Make the infrastructure you want in the world

“Infrastructure and Materiality” may sound like a dry and bloodless module, but I’ve found the readings this week positively rousing.

Brian Larkin expanded the definition of infrastructure from the physical, built forms that move material to the political and social systems from which the physical networks can not be teased apart and without which they could not exist. ‘Placing the system at the center of analysis decenters a focus on technology and offers a more synthetic perspective, bringing into our conception of machines all sorts of nontechnological elements.’ This perspective is in line with a social shift I’ve noticed toward taking a more holistic view of causes and effects in our world, a recognition of the massive complexity in the systems we create and which shape us in turn.

Shannon Mattern too emphasizes the reality of infrastructure as greater than its emblematic factories and power lines. ‘[I]ntellectual and institutional structures and operations – measurement standards, technical protocols, naming conventions, bureaucratic forms, etc. – are also infrastructures’. This is where I feel like the praxis assignments could have done so much more. The bulk of our time, as reported in accompanying blog posts, was spent in trying to get data cleaned up and transformed into a shape that would be accepted by the text analysis, mapping, or network visualization tool. Many of us bemoaned the lack of understanding of our results at the end of it. It might be useful to provide an option that facilitates less time on data cleanup and more time interrogating the infrastructure of the tools and praxis. Ryan Cordell endorses this approach for similar reasons in his piece, How Not to Teach Digital Humanities. (In class it was put forth that he was only writing about undergraduates, but this is incorrect. His piece is explicitly about teaching both undergraduate and graduate students).

What I loved most in the readings are the loud and clear, outward-facing calls to action. Mattern’s article and the book draft notes from Alan Liu both earnestly exhort the reader to go forth and make works that reify and support the world we want. Build! Create! Generate! Mattern suggests we look at our field and identify opportunities to create infrastructure that support our liberal values. Liu encourages looking at our works as opportunities to channel the energy and values in the digital humanities today into actions that affect society beyond the academic realm.

I can’t think of a more inspiring and invigorating set of readings to shake off the mid-semester doldrums and power us up for the final few weeks of class. We will be developing project proposals. Perhaps we’ll end up with some projects that positively shape the infrastructure of our field.

6 thoughts on “Make the infrastructure you want in the world

  1. Sabina Pringle (she/ella)

    I’m loving the readings for this week too. I’d never have imagined I’d find reading about infrastructure so compelling.

    With regard to your thought that “it might be useful to provide an option that facilitates less time on data cleanup and more time interrogating the infrastructure of the tools and praxis,” I’m not sure if I would like to do less hands-on data cleanup because I enjoy the challenge of cleaning a big messy data set, and also because I find that I learn a lot about the tools I’m learning to use from my failed experiments. Having said that, I totally agree that it would be good to spend more time interrogating the infrastructures that support these tools. I guess it’s about striking a balance and maybe doing both at the same time.

  2. Hannah House Post author

    No worries. That’s why I described it as an option. Different students prefer different things. I would prefer to have spent less time on the harvesting and cleanup and, in line with Cordell, more time learning first what clean data looks like and can be used for, and the whys of what we’re doing.

    I definitely don’t see quality education as being your way OR my way OR striking a balance. Each of those is still forcing everyone into one-size-fits-all.

    What I’m proposing is building scaffolding (infrastructure!) so that students have options for paths that help us learn what’s more useful to us individually or in accordance with our individual learning styles or goals. Make sense?

    1. Sabina Pringle (she/ella)

      I don’t think I mentioned having a way. I feel rather that we’re all traveling together. The balance I suggested I might want to strike is between cleaning data and critically assessing the infrastructures that support the tools I put the data in.

      Building infrastructure for providing options for paths to learning is compelling and I look forward to talking more about this.

      1. Hannah House Post author

        Oh no!! I meant it as a general “you”, not a you meaning you (Sabrina) specifically 🙂

        So sorry for the unclear writing! English has the worst practices around yous. I should have said something like ‘one way vs another way vs trying to find a single mediated solution.’

        I’m getting sucked into pedagogy and student-centered/learner-centered education. It’s so great we’re in a program that prides itself on including pedagogical exploration. Fingers crossed for nighttime ITP classes next year.

        1. Sabina Pringle (she/ella)

          Hey Hannah. No worries. English yous, especially in the medium of the written word, can be treacherous.

          I agree that the emphasis on pedagogy in this program is super important. In this area the Graduate Center is really cutting edge. The English Department at City College, where I teach, is also doing a lot of radical student-centered pedagogy and there are lots of exciting things happening there. All around CUNY, really. Have you read Cathy Davidson’s The New Education? I highly recommend. I hope ITP is in the evening next year too.

          P.S. I need to tell you that my name is Sabina, not Sabrina.

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