Infrastructure as Community

Written in July 2016

What is it, exactly, about infrastructure that makes us sit up and pay attention?

Infrastructure likely doesn't make most sit up and pay attention--but it does to some. Myself included. There are perhaps many reasons why, but there is one in particular I want to unfold here. I think the community of infrastructure watchers, studiers, explorers, and imitators is looking for... community.

Community is a word that is fairly overused today. Every urbanist, politician, or property developer will go on at length about the importance of "good communities," while rarely stopping to describe what that means. Communities are used pejoratively, at least in the negative, when we talk about people who have been "failed by their community," or "downtrodden communities." In those cases, we probably have an internal idea of whom we are trying to blame. Even power in its most literal and brutal forms likes to portray itself as if it were nothing more than a folksy grange society or fraternal gathering, in the cases of the "law enforcement community," or the "intelligence community."

I like the way Hannah Arendt writes about social organization in Western hegemonic culture, so I'll adopt her language for a moment. These "communities," are really "societies." That is, stemming from the Greek usage: "an alliance between people for a specific purpose, as when men organize in order to rule others or to commit a crime." Whether that alliance is self-formed, or put upon the people in question.

This sense of "society" could be an alliance between people to read comic books, or a group organizing to clean up the local rose garden, or to feed the houseless, or it could be the society that is forced to form within neighborhood confined by limited public transit and walled off by freeway viaducts. These communities come together in a specific place and time for one reason or another, and organize themselves loosely around the goals therein. There's nothing wrong with that sort of social group. Their goals and methods may be good or bad, but forming a cohort based our understanding of our shared material conditions is what humans do.

Infrastructure watchers can and do form these sorts of societies, certainly. But I'm thinking about a different sense of "community."

Another key element of ancient Greek culture for Arendt was the distinction between the public political realm, and the private realm of the household. The political realm was for the individual, while the household realm was communal--it was where needs were met, where the private functions of the body found their sustenance and support, where human reproduction happened, both on a daily and a generational basis. That was, in a truer sense of the word, community. Outside of the household, each man (and men only) stood on his own. Inside of the household, there was only humanity in concert. Opposed to the arena of individuals, was the place where humans relied upon each other for the satisfaction of basic needs.

But the household was also a realm of oppressive violence. Slaves were kept, women were subjugated, and all of this was made invisible by pushing it behind the walls of the household, where those matters were "private," and no self-respecting political citizen (man) would peer over those walls to see what another political individual (man) did in his private life. That communal humanity exhibited the all too human characteristics of hierarchical power enforced with violence.

It could be argued that perhaps Arendt expresses some nostalgia for that democratic, public realm. But setting that aside, the thing she laments is that the private realm has now taken over the entirety of Western culture. Those "societies" became the entirety of political life. Politics is no longer a democratic arena of speech, but riven with factions--a series of walled homes, domains of control used to consolidate power and battle for control over other groups, not merely for human survival but for consolidation of all available resources. And we are not supposed to talk about it. This known truth is a private matter. Because it would insult our fine democracy to publicly suggest that we were not all equals, and that the work and lives of some are being exploited to increase the control of some over others.

Arendt wanted to bring back that democratic arena, and use it to push back those factional domains of control. I'm not so sure about that. It sounds fine in principle, but the Athens of Ancient Greece was likely a city of less 100,000 people, whereas today the Attica metropolitan area has something like 3.7 million people. So maybe let's start on the other end. I'm more interested in that communal existence of the household. How exactly does that work? How could we form households without hidden regimes of power and exploitation?

There was a period of time when many people though the best way to end the exploitation of others was to triumph the exploited. The "woman," the "worker," the "minority." If they were allowed to stand up, they would form a liberatory class, that would throw off the shackles of oppression and then… probably create a more just society. And they may well do so, and have. But the problem is, this strategy is beginning to feel a little phony. The "woman," the "worker," the "minority," are artificial constructions, roughly as real as the realist murals of Diego Rivera, who took pains to portray these categories of individuals so prominently. But flatly.

The real people who are exploited are not much like these identities. Most are not freedom fighters. In reality, their most salient characteristic is that they are human beings. There is no kernel of liberatory organization innately within them--at least no more so than any other human being. Whether as a liberatory class, or as the new representatives of a democracy, actual humans who are or were exploited will still tend to act like humans. As humans they form "societies," of Arendt's description--groups coming together around a particular cause. Liberation is only one cause. After that comes many others.

If the kernel of liberation isn't to be found gleaming within the identities of the oppressed like a gold nugget in a river bed, where is it? There was another beautiful portrayal within Rivera's murals. The shining pistons, twisting wires, and spinning gears of machines.

In case it isn't absolutely clear, this is not a reaction against identityI love thinking about what would happen if Hannah Arendt were still alive to write about the internet and social media. But since that isn't possible, I'm going to take the step of trying to interpret some of her work as if it were about the internet, with all the hazards therein.. This is a realization that beneath every identity is a human being--a much more physical apparatus.

The reason to turn to machines is that you can only ask a human being so much. A human cannot tell you all the answers. A human can't always give you a full explanation of how they are suffering, and how they can be liberated. It would be foolish to require that humans do this, because we are never all going to be capable of it. A complete plan for societal re-organization should never be a prerequisite to escape injustice. We can't ask human beings to explain why they are. What we should ask them is how they are. And then we should listen.

But for machines, we can make these deeper, more exactly inquiries. We will get even less from machines than we we do from humans, because most machines can't talk. But we can listen to them all the same. Machines form the walls and foundations of our households. Our material survival, our bodily integrity, and our sense of personal privacy depend on machinery. This infrastructure is literally what builds our cities, and enables any politics within. Any potential for a world based on justice--any potential for a democratic community that satisfies our needs in concert without relying upon exploitation--will require machinery to build this justice.

It should go without saying, but of course it does not and so I must--technological solutionism is a terrible, pernicious political faction of its own. It is not gadgets, devices, or solutions that built our households. This is why infrastructure is less-visible technology, rather than commodities. This is why infrastructure is based on centuries-old engineering principles and municipal organization, rather than profit-driven market leveraging. If you believe that a "device" is going to build households with foundational-level systems of justice and equality, go back to the TED conference. Infrastructure is not pretty. Infrastructure smells like sewage. And that's how I know that infrastructure is necessary to the potential of communal societies--because it smells like the rot that is naturally inside of us.

There is probably some terrible mangling of an Audre Lorde quote that I could place here, but I'll skip it. I'll just say that I think this is one thing we are doing when we look at infrastructure--we are looking for the beginning of a way out. We are looking for a way to build a new community, by finding new infrastructural tools that would describe a different sort of community, not just one more, sequentially next faction centered around a few particular goals. Our societies are more than capable of replicating themselves. What we are looking for, perhaps, is a way to change the direction of our own production, not by demanding that change from people oppressed by production, but by looking for the designs within the infrastructure of that production itself.

When we talk about seizing the means of production, we ought not to be simply talking about the production of commodities, but about the production of our communities. And when we say seize, we ought to mean the whole thing, from our bodies to the pipes that connect our bodies to each other. And we ought to do it together.

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