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Deep Time

I just returned from the annual Society for Cinema and Media Studies conference in Boston, where I was able to catch up with a few friends I see far too infrequently (Suze!), and finally meet some wonderful folks I had, until recently, known only online (Miriam!). I had the pleasure of participating in a workshop on “Teaching the City” with Amy Corbin from Muhlenberg College, Sabine Haenni from Cornell, Brendan Kredell from University of Calgary, Paula Massood from Brooklyn College, and Mary Woods from Cornell. We talked about our various approaches to combining media and urban studies in the classroom, and I thoroughly enjoyed hearing about the classes everyone’s teaching.

And on another day I took part in the “Signal Traffic” panel, on media infrastructure, with Lisa Parks from UC Santa Barbara, Nicole Starosielski from Miami University, and Jonathan Sterne from McGill — all fabulous and inspiring. I’m posting an excerpt from my “Deep Time of Media Infrastructure” presentation:

Mattern SCMS2012 Infrastructure

For the past decade, I’ve taught, off and on, a course called [SLIDE2] “Media and Architecture.” It was inspired by my dissertation research on the [SLIDE3] Seattle Public Library – and by my appreciation for the ways that buildings are designed to [SLIDE4] house and provide material support structures for media, and for the ways that architecture itself can function as media. [SLIDES5-9] Over the years, as I’ve revised the syllabus – switching from a chronological to a reverse chronological organization; trying to keep up with new advancements in networked digital technologies and to include more international examples, etc. – I’ve come to realize that, [SLIDE10] the further backwards we moved in time, the fewer and fewer resources I was using from our own fields, media and cinema studies.

There is a plethora of research on architecture and cities in relation to mechanically reproduced still and moving images. For instance, many photographic, architectural, and cultural historians, inspired greatly by Benjamin, have examined [SLIDE11] the city as a photographic subject; [SLIDE12] photography’s early role in the documentation of urban [SLIDE13] transformation and as an instigator of social change; [SLIDE14] and photography’s influence on particular modern architectural and urban designers. There is also much, much work on [SLIDE15] the city and film as contemporaneous developments; on [SLIDE16] the representation of the city in film (this is the dominant thread, by far – as is evidenced even at this conference); and [SLIDE17] [SLIDE18] [SLIDE19] on film’s influence upon architects and planners, and vice versa. In more recent decades, scholars, like Lynn Spigel and Anna McCarthy, have begun to address [SLIDE20] the synchronous rise of television and post-war suburbs; [SLIDE21] the politics of screens in public places; and [SLIDE22] the impact of networked digital media on [SLIDE23] urban design and urban experience. [SLIDE24] There’s also been, in recent years, some fantastic work on radio and modern sound technologies’ impact on architecture, zoning, and urban experience.

[SLIDE25] The sheer number of books and conferences and exhibitions on the “city in photographs,” the “cinematic city,” and the “digital city” indicates that most recent scholarship focuses on these modern media technologies’ relationships to the city. Furthermore, there is in many cases an assumption that the mediation of the city began with these media….  [Skip SLIDE26, which corresponds with a  discussion of my current research project] …I argue that we need to look at the [SLIDE27] deep time of urban mediation. [SLIDE28] Media technologies – particularly media infrastructures – have been embedded in and informing the morphological evolution of our cities since their coming into being… [Skip SLIDES29-31, which, again, correspond with more discussion about my current research project.] 

[SLIDE32] What I’ve been sketching out for you is my current research project, which I’m calling Urban Media Archaeology. I’m drawing a lot of inspiration, as you might imagine, from media archaeology – a materialist, non-teleological approach to historiography. One of the key figures in the field, Erkki Huhtamo, describes media archaeology as [SLIDE33] “the study of the cyclically recurring elements and motives underlying and guiding the development of media culture” (223). Media archaeology is useful not only for looking at and listening to deep time; it also encourages us to look and listen beyond representation – beyond the portrayal of material spaces in photographs and film, or beyond an augmented reality layered atop physical space. I heed the advice of another media archaeologist, Wolfgang Ernst, to look beyond the discursive elements of media to focus on what he calls its “logical structure” and “hardware.” That hardware, in my case, is historical media infrastructures.

