2/18 Mattern, Starosielski, Bennett, Hu Readings

Hi all,  

Below are some thoughts I had about this week’s readings that might get us started next class. Sorry if it is a bit long-winded, I am honestly still thinking through a lot of this, but I hope there is something in here that can spark discussion. 


Theorizing and building, one node versus a network: 

Last class we thought through Donna Haraway’s 1985 cyborg as a metaphor for this material (1), and I mentioned N. Katherine Hayles’ 2006 “cognisphere, what she offers as a more networked metaphor since she believes the cyborg is no longer “networked enough” given new technologies (2). For me both are useful in their own ways: the inextricably connected individual (with partial/connections between animal/human/machine) alongside the much larger interconnections of networked technologies. Haraway herself later understands cyborgs as “junior siblings in the much bigger, queer family of companion species” (3).  I’m not trying to identify the perfect metaphor for our networked world or for knowledge infrastructures, but given this week’s readings I am interested in the ways in which we maintain an understanding and value of the complex individual within larger networked systems such as knowledge infrastructures. What part can the individual play when each of our experiences in the network are different? I am interested in how we understand the individual, how we represent or communicate that value, and how such questions might prompt new ways for us to build inclusive systems (or at least speculative works that seek to point to existing issues like those discussed in the Mattern’s “Infrastructural Tourism”). And yet there is the unavoidable complication, as is touched upon in Tung Hui Hu’s Prehistory of the Cloud, that networks themselves are intentionally designed to avoid placing too much importance on just one node. Given that, I am interested in how we map impact or injustice of knowledge infrastructures, and who/what is included in “we.” 

What we do and how we do it: 

On an entirely different note, while I was incredibly interested in the content of the Bennett piece, the style chosen by the author might be unapproachable for some readers. Certainly I realize a defense to be made is that the work is intended for an academic audience, but I couldn’t help thinking about who our audiences are/should be, especially given the discussion of “greener forms of human culture” (more attentive cultures), horizontal thinking, non-human-centered ontologies, and a separation from hierarchies in that same work. When considering the power of infrastructures and those who are made invisible, as we have in previous weeks, or simply about the networked aspect of our culture and our lives as involuntary participants in such publics (that Bennett speaks to), should we embrace a writing style that is itself steeped in hierarchy (how does our own writing play a part?). This is a problem for academia more widely, of course, and I don’t mean to single Bennett out here as I am fascinated by so much of what she writes, but I do wonder: when we write about infrastructures who are we writing for? Can we open-up knowledge infrastructures by perpetuating a means of communication that might be non-inclusive? I am interested in considering how we communicate especially given that we will build something together at the end of the semester. Perhaps this is an unpopular opinion, but it has always concerned me how the humanities often speak so well about issues of power in our communities and yet do so in a way that might itself be unintelligible for many (prompting questions for me at least who/what academic knowledge infrastructures are really for and why we would do this work).  

Other possible points of discussion in case those above do not inspire us:  

  • In “Infrastructural Tourism” Shannon Mattern speaks to Lisa Parks’ discussion of “what media are made of…trees that power poles are made of…the aluminum of a satellite dish.” This reminded me of Robin Wall Kimmerer’s “Maple Nation” from Braiding Sweetgrass in which she wonders what if all of the maples in the Northeast were part of the Census, (“Even though the government only counts humans in our township, there’s no denying that we live in the nation of maples”) or the salmon in the Pacific Northwest…while also giving attention to what the maples provide her. I wonder what value there is for considering non-human entities in knowledge infrastructures. What credit should be allotted and how do you think we should recognize non-human actants (and, should they simply be living actants like plants or non-living things as well)? Are they all actants to us? Perhaps this connects to the Tega Brain article on infrastructural leaks/glitches that I mentioned in last class (?).  
  • In “Infrastructural Tourism” Shannon Mattern writes on the Invisible-5 project (among others) and their goal to not just make the invisible now visible, but to intervene. Mattern then suggests we might “develop a field kit to trace our cell phone infrastructures, or organize a safari to track e-waste, or follow our noses to sniff out myriad nodes in global food or chemical distribution networks…”. I wonder what we think about such projects inspiring political action or agency in general. Do they? In what ways might they be limited? How do we build agency versus information, and to what degree…? 
  • To connect the topic of agency versus knowledge in “Infrastructural Tourism” with the questions of who/what constitutes “we” that I touched on above, I am interested in what Starosielski describes as “users unknowingly entangled” in infrastructure. There is a powerlessness in not knowing the systems we are part of (and the geographies they cross: whether our information is stored locally or internationally and what legal and physical structures control that data). With undersea cable systems our information can move around the world without us knowing—and while we remain in the same physical space. Given that these technologies generate serious environmental (and social) impacts I wonder if there is a way to consider/conceptualize/visualize our real stake in the game? Can we ever know who/what we are impacting when we upload a single document to Dropbox, watch one film on Netflix, or even post one write-up on CUNY Commons (if not specifically, are we capable of identifying the realm of possible things affected)? And, would there be value to that? This reminds me of one difficulty with communicating the impact of climate change: those causing the majority of the issues (the Global North) are not those who see the effects of such actions most immediately. 
  • Starosielski’s discussion of lag, HD video, and speed, and users trying to “access too much[sic] content” made me think of how issues of supporting and maintaining “high quality” infrastructure might be mitigated by low-tech/no-tech solutions. Digital humanist Alex Gil has discussed the idea/ethics of “minimal computing” and indeed there are many who have actually put low-tech solutions to practice. Are these kinds of approaches useful here? Could low-fi catch on? Is this a possible solution for the issues that abound regarding the materiality of networks/infrastructures? I am personally interested in discussions of low/no tech responses to infrastructures and thought I might raise it here.  

1 Haraway, Donna. “A Cyborg Manifesto: Science, Technology, and Socialist-Feminism in the Late Twentieth Century.” Simians, Cyborgs, and Women: The Reinvention of Nature. Routledge, 1991, 149-181.
2 Hayles, N. Katherine. “Unfinished Work: From Cyborg to Cognisphere” Theory, Culture, and Society, 2006 Vol. 23(7–8): 159–166. 
3 Haraway, Donna. “Companion Species Manifesto.” Manifestly Haraway, University of Minnesota Press, 2016, 93-198.