Infrastructures Vanish

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.

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