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Infragraphy Volume 1, Spring 2019

This first volume of Infragraphy is a compilation of critical student writings and photo essays about media, infrastructure and the environment. These texts are outcomes from the “Archaeology of Media Infrastructures” Master of Arts course in the Spring of 2019 at the Department of Media, Aalto University Finland. The course examined media infrastructures including the concept of deep time, the materialities of the Internet, Artificial Intelligence, digital labor, water, energy, and critical infrastructure.

Download PDF: Infragraphy_Vol1_Spring2019

#Carbonfeed by Jon Bellona and John Park

I came across to this art project which sonifies Twitter feeds and also makes physical data visualizations. I find the one in the image quite powerful and poetic.

With the advent of social media like Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram, humans have increased their production of digital content.[1] Even simple online interactions generate carbon emissions; a Google search has been estimated to generate 0.2 grams of CO2.[2] To keep pace with growing online media, there is an increasing dependence upon data centers,[3] which now account for 2% of the US’s electricity consumption.[4]

source: https://carbonfeed.org

An Increasing Need of Electricity and a Decrease of Biodiversity

I got interested to study a bit more about the idea that birds’ magnetic compass orientation would get disrupted by electromagnetic noise. There has been a debate on does electric and magnetic fields affect biological processes and human health and when the article was written, in 2014 there hadn’t been any scientifically proven effects.

Svenja Engels, Nils-Lasse Schneider, Nele Lefeldt, Christine Maira Hein, Manuela Zapka, Andreas Michalik, Dana Elbers, Achim Kittel, P. J. Hore & Henrik Mouritsen performed controlled experiments in the University of Oldenburg and found out that European robins lose their ability to use the Earths’ magnetic field when exposed to low-level AM electromagnetic noise between around 20 kHz and 20 MHz, the kind of noise routinely generated by consumer electrical and electronic equipment. The birds gained the ability back to orient to the Earths’ magnetic field when they were shielded from electromagnetic noise in the frequency range from 2kHz to 5 MHz or tested in a rural setting.

I found a European Commissions’ Guidance for Energy Transmission Infrastructure from 2018. This is only a guidance in a sense that I am not sure if these are actually taken into account when making decisions about energy infrastructure. What I found interesting in this guidance is that they address that biodiversity is an important element and nature provides important socio-economic benefits to society. It seems that they have a very agricultural, anthropocentric view on nature even though this guidance is made to protect endangered species.

In the guidance for energy transmission infrastructure projects the listed impacts are through clearance of land and the removal of surface vegetation: the existing habitats may be altered, damaged, fragmented or destroyed and the indirect effects could be much more widespread especially when projects interfere with water and soil quality. Also when building the site there will be increased traffic, presence of people, noise, dust, pollution, artificial lighting and vibration and the risks of collision with power cables.

Electrocution can have a major impact on several bird species, and causing the death of thousands of birds annually.

source: https://www.unenvironment.org/news-and-stories/story/planning-can-help-prevent-renewable-energy-surge-harming-wildlife

There is a strong consensus that the risk posed to birds depends on the technical construction and detailed design of power facilities. In particular, electrocution risk is high with “badly engineered” medium voltage power poles (“killer poles”) (BirdLife International, 2007).

By acknowledging the loss of thousands of birds annually because of the energy infrastructure can we say that they are part of energy infrastructure?

source:http://ec.europa.eu/environment/nature/natura2000/management/docs/Energy%20guidance%20and%20EU%20Nature%20legislation.pdf

When Dust is Spice

Over the course of last summer I read one of the most popular science fiction novels: Dune by Frank Herbert. Written in 1965, it has inspired a plethora of other space operas, including Star Wars, a personal childhood favorite. Dune is a quintessential sci-fi novel, and not a flawless [1] one. In certain ways it is quite atypical: Herbert’s style focuses heavily on world-building and ecology of imaginary planets, as well as internal soliloquies and emotions. Both of these aspects have been hard to remediate into movie narratives [2], a format which has dominated the attention of the audiences in the recent decades. This is one of the reasons a vast majority of 80’s and 90’s kids know of the adventures of Luke Skywalker by heart—but the prophecy of Muad’Dib remains mostly unknown to those who don’t geek their way into the genre of hard sci-fi.

Recently I also saw the movie (Dune, 1984, directed by David Lynch) and a miniseries produced for television (titled Frank Herbert’s Dune, 2000), so the narrative revolving around the events of the first book is now fresh in my memory. In his essay Dust and Exhaustion: The Labor of Media Materialism (2013) Jussi Parikka briefly mentions Dune, but does not elaborate on the connection of cognitive capitalism and the world created by Herbert. [3] In this brief post I’m drawing parallels between ecology of the desert planet Arrakis and its “smart dust” Spice, along with cognitive capitalism.

Dust, as Parikka points out, “marks the temporality of the matter” and signifies “transformations of solids to ephemeral and back”. When it comes to ecology, materials may appear stationary, but are in fact in continuous progress: decaying, eroded, moved by the elements, rock turning into sand over the course of millennia. The narrative of Dune begins when the house Atreides settles on the planet Arrakis (also known as Dune), a world of sand—and sole source of the narcotic Spice Melange essential to the technology and development of the world of Dune. The reader soon learns, as members of the Atreides family find out more about their new home, how the ecology and people of Arrakis have been subjected to effects of exploitation by the families who ruled Arrakis before them. One such group and the nemesis of house Atreides is the spartan and immoral house Harkonnen. Water is scarce and thus sacred on Arrakis, but the dust-like Spice is abundant.

The narrative of Dune is likewise abundant with transformations. Nearly all of the characters experience a transformation from what they used to be into something else, processes provoked by the events around the struggle for control of Spice. In Parikka’s words, dust invites us to rethink the binaries of One/many, both singular and individual in its materiality. The transformation from one to many is observed in the prophecy that Fremen—the deeply spiritual people of Arrakis—have of their messianic instructor, Muad’Dib. The Spice permeates everything on Arrakis, and even its presence is enough to notice the changes it brings. In real life, abundant dust presents a health hazard. In the world of Dune, the effects of Spice are more neutral. For example, the eyes of those who consume Spice in excess are dyed blue throughout. Spice can also be refined into Water of Life, a lethally poisonous blue liquid only to be used by those who have received the training and position to ingest and transmute it. Through the transmuted Water of Life, Muad’Dib sees the past and the present, achieving a higher state of consciousness. With this knowledge, Muad’Dib rules the universe as its emperor.

The use of Spice is potentially life-changing, and excessive use alters one’s own physique. The extraction process is also dangerous—a bit like the extraction of minerals in our world, not without psychosocial effects. Networks of labor relations exist on Arrakis, where the ruling house of the planet provides the machinery to search and collect Spice. However, the sands of Arrakis are also inhabited by sandworms native to the planet. Sandworms—and the different stages of its life-cycle—are essential for the Spice Melange to form within the sands of Arrakis. Harvesting Spice Melange would also mean to expose oneself not only to intense conditions of a desert environment, but also the threat of becoming swallowed or trampled by a sandworm, also attracted and drawn to Spice. As the Spice departs Arrakis and is transported and sold into other parts of the universe presented in Dune, the people harvesting it have little knowledge of how it is used and lead a modest life on the desert. Harvesters of Spice appear to be expendable. During a sandworm attack, instead of protecting the harvesting equipment, Duke Leto Atreides decides to protect the people. This humane act is viewed by the workers as outrageous, different than what they are used to—perhaps even foolish. Who would let the collected Spice or equipment go to waste? Some workers are ready to sacrifice themselves for the sake of Spice. Whether this is because of devotion to the society or caused by the addictiveness of Spice remains ambiguous.

Several substances are used in the world of Dune, Spice being overwhelmingly most precious. As mentioned earlier, Spice has many uses. Different coalitions have their own ways to use it. The Bene Gesserit is a matriarchal and ancient order interested in expanding human capabilities when it comes to control and power, as far as hosting an eugenics program; Mentat, a profession/discipline for creating advisors to replace computers and “thinking machines” in a world where they are banned; The Spacing Guild, an organization that had discovered ways of “bending space” and making space travel available at speeds faster than light. All of the groups are invested or at least interested in the control of Spice. (The Mentat utilize the juice of Sapho, the product of another planet, but addictive and increasing the abilities of mind nevertheless.)

“It is by will alone I set my mind in motion. It is by the juice of Sapho that thoughts acquire speed, the lips acquire stains, stains become a warning. It is by will alone I set my mind in motion.”

— Piter De Vries, a Mentat (Dune, 1984 movie)

Bending space in order to traverse it; accessing a collective consciousness and remembering the past; the prescient abilities to rule wisely; the control of one’s own mind and body to become superior in battle; using one’s own voice to bend others into their will. The powerful mental abilities presented in the fantasy of Dune are numerous. In Dust and Exhaustion, Parikka presents us the thoughts of Franco Berardi about cognitive capitalism and the concept of cognitariat, and the different areas affected by it: body, sexuality, mortality and unconsciousness. All of these areas are utilized, emphasized and controlled in Dune, by the spice and/or the schools of thought. The fiction of Dune could be a (re)vision of how cognitive capitalism plays out, with its workers dulled by a narcotic, leaders drunk with power. All human skills packaged into various schools of thought, but all thoughts bound into the purpose and study of how to control, exploit and prosper.

