Expanding the idea of infrastructure, a reaction to Brian Larkin’s Politics and Poetics of Infrastructure

This piece was a thought provoking look at infrastructure and the many different ways to analyze it. From just the practical side of things, I hadn’t really considered things like funding to actually be a part of infrastructure, although, clearly, it is.

As fascinating as the various discussions of infrastructure here were, I’m not going to focus on them. This article got me to thinking about what is and isn’t defined as infrastructure.

Let’s take Google as an example. Is Google internet infrastructure? I would argue “yes.” Maybe not in the traditional sense, but, still.

Google is more than just a search engine, though its role as the most prominent search engine out there puts it in this category for me. Google also powers so many other things (Chrome, Google docs, for instance, and a variety of other apps). A person’s entire online existence can be curated via Google.

The counterargument might be that Google isn’t necessary. There are alternatives to everything it offers, Bing for searches, Firefox for browsing, etc. So, while you CAN manage your entire online experience through Google, you don’t have to.

While this is true, much of the infrastructure out there is optional. Most of us opt to use it, but it isn’t required. So, I tend to think of Google as online infrastructure.

Let’s talk social media. Is a site like Facebook infrastructure? This isn’t nearly as clear cut (in my opinion).

For one thing, while billions of people use FB, it doesn’t do the things that Google does. FB doesn’t offer a competing search engine or anything like Google docs (at least that I’m aware of).

I’m not saying that FB isn’t important. It is on many levels, from the personal (staying in touch with people far away) to the business world (look at all these people! they have money to spend!) to the academic (data analysis and collect — which also happens in the business world part of FB). I’m just saying it differs significantly from Google. So, while I think that Google should be considered internet infrastructure, I don;t think FB should.

N.B.: The other articles may take up this subject. I haven’t gotten to them yet. I was just reacting to this one.

11 thoughts on “Expanding the idea of infrastructure, a reaction to Brian Larkin’s Politics and Poetics of Infrastructure

  1. Matthew K. Gold (he/him)

    Thanks for this post, Sean. I wonder how your considerations here relate to Larkin’s definitions of infrastructure — whether you think he leaves aside the issues you’ve focused on them here (ie, by his definitions, would Google etc be considered infrastructure?).

    I’m also wondering about the stakes of this question — what does it mean to consider something “infrastructure,” or not? What kinds of legal or regulatory consequences might there be of naming something “infrastructure” or not?

    1. Sean Patrick Palmer Post author

      Let me think about the first question (and re-read the piece), but I have an answer for the second question.

      In the other class I’m taking, I’ve been doing research on the Right to be Forgotten. The Right to be Forgotten (RTBF) started in the EU and is the idea that data that are no longer relevant shouldn’t appear in search results. (Well, it’s much, much more than this, and it is FASCINATING.) This is forcing regulation on Google and other search engines, which the EU refers to as Data Controllers.

      Between this and Larkin, I’ve started to think that Google is morphing into a utility, but instead of electricity or water, it provides data.

      Google is not happy about this. At first, it would only remove the link from the Google branch in the country, so, since the first RTBF case was in Spain, the link was removed from Google Spain and Google Spain only. However, in a separate case, the French government is trying to force Google to remove this irrelevant data from all of Google, which Google is resisting because it says that France has no right to extend its authority to anything beyond its borders.

      Now, Google is working with the EU, coming up with a system to remove items from its search engines.

      This movement is spreading worldwide. Governments are starting to institute their own RTBF policies, and, even in places where the government is not willing to do so, court cases are starting (both in Argentina and the US, for example).

      I think the more recent US court cases are probably influenced by Cambridge Analytica, among other things.

      All of this is far from settled law. The case that started this all was filed in 2010. The policies coming out are by and large less than five years old. This could all be reversed. But, based on what has happened so far, I do think that looking at Google as a utility makes a certain amount of sense.

      I think it is going to be harder to regulate something like Twitter or Facebook because they don’t do the same things. A tremendous amount of data flows through those two sites,. but they don’t manage it the way Google does. Also, Twitter and FB can (in the US, anyway) use the First Amendment as a shield defending much of what they do.

      Even here, though, I expect some form of regulation, either through legislation or by FB and/or Twitter working with the government to establish protocols. You can see the ghost of Cambridge Analytica here. .

      I doubt that the United States will lead the way here. I’m betting that this will happen in the EU or possibly Japan (which is also working on RTBF legislation) first.

