Technology, pages 185–226. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Mobility Horizons


I’ve been working on ways of mapping infrastructure as “ready-to-hand”. Instead of registering the hardware of the infrastructure, I want to register it in terms of its use. At the moment I’m playing with Stefan Wehrmeyer’s Mapnificent  tool, which uses public transport data (in Auckland’s case from MAXX) to estimate how far you can get in a given time window. The tool exports in GeoJSON, which I’m then compiling using QGIS. A few things I’ve noticed: the initial walking circle is drawn without any knowledge of barriers to mobility (it’s happy to let you walk on water and through buildings). Secondly, there are large parts of the site where you’re more than ten minutes from a connection to public transport, so your mobility horizon is set solely by how far you can walk. Thirdly, bus stops and train stations are attractors — from a number of locations you can end up at these points, so they appear darker. Given the intensity of the road and rail infrastructure here, it’s odd to see how disconnected from the network you can be. I’m going to try cleaning this up a bit.

On Basket Weaving

Tim Ingold, in an essay “On Weaving a Basket” suggests that all making be thought of as a kind of weaving. He bases this on observing the way that basket-weaving proceeds very differently to something like making a clay pot. Making a clay pot apparently involves the application of form to a material matrix. The clay is at first shapeless, and more-or-less homogenous. The potter then shapes the clay, as if applying a pattern. The concepts of form and matter that derive from this model of making were particularly influential amongst ancient Greek philosophers, for whom sculpture was the archetypal art. We inherit these concepts of form and matter from this quite specific idea of a specific kind of making.

Ingold, however, asks us to pay attention to a different kind of making. Baskets are made of long flexible sticks, and are far less easy to shape. The weaver begins with a spiral, or a number of interlocking spirals, and the basket slowly develops in her hands. The idea of a form applied doesn’t fit well with this scenario, and Ingold suggests that what it resembles more than anything else is something growing. At any point in the basket’s production, the weaver doesn’t have anything like a free hand. The next move is not completely predetermined, but it’s highly constrained—by the nature of the material, and the structural necessity of the over-under movement. With skill, the shape of the basket can be manouevred through adjusting the tension of the strands, and by inserting or ending strands. The basket arrives as a highly formed object—there is no question of the basket having made itself, or happening accidentally—but the role of the basket-weaver is not that of the ancient Greek sculptor.

Ingold claims that to understand making properly, we need to dispense with the picture of making as form-application, and see making in general as having the character of weaving: as a process that unfolds, in which all the previous states of the thing being made exert constraints and pressures on it’s current and future states. The maker’s action is managing an unfolding growth, rather than reifying a pre-existing idea of form.