Millennia of development in telepathic and telekinetic powers, established hierarchies, powerful politics and cultural norms are what Muad’Dib must rise against. How does he know he is on the right path and for the actual betterment of humankind when all the other groups claim to do the same thing, or are of the opinion that the current hierarchies must prevail? Despite seeing and knowing the future, Muad’Dib carries the weight alone, loathing himself and the fate he can’t escape. He subdues the exhaustion for all and frees the people on the lowest rank of his universe, but must transcend his identity in order to do so, giving up the path before him. It could be said he experiences a sense of his (former) self—the death of an ego, albeit to be replaced by a new one. He sacrifices personal choices in favor of following the “Golden Path” that ensures the survival of the humankind.

Just like depressed minds in real life struggle to keep up with digital machinery and capitalism, the human race of Dune (and the economy they have created) struggle with the use of Spice and desire for domination of the universe. Despite the interesting combination of technology, ecology and psychology presented in Dune, descriptions of ecological impact of human actions are quite minimal, perhaps easily overlooked in the light of technopositivism of earlier decades. Nevertheless, technology changes us faster than we are able to adapt—just like Spice changes people on Arrakis. In reality however, there are no miraculous mental powers or a messiah coming to our aid—only the metaphysical horrors and blaring of our screens.

 

Notes

[1] As one could expect, a novel written in the 1960s has some issues in the way it presents its villains and female characters, for example, but in order to keep this text concise, I’m not going to write about these topics.

[2] Currently a new attempt at turning Dune into a full-feature movie is underway. The documentary film Jodorowsky’s Dune (2013) also reveals a story behind a failed attempt to film it in the 70s.

[3] Jussi Parikka: Dust and Exhaustion: The Labor of Media Materialism (2013)

Zooming in on infrastructure – invisible labour

While reading “Anatomy of an AI system” by Kate Crawford and Vladan Joler, I came to think once more of the time I worked in a distribution center for groceries in a Stockholm suburb in Sweden. The main purpose of Crawford’s and Joler’s research seems to be to make three different aspects of Amazon Echo visible – Material resources, human labour and data. With a product like that, most of (if not all) labour is hidden behind its slick surface and words like “AI agent Alexa” and “the Cloud” – intangible entities that seems to effortlessly float around above or around us. They seem to take up no space, consume no energy, produce work opportunities and save time for the consumer. But as the authors describe, that’s far from the whole truth.

I think that most infrastructures, non-regarding of industry, works in a similar way in modern day society, and I will use my work experience as a means to describe this in the food industry.

The warehouse corridors in a similar distribution center, room temperature.

I got the job through a student consultancy company. The food supply chain corporation uses this type of service to fill up extra hours. That way they don’t have to constantly hire and fire people when quantities differ over time.

Before getting the job, I hadn’t paid much thought to how the food supply chain works. Just like any citizen in this part of the world, I would go to my local supermarket or mall and buy groceries. I would assume that they would always have everything in stock and that they would provide fruits, vegetables, meat, fish, grains, dairy, legumes, candy, soda, etc from all over the world. I remember one early spring when the stores in Stockholm ran out of chopped-salad bags. In the shelf was a sign stating “due to cold weather and storms in Southern Europe, we cannot provide this product”. I remember feeling annoyed. How hard would it be to get some salad on the shelf? Why couldn’t I get my salad? I realised of course that it was ridiculous to think that I could have salad every day year round, but that’s how it usually was, so why would this day be different?

I worked mostly in the freezer department of the distribution center. These centers are the last stage for the food before it reaches the stores – suppliers drive their packets of product to the center, where we fork lift drivers pack the orders that will be driven to the actual stores. There are several departments – fridge, freezer, non-temperate products such as deodorants, toilet paper, soda, and the likes. The freezer is kept at a temperature of -23 degrees Celsius. When I was employed, I got warm underclothing, boots, hat, scarf, gloves and an overall. The orders are made by a pick-by-voice system. That means that all operators wear a headset with a microphone. When I started my work shift, I turned the headset controller on, logged in and then started a new order with the words “new order”.

The type of fork lift that I drove in the center.

The headset voice, called Talkman, is controlled by a computer system, that will give me the next order in line. You can choose a male or female voice, I chose the latter. She would then emmidieatly tell me the store, order number, number of packages and number of shelves I would have to visit. Most orders are packed on EU-pallets. I confirm the order and Talkman tells me which shelf to go to by stating which corridor and which shelf number the next package is in, for example “Adam 21” (synonymous to Alfa, Beta, Charlie in English). I drive my fork lift to that location and read a number on the shelf to confirm. Talkman then tells me how many packages to pick. I step off the forklift and pick the cardboard boxes with my gloves. It’s quite clumsy to pick packages in the freezer – the gloves are thick to protect the hands. It takes some practice to get fast at picking. It then goes on like that- I confirm the number of packages, she immediately gives me the next location. An order can range from a few packages to over a thousand and can require several EU-pallets. While driving from shelf to shelf, the wind hits my face and numbs the skin that is visible. I try to cover as much as possible with my hat and scarf, leaving only my eyes, nose and mouth unprotected. After driving around for a couple of hours, my feet, nose and hands are geting quite cold. In the freezer you have the right to a short break every two hours. I used to go and sit in the locker room for 15 minutes before returning to my truck. In the first weeks, it was hard to endure working in the cold before I got used to it.

Me in my freezer outfit and pick-by-voice headset

There is almost no social contact during the work shift. Sometimes people stop in the hallways to talk to each other, but it’s too cold to stand still for more than a few minutes. There’s a radio playing in the warehouse – listening to music in headphones is forbidden due to security reasons. There is a dinner break and a short evening break when you work the evening shift, from 3pm to 22pm. In the freezer department, people use the breaks to get warm again. I hang my overall on a hanger and put my shoes, scarf, hat and gloves in the heating cabinet. The scarf is usually stiff from the vapour from my breath. There is a tv in the break room which always shows the same channel. During my year, I watched all episodes of How I met your mother almost two times. People who work in the freezer are not energetic or inspired during their work shift. They try to make the time go by. But there’s not much to think about while working, and you have to make sure you’re not hitting anything or anyone while driving and talking to Talkman. The concrete floor in the warehouse can get slippery at times. Sometimes when I turned with the fork lift, I slid a meter and almost hit the shelves. There is a demand for how much we should pick every shift, but in the freezer they don’t really bug you if you don’t reach that number. They know it’s hard work.

During my last summer there I worked full time. I got to spend more shifts in the regularly tempered department, where people were more outgoing and I didn’t have to eat as much to stay warm. But I slowly developed pain in my feet and my left hip. There was a rumour that the company suggested people to only work two consecutive years full time as a picker, otherwise the work would cause permanent damage to your body. A few people in the freezer had worked there for over twenty years. They were strong but worn out. These people have no pretence about the downsides of capitalist society. The job is, however, well paid compared to other unqualified jobs, which is probably the only way to get people in Sweden to work under such conditions today.

Researching for this post, I found out that the company I worked for is now building a huge automated distribution center that will replace most of their present day warehouses, also the one where I worked, in Sweden at 2023. Around a 1000 employees will be affected and it’s unclear how many will get to keep their jobs at this moment (a minority at best). 

AI, a consumer product not free of the sins of capitalism

The article “Anatomy of an AI System” by Kate Crawford and Vladan Joler delves deeply in the more unknown, physical and resource hungry side of creating the AI products and services. They talk a lot about the labour and ecological costs that goes into creating a single product, like Amazon Echo.

It’s easy to agree with the most blatant exploitation in the mines and factories being unethical. However when we talk about the intellectual property it’s more difficult to see the exploitation as clearly. I’m sure we all feel uncomfortable of our personal info being collected. But harnessing the mass of online text and image output I’ve also contributed but what can’t be connected to me doesn’t make me feel exploited. Although I must admit, a relevant question is does this type of data exist at all or is all data collected in processes where it can be tracked back to me. I not feeling particularly exploited is also due to the fact that Google and Facebook offer their services free. As the process of the information harnessing is hidden I just tend to see a free and functional product as a representation of the company. Although the distribution of profits is clearly unfair and skewed and unfair I think the free services provided can operate as a type of distribution of wealth. Access to daily digital tools is definitely something that should be considered when we think about evening out the gap of possibilities in life.

When it comes to the profits only going to the hands of few the article, to my opinion, makes it seem like the phenomenon would be particularly connected to AI. I feel like the skewed distribution of wealth and exploitation of natural resources is more a problem caused by all businesses.  Having the fairly easy possibility to hid money in tax havens and operating in countries with weak workers rights and weak currencies is too tempting to any company that operates in global scale. Why would AI and tech industries be any different? Although in internet tech industries there is especially few global players and giants like Google, Facebook and Amazon have an upper hand in developing AI and therefore controlling its use. Whatever possibilities a normal consumer had for making a political impact by selecting ethical companies over unethical ones they lack in web tech. But would people really move to more ethical Facebook if one appeared to the markets?

