Monthly Archives: November 2018

one more project for the Nov. 27th class

Hope you all had a good holiday. Matt updated the reading list for our next class including adding the link to the Black DH Projects and Resources list that had appeared earlier in the syllabus. It’s a great place to dive in. I want to offer one more link that I’m particularly fond of: an article in issue #6 of the JITP, which I co-edited, on a unique Black DH project, the Runaway Quilts Project developed by Deimosa Webber-Bey.

It appears here:

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.

Shannon Mattern on Maintenance and Care

Hi All — apropos of our discussion of infrastructure and materiality today, Shannon Mattern has just published a new article in _Places Journal_ titled “Maintenance and Care.” I think it will be of interest to many of you:

Maintenance and Care
A working guide to the repair of rust, dust, cracks, and corrupted code in our cities, our homes, and our social relations.

Maintenance and Care

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.

Shannon Mattern’s Critical and Generative Structures

In “Scaffolding, Hard and Soft – Infrastructures as Critical and Generative Structures” (2016) Shannon Mattern, Associate Professor of Media Studies at the New School, delivers a hopeful and inspiring message and provides a clear introduction to the importance of thinking about infrastructure in our work.

Shannon notes that new infrastructures – both hard and soft – are built on old ones. In the case of hard infrastructures, optic fibers are strung where cables and wires are traditionally laid, in sewage ducts and water and gas pipes, and alongside roads and railways. Many of these infrastructures are concentrated in cities or, in the case of satellites, directed towards large urban centers in more industrially and technologically developed parts of the world. Intellectual or soft infrastructures similarly follow old paths in their conceptual design. Despite their path dependency and heavy engineering new infrastructures bear the imprint of human agency, of the people who form part of these infrastructures as links, builders, and deliverers. Human agents are particularly evident when “in particular disenfranchised pockets of the world, when [the] scaffolding [that underlies more economically secure communities] is simply absent.” By turning our attention to the often precarious infrastructures in economically poorer parts of the world we see how splintered our  “seemingly universal infrastructures” are.

The politics of hard and soft infrastructures are cleverly addressed in artist Hito Steyerl’s 2013 video How Not to Be Seen: A F***ing Didactic Educational .MOV File which Shannon Mattern recommends. In this radical work Steyerl declares that resolution determines visibility hence shows the world as a picture. Because pixel calibration determines visibility, she argues, to become invisible one has to become smaller or equal to one pixel, or be any number of things including someone living in a gated community, being in an airport or museum, being a female over 50, undocumented, poor, or “a disappeared person as an enemy of the state. Eliminated, liquidated and then disseminated.” Invisibility becomes a visible network in Steyerl’s film as disappeared people retreat strangely into 3D animations, then hold the vectors together and mesh the picture, then reemerge into a world of pictures as shadows of themselves. The video’s central recurrent image is a cracked and rutted resolution target in the California desert which Steyerl’s voice over says was decommissioned in 2000. “happy pixels hop off into low resolution, gif loop!” Multilayered and cryptic, Steyerl’s .MOV file is worth watching more than once.

Hito Steyerl, How Not to be Seen: A Fucking Didactic Educational .MOV File, (2013).

While artists must critique, it’s still not enough to represent, that is, to reveal and critically analyze, infrastructures, writes Mattern. Creative practitioners should design more just infrastructures, she adds. To do so and in doing so they should “approach infrastructure as a generative structure – a framework for generating systems and environments and objects, and cultivating individuals and communities, that embody the values we want to define our society.”

One of the examples of generative structures that Mattern provides is the use of existing infrastructure to bring about change in the labor conditions of workers in the fast fashion industry in countries like Bangladesh. This calls attention to materiality and affect in the communities involved in the production of clothes we see in store windows on, for example, 34th Street between 5th and 6th. Another example of infrastructure as a generative structure provided by Mattern are mesh networks (see for example The Red Hook Wifi Project [2013]), which are particularly exciting to think about when one thinks of what can happen when infrastructure is not controlled by the community in moments of danger. Two such moments come to mind: Egypt during the Arab Spring, when Vodafone cut off internet and cellphone networks at the height of massive uprisings in Cairo in 2011, causing protesters to lose vital communication with each other about where Egyptian military were firing bullets and consequently being shot down by these. Puerto Rico following Hurricane Maria is another example where mesh networks would have facilitated rescue and recovery.

