Disobedient Electronics, Edited by Edited by Garnet Hertz. Self-Published PDF, 2018.
Burrington, Ingrid. Networks of New York : An Illustrated Field Guide to Urban Internet Infrastructure. Brooklyn, NY: Melville House Publishing, 2016.
[ My intention here is to write through and across one text with the other, or to write across the text(s) with each other. This approach speaks to the nature of the texts and their relationship to one another. If the texts circle around issues of infrastructure and dissent, how can they be put into this relationship themselves? ]
A more clear understanding of what infrastructure is actually made up of is necessary for taking meaningful action to change it. We have to understand what infrastructure consists of before we can know what we might actually want it to be. Only when we comprehend its nature can we make meaningful decisions about how it should be changed and further dveloped.
It should (aught to?) go without saying that the internet and our networked existence is a potent point of control, biopolitical and otherwise. How are we to respond? Ingrid Burrington begins, and helps us all along, with a deep and intricate understanding of not only how the internet works, but also what it is, what it really is, not in any kind of critical-theory way but a totally material, physical way. Kind of like getting punched in the face. “The cloud” is not a cloud afterall, it’s not some kind of heaven, it’s nowhere anyone wants to spend any great amount of time. The internet, the cloud, is data-farms, it’s massive, loud, labyrinthine, structures, consuming incredible amounts of resources, both electricity and water, and producing great amounts of heat. (Let’s admit here that clouds are made of water.)
One inch of rain falling over an area of one square mile is equal to 17 million gallons of water. Last year, a Google-run data center in South Carolina requested that it be able to triple the amount of groundwater they use, from half-a-million gallons per day to 1.5 million gallons per day. Now we’re getting to the points that Networks of New York is ultimately making. It should also be noted here that when only one inch of rain falls, most of it evaporates, none of it makes it into the aquifer, back into the groundwater that data centers devour.
I was really struck by “Crafting, 3D printing, and programming a solar cooker: A provocation for engaging with extreme heat and climate change” in Disobedient Electronics (p. 32). It is simultaneously an incitement to action, and a critique. It expresses a strong adaptation to climate change, and a particularly intense regional climate change. There are alarmist stories about the Tempe-Phoenix area of Arizona becoming uninhabitable in the next 50 years, because the area will start reaching temperatures approaching 120 degrees Fahrenheit for an increasing number of days each year. One point this alarmism misses is the fact that areas like Saudi Arabia have been dealing with just this kind of climatological situation for decades, if not centuries. As a young anarchist I built and used my own “solar oven”, usually to less than fulfilling results. My own attempts lacked the engineering and “high” tech that this cohort from ASU have implemented. This “solar cooker” presents an adaptive response to an unavoidable ecological reality. While this project acknowledges that there is a strong socio-economic component to climate change (the poor and working class cannot so easily afford the rising costs associated with air-conditioning and climate-controlled living spaces, etc.) it does not address how these groups would access a relatively complex piece of technology. So I am left with questions like; how would the people this project is intended to benefit access this “solar cooker”? Are they to construct it themselves? Then we have to acknowledge the economic divide that exists in regard to access to technology. Perhaps the means to construct the project could be provided at a maker-space like a local library. Where do they get the skills? Maybe the artist-statement provided in Disobedient Electronics could include a link to instructions and a parts list for constructing the “solar cooker”. My last question, and one that I don’t have an answer for myself, and one that is definitely not addressed by this project is; Where do the people get food to prepare in this “solar cooker”? If the ecological situation is so dire, this kind of infrastructural detail becomes critical, and we overlook it at our peril. It could be, then, that this 3D-printed, printed-ceramic, LCD-sensor equipped oven needs a “part-two” in which questions of access to technology and skills, as well as food are addressed with a similarly provocative and DIY spirit.
I was also very interested in Matt Walker’s project Device for the Emancipation of the Landscape. (I was sorry to see his name mis-spelled at the beginning of the essay on his project.) As much as this project seems to be about emancipation, it is also about interjection. This massive and focused speaker (weighing 2 tons , and able to project sound more than 4 miles) has the potential to put (even force) the sounds of a landscape into spaces that they would otherwise never reach. In regards to infrastructure, I am fascinated by the potential of making field recordings of areas being disrupted by “fracking” and other forms of resource extraction, and then taking the Device for the Emancipation of the Landscape to a governmental discussion of these issues and literally pressuring the delegates to acknowledge these wild and ecological voices. Matt Walker’s project reverses the roles that sound usually enact on one another. Whereas it is almost impossible to make recordings of wilderness without some level of anthropecene interference, Device for the Emancipation of the Landscape can interpose the voices of the authentically innocent rest of the world into spaces from which they are otherwise discluded.
There are any number of ways that the information in Networks of New York could be put to use. One one hand I think of it along the lines of a section from an old Adbusters publication, pointing out and making explicit points of vulnerability in infrastructure. There is also some affinity with “monkey wrenching” in this. May I suggest here a reading of Networks of New York that is specifically noting the most critical and defenseless elements of urban infrastructure, those that could most benefit a group of protestors, for example. (Keep this information close to the chest, though, until it is truly needed.) On the other hand, the publisher describes the book as “funny”, which it is, sometimes, and maybe this conceals its more serious implications, the same way that much of the infrastructure controlling and determining our existence is obscured. (I wonder here, also about camouflaging jamming equipment.) Ingrid Burrington starts to give us the tools to decrypt infrastructural signs and marking and structures for ourselves, this is empowerment.
There is the potential for the breaking of boundaries and of infrastructures, Abortion Drone does this by defying the infrastructure of borders; by interjecting their project into the places where women’s fates are being determined. Abortion Drone has repeatedly used drones to fly abortion medication into across borders and into countries where abortions are restricted or illegal. Abortion Drone is empowering women whose biology is otherwise oppressed and regulated. Abortion Drone can act across the infrastructure of borders. None of these infrastructures is innocent, all of them come loaded with histories, with networks of power, with accessibility and restriction. A project like Abortion Drone is a direct response to the powers of “control society”, which are concretized through Ingrid Burrington’s thorough investigation and generously informative text. Abortion Drone draws attention to networks of control, and the potentials for new technologies to subvert these (arguably arbitrary) systems. It’s notable that Abortion Drone could be a very discreet and secretive project, but it continually chooses to publicize its missions, drawing attention to the injustices it is addressing.