Lost & Not Found

Technology is everywhere, existing even in remote locations—especially outdated, abandoned devices. Broken and forlorn in ditches, they can be observed while hiking or picking berries or mushrooms, computer cases and storage devices are trashed amidst heavy home appliances.
In Introduction: The Materiality of Media and Waste, Jussi Parikka writes “…media are of nature, and return to nature”. This describes the intertwining of the processes and dependecies of materials and meanings. But media, once digested, processed and abandoned by humans, does not return to the nature to be a part of the nitrogen cycle. The contents of a broken DVD do not nourish the shrubs and moss that surround it.

Depending on the materials, it will take anywhere between hundreds to thousands or even millions of years for objects to decompose in the nature. Recycling solutions that would break up the materials of an object and reassemble them into new objects are unrealistic in a cultural system that is peculiar about the material qualities of said objects. Even if such a recycling solution existed, there would still be a part of the materials that could not be re-used. Additionally, the machinery used to break up and rearrange the materials requires energy—and thus resources. Despite this, we are accustomed to welcome new objects into a world already filled with objects, and continue conjuring relatively useless objects into the world in the hopes of finding new meanings or marginal profits.

The information on a packaging of any food item informs the consumer the food’s country of origin. The information printed in the casing of a smartphone only tells us where it was assembled: there’s no telling where the oil or minerals or the energy used on the assembly line originated from, and we really don’t care as it seemingly doesn’t affect the qualities of said device. But the material plane and the media infrastructures aren’t separate—what were the effects of tsunamis in Thailand for the international hard drive availability and sales (and the decisions to invest or not to invest on new storage space)? What are the effects of discarding a bunch of new graphics cards (that have been used for mining cryptocurrencies requiring heavy processing power)?

Currently in Amos Rex, works by Amsterdam-based collective Studio Drift are being exhibited: the ongoing project Materialism presents dissections of various everyday objects—such as a plastic bottle, a car or a mobile phone—as cubic compositions or assortments. On their website, Studio Drift describes their project: “…civilization has introduced millions of new ‘artificial species’ through the ecosystems of commerce, objects that support our pleasant, contemporary existence and contain myriad materials forged together by design. Yet, we feel disconnected from this materiality today, blind to the inner workings and composition of all these artificial things, much as we might have looked at the night sky and felt ignorant about the moon and stars in the days before the Renaissance.”

 

Sources/further reading

http://www.livingbooksaboutlife.org/books/Electronic_waste/Introduction

https://ourworldindata.org/faq-on-plastics

https://www.nytimes.com/2011/11/07/business/global/07iht-floods07.html

https://www.independent.co.uk/environment/bitcoin-climate-change-global-warming-cryptocurrency-mining-electricity-a8607036.html

https://amosrex.fi/en/studio-drift-elemental/

http://www.studiodrift.com/work#/materialism/

(Photo: Auri Mäkelä, ca. 2008)

Link

FREIGHTENED – The Real Price of Shipping is a 2016 documentary, revealing an investigation about the many faces and contradictions of massive shipping and sheds light on the consequences of an all-but-visible industry.

Aerial shot of the Puelche container ship

9 out of 10 products consumed today in the Western world come from over seas. This has created a disturbing paradox: buying a product manufactured in a far-off country is often cheaper than purchasing goods made within reach of terrestrial transport. The true backbone of today’s globalised economy is the sea freight apparatus, an armada of gigantic vessels, that yet remains largely obscure to many. Due to their size, freight ships no longer fit into traditional city harbours and so, they have moved away, out of the public’s eye. Only few people are aware that this entire industry is owned by few magnates, having influence on the world’s economy and even on governments. The documentary investigates the mechanics and risks of world-wide freight shipping to discover how this industry has ended up holding the key to our economy, our environment and the very model of our civilisation. The revolutionary invention of the container boosted the freight shipping industry converting it into one of the most lucrative businesses in the world today with 60 thousands vessels constantly sailing seas.

Swimmers share the beach with a rusty container ship

In our consumer-based society, everything is attainable in a short time period. Most likely, the products that we purchase are assembled in different places across oceans. The whole world is seen as a single factory; different tasks can be completed in different places where manufacturing costs are low. One of the consequences of this model is the exploitation of labour forces in emerging countries beside being one of the most dangerous pollution sources of the planet. It is calculated that the 20 largest vessels pump more sulphur into the atmosphere than all the billions cars on the planet. Unfortunately neither the Kyoto Protocol, nor the COP 21 climate agreement, mention “shipping” in any way or form. The IMO (International Maritime Organisation) is slowly taking steps to limit pollution from ships in northern Europe and parts of North America. But enforcing the regulation is proving problematic for member states as, rather unusually for a United Nation organisation, the IMO is funded by its’ member governments. The highest contributor to the IMO budget is Panama, followed by Liberia and the Marshall Islands, the three biggest fleets in the world. These countries sell their national flag to shipping companies so they can maximise profits by escaping tax and home territory labour regulations. The illegal practices of the freight shipping industry have enabled subversive economies to exist, only 2% of the million containers transiting the world’s shipping lanes is scanned or inspected by customs, turning them into an ideal means of conveyance for arm traders, drug traffickers and illegal immigration networks.

Philippine recruiters on the streets of Manila

This industry is, on the other end, highly necessary to fulfill the ever-increasing demands of our society, as it has become the most efficient and cost-effective means of transporting goods. Changes in this sector would require fundamental shifts in the foundations of our economical and social model. The documentary show also some of the different initiatives that are proving to be effective and economically viable. Alternatives such as wind power, which combined with other existing innovations, can reduce a ship’s fuel consumption by 30 to 40%. Other initiatives such as the online platform “ShippingEfficiency.org” launched by the NGO, The Carbon War Room and RightShip helps to increase information flows and transparency around the efficiency of the international shipping fleet. The ability to access accurate, transparent and timely information helps to generate a more efficient shipping industry and engages the buyers in a better practice of consumption. Nevertheless there are still big improvements to be done and compromises to be taken; policy-makers and institutions should take a firm stand to reform this industry and guide it towards better practices, so that shipping can become a true driver of growth that does not leave anybody on the wayside.

Source: https://www.freightened.com/

Dirty mining and clean data – a story about Swedish industry

I remember very well when in 2013, Facebook opened its first data center outside of the US in Luleå, a northern city in Sweden. It was in all the big news channels. One of the largest and most impactful social media corporations chose Sweden!

For Luleå, the deal with Facebook was a great advertisement for the city. One of the world’s most influential corporations chose to put its facilities there. Data as a product has the appearance of modernity, innovation, high-technology, creativity and in this case, green energy. It goes well with the way Sweden as a nation wants to market itself. Most news articles were written in a weirdly proud manner. The primary reason stated by Facebook was the natural cooling of the servers, provided by the cold climate, and the science magazine Forskning och Framsteg wrote an article jokingly named “This is where your likes are cooling down” (1). I remember spontaneously feeling proud as well. We Swedes are raised with a hate/love relationship to the USA. We love to feel better than the Americans, to look down on them for their capitalist, openly class dividing society structure. But we also watch mostly TV series and movies from Hollywood and think that English is much cooler than Swedish. Secrectly, we all want to move to New York, LA or San Francisco and pursue the American dream. We are sold the idea of a service society, where machines do the dirty work and we can sit back and enjoy our touch screens and fancy clothes.

That dream, however, soon fades if one leaves the big cities. Up until a few decades ago, Sweden was an industrial country, with people working in factories, farms, forests and mines. And even though we are pushed to believe that the industrial society died to give birth to the service based society, Sweden’s economy is still based on those old industries. Facebook and other IT companies make a good front page, but the dirtier industries supplying them with material and energy still exist. And this is where Luleå’s history as an industry city becomes interesting.

Luleå has largely flourished because of the iron mines in Malmberget close by, where Luleå has served as the harbour for exportation of iron goods since late 1800s. The municipality now consists of 77000 people and the city hosts one of Sweden’s leading technical universities. In the meantime, the mining town Malmberget is literally collapsing. The mine has created a 200 meter hole in the ground, constantly growing and swallowing buildings and roads. This has caused the city to expand in new directions and buildings are being moved away from the hole’s edges. In the future, Malmberget will not exist in the place where it is today.

The hole in Malmberget municipality, called Gropen in Swedish.

The mine is utilised by state owned corporation LKAB, which also runs the world’s largest underground mine in the inland city Kiruna (see map below). There, the effects of the mining are even bigger. The whole city of Kiruna is now being moved to a new location since the current one is collapsing. Some buildings are moved, but most of the city will be built completely from scratch to house all the mine workers and other citizens. The new city is said to be financially, socially and environmentally sustainable (2).Kiruna’s new city center in the front, with the mine visible in the far left.

