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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?

Radical Care

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 other collectives about radical alternatives to the need for care. For the last two decades, basic care provisions have been turned into tools that perform racial capitalism, excluding and punishing those who needed it most. What kind of solidarity and support can people extend and receive to one another that is outside the scope of the 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 made it impossible to come together physically to organise and to resist, triggered many discussions and reflections. When lockdowns immobilised 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, or meeting to make plans or to provide care for each other, cloud infrastructure has often been presented as the way forward — such as hosting organising over Zoom, using Google Drive to distribute materials or Uber to distribute care packages.

For the conversations and workshops that feature in this manual, we brought together people involved in alternative healthcare or other alternative care-structures, for example in the context of anti-fascist activism, or groups rethinking alternative technical infrastructures in terms of capacity and care. Without wanting 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 cloud infrastructures? What are our lived experiences with infrastructures that demand these alternatives? A question that came up often in our discussions and practices was whether this is a time of survival, or a time of resistance? Are the creative imaginaries we are exchanging, an example of resistance ... or are they actually about just surviving? We were interested in asking this question, because we know that people are sometimes using extractive services and apps, knowing very well that it's a risk, and that by using them, they're actually being exploited even more.

In the workshops, conversations and collective writing that generated this workbook, we have tried to think resistance under racial capitalism and issues around extractivism with participants from different geographies and practices. What are the material aspects of cloud infrastructures that are being imposed on us, during COVID-19 lockdowns and since? It felt 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, Syed Mustafa Ali argues for a decolonial approach when designing, building or theorizing about computing phenomena and an ethics that especially decentres Eurocentric universals.[1] Paula Chakravartty and Mara Mills offer to think decolonial computing through the lens of racial capitalism.[2] Cedric Robinson 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.[3] Capitalism is ‘racial’ in the very fabric of its system.[4]

The work documented in this workbook 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.

What does Cloud infrastructure do?

Cloud infrastructures purposefully promote data intensive services running on the 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. It has become common for theorists, activists, artists, designers and engineers that want to critique cloud services, to focus on the way they extract data from individuals, either for value or surveillance, or to automate services so that institutions can reduce workers rights or employ less people. The research we are doing at TITiPi however evidences quite clearly that this might not be the best way to understand what clouds are and how to resist and prepare for the massive shifts in public life they are and plan to make.

Instead, we propose that what we need to look at how Big Tech cloud services are financialising literally everything on a rentable model, thereby indebting institutions, communities and individuals to their values and services. Cloud infrastructures offer agile computational infrastructure to administer, organise and make institutional operations possible, decreasing the potential for institutions to manage their own operations, locking them into a cycle of monthly payable subscription agreements (debts) and rendering all operations from emptying bins, to paying bills, to hosting collaborative documents ready to be financialised by Big Tech cloud companies. They do this by promising a future of being able to fullfill the operations that institutions themselves might not even have imagined. 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.

As Big Tech extends into public fields, they tie together services across domains, creating extensive computational infrastructures that reshape public institutions. 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? 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. We urgently need other imaginations for how we interface with infrastructures, beyond delivering a “solution” to a “need” (or the promise they can fulfill a future need).

The workshops, documentation and structures in this workbook are a small contribution to making this complex paradigm shift together.

On-line Nowcestor meditation session with Clareese Hill
  1. Ali, S. M. (2016), ‘A brief introduction to decolonial computing’, XRDS: Crossroads, The ACM Magazine for Students, 22:4, pp. 6–21.
  2. Chakravartty, P. and Mills, M. (2018), ‘Virtual roundtable on decolonial computing’, Catalyst, 4:2, p. 14
  3. Robinson, C. ([1983] 2000), Black Marxism: The Making of the Black Radical Tradition, Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press
  4. Bhattacharyya, G. (2018), Rethinking Racial Capitalism: Questions of Reproduction and Survival, Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield.