Infrastructural Interactions: Survival, Resistance and Radical Care
Cristina: Even if the infrastructure fails, there's all this imagery around it that connects to progress, ideas of progress, and ideas of modernity and that has a lot of rhetorical power. I think thinking about other ways politics or other ways of interacting with, of building an image around infrastructures is really valuable, actually. At least, for me, the most convincing that I've encountered, I don't know.
Clareese: Definitely, yes. I do agree too. Infrastructure or the idea that it's not going away, so how do you use it and make it useful to the people that it's supposed to act as a container or a boundary around?
In the last years, we've seen an intensification of computational infrastructures necessary to administrate daily life, from ordering basic supplies to managing visitor flows in about any public venue. As a result of recent pandemic conditions, their presence has shifted from optional to essential operations. These infrastructures are networks that both bring together and separate humans and nonhuman entities in present time and space. They administer, organise and make operations possible, rendering everything and everyone into a potential resource for generating data-flows. As presences, they are felt, yet often because of their geographical and technical vastness, their effects are not fully seen or comprehended. This workbook offers ways to make account and hold accountable the complexity of relations that make infrastructures, and ways to understand together how they are causing ruptures, fractures and changes in the conditions for human life, and how public life is held together. Discussing and practicing how making other infrastructures, means both making and destroying existing relations that are permeated by racial capitalism.
Computational infrastructures, made up of cloud and mobile computational infrastructures, are concentrated in the hands of a few companies. They purposefully promote data intensive services running on these infrastructures, rather than pre-packaged and locally run software instances. These data-infrastructures range from health databases, border informatics, data storage warehouses, to city-dashboards for monitoring citizen flows, educational platforms and the optimisation of logistics. Computational infrastructures generate harms and damage beyond ethical issues of privacy, ownership and confidentiality. They displace agencies, funds and knowledge into apps and services and thereby slowly but surely contribute to the depletion of resources for public life. While data-infrastructures capture public data-streams, they also capture imagination for what a public is, and what is in its interest. By interfacing between institutions and their constituents through Software-as-a-Service solutions, they reconfigure the mandate of institutions and narrow their modes of functioning to forms of logistics and optimization. We urgently need other imaginations for how we interface with infrastructures, beyond delivering a “solution” to a “need”. [emergent strategies]
As Big Tech extends into public fields, they tie together services across domains, creating extensive computational infrastructures that require a reshaping of what and how we develop ethical frameworks. These frameworks shift scale from the individual to the public, from data point to infrastructure. So the question is how can we attend to these shifts collectively in order to demand public data infrastructures that can act in the "public interest"? And how can we institute this?
This workbook is made by The Institute for Technology in the Public Interest (TITiPI), a trans-practice gathering of activists, artists, engineers and theorists and features contributions from the instituters and companions that emerged from our work together collectively during 2020 and 2021. An an outcome of a series of conversations, workshops and collective reflections on shifting infrastructural presences. It is not so much the end of a process, but the beginning of further work on together imagining alternatives to their extractive implications; as an embodied fight against the Big Tech takeover through writing, talking, making, tooling and reflecting. The workbook engages with these shifts by considering the importance of attending to radical care, survival and resistance under racial capitalism, non-extractive research, in our work on infrastructures.
On the following pages, you will encounter workshop reflections, prompts, imaginations and practices. This is a workbook that you can use in your collective organising to understand what forms of democratic governance and accountability are mobilised by computational infrastructures and how they could support instead of hollow out public life. There are examples of projects and practices that document what infrastructural interactions are being built by communities, and exercises and workshop plans to imagine together what will need to be built. There are examples of tools and conversations on how collectively we can understand ourselves as publics who can intervene in existing infrastructures, and demand technology in the public interest.
For the last two decades, basic care provisions have been turned into tools for surveillance, excluding and punishing those who needed it most. As public health care nearly collapsed under pandemic pressure, schools closed and movement through public life became increasingly monitored and managed by digital infrastructures, we have been thinking with many other collectives about radical alternatives to the need for care. What kind of solidarity and support can people extend and receive to one another that is outside the scope of the very limits that are being imposed on us, from the voluntary duty of care to not expose one another, to a state supported obligation to function as a subject to capitalism? The fact that the pandemic makes it impossible to organise by coming together physically to resist, triggered many discussions and reflections. When lockdowns have paralyzed a lot of the practical options that common people and ordinary working-class people have for resistance, which would be their bodies and the street, xxx [computational infra seems ‘the way forward’ but ...]
For the conversations and workshops, we brought together people involved in alternative healthcare or other alternative care-structures, for example in the context of anti-fascist activism, with ones rethinking alternative technical infrastructures in terms of capacity and care. Risking of course to turn everything into infrastructure, we felt it was helpful to open up perspectives that point out the worlding qualities of caretaking, maintenance and instituting.
From survival to resistance in racial capitalism
As people who are active on the ground, but also intellectually, what do we imagine in terms of resisting and building alternatives for or to computational infrastructures? What are our lived experiences with infrastructures that demand these alternatives? A question that came up often in our discussions was whether this is a time of survival, or is it time of resistance, and whether the creative imaginaries we are exchanging, are an example of resistance ... or are they actually about just surviving. We were interested in this, because we know that people are employing extractive services and apps, knowing sometimes very well that it's a risk, that by using them, they're actually being surveilled even more, but it is part of taking shelter from the historical time we're in now.