Meanwhile, the ecological impact of the mining industry next door is non-reparable. Mining disrupts the landscape and leaves open wounds in the ground. There is always a risk of toxic contamination of fresh water and lakes. The mining industry in Sweden stands for 10% of the CO2 emissions of the country. The indigenous people of the Nordics, the Sami people, have historically and in the present fought against the mining industries since the effects for them can be loss of land, contamination of fresh water and reindeer routes from summer to winter pasture land being cut off (3). Still today, Sweden’s liberal mineral laws permits foreign companies to exploit land without the owner’s permission. The UN have critiqued Swedish governments for not doing enough to protect the indigenous people and their rights to their land (4).

Kiruna at the top and Luleå at the lower right on Google Maps.

Facebook is now planning to double the size of their data center in Luleå, making it 100,000 sqm. The center is purely driven on water energy, according to Facebook. It directly or indirectly gives full time work for 400 people per year, compared to LKAB who employs around 4000 people in Sweden, with a majority working in the northernmost regions, and indirectly provides work for thousands more through related industries. Sweden’s iron mines jointly produces 90% of the iron in Europe.

Some journalists raised the concern that data centers wouldn’t be able to replace the traditional industries, such as mining and forestry, when it comes to employing large numbers of people. Others have claimed that Facebook is just the first of many data companies that will open centers in northern Sweden, thus leading the way for more work opportunities in the future. But how many jobs can this sector actually produce, and especially in relation to its high energy consumption? Will it be possible for all those data centers to run on water energy? Probably not.

As stated previously on the blog, new media infrastructures are often built on top of existing infrastructures. The data center is no exception. In 1910-1915, a large power plant was built in Lule älv, a river ending in Luleå, to be able to replace some of the coal imported from Europe. But the water flow was too high during Spring. Eyes fell on the newly inaugurated national park surrounding Stora sjöfallen, at the time one of Europe’s biggest water falls. The decision was taken from the government to exclude the water fall from the national park so that it could be dammed, with the consequence that the water flow in the river could be controlled like a tap. The Sami people who fished in the area, and who’s reindeer lands would be put under water, were not asked for permission. If the same decision was taken today, it would lead to massive demonstrations from the public (5). I have been at Stora sjöfallet myself. It is a large silent lake with a small flow of water coming down the water fall.

Surely it isn’t Facebook’s fault that those precious nature resources were destroyed a hundred years ago, and one can argue that the mining industry is necessary for providing the world with minerals. But the societal structure that killed Stora Sjöfallet at the beginning of the century is still working its magic, but now on a global scale. With a promise of work opportunities, multinational corporations are allowed to exploit land and energy resources not just in developing countries, but also in Sweden, whether they are producing minerals or data. Only a tiny portion of the capital produced goes back to the local inhabitants, and even less to the indigenous people. Those mines provide material that is necessary for computers, phones, cables, etc to exist in the first place. So Facebook’s “clean energy footprint” is not so clean after all. But perhaps, if we continue down this path of environmental destruction, the world will look much like the inside of a data center in the end. Lots of blinking machines, but no life.

Facebook’s data center in Luleå, Sweden.

Further readings in English:

http://samer.se/4623

https://www.theguardian.com/cities/2018/dec/02/kiruna-swedish-arctic-town-had-to-move-reindeer-herders-in-the-way

Sources (in Swedish):

https://fof.se/tidning/2017/1/artikel/har-svalnar-dina-likes

https://hallbartbyggande.com/det-nya-kiruna-en-hallbar-modellstad-tar-form/)

https://www.naturskyddsforeningen.se/nyheter/gruvindustrins-gruvligaste-effekter

https://sverigesradio.se/sida/artikel.aspx?programid=2054&artikel=4289211)

http://ottossonochottosson.se/blog/reportage/historien-om-ett-vattenfall/

https://www.lkab.com/sv/SysSiteAssets/documents/publikationer/broschyrer/det-har-ar-lkab.pdf

The physical form on internet

How  Lisa Parks and Nicole Starosielski in their article “Signal Traffic: Critical Studies of Media Infrastructures” explain the need for the big server companies to present their data centers in a physical form shows something interesting of people. We need something to take a physical form in order to think that it is real. This has caused the companies that we may use daily to see less personal and part of a world that is not truly present.

Google and Facebook seem like very distant companies, whose presence only matter somewhere far away from Finland. I speculate that in many ways the invisibility of the actions and actual work by the big tech companies has saved them for the ethical reviewal and responsibility. You don’t really think of them as companies consisting of people, the people are rendered out of the picture (with the exception of single face Mark Zuckerberg maybe). Even now that we have started to talk about the social responsibility of the effects of algorithms, the fact that running a data center consumes ridiculous amount of power is not widely known or hardly ever brought up in ethical discussion of sustainability. Nobody also remembers how the new tech has changed how the whole country and it’s crucial infrastructure operates – we talk about more familiar topics everyone has experienced first hand, like school system, taxes or health care.

On top of the illusion of the internet living in a space that is not connected to the physical world around us, the technicality going into the internet infrastructure is intimidatingly complex. For many, seeing code causes an immediate adverse reaction, and talking about the complexity of the data politics and deals one gets so drawn into details that it’s difficult to see the bigger picture. It’s a scary thought, that maybe the world around us is turning too complex for people to make rational, well informed decisions in politics of the topics that truly make changes under the surface, especially when the political game is changing more emotionally provocative along with populism.

Undersea internet cables seen through art

Artist that came to mind while thinking of media infrastructure: EVAN ROTH – Landscape with a ruin

Images taken from the webpage: http://www.evan-roth.com/work/landscape-with-a-ruin/

(Photo by Vinciane Lebrun-Verguethen, courtesy of the Mona Bismarck American Center)

Roth’s art piece comments on the undersea internet cables. I found his webpage maybe a year ago and Samir Bhowmik’s own work on these cables made me remember this.

This is my post commenting on the first lecture, delayed because of technical issues 😉

FIRST NOTES ON ANIMAL RELATIONS TO MEDIA INFRASTRUCTURE

When reading the introduction to Signal Traffic I got the most interested in the thoughts as “We cannot separate media from bio-physicality.” and Nadia Bozaks idea of “The Cinematic Footprint.” When doing a little bit of searching, I found a writer, a media theorist and professor Jussi Parikka and his Insect Media An Archaeology of Animals and Technology book where he analyzes the relations of insect forms of social organization and media technology. I would like to dive deeper into this book.

(photo: Jussi Parikka)

My interest is especially in encounters of media infrastructures and animals. Lisa Parks writes about ospreys on cell towers and a case where a zoo chimpanzee escapes, ends up on the power lines and gets viral and wildlife-crossing in an article called Mediating Animal-Infrastructure Relations from this year. There are interesting thoughts about how animals become infrastructural. If you think of birds, they naturally locate themselves when moving away during winter. How does media infrastructure, for example signal traffic affect on that instinct or is there an affect at all?

Lisa Parks claims in the article mentioned above that all infrastructures are media infrastructures. If we think of anthropocentric agriculture, where cattle, sheep, horses, hens and all the other species, it makes it quite obvious to think that they are mostly part of infrastructure. All this makes me wonder the affect on other species when used as a part of infrastructure, manipulated and how it affects them genetically? How does technical devices affect them as well, how for example milk production technological infrastructure affect on cattle evolution? How much can there be manipulated and what will become of it? How much AI affects to agricultural infrastructure? Also how we maintain this agricultural infrastructure indirectly and how are we part of it?

Deep time and Gossip

While reading the chapter on “Deep time of Media infrastructure” by Shannon Mattern, I started thinking of other texts I’ve read about how civilisation started. The traditional western way of telling history is that “civilised manners” such as advanced hierarchies and communities built of hundreds of people, were born out of agriculture and settlements. Abandoning the original way of life, Homo sapiens in several places in the world suddenly went from hundreds of thousands of years of being nomads, to settling down and starting agriculture.

However, newer research shows that people who led nomadic or half-nomadic lifestyles, could have very complex group dynamics and belief systems. Instead it might have been the other way around – humans slowly developed more and more complex societies and ways of manipulating or taking control over large groups of people, and this in turn led to the ability of developing agriculture, which in its turn led to permanent settlements.

When I was reading Harari’s book “Sapiens”, it really struck me again that the notion that humanity became complex creatures once we settled down and stopped being nomads, is completely false. The only thing that we can know for sure is that these cities and infrastructures that we have today, would not have been possible without settling down.

On the other hand – what infrastructures did and does nomadic people have, that we do not? And even more striking – has the way that we intuitively develop infrastructure over the millennia, even after the vast majority of the world’s population aren’t nomads anymore – been influenced by the way we inherently are nomads as a species?

Harari brings up something else that he sees as crucial for peaceful coexistence in large groups: Gossip. He claims that all apes are intensely interested in social information and that Homo sapiens’ way of speaking developed from gossip. Since we weren’t large and effective predators, cooperation was the key to survival even early on. It’s much more important to know who’s sleeping with who, who hates who, who is honest and who is a trickster, than in what direction the lions are.