In less extreme situations landscape urbanism advocates for looking beyond architecture at infrastructures in all their complexity to seek more equitable models. Other fields can follow landscape urbanism’s lead, and an important thing we can do as graduate students is look at the infrastructure that shapes and girds our fields “or what we might call the ‘cultural techniques’ for making knowledge and generating work within a field” (Mattern).

Mattern’s closing message is inspiring and directive:

Recognizing what’s missing in your field’s current infrastructural ecology might inspire you to contribute to the design of a discursive space or a landscape of practice that embodies a political economy more in line with those liberal values that our theories espouse. You, as critical-creative practitioners, have the opportunity to transform criticality into generativity – to imagine and then construct the hard and soft scaffoldings for tomorrow’s fields of practice.

Learning how to code, critically reading artifacts and imagining new ways of doing things are essential to making meaningful contributions in our field. Thinking of infrastructure on all its scales, from corporeal to global, will point to where generative structures most urgently need to be built.








Shannon Mattern on Scaffolding + Infrastructures

I really enjoyed Shannon Mattern’s essay. While reading it I realized that I know her from The New School’s Media Studies Dept. where I completed my first MA. Her bio is worth a read. She also was the MC for my commencement from the Media Studies program there — a truly lovely ceremony, complete with cap & gown & diploma handshake and my aunt who graduated from Hunter College in the 1940’s in attendance.

Shannon’s work is very complex, as the theoretical nature of this essay demonstrates. She’s very interesting to converse with as I’ve had the occasion to do.

Regarding the essay, I particularly like her closing academic pep talk about us as practitioners in our fields “transform[ing] criticality into generativity”. Her commencement address was similarly inspiring in tone.

I have many additional observations on this reading which I will add via editing this post.

Continuing on, Mattern advocates for DHers and our colleagues as “critical-creative practitioners” (a moniker I like) to go beyond the representation of infrastructure to the design of infrastructure [our]selves” so that we’re approaching infrastructure as a generative structure [which is] a framework for generating systems/environments/objects and cultivating individuals/communities that embody values we want to define in our society. (7)

This is a tall order organizationally speaking, but approachable on the individual level of our classrooms, projects, and as members of group projects.

I like how SM acknowledges the “entangled soft and hard infrastructures that often propel ‘making’ in our fields”, and lead to institutional forces that seek branded theories, methods and churn out grad students, like us, eager to discover the ‘new big thing’ via conferences, etc. and the “infrastructure” travel these require with its inherent sustainability sub-issues of fuel, jet fuel, diesel, electricity, and the environmental impact of these.

I also like how SM takes a bold step in acknowledging that liberal conceptions of labor, knowledge, and taste that many theoretical and aesthetic movements “actually embody” often fail to match up to their professed politics. The legendary waste in the fashion and film industries, while many of its leading design professionals and celebrity consumers profess to be “green” and/or shame others in different industries is an outrageous form of hypocrisy.

Therefore, I think keeping “infrastructional ecology” in mind is indeed a great motivating force for us DHers as “critical-creative practitioners” to contribute practices that embody a political economy aligned with the liberal values of our chosen field’s theories. Maybe this is the “NEXT new big thing….?”


My mother still recalls being a young girl and receiving her first phone call from abroad. Sometime in the 1960’s my grandparents had a phone installed in their house and my great uncle, who was a sailor, called the house all the way from Australia. To this day my mother remembers the amazement of being able to speak to someone located at the other side of the world, and better yet, to hear her uncle’s voice so clearly!

Shannon Matter’s article “Scaffolding, Hard and Soft – Infrastructures as Critical and Generative Structures’’ reminded me of this story and got me curious about this amazing infrastructure which we now pretty much take for granted.

The deep seabeds of the ocean are home to over 428 submarine cables stretching over 1 million kilometers around the world, connecting continents, large communications hubs with small, remote places. These cables consist of fiber optic material which “sends information coded in a beam of light down a glass or plastic pipe”, which sounds like a beautiful description of communication. However, the external home of these “beams of light” is a lot less poetic, consisting of steel wires, copper and petroleum jelly.

