Systemic Change for an Over-Networked Society

Rating Actions in “The Good Place”

In the hit Netflix sitcom The Good Place, every action people take is given a rating. Stepping carefully over a flower bed gives you 2.09 points, while ruining an opera takes away 90.90 points. However, because people live in worlds of complex systems, each action people triggers a cascade of unpredictable consequences. If you buy flowers for your significant other, they were grown with pesticides by people paid sub-minimum wage. You get 45.9 points for being thoughtful, but lose 647.2 points for ecological damage of the chemical industry and agricultural labor violations. Chidi and Eleanor slowly discover that this system makes being a “good person” impossible. When every action takes place within networked systems, nested like Russian dolls, harms are unevenly distributed.

Although The Good Place is a fictional comedy, its ratings system captures the dystopian now that Princeton University professor Ruha Benjamin calls “engineered inequality.” She notes that data is just part of the problem. Over-networked systems inherit historical biases against the poor and people of color. These persistent inequalities can take many forms, such as sentencing systems created to advise judges with ratings that score Black defendants as “higher-risk” than white defendants. A range of critical scholars from Safiya Noble to Virgina Eubanks and Jen Schradie have successfully busted the myth of networked systems being a natural equalizer. Quite the opposite has happened. As our lives have become digitally-governed, infrastructures have become more powerful, amplifying already-existing biases.

This development throws into stark relief how we think about being a “good person” in modern life. What does “civic engagement” or “political participation” mean if we can no longer count on our actions resulting in improved outcomes for our neighbors? What does progressive politics mean in a world where everything is connected through systems that often exist outside of people’s perceptions?

In this piece I suggest that one way to think about this challenge is through what I call “infrastructural politics.” Then I discuss examples of grassroots infrastructuring by hackers, organizers, and activists.

Thinking Infrastructurally

Changing unjust systems, often government, is perhaps the goal of every political movement. But not all bring together technical literacies with direct participation to change these systems. Over the last six years I’ve been researching people and organizations, such as Code for America and the Detroit Digital Justice Coalition, that have grown to think infrastructurally. They are fascinated by complex infrastructures, ranging from the DMV (“It’s just as boring as you think” one interviewee told me), food assistance programs (See: GetCalFresh), and urban transportation.

News stories of systemic problems have sadly become familiar. Just this morning I read a New York Times story about the federal Public Service Loan Forgiveness program. It was created to forgive student loan debt of public sector employees, like teachers and non-profit workers. However, the restrictions for eligibility were arcane and poorly-communicated. Participants had no way to understand how to work their way through the approval process. As a result, less than 1% of applicants had their debt forgiven, using only a small fraction of funds allocated to help people. To understand why such reform efforts failed, I suggest we have to approach them not as simply policy or technology. Rather, we have to approach their successful and failures as infrastructure — a system of social, technical, and legal flows that tend to reproduce biases, becoming calcified over time.

Over time, through many conversations and observations, I started to call this form of political action “infrastructural politics” to signal that people are politically motivated by infrastructure, which also serves as a vehicle for change. Let’s take a simple example. To improve a park with litter, people may write op-eds for the local newspaper to pressure public officials into funding more frequent trash pickups. Or they could mobilize a group, find some rakes, and clean it themselves. Maybe they could use express themselves politically by creating and sharing a video of themselves on social media protesting the overgrown, trash-strewn park. Tim Highfield persuasively argues that networked social media is a conduit for debating these “everyday politics” and forming publics. These are now-familiar ways that people put pressure on those in power by acting politically.

Infrastructuralists would approach this challenge quite differently: by redesigning the park. Perhaps they would start by collecting and analyzing data on how to improve the park. Maybe they then would add signs, automated trash bins, or remove the bushes that tempt people to toss rubbish behind them. In these ways, infrastructuralists would try to make the park more equitable and usable as civic space. Perhaps the revised park, in their mind, is now more suitable for family gatherings or protests. Or maybe they improve parks in specific neighborhoods that are under-served by the city. Regardless, the way they confront this challenge is different from other forms of politics. Infrastructuralists design and implement tangible alternatives by building on systems and changing the way they indirectly connect people.

The Politics of Infrastructure

My suggestion that infrastructure can be a site of political action is hardly new. It comes from a wellspring of scholarship in Science and Technology Studies (STS), design, and communication. In 1992, Craig Calhoun presaged the very challenge of The Good Place: our collective well-being depends on complex systems that indirectly connect people, what he called the “infrastructure of modernity.” He saw the growth of infrastructure as characteristic of modern life, driving us from interpersonal and mass communication to more indirect relationships. Infrastructure is traditionally defined as a system for transportation, communication, or governance. Some of these systems can affect how we are classified, like judicial systems, while others affect how we are collectively represented, like the media.

Infrastructure, as Leigh Star famously noted, shares certain characteristics: it is embedded, transparent (to use), learned as part of membership, scaled, linked with conventions of practice, embodied by standards, and built on an installed base. The question to her was not what is infrastructure, but when systems become infrastructural. In other words, infrastructure is not just about sociality, the built environment, or technology, but the relationships that evolve between them. From Star we can begin to understand infrastructure as fundamentally relational, connecting people indirectly with others they may not ever meet, like layers of an onion. And infrastructural politics is a bit unusual because typically only state and corporations have the resources to create and modify large-scale systems. But people and organizations can also infrastructure.

Hackers serve as a helpful way to demonstrate infrastructural politics as a meta-political way of thinking and a radically pragmatic way to work within various systems that have become politicized over time. Reflecting on her “Hacker Manifesto,” McKenzie Wark described how modernity has brought about “both an emerging politics of that infrastructure, and also a kind of realist-reformist making-do.” She saw hackers as the quintessential agents of infrastructural politics, capable of making and re-making systems, albeit always in tension with capitalism.

“I’m learning about a system”

Cap’n Crunch’s Bosun Whistle

“I do it for one reason and one reason only. I’m learning about a system. The phone company is a System. A computer is a System, do you understand? If I do what I do, it is only to explore a system.” — (the now discredited) John Draper, aka “Cap’n Crunch”

Hackers, as the quote above by John Draper suggests, are motivated to explore systems by moving through them in unexpected ways. Draper famously found a toy whistle from a box of Cap’n Crunch that made a 2600 Hz tone. This tone, when blown into a phone, enabled him to re-route his phone call or even listen in on others’ phone calls. Although technology is now often the way to access and traverse systems, it would be a mistake to describe hackers simply as technological fetishists. Consider the example of “social engineering,” where a hacker pretends to be someone else to obtain valuable information like passwords. This very social subversion enables access to another part of a system previously off-limits. In fact, Helen Nissenbaum has argued (setting aside hackers explicitly involved in, say, international espionage) that hackers’ transgressive curiosity has made them a liability. Over the 1980’s and 1990’s, the media and state increasingly criminalized hackers’ infrastructural explorations because they resisted a movement towards centralization. To hackers, understanding and traversing infrastructure is a form of power. But there are also a range of infrastructural tactics that lie well outside hacker subcultures.

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