After yesterday’s class, I’ve continued thinking about infrastructure fetishism. This article in the New York Times a few days ago reminds us of how many people thought the internet would bring the end of authoritarianism in China. But the Chinese government simply built its own internet and most of its citizens seem happy with it so far.
As Brian Larkin writes: “Roads and railways are not just technical objects then but also operate on the level of fantasy and desire. They encode the dreams of individuals and societies and are the vehicles whereby those fantasies are transmitted and made emotionally real.” People thought the internet was inherently disruptive, but it was actually just like other infrastructures, able to be used toward any goal.
Another example of magical thinking about the internet was brought up in class by Rob: AOL’s purchase of Time Warner in January 2000. It seemed ridiculous to a lot of people even then that Time Warner would let itself be bought by AOL, which already had an obsolete feel in the tech industry, and now it’s considered one of the worst business decisions of all time. But Time Warner was hypnotized by the latest infrastructure. Ironically, Time Warner later became a major controller of internet infrastructure through its cable business.
One of the questions in class was about the consequences of thinking about infrastructure. Magical thinking is one risk of thinking too much about infrastructure. Another is neuroticism. Years ago, a friend and I worked our way through Martin Heidegger’s “Being and Time,” which is (in a way) about trying to figure out the infrastructure of existence itself. We discussed a new 20 pages each week. However, we had to stop halfway through, because so much focus on opening up the plumbing of existence was making it too hard to function on a day-to-day pragmatic level. “What is this moment? What are these things? Who is this person? What are these thoughts?” At some point, you have to forget about infrastructure and just use it.