“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.