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Infrastructure: Fetishism and Neuroticism

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.

4 thoughts on “Infrastructure: Fetishism and Neuroticism

  1. Patrick Grady O'Malley

    What a good article, Dax! I was blown away reading about the tech landscape in China! China is such an interesting country to think about, particularly with its Communism and its assorted population. I never think of Chinese infrastructure, but wow the ways that it is different in the US. This article opened my eyes, and yet, does the government deserve to have some stake in these tech companies? With all the impacts we discussed on Tuesday. It leaves me open minded to be sure. But also “the best way for tech companies to thrive in China is to make themselves useful to the state” …. scary implications there.

  2. Carolyn A. McDonough

    Dax! Patrick! I’m blown away by this thread! Magical thinking, the AOL Time Warner 2000 merger, the subsequent burst of the .com bubble, then the un-merger, the Chinese internet and Heidegger — wow — where to start?!

    I was in negotiations with a .com for an Associate Producer position when the AOL Time Warner merger occurred. I forced myself to watch the press conference on TV and my immediate thought was “there goes the internet” an industry I had toiled in the “Silicon Alley” (a moniker we’re not “allowed” or supposed to use anymore, it’s now the “NY Tech Sector”) trenches of as free labor before Time Warner even knew what the internet and world wide web was. Enter the disastrous $1 billion Pathfinder venture.
    The word I heard on the street was that Time Warner was that TW’s Gerald Levin, was “impressed” that Steve Case had a private plane. Impressed enough to sell him a prestigious media conglomerate. Oy.

    Having started my media career in legacy publishing where certain brands such as Time Warner were media mecca, I could never understand why AOL was buying TW — it was backward in my mind. TW SHOULD HAVE bought AOL.

    As Dax astutely notes, AOL”already had an obsolete feel in the tech industry, but Time Warner was hypnotized by the latest infrastructure.” And the planes! It took Time Warner FOREVER to figure out that it actually CONTROLLED the very infrastructure it was coveting. And TW STILL “became a major controller of internet infrastructure through its cable business” despite this merger being one of the worst biz decisions of all time, indeed.

    The Chinese internet is a reality that the world is just going to have to address, especially because the most impoverished in the Chinese culture are the ones sifting through toxic garbage for the rare earth elements used in the production of cell/smartphones, because they can sell the cadmium, lead, etc.

    Regarding Heidegger, I liken Dax’s admirable reading effort to a time in my life when I was very yoga-oriented. I would often go to 2 classes per day multiple times per week and was the right-hand-person in my classes for my instructors. But the “navel gazing” can be literally stultifying and though it’s the worthiest of mind/body practices, I’m more distant from it now. On the practical level, it’s also impossible to maintain such a discipline while working, going to school, and raising children, without a MAJOR domestic infrastructure i.e., chef, driver, babysitter — which I do not have, nor do I think I would want.

    Thank you, Dax and Patrick, for this thread!

  3. Dax Oliver Post author

    Good point, Carolyn, about how China is also a major source of the raw materials that make the physical internet possible. That can help the Chinese government control its own internet from top to bottom. And Patrick, it’s disturbing how American tech companies are sometimes willing to “make themselves useful” to the Chinese government in order to get access to their market. Google left China after Chinese hackers broke into Gmail accounts of dissidents living abroad, but the company has been talking about going back this year, which means allowing the government to censor their search results.

    Carolyn, yoga also seems to have a type of infrastructure, especially thinking of the regulatory infrastructure that Steve was talking about in class. Yoga practitioners aren’t allowed to deviate very much from the detailed set of poses. Or maybe I’m just falling prey to thinking too much that everything is infrastructure.

  4. Carolyn A. McDonough

    Dax–

    lol perhaps…kidding…!

    Regarding: China + the Internet + Google = ? WHAT does the future hold? I cannot believe there’s so much on the line and dangling out there. (On a somewhat related note, did you hear the news report yesterday about the Samsung settlement for a worker who died –as I understand it — as a result of working with the toxic materials building smartphones?)

    And yes, yoga has its own infrastructure of the postures and the practice/discipline. It’s really interesting that you draw the parallel because once one “masters” a set of postures (which is a lifelong study or “practice” not a goal) the practice or discipline itself strengthens and vice versa ongoing.

    And there are actual parallels also to structural language in yoga for example, when one hits their “edge” in a posture which is the point at which the body or mind just can’t go any further without compromise — injury, break in concentration, holding the breath out of fear, rather than maintaining the inhale/exhale, etc.

    My favorite yoga teachers are the ones with the holistic infrastructure approach, who will say, “if you just need to sit and breathe the whole class, do that” vs. the LuluLemon “fitness yoga” crowd which brings all the “stuff” yoga can help people shed in to the class.

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