This mean of communication – spread from person to person throughout large groups of people – must have influenced the way media infrastructure developed right from the start. Even though the word “gossip” has a bad connotation in today’s society, it’s still taking up a vast amount of space, energy and time in our lives. Gossip is often something that women are considered doing, perhaps because women traditionally have taken care of the home sphere and the relationships of the family. But if this is the force that actually holds us together as a species – why do we then despise it so much?

A large portion of today’s media is taken up by pure gossip, whether there is truth behind it or not. Most of the stories are impossible for us to fact check ourselves. News articles, social media posts and blog posts tell us the latest weird thing Trump did, what the Kardashians are up to and that Jay-z has cheated on Beyoncé again. Most of us don’t know these people personally and have no direct link to them. We have to trust the source or find other sources. This is the strength and the weakness of human societies today. Shannon Mattern again:

Overlooking the way gossip and other ways of communicating has shaped media infrastructure, is perhaps one of the reasons we’re in such a hot mess today. It’s called “social” media for a reason – its primary task is not to offer the truth, but for humans to be social, to gossip. If we took this inherent human trait into account – how would we want to change the infrastructures of media then? And how can we develop trustful ways of tracing the source of information?

Hungry for bandwidth?

Based on the data reported in the 2018 edition of the “Sandvine Global Internet Phenomena Report” a statement is made clear and indisputable: “Video is bigger than ever”.

Sandvine, a networking equipment company based in California, put the spotlight on the consolidated phenomenon of “video streaming”, a practice that keep busy near the 58% of the global downstream internet traffic. The video streaming world does not include only the most known and mainstream services such as Netflix, YouTube, and Amazon Prime. Operator-based streaming and direct consumer streaming are also a big part of the scheme, many operators provide streaming of the content that they own the rights, as well as every network which streams their content in some way. Not to mention social network video sharing and direct video chat services.

Among this various environment of streaming services, one above all has managed to reach the apex in its category, and obviously this one is the more than notorious NETFLIX.
This streaming giant is available today worldwide basically in every country (except four), and with its average total amount of internet traffic near to the 15% (19% in the U.S.), has reached the position of “top video site in the world”.

The dominance of this “giant of streaming”, is even more impressive when the efficiency of its service is taken in analysis. Netflix deserves a lot of credit for reducing the throughput (the amount of data passing through the system) needed to stream its contents. This means that Netflix could easily be 3 times its current volume and at 40% of network traffic, all the time.

On the others positions of this ranking we can found other services with similar percentages to Netflix, but if considering that the categories “HTTP Media Stream – Raw MPEG-TS – QUIC”  are communication protocols, and not services and most of the YouTube contents are available for free, we can see that the only “player” similar to Netflix in this ranking is the Amazon Prime service.

The “newborn” streaming service provided by the global colossus Amazon, has made its voice be heard, not only in the US, but also in other 200 countries worldwide, increasing constantly its presence in the global traffic.
Still, being on the biggest commercial competitor for Netflix, its numbers are still far away from the “top positions” of this ranking.

Even with this abundance of “streaming platform”, another big (and mostly unofficial) player keeps its relevance on the internet traffic, the “BitTorrent” protocol. BitTorrent is the dominant file sharing protocol on the internet, its impact is interesting particularly in the EMEA (Europe – Middle East – Africa) region, where often, the delays or unavailability of “high quality” or “high demanded” content (especially from the U.S.) results, in a increasingly higher file sharing practice.

In the EMEA, with over the 30% of upstream traffic, BitTorrent dominates upstream with a higher ratio of traffic than in any other region. Content rights in EMEA can be complicated, and consumers are more and more cautious on which method or technology to use in the practice of “file transfering”. In the meantime the EU is attempting to block and obstruct these file sharing sites, resulting in what is very similar to a  “game of whack-a-mole”, where when one site gets taken down, another one (or more) pops up to replace it.

 

Link to the “”Sandvine Global Internet Phenomena Report” complete document:
https://www.sandvine.com/hubfs/downloads/phenomena/2018-phenomena-report.pdf

Mediated and Unmediated Cities

The ways in which cities and other living environments are mediated are quite known and researched. If there is a mediated city, surely there exists an unmediated counterpart?

In various contexts, an unmediated city is seen as a city that is not mapped and thus unpredictable. Such an uncharted area is perhaps generally seen as not subject to human intervention, but even abandoned or unlawful constructs could be seen as unmediated ones – given that they have not been mapped and brought into broader knowledge. In many cases throughout the history, the construction of new complexes has either been overlooked by the government due to a political crisis, or the construction has been halted due to financial problems.

Examples of such constructs could include the now-demolished Kowloon Walled City in Hong Kong (inspiration for many dystopian books and films), or Torre de David in Caracas, Venezuela (damaged in 2018 earthquakes). Both of these constructs or complexes could be considered unmediated as they were unmapped, uncharted, unfinished. But they were mediated by their inhabitants, who are told to have formed closely-knit communities in order to overcome the threats from outside the complexes. The inhabitants took matters into their own hands and modified the complex according to their own wishes.

The remnants of Pripyat (Ukraine) could also been seen as unmediated: of human origin, but all objects and belongings have been scattered around the ruins as people fled the vicinity of Chernobyl reactor, and being scattered further by the forces of nature, animals and the occasional scavenger. No one has intentionally arranged the decaying objects – they are where they were left, and no one is looking after them. (Side note: there is also a great documentary about people who still live in the area.) A mediated city is different: trash are picked up, graffitis and tags get removed, broken sidewalks are repaired by workers assigned to tend to them.

Is the internet mediated or unmediated? In the 1960’s Marshall McLuhan theorized the introduction of new forms of communication would form a global village, not only revolutionizing the way people communicate, but also extend its effect into all areas of human life. According to McLuhan, time would cease and and space would vanish entirely, reuniting people with their primordial nature and tribal emotions. McLuhan argued we would enter a period of post-history, as the past and present would become intertwined and be simultaneously present.

Elissavet Georgiadou pointed out in 2002 that the internet was (and still is) populated by the elite. Ultimately, the reasons behind the digital divide are poverty as well as political and cultural control. The development of the Internet is interrelated to geographical and social inequalities”, Georgiadou wrote.

Has current technology as well as everyday media usage managed to create the global village McLuhan wrote about? Is the internet more mediated now that it was 10 or 20 years ago? How to mediate such a global village, when inhabitants of a city have little to no way of having an effect on their surroundings? What kind of media infrastructures could unmediated areas offer?

(Photo: Kowloon Walled City in 1989. Ian Lambot, Wikipedia)

Google’s cable investments

There was an article recently on New York Times covering Google’s undersea projects. They have a nice map of the history of undersea cables and which of them Facebook, Google, Microsoft or Amazon “partly own, solely own or are a major capacity buyer of a cable owned by another company”.

Map published in New York Times. Graphics by Karl Russell, Troy Griggs and Blacki Migliozzi.

It looks like the share of these major content providers among all internet cables is increasing quite rapidly. And especially Google is taking lead of creating its own cable infrastructure.

There is an interview of Jayne Stowell, who oversees construction of Google’s undersea cable projects. Couple of nice comments:

“People think that data is in the cloud, but it’s not,”
“It’s in the ocean.”

“It really is management of a very complex multidimensional chess board,” said Ms. Stowell of Google, who wears an undersea cable as a necklace.

There is also interviews and pictures of guys working in the cable ship Durable that Google uses for its laying operations.

“I still get seasick,” said Walt Oswald, a technician who has been laying cables on ships for 20 years. He sticks a small patch behind his ear to hold back the nausea. “It’s not for everybody.”

Recommend to read!

Here’s couple more images of what Google is planning from company blog post.

Thesis and Soulless city development

Pictures from Luca Picardi’s research

My thesis project is about creating a space that would be easily approachable and offer a blank canvas for the local population to create something that represents themselves in a real way, not an interpretation of what their cultural identity is.

I think it has to do with what Richard Sennet talks about when he says that over- zoned and rationalized cities are actually not good for its inhabitants and that the real development happens in the cracks of what’s allowed. So I would say that my thesis project is a vision of a created space that makes this human, natural and anarchistic way of living possible. Would it be a controlled crack?

Helsinki has had these wet dreams about becoming a metropolis for the last ten years. That means that the construction hasn’t really gone I waves, the areas that have been developed are huge (eg. Jätkäsaari) and the result is soulless neighborhoods. They’re just some city planners vision of what the area should be. In Eeva Berglund’s and Cindy Kohtalas book, Changing Helsinki they state that the city and companies, who’re financing the development of the city have no interest in the local everyday life nor the history of the city. It can be seen in the kind of international buildings constructed, the fairly new concert hall for example. They even had a quote from Italo Calvino’s book, Invisible Cities. According to Berglund and Kohtala, the direction where the city is going is ending up reminding all the other cities with Starbucks, branded neighborhoods and financial districts.

Luca Picardi has compared newly developed areas from different cities and found out that they remind each other a lot. https://www.lucapicardi.com/FAMILIAR Jätkäsaari is one of the areas that was compared.