    2. Sabina Pringle (she/ella)

      Larkin defines infrastructures as “built networks that facilitate the flow of goods, people, or ideas and allow for their exchange over space” but later says that infrastructures “also exist as forms separate from their purely technical functioning, and they need to be analyzed as concrete semiotic and aesthetic vehicles oriented to addressees.” By Larkin’s definition I understand both Google and Facebook to be infrastructures. They are certainly collective fantasies. Both Google and Facebook are systems that “create the grounds on which other objects operate.”

      Yesterday I mentioned infrastructure to a professor of Architecture at CCNY. He immediately said “everything is infrastructure.” This is too broad, isn’t it? I mean, rain forests aren’t infrastructures, are they? I understand infrastructures are built, they are systems, and they serve as substratum for flow of objects. Defining infrastructures is of great importance because, as Larkin says, it is a categorical act that determines which aspects, or rules, or parts, or players of interaction will be discussed and which ignored.

      1. Sabina Pringle (she/ella)

        My Architecture professor friend says that rain forests are infrastructures. He says that they are natural infrastructures because the support the exchange and flow of life (I paraphrase – he said it better). He said that in 1960 Merriam Webster still defined it as something primarily military but by 1990 some dictionaries had expanded the definition to include any system that supported human endeavor such as school systems and library systems. My friend said look around in any room and see objects which connect to hard networks of cables and pipes and optic fibers, but also consider wooden boxes that house objects and boards with plaster core and think of where the wood and plaster came from, who mined or cut or ground and processed these, who transported them, and where those people fit in the infrastructures more apparent to our eyes.

        Out of curiosity I had a quick look for the 1960 Merriam Webster definition of infrastructure, didn’t find it, but learned that the term “infrastructure” was purportedly coined around 1875, when Merriam Webster defines it as 1. “the underlying foundation (as of a system or organization)”; 2. “permanent installations required for military purposes” and 3. “the system of public works of a country state, or region,” and also “the resources (as personnel, buildings or equipment) required for an activity” ( Dirk van Laark, “Technological Infrastructure, Concepts and Consequences” [2004]).

        1. Sean Patrick Palmer Post author

          I still think the “All things are infrastructures” is too broad. When we start moving into that sort of thinking, the word loses meaning.

          I mean, you could make the claim that oxygen is infrastructure because without it, none of us would be alive. But what’s the point?

          Maybe because I have a background in Political Science, I also look as infrastructure as something that can be governed and regulated. It will be interesting to see how Google, FB, Twitter, etc take to regulation, because I promise you, it’s coming. Maybe not in the USA (at least, at first) but it is already here in some places, and developing.

          1. Nancy Foasberg

            I’m still thinking about whether I agree with this, but it’s an interesting place to draw the line.
            When you say that infrastructure is governed and regulated, does that apply only to governmental regulation, or are other kinds of regulation also characteristic of infrastructure? A lot of the readings this week emphasized the role of standards, which make it possible for infrastructural elements to hook together and introduce the possibility of applying infrastructure universally. Standards, however, are often produced either by international organizations or by professional organizations, and are usually voluntary. However, when they are used (and there’s often a lot of incentive to use them), they do regulate how tasks are preformed and tools built.
            Is HTTP infrastructure? If we’re looking at it as a regulated/regulatable entity, that would help us to look at the role of W3C and think about what kinds of power they have (or don’t have). Nobody has to follow their rules or the latest guidelines, but if you’re using deprecated tags, browsers may not read them, and the programs that lots of people use to make webpages today simply won’t produce them. What about library classification systems, and the weird politics of that?

          2. Sean Patrick Palmer Post author

            I may have overreached here. I was thinking more about utilities: not all infrastructure is a utility. I would argue that html is absolutely infrastructure… you can’t do much on the internet without it, but I’m not sure it’s a utility.

            Let’s talk about standards. Standards exist in many fields, and they do govern what goes on. They aren’t absolute, but then, most regulations have loopholes, too.

            And politics play a role in all of this. None of this happens in a vacuum. I need to do more research on this.

  2. Carolyn A. McDonough

    Sean — I totally agree that looking at Google as a utility makes sense. This kind of makes my head spin due to the implications regarding infrastructure in the context of the readings this week, because utilities are infrastructure. Ergo the argument can already by made that Google is infrastructure which I find troubling.

    1. Sean Patrick Palmer Post author

      I don’t know that I find it troubling, but I think we should have expected some sort of utility/infrastructure development to spin out of the growth of the Internet, especially since the Internet is so vital to so many people.

      I can only speak for myself, but I have had several periods in my life when my online existence was much better than my “real world” one.

      The kind of energy that you can see on the internet wasn’t going to remain unchanneled, something had to come along to guide it. So we have these platforms.

      As I said in response to Sabina, above, I think the next act of this play, regulation, will be fascinating to watch.

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