How to See Infrastructure: A Guide for Seven Billion Primates

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Allan Sekula, Gas Terminal, Barcelona (2008) from the series "Methane for all."

When an American crew picked up the first of these ships from the Daewoo dockyard, completed the sea trials, and began the voyage back across the Pacific, they discovered in the nooks and crannies of the new ship a curious inventory of discarded tools used in the building of the vessel: crude hammers made by welding a heavy bolt onto the end of a length of pipe, wrenches cut roughly by torch from scraps of deck plate. Awed by this evidence of an improvisatory iron-age approach to ship building, which corresponded to their earlier impression of the often-lethal brutality of Korean industrial methods, they gathered the tools into a small display in the crew's lounge, christening it "The Korean Workers' Museum."

If we lift up the manhole cover, lock-out the equipment, unscrew the housing, and break the word into components, infrastructure means, simply, below-structure. Like infrared, the below-red energy just outside of the reddish portion of the visible light section of the electromagnetic spectrum. Humans are not equipped to see infrared with our evolved eyes, but we sometimes feel it as radiated heat.

Infrastructure is drastically important to our way of life, and largely kept out of sight. It is the underground, the conduited, the containerized, the concreted, the shielded, the buried, the built up, the broadcast, the palletized, the addressed, the routed. It is the underneath, the chassis, the network, the hidden system, the combine, the conspiracy. There is something of a paranoiac, occult quality to it. James Tilly Matthews, one of the first documented cases of what we now call schizophrenia, spoke of a thematic style of hallucination described by many suffering from the condition, always rewritten in the technological language of the era. In Matthews' 18th Century description, there existed an invisible "air loom," an influencing machine harnessing rays, magnets, and gases, run by a secret cabal, able to control people for nefarious motives. Infrastructure's power, combined with its lack of visibility, is the stuff of our society's physical unconscious.

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Making Internet Local

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Map of East End Net, London. Via.

Let us summarize the principal characteristics of a rhizome: unlike trees or their roots, the rhizome connects any point to any other point [...] It is composed not of units but of dimensions, or rather directions in motion. It has neither beginning nor end, but always a middle (milieu) from which it grows and which it overspills. 

- Deleuze & Guattari, A Thousand Plateaus

Thus is described the rhizome, the symbol of the internet age. When Michel Foucault said that the 20th century may one day be called Deleuzian, it is doubtful that this is what he intended. And yet, the language of this young, networked century so far is mimicking the speech of the philosophers Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari. 

The language of Deleuze and Guattari is employed by everyone from the Israeli Defense Forces to this arts website, including any number of for-profit and non-profit startups in between those poles. War machines, companies, NGOs, and arts organizations all find utility in a philosophy that describes systems moving according to programmatic algorithms, breaking through what was solid, and re-writing the codes of meaning. War, commodities, society, and art all function according to their own programming. The public is coming to terms with the knowledge that the internal coding of networks is what defines future possibilities in the 21st century.

And yet, we are often too quick to tell ourselves that this programming can be rewritten for the greater social good. In our enthusiasm for the rhizomatic fruits of this new century, we often neglect the technology itself, replacing it with our ideas of what the technology could be. It is far easier to wield ideologically expedient speculative fictions than to develop socially expedient tools.

Consider what might be the most rhizomatic technology of them all: the mesh network. In words it is the perfect rhizome. Independent nodes set up the same piece of software in their network router. Every router connects to every other router, forming a multi-dimensional web with no central point to be disabled. It is "legion," to use a familiar term from contemporary parlance: each point is not a separate unit, but n-dimensions of distributed power. Some routers are designed to connect to each other ad hoc, over the air, without needing any wires between them. Even cell phones can connect in such a mesh, promoting a vision of infinite, pocket-sized nodes, deployed at a protest or as a hedge against infrastructure-destroying natural disaster. They could be manufactured in bulk, as cheap as a Raspberry Pi, solar-powered, disguised as innocuous light fixtures or other small appliances. The mesh network vision is of a rhizomatic network that is local, horizontal, self-healing, non-hierarchical, and scalable. Philosophically, its kung fu is perfect—bending like a reed in the wind against any foe, whether deployed by Occupy, by Egyptian revolutionaries, against censorship, war, flooding, poverty, or ISPs. In language, it is everything we expect from the future, the fantasy of certain post-structural technological desires.

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