The way Romans used their architecture as a surface for written media was fascinating. Would they see the commercials that can be seen in our current cityscape as rubbish? I find the video screens that are starting to replace the old paper rolling ones as something that should be illegal. There should be laws for(maybe there are) when commercials are invading peoples personal space too much.

Hydropolis & Cybercity

Infrastructure used to refer to roads, tunnels and other public works. In Signal Traffic, Shannon Mattern points out how words “architecture” along with “telecommunications” and “media” began to trend in the 1960’s, approximately at the same time. “Infrastructures made human settlements possible”, Mattern continues, and this indeed the case with the Salpausselkä ridges spreading across Southern and South-Eastern Finland: a national highway number 12 follows the Salpausselkä I ridge, along with a railway and some major cities and towns. The formation itself does not stand out very much from the landscape, save for a few steep quarries revealing the moraine and materiality of the ridge. According to Mattern, an area in which human settlements gathered, also forms an infrastructure — “an area of local intercourse”. What are examples of these areas and what kinds of local intercourses do they entail?

Considering the various urban forms: topography, transportation, cosmology, philosophy, defense… Everything intertwines and services merge to one another. An example could be a case of postal services piggybacking in the cargo compartment of a vehicle intended for commuting. Decreased commuting may mean changing timetables and thus affecting the time when the postal service is able to do their work. That means people receive their mail less frequently or later during the day — how will everyday habits be shaped by such a trivial change in society?

How are cities mediated or unmediated? Was there an unmediated era, and what did it look like compared to today? What were the visual characteristics of an unmediated city: unpainted surfaces, human-sized buildings? We can now access overviews of areas more easily with drones or with the aid of Google Earth. Has it already changed views of how we construct neighborhoods or new suburbs?

The intermingling of temporalities: old and new form interfaces with one another, sometimes leaking into one another. New technologies are introduced, old are discarded, but not entirely. During the implementation of mobile network technologies, analog television broadcasts were phased out. If you listen to amateur radio, unused bandwidth frees up space in the “spectrum” for other purposes and transmission of data. Listening to the various signals nowadays (conveniently with the help of an online SDR), aside from voice communication, one may find out there are people out there still communicating with morse code; planes transmit some of the flight data as continuous signals to airports without manual human reporting; remote weather stations send weather data, all this without the help of internet connection that the contemporary human is so dependent on.

It is evident the Salpausselkä ridges are natural formations that have supported human activity for thousands of years: their affordances have allowed convenient ways to arrange defense, logistics, trade routes, services and other industrial endeavors. The formations are an obvious location for erecting radio/TV/telephone masts and water towers. Some buildings and sites have been built on top of the ridge to highlight their presence in the area, or to offer the visitors an outlook to enjoy.

Lauttasaari water tower was taken down in 2015. In an article by HSY about constructing a new water tower instead of trying to preserve the old one, it is stated that repurposing old water towers is an expensive and difficult feat, depending on the way the tower has been originally constructed. A study conducted in Romania points out how many of the old water towers have been converted into sites for preserving cultural artefacts or sites for cultural activities. In many cases, radio towers and antennas are located on top of a water tower. What is the relationship between the hydropolis of water and waste with an electrified and communicative cybercity?

The Salpausselkä ridges contain majority of the groundwater reserves of the area. The gravel within the ridge filters the water — some of this water is bottled, and the water can be bought from Finnish supermarkets. What is the future of water system when faced with challenges such as drought? How are these very essential and invisible infrastructures and related ecosystems designed to prevail?

(Image: Jari Laamanen, Wikipedia)

 

Deep Time – Infrastructure surrounding speech and voice.

Infrastructure for oration and speech in cities has played an important role in communication and mediation of the urban space. However, when talking about ‘voice’, it is important to also look at infrastructure surrounding the oppression of certain voices. With every amphitheater, Forum and town hall built, one has to question who had access to these spaces. Often, infrastructure surrounding public discourse has sub-structures embedded in it that deliberately leave out voices considered unimportant or unworthy by the powerful. Even with print publications, newspapers and books, the same questions of access and opportunity are valid.

For example, the caste system in India is a kind of social infrastructure which codifies the ‘value’ of individuals –  and thus, their voices – according to the hierarchical spot they occupy within the structure. The conscious, systemic and insidious social structures enforced for 4000 + years is essentially a form of infrastructure used to control whose voices are heard, read or watched. Ancient Indian scientific and theological knowledge was created by and for the Brahmins (priests, upper caste). Dalits (lower castes) were – and to a certain extent, are – not allowed to access to public spaces or public knowledge and have been ghettoized as a result of conscious infrastructural decisions made by the upper castes.

Furthermore, the caste system resulted in silos, where people were confined to their own social groups and had access to only their group.For example, there are many newspapers for Dalits and by Dalits, but they are systematically kept away from integration into the mainstream.

Another example of social structures extending themselves to physical infrastructures can be seen in the lack of disability access to public spaces across the world. In terms of urban planning, ghettos and slums tend to be far away from central places and communication services like the internet or the postal service vary in quality within a city as much as they do across countries.

Socio-economically weaker people would be hired or enslaved to carry the water.

People as infrastructure –

Not only do people naturally tend to fill up infrastructural gaps, but the history of oppression shows us that certain groups of people are viewed as infrastructure by other people. Slaves were a form of infrastructure for the landowners, Dalits are infrastructure as sanitation workers and in some places, women are still considered as mere infrastructure to further the male line. In fact, oppressed people groups only get liberated when they stop being viewed as infrastructure and are given ‘personhood’ by the mainstream. Today, animals are basically treated as industrial infrastructure producing milk and meat.

The residues of these older infrastructural elements have leaked into the present in the form of racism, patriarchy and the continuous exploitation of Dalits.

Given more time, I would like to research deeper into the infrastructures surrounding oppression,  I’m sure there are examples from all over the world.

Talking Walls

In the chapter “Deep time of media infrastructure” in the book “Signal Traffic”, while talking about the Roman Empire is mentioned that “The Romans seemed to inscribe into everything”, commuting every suitable surfaces in meanings of communication. This concept is quite evident walking around Rome and watching the surfaces of monuments filled with every kind of inscription, symbols and low reliefs. Thinking about roman monuments there’s maybe one of them which is particularly impressive for the amount of informations “stored” in a single artefact: The Trajan Column.

The column was erected to commemorates Roman emperor Trajan’s victory in the Dacian Wars and built between 107 CE and 113 CE. The continuous helical frieze of the column winds twenty-three times from base to capital for a total of 200 mt length, portraying Trajan’s two victorious military campaigns against the Dacians, split in 114 “scenes”.

It’s still not completely clear which was the final purpose of the column, surely the “commemorative” and “celebrative” function were the main ones, but also the communicative impact is outstanding and unprecedented in this kind of monuments. It’s impressive still today the huge amount of work put in the realisation of this monument and the number of information that a single “piece” of architecture is able to communicate.

The desire of human beings to express themselves or testify something on “public surfaces” such as walls and monuments has not decreased since the times of ancient Romans. Nowadays our cities are filled with symbols, scripts, printings and drawing on walls, from the “official” ones such as advertisements to the most “subversive” ones, also known as “mural paintings” or “graffiti”.

Blu – via delle Conce, via del Porto Fluviale

Graffitis are an interesting form of expression to confront to pieces such as romans monuments, If we think about it the purpose has remained the same, the celebration, the testimony and the communication. This kind of “public” form of expression appeals to the inner desire of human beings to be remembered, so from the smallest “tag” on a wall made with a marker to the biggest, complicated and “artistic” works, graffiti are the modern answer to this personal and a maybe too much selfish human “need”.

 

 

The many shapes of Olivetti company

When we have started talking about the ways in which, old media infrastructures meets new technologies, and how they begins to shape each other, suddenly a pretty fitting example came to my mind. If we think about the recent years, Italy is not a country often mentioned in the environment of digital and technological innovation, nowadays the U.S. and the asian countries incarnate the “north star” in the field of technology development.

But, if we go back a few years, there was a time, between the 30s and the 60s, when a small company in the north of Italy was leading the progress of media technologies and communication: Olivetti.

When, in 1908, the company was founded, it was identified as “The first national typewriter manufacturer” and the production of typewriters remained the “core-business” of the company for many years, mostly until the 60s. Besides the production of the “traditional” typewriters, the company had several “top-selling” products such as calculators and accountant machines, sold both in the internal and on the international market.

During the years, and thanks to the the innovations in the electronic field, the Olivetti products started to become less mechanical and more electronic to keep the pace with the booming progress, and there was when the problems started to arise.

    

During the second half of the sixties the company tried to compete, without success, with the Japanese production of electronic calculators and also tried to release on the market a new innovative product: the first personal computer.

The “Programma 101” was presented at the New York’s BEMA exhibition in 1965 and was a huge “public success”, the machine it was a desk automatic calculator, non nearly similar to modern computers but it was a big leap forward both for the technological innovation as for the revenues of the company.