Image result for fiber optic cable ocean

It turns out that optical fiber cables measure in size from that of a soda can to as small a magic marker depending on how deep into the oceans the cables are laid. It also turns out that sharks enjoy chewing on these internet cables, posing somewhat of a threat to our internet access. I suppose challenges are to be expected when humans invade territories that are not natural to us and the gnawing sharks serve as a reminder that our digital lives are rooted in very real, physical equipment which is susceptible to damages and breakdowns. These submarine communication cables can be positioned as deep as 8000 meters down onto the bottom of the ocean and follows what Matter’s describes as “the principle of path dependency” where new infrastructure is built on top of previously established infrastructure, in this case that of the telecommunication networks. This might mean that the “beams of light” that carried my great uncle’s voice from half way around the globe traveled across the same ocean route as the internet does today. Matter’s article provided me with the opportunity to reflect upon the physical dimension of our wireless existence that surrounds us. It also served as a reminder of how humans are involved in every aspect of the process of communication from the innovation of devices to designing the infrastructure to implement the technology, not to least mention all of the manual labor that goes into maintaining the infrastructure. The article also made me pause and think about the network that makes it possible for me to receive photos from my mom on my phone. I bet she didn’t imagine that when she was a girl!

Timekeeping + lightning talks

Building off Farah’s most recent post, which collected the projects presented at the CUNY DHI Lightning Talks this past Tuesday: I loved hearing about these ongoing and potential projects across CUNY and I’m so grateful to have all of those links in one place for reference. I also wanted to speak to the structure of the lightning talks and, from the role of observer/student/audience member, consider the condensed presentation format in more detail. The defining characteristic of a lightning talk is its brevity — a few minutes at most — and I wanted to share a blog post to this end from Danica Savonick, Assistant Professor of English, SUNY Cortland, and former Futures Initiative Fellow and HASTAC Scholar, “Timekeeping as feminist pedagogy.” (Available here.) 

Replicating the bolded text in her original post, Savonick defines timekeeping as “deliberately structuring how much of a given amount of time is allotted to different tasks, communicating this information to participants, helping participants prepare to work within these time constraints, helping them stay on time in the moment, and encouraging an awareness of time constraints in others.” In this particular post, Savonick’s examples focus on the undergraduate classroom and how to teach time awareness, not just by assigning one presentation and using an aggressive noise to cut a student off in the middle of a thought on the day of said presentation, but by building practice into the course. She notes that, “[w]ithout a doubt, the number one “mistake” students make in these facilitations is trying to cover too much material in too little time. By the end of the semester and with lots of practice, students learn to scale back their plans and cut back from three activities to two, or from two discussion questions to one.” The quotation marks around “mistake” emphasize what a genuine challenge this process of time management can be, no matter the length or function of the presentation at hand and no matter the education level of the speaker. (Consider an ambitious lecture session, even in upper-level classes with an experienced instructor, that tries to “get the class back on track” after falling behind on material; even if the instructor is glancing at the clock every few minutes, it can be difficult to adjust material on the spot.) Even if the speaker is making a good-faith effort to make the time constraint and/or be considerate of the other potential uses of “their” time, they often encounter the issue that they have simply too much information and too little time, this time, and have to make a decision about how to act in the moment.

The lightning talks were a fascinating exercise in practicing this entire process of timekeeping and I am so glad I went to witness them. They not only gave a sense of the ongoing projects across CUNY but provided a relatively unforgiving framework for this timekeeping process to occur, particularly in contrast to more traditional formats at this level: possibly a lecture, where the speaker can look at the clock periodically for the hour or so, or a speech, with a few layers of etiquette that would help protect the speaker if they go over their allotted time.  

The lightning talk restrictions also got me thinking about the consequences of timekeeping across settings, from the lightning talks themselves to any conversation oriented around academics. Even students and/or scholars who would follow instructions for a written paper to the letter — and even those who have the foresight to do a practice run or five of a presentation — might find themselves speaking past a time cutoff for one reason or another, or waiting to speak rather than listening fully. The consequence of this failure on the speaker’s part is that someone else does not get to speak to the best of their ability in their time. Echoing elements of our conversations throughout the semester, Savonick reminds us that “[f]eminist pedagogy teaches that silence is not an absence, but the effect of power. It encourages us to listen to those voices that have historically been silenced and to change the structural conditions so that their voices are heard.” To this end, I am also curious about another aspect of this process: not just the consequences of failing to keep one’s time, but what happens physically and emotionally to us and to our audience when we do not do so, from rushing through material to apologizing out of turn, and what this might mean for engaging with a learning community.