So, in the workshops, conversations and collective writing we have tried to think resistance under racial capitalism and issues around extractivism. What are the material sides of the computational infrastructures that are being almost imposed on us during COVID-19? It seemed these questions where erased from the debate even among critical scholars working on technology, while obviously racial capitalism and extractivism are part of the conversation. This workbook brings attention to the ways in which computational infrastructures extend extractivism, from the mining of rare minerals for smart phones to the extractivist models of cloud-based services and the extension of Big Tech into the markets of care. To do so, we build on a body of literature pointing out the continuing geopolitical make-up of imperial and colonial power in the development of infrastructural technologies. In particular, Ali (2016) argues for a decolonial approach when designing, building or theorizing about computing phenomena and an ethics that especially decentres Eurocentric universals. Chakravartty and Mills (2018) offer to think decolonial computing through the lens of racial capitalism. Robinson ( 2000) argues that mainstream political economy studies of capitalism do not account for the racial character of capitalism or the evolution of capitalism to produce a modern world system dependent on slavery, violence, imperialism and genocide. Capitalism is ‘racial’ in the very fabric of its system (cf. Bhattacharyya (2018)).
This work is embedded in a view that requires continuous undoing – a necessary but unfinished formal dismantling of colonial structures by decolonial resistance. Building on theories of racial capitalism, we focus on the implications of computational infrastructures and their relation with extraction, whilst working on ways to develop a non-extractive research practice.
Non-extractive research practice
Computational infrastructures are typically hard to study (Ruppert 2017, Mukherjee 2020) and we need imaginative and collective methods to trace the long tail of their effects and make them legible (Aouragh et al 2020). In this project and workbook, creative practice and collective organsising is vital to restructure both the way we research and how we understand infrastructural implications. In these conversations and workshops we attended to our companions proposals for socially and technically remaking or resisting infrastructures. These conversations and workshops attended carefully to the shapes that we make for research to happen within and we resisted (where we could) using extractive cloud based infrastructure. Instead the conversations and workshops took place using a patchwork of self-hosted Free, Open Source softwares. The workbook was created using ++ wiki to print. Within the institute we are committed to shaping research differently, and have a sneaky feeling that the possibility of our imaginations of different institutes and infrastrucures are interdependent on the the infrastructures we use to communicate, write, make. So many tools and infrastrucutres for research are extractive, damaging and harmful, how come we so often ignore this part of the relationlity? As Femke once said these tools are so banal people can't even bear to think about how they are shaping their research. So we also try to practice radical care here, to attend to the infrastructures we use and their extractive forces.
For Infrastructural Interactions, we combined creative practice, queer theory, historical materialism, critical computing, together with approaches from infrastructure studies to disclose the harms and damages of data infrastructures. In a series of conversations, we documented stories and experiments of inventive ways to trace and disclose the effects of data infrastructures. Our hope is that through the workbook you will also get to be part of these different groups and networks. To get to know the imaginative ideas, suggestions and experiences, if you will, of the institute and our companions.
Drawing on trans*feminist, queer and anti-colonial perspectives, the research project was an attempt at developing tools for political and creative agency in situations that are perceived as in the public interest, but that are outside of public intervention. We worked with activists, artists and technologists to ask how they are mobilising creative forms of organising and inventive methods to ensure that data can support their practices instead of extracting from it. How are these practices not just responding but also proposing new modes of imagining technology in the public interest? What can creative practice bring to understanding data-infrastructures and their alternatives? And how effective are these creative responses or new infrastructures?
The transcultural and differently situated conversations that fuelled this research, inquired into and documented creative and grassroots approaches for infrastructural interactions that are being built, or will need to be built. They revealed the intricate ways in which power asymmetries by design necessitate us to shift our critical analysis from the received idea that the main problems with digital infrastructures are centered around personal data, privacy and surveillance, to a much more complex perspective that takes the political economy of cloud-based computing into account. The workshops, documentation and structures in this workbook are a small contribution to making this complex paradigm shift together. They can be mobilised by individuals and collectives to make legible harms and damages on public life that result from extractive data-infrastructures such as cloud-based services. To develop an understanding of existing inventive technical practices in which communities are deploying alternative digital infrastructures that support their work, and inquire into how effective these creative responses for alternative digital infrastructures are. The workbook can also be activated to (re-)imagine and prototype technical alternatives, to Software-as-a-Service and agile solutions, that can support public life digital infrastructures.
One of our motivations was very strongly to connect people through the research conversations and workshops. We wanted to start the conversations by asking questions, but also inviting our collaborator's, companions and future instituters to intervene in each other's answers or to frame the discussion with each other. This is also how this workbook it written. The workbook itself was composed together with artists, technologists and activists, specifically groups committed to non-extractivist research practices for and with refugees, anti-racist, trans* health and sex work.
How to use this workbook
[LATER: DESCRIBE EACH CONTRIBUTION]
Arun: The question is how do we keep fighting for the near future? Black Lives Matter is quite a broad open space as a physical concept. The physical concept is very broad. It can mean, the thing that Google puts out saying, we support Black Lives Matter, or it can mean Ruth Gilmore's idea of abolition and ending racial capitalism. It's a massive spectrum. The question is, how do we create organisational infrastructure to make sure it's the second of those and not the first? That seems to be the problem across the board in terms of radical politics.
Seda: Now you know why we're called The Institute.
Seda: Nothing more, nothing less.
Arun: Thank you. There you go. I set it out for you nicely, right?