During the next years the company struggled to keep the pace of the U.S. and Japanese companies but still managing to put on the market some “top-selling” products such as the “Olivetti ET101” the world’s first electronic typewriter in 1978, in 1979 the “Olivetti Advanced technology center” was opened in Cupertino, CA, just two blocks away from the Apple headquarter, and during te 80s the company knew a new period of success also thanks to the collaboration with the American company AT&T, becoming one of the most important European manufacturers of personal computers.

During the 90s and with the beginning of the rise of mobile communications the lack of funding and the crisis of European and Italian markets prevented the company to keep the pace with the spreading of this new technologies starting a quick decline, but the company contribution to the world of technology development was not yet at his end.

At the beginning of the new century the Olivetti Company together with the telecommunication company “Telecom Italia” founded and opened the “Interaction Design Institute Ivrea”, a graduate design program in the field of Interaction Design, The school operated from 2001 to 2005 and was involved in many projects that became relevant later in the design world: among them, the prototyping boards “Wiring” and “Arduino”, the graphics software prototyping environment “Processing”.

   

Besides the iconic design of their products, Olivetti always managed to maintain a clear and recognisable “corporate image” both in their products as in their infrastructures. Starting from the first iconic “red brick factory” to the realisation of their retail stores, a design on which Apple has based the one of their “Apple Stores”. And again their production plants all over the world and also the “Blue House”, home of the Interaction Design Institute and build for Adriano Olivetti in order to open a research center.

   

The Olivetti story is one, amongst many other, “forgotten” stories of the world of media, from the printed paper since the invention of the personal computer, a small player in a world of gigantic companies, but that has managed, here and here, to influence forever the world of technology, design and media.

About captchas and trackers

I was excited about the large scale of media infrastructures mentioned in the introduction chapter and how things are connected but hard to see. The connection between web and biophysical world is easy to forget. Where does all the small pieces of regular websites like cookies and such come from? Who provides them and why they exist? Are they hyper-objects?

In Autumn, I studied CAPTCHA systems for a project, especially Google’s reCAPTCHA, which is commonly used captcha program on the internet. Recaptcha is a fully automated web security program that developers can use for free to protect their sites. Recaptcha’s primary function is to determine whether a visitor of the page is a human (good) or a “robot” such as spamming bot (bad).

But Recaptcha – unlike captchas before – creates secondary value too.

Recaptcha challenges are made so that they employ visitors to create useful data for Google. Recaptcha has provided useful information to digitize old books, improve Google Maps and develop machine learning algorithms.

Different captchas. (Source: back40design.com.)

Some critics have seen a connection between Recaptcha and Google’s deal with U.S. Department of Defense to analyze drone footage. Manuel Beltran thinks that while solving Google’s captcha challenges, clueless people become labour to create data that helps the U.S. Army.

Another example of blind spot in the web for humans are trackers that collect information of users. Probably most commonly used web service that uses trackers is Google Analytics. When its tracker is placed within a website, the site sends data to Google’s server. That server is located somewhere – maybe in Hamina or maybe in the United States.

Screenshot of the project website Algorithms Allowed.

Artist Joana Moll investigated the usage of trackers in websites of countries that US is enforcing embargoes and sanctions including Cuba, Iran, North Korea, Sudan, Syria, and the Ukrainian region of Crimea. She scraped websites with the fitting domains of these countries.

She found some interesting use cases of US-company-owned trackers: President of Iran official website uses Google Analytics, Ministry of Defense of Iran uses Google Analytics, Ministry of Finance of Syria uses Google Analytics, and so on.

It is amusing that webmasters of these governmental websites let US corporations read data of their visitors. I argue that it happens because it is hard for people to understand that few lines of code in a website may mean something in a physical world too.

Link to Joana Moll’s project Algorithms Allowed (2017).

Notes

I found the text as a nice and clear addition to what we learned in the previous lecture. The fact that media, internet and so on, does not exist without the physical framework is intriguing. You easily think about eg. the internet as this immaterial thing, without giving a thought on how and why it exists. The intercontinental cables, data centers and the politics that are involved are also fascinating. It is mentioned in the text that Rogers and O’Neil argue that infrastructure can often be the instrumental medium used for violence. One example that is mentioned is the cellular phone infrastructures in Israel-Palestine. Media and the structures behind it could be compared directly to water and the ways it has been used in the past to control people and used as a tool in warfare.

 

The cellular tower footprint part super interesting. In the past, people have settled close to rivers to have resources, food, and transportation. Nowadays it is essential to have an internet connection for staying connected in this world. I’m interested if there are urban areas being developed around areas that offer the necessary infrastructures. This can probably happen in areas where there has not been funding for the necessary infrastructures.

 

Somehow the physical dimension of media and immaterial infrastructure is in the other dimension than other physical objects. The reason is maybe that we cannot see what eg. the router is actually doing.  The material infrastructure is like the visible part of mycelium, the mushroom. The secondary value the water tower developed, reminded me of the gps pokemon game a couple years back. Suomenlinna, for example, got a new kind of value when a training center in the app was placed on the island.

 

After reading the article, I was fascinated with the idea of finding a way to make the physical and the immaterial side of infrastructures possible to experience in the same medium. I’ve seen some maps that show how internet traffic goes around the globe through the nodes. It could be cool to not use VR or other high-tech solutions to display the data. I would like having people trying to imagine the whole thing based on the information they get. It could be in form of a table game. Information + instructions on how to make the most use of it, making it a game could make it easier to learn or understand.

 

Low Tech Mag https://solar.lowtechmagazine.com/ is a website where alternative and more sustainable solutions are discussed. One of the articles is about how to make a solar powered server. The site behind the link is a proof of concept, a solar-powered version of the official website. Many of the articles are about super local networks, something that is maybe going to be mentioned later in this course.

Three notes on the Introduction of Signal Traffic

  1. Scholarship which is more intellectually accessible, and not just produced for other scholars to consume.

 

2. What is not media infrastructure?

 

3. Assuming infrastructure as something in the background or being invisible, the modernist design movement bases its aesthetic on the pretense that infrastructure doesn’t exist. Media devices and other products, architecture, etc need to look ‘effortless’ in order to be modern. Traditional minimalism opposes any reminder of messy infrastructural elements. It serves the capitalist agenda to make everything seem simpler than it really is. It also follows, that deliberately revealing infrastructural elements became a big part of postmodern design.

Deliberately hiding infrastructure 

Deliberately revealing infrastructure

On Infrastructures, Media Spectacles and Archeology: A Hypertext

For my MA thesis project I’m having a look into online video streaming services in the context of contemporary video art. From the viewpoint of media infrastructures, it would be interesting to examine the amount of bandwidth currently allocated for video streaming – the possible effects that can be seen, felt or measured. What does it require to keep video streams operational? How about the quality of service? TV broadcasts used to (and still do, to some extent) affect people’s feelings and behavior. But does it make people stay collectively in their homes during a broadcast they are looking forward to seeing, such as concerts, serializations, or sports? Does this happen in the age of video streaming, or are there new established patterns of behavior that effect the environment?

Currently there are several big construction projects going on in Finland, perhaps megalomaniac in nature and seemingly conducted without much feedback from the communities that surround them. Thus it would be interesting to have a look at one such project, examining the implications of these emerging constructs, which reach far beyond  their physical realm.

Despite the increase of popularity in e-commerce, several shopping centres have been constructed during the recent years (Redi in Kalasatama, opened in 2018). The construction of such centers are still underway (Tripla in Pasila, to be gradually opened in 2019–2020). Prior to Redi’s completion there existed brief public discourse expressing fears of the smaller brick-and-mortar-operated businesses’ disappearance. Despite the crowd’s initial interest towards the new shopping centre, it would appear the popularity of Redi is has failed to fulfil the expectations. What kind of concepts were these shopping centers initially proposed as, and when were they planned? In what ways were they supposed to integrate into and communicate with their surroundings, physical as well as psycho-social? Why do buildings like Oodi bask in the attention of the crowds instead?

One example of a stark contrast between a past and future state of an environment is the KymiRing project, constructed in the Kymenlaakso region in Finland. Prior to the project, the area of Tillola was quite empty – only some outdoor sports paths, earth-moving activities and minor industrial facilities have existed in the area for past few decades. The area has been a natural gateway throughout the history of humankind, from the water-pathways of the Stone Age to the settlements of Bronze Age, up until trade routes of the contemporary human and the present day. Because of the KymiRing project and the number of existing relics or ancient monuments in the region, the area was charted for possible new archeological findings prior to KymiRing’s construction.

How will such an international project affect the environment and the surrounding area? What kind of media infrastructures must be established in order to be able to transmit such a media spectacle to the rest of the world? What kind of a layer does the world of motor sports introduce to the coniferous forest growing on a ridge left behind the last ice age?

