Category Archives: URBAN MEDIA INFRASTRUCTURE

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

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 😉

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?

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)

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)

 

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)