(Photo: Auri Mäkelä. Trees growing in Tillola, ca. 2006)

SYLLABUS 2019 [Draft] Updated: 11.12.2018

Archaeology of  Media Infrastructures Winter-Spring 2019 DOM-E5006

Wednesdays 15.15 – 17.00

Dr. Samir Bhowmik
samir.bhowmik@aalto.fi
Media Lab / Department of Media
Aalto University School of Arts Design and Architecture

Course Summary

The course provides a framework of archaeological exploration of media infrastructures. It allows students to think beyond a single media device and design for broader media ecologies. Tracing the emergence of contemporary media infrastructures from early instances in human and media history, it examines both hard infrastructure (architecture, mechanical and computing systems) and soft infrastructure (software, APIs and operating systems). What are the breaks, the discontinuities and ruptures in media-infrastructural history? What has been remediated, in what form, in what characteristics? The course prepares students for the follow-up course: ‘Media and the Environment’ in Autumn 2019.

Study Material: Recommended reading list. Readings as PDFs will be posted in the study materials folder in myCourses.aalto.fi

Assessment Methods and Criteria: Classes are spread over Winter-Spring 2019. 80% attendance and completed assignments are required to pass the course. Co-authored short paper based on selected themes as final assignment, and/or prototypes that demonstrate aspects of the subject.

Grading Weightage:

In-class Discussion: 30% / Documentation (blog): 40% / Final Project / Article: 30%

*Students who stay above 50% will Pass.

Documentation

– Course blog: https://blogs.aalto.fi/mediainfrastructures/  Login will be provided.

– Every student will contribute to the blog. You are expected to post every week before start of class a 1 page text (300 words).

– Read the assigned literature for each class. These can be found from the Syllabus, and as well from myCourses.aalto.fi.

– Annotate and write a 1 page text. This document may have images / video / links etc.

– The text can be your reflections, examples, projects, ideas etc. as related to the topic and literature of the week. This may also contain the building blocks of your own final project / article whether it may be a piece of writing, visualization or project.

– Final projects must also be posted on the course blog.

– Besides the required documentation, you are free to post anything else related to the subject, that could be useful to you or others.

– Documentation to the blog will hold a 40% weightage for a pass/fail grade. At least 5 posts out of max total of 8.

 

Schedule of Classes

Week 1 – February 27: Course Overview

We will discuss the various aspects of the course including themes, topics, analyses and documentation. Also, we will talk about choosing individual or group projects for the course.

Summary of Case Studies:

– Urban Media Infrastructures

– Memory Infrastructures

– Global Communications Infrastructures

– Artificial Intelligence (AI) Infrastructures

 

Week 2 – March 6: Media Infrastructure: Introduction

LECTURE

DISCUSSION IN-CLASS:

Lisa Parks and Nicole Starosielski, “Introduction,” in Signal Traffic: Critical Studies of Media Infrastructures, ed. Lisa Parks and Nicole Starosielski (Urbana, Chicago And Springfield: University Of Illinois Press, 2015), 1-27.

DEBATE (2-3 teams): Medium (single device) vs Infrastructural Approaches

Secondary Readings:

    1. Susan Leigh Star, The Ethnography of Infrastructure, American Behavioral Scientist 43 (3), 1999: 377-391.
    2. Brian Larkin, “The Politics and Poetics of Infrastructure,” Annual Review of Anthropology 42 (2013): 327-343.

 

Week 3 – March 13: Deep Time of Media / Infrastructure

LECTURE

DISCUSSION IN-CLASS:

Shannon Mattern, “Deep Time of Media Infrastructure,” in Signal Traffic: Critical Studies of Media Infrastructures, ed. Lisa Parks and Nicole Starosielski (Urbana, Chicago And Springfield: University Of Illinois Press, 2015): 95-102.

DEBATE (2-3 teams): Methods for Digging into Infrastructure

Secondary Reading:

    1. Benjamin Bratton, The Stack: On Software and Sovereignty, MIT Press, 2015.
    2. Friedrich Kittler, The History of Communication Media, in C-Theory, 1996: https://journals.uvic.ca/index.php/ctheory/article/view/14325/5101
    3. Siegfried Zielinski, “Introduction: The Idea of a Deep Time of Media,” in Deep Time Of The Media: Toward An Archaeology Of Hearing And Seeing By Technical Means (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2006): 1-11.
    4. Shannon Mattern, Introduction: Ether/Ore, Code and Clay, Data and Dirt: Five Thousand Years of Urban Media (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2017).
    5. Jean-François Blanchette, “A Material History of Bits,” Journal of the American Society for Information Science and Technology 62, no. 6 (June 2011): 1042–1057.

 

Week 4 – March 20: Digital Media and Cloud Infrastructure

LECTURE

DISCUSSION IN-CLASS:

Jennifer Holt and Patrick Vonderau, “Where the Internet Lives”: Data Centers as Cloud Infrastructure,” in Signal Traffic: Critical Studies of Media Infrastructures, ed. Lisa Parks and Nicole Starosielski (Urbana, Chicago And Springfield: University Of Illinois Press, 2015), 71-93.

– Steven Levy, Where Servers Meet Saunas, WIRED, 2012: https://www.wired.com/2012/10/google-finland-data-center-2/

DEBATE (2-3 teams): Why the Infrastructure of the Internet remains invisible and how can this be remedied?

Secondary Reading:

    1. Sean Cubitt, Robert Hassan and Ingrid Volkmer, “Does Cloud Computing Have a Silver Lining?” Media Culture Society 33 (2011): 149-158
    2. Jason Farman, “Invisible and Instantaneous: Geographies of Media Infrastructure from Pneumatic Tubes to Fiber Optics,” Media Theory, May 18, 2018.
    3. Paul Dourish, Protocols, Packets, and Proximity: The Materiality of Internet Routing, in Signal Traffic: Critical Studies of Media Infrastructures, ed. Lisa Parks and Nicole Starosielski (Urbana, Chicago And Springfield: University Of Illinois Press, 2015), 183-204.

 

Week 5 – March 27: Materialities of Media Infrastructures

LECTURE

DISCUSSION IN-CLASS:

Kate Crawford and Vladan Joler, Anatomy of an AI System (2018), https://anatomyof.ai

DEBATE (2-3 teams): What is the Future of AI Infrastructure / AI assistants

Secondary Reading:

 

Week 6 – April 3: Labor, Repair, Maintenance of Media Infrastructures

**Presentations of Student Project proposals**

LECTURE

DISCUSSION IN-CLASS:

Jussi Parikka, Dust and Exhaustion: The Labor of Media Materialism, C-Theory, 2013: http://ctheory.net/ctheory_wp/dust-and-exhaustion-the-labor-of-media-materialism/

DEBATE (2-3 teams): People / Labor as Media Infrastructure

Secondary Reading:

—————Break————-NO CLASS on April 10———-Break———————

 

Week 7 – April 17: Infrastructural Inequality, Differences and Disruption

**Presentations of Student Project/Article proposals**

LECTURE

DISCUSSION IN-CLASS:

Lisa Parks, Water, Energy, Access: Materializing the Internet in Rural Zambia, in Signal Traffic: Critical Studies of Media Infrastructures, ed. Lisa Parks and Nicole Starosielski (Urbana, Chicago And Springfield: University Of Illinois Press, 2015), 115-136.

DEBATE (2-3 teams): Approaches to global media inequality.

Secondary Reading:

    1. Mark Warschauer, Economy, Society, and Technology: Analyzing the Shifting Terrains, in Technology and Social Inclusion: Rethinking the Digital Divide (MIT Press, 2003), 11-30.
    2. Pippa Norris, Digital Divide: Civic engagement, information poverty, and the Internet worldwide (Cambridge University Press, 2001).

 

Week 8 – April 24: Approaches to Media Infrastructure

**Presentations of Student Project/Article proposals**

***Sign-up for Spring Demo Day 2019***

LECTURE

DISCUSSION IN-CLASS:

Jamie Allen, Critical Infrastructure, APRJA 2014: http://www.aprja.net/critical-infrastructure/

DEBATE (2-3 teams): What approaches to study Media Infrastructure?

Secondary Reading:

    1. Matthew Kirschenbaum, Introduction: Awareness of the Mechanism, Mechanisms: New Media and the Forensic Imagination (Cambridge: MIT Press, 2008):  Jussi Parikka, Geology of Media (University of Minnesota Press, 2015): 1-24.
    2. Wolfgang Ernst, Media Archaeography: Method and Machine versus History and Narrative of Media, in Media Archaeology: Approaches, Applications and Implications (University of California Press, 2011): 239-255.
    3. Shannon Mattern, Deep Mapping the Media City (University of Minnesota Press, 2013).
    4. Jussi Parikka, “Operative Media Archaeology: Wolfgang Ernst’s Materialist Media Diagrammatics,” Theory, Culture & Society 28 (2011): 52–74

 

Week 9 – May 8: Final Student Project/Article Presentations

Final Article submissions: May 15. (To be posted on the Course blog)

ABOUT

The course provides a framework of archaeological exploration of media infrastructures. It allows students to think beyond a single media device and design for broader media ecologies. Tracing the emergence of contemporary media infrastructures from early instances in human and media history, it examines both hard infrastructure (architecture, mechanical and computing systems) and soft infrastructure (software, APIs and operating systems). What are the breaks, the discontinuities and ruptures in media-infrastructural history? What has been remediated, in what form, in what characteristics? The course prepares students for the follow-up course: ‘Media and the Environment’ in Autumn 2019.