[SLIDE34] Geographer Matthew Gandy writes that “[t]he term ‘infrastructure’ has been used since the 1920s to refer to the basic physical and organizational structures such as roads, power lines, and water mains needed for the material and organizational aspects of modernity…. More recently,” he says, “the study of infrastructure has been extended to include multi – dimensional analysis of the horizontal and vertical composition of space, the interrelationships between visible and invisible domains” and new modes of service provision (58). Infrastructure historian Paul Edwards admits that, today, infrastructure “has become a slippery term, often used to mean essentially any important, widely shared, human-constructed resource”; this could include hardware, organizations, [SLIDE35] “socially communicated background knowledge,” etc. – any sociotechnical systems that offer “near-ubiquitous accessibility” (186-7, 188). Despite, or perhaps because of, the flexibility of this term, I think we have much to learn from the way Edwards and other historians and theorists of infrastructure (usually from disciplines outside ours) conceive of and work with their subject. I find that their methods resonate with the historiographic approaches of media archaeology and can encourage us to critically reflect on how we construct media histories.

In what follows, I’ll outline eight historiographic lessons I’ve learned from infrastructure studies – or things I’ve known, but which infrastructure studies have reinforced. These are by no means mutually exclusive concepts. There’s actually a good bit of redundancy – but I think that, in some cases, restating the same principle using different language can only enhance its potential utility:

  1. [SLIDE36] The Long Now / Deep Time. In their 2007 NSF-funded workshop on cyberinfrastructure, Edwards and several colleagues argued for the importance of studying the “long now” of cyberinfrastructure: the 200 years’ worth of “slower-pace[d]” political, cultural, and technical changes that have been happening “in the background” – changes like the rise of scientific disciplines and statistics – that have lain the foundation for digital networks (3). Of course I would argue that media studies could benefit from a much longer view, one that recognizes that “infrastructure” precedes the “cyber” and the electronic – but still, these scholars’ focus on historical contextualization is useful. And the concept of the “long now” – a contemporary that extends into the past – complements media (an)archaeologist Siegfried Zielinski’s suggestion that media archaeology aims to “find something new in the old.”
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  2. [SLIDE37] (Techno-Socio-Spatio-Material) Palimpsests. That long now is manifested in material strata – literal layering. Henri Lefebvre has argued that urban space is formed by superimposed capital regimes and the infrastructures they create in their own image; the result, he has famously suggested, is not unlike a flaky mille-feuille pastry. But the palimpsest isn’t a mere metaphor. [SLIDE38]In his excellent study of infrastructure in urban Nigeria, anthropologist Brian Larkin writes that the “physical shape of the city emerges from the layering of these infrastructures over time” (5).[SLIDE39] X
    The nature of that layering, however, is not one of mere supplanting or obsolescence. If we dig down through the strata we find much more than ruins(and this is where, I think, the archaeological metaphor can be at times a bit misleading). Digging into these layers, we often find that, depending on different contextual factors, various infrastructures have distinctive temporalities and evolutionary paths. Through “excavation,” we can assess the lifespans of various urban media and ascertain when “old” infrastructures “leak” into new-media landscapes, when media of different epochs are layered palimpsestically, or when new urban media “remediate” their predecessors. Richard John, who’s written histories of American telecommunications and the postal system, has found that the infrastructures he’s studied were “complementary rather than mutually exclusive. Telegraphy supplemented mail delivery, and telephony supplemented telegraphy, without rendering either mail delivery or telegraphy obsolete” (56).
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    [SLIDE40]
    We find that the historical media infrastructures on the “lower levels” of our cities are often very much alive in, and continuing to shape, the contemporary city. I argue that these historical media are, like Raymond Williams’ (1977) category of [CLICK] the “residual,” “formed in the past, but…still active in the cultural process, not only and often not at all as an element of the past, but as an effective element of the present” (122). As Stephen Graham and Simon Marvin, authors of several canonical texts about telecommunications infrastructures and urbanism, argue, media networks of various historical ages can enhance one another – that is, [CLICK] “new technologies do not simply destroy older forms of communication but call into being new mobilities and sometimes intensify older ones” (6). This intermingling of temporalities fits Christopher Witmore’s definition of “archaeological time”: [CLICK] “the entanglement, the intermingling, the chiasm of pasts and presents” (279). Our infrastructural cities are a “folded, nonlinear temporal net.”
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  3. Networked Histories. [SLIDE41] Graham and Marvin identify some of those “superimposed, contested and interconnecting” layers, or “scapes”: the “’electropolis’ of energy and power,” “the ‘hydropolis’ of water and waste,” “the ‘cybercity’ of electronic communication” (8). The history of any of these scapes is plugged into and inextricably linked with the histories of the others. Richard John suggests that the [SLIDE42] “concept of an information infrastructure [for instance]…highlights the fact that the transmission of information has long been coordinated by a constellation of institutions, rather than by a single government agency or business firm” (56). [SLIDE43] We need to recognize the co-dependency, the intertwining of these various systems – the telegraph and the telephone, the railroad and the telegraph, transportation infrastructures and the postal system, print and writing infrastructures, writing and oral address, and various social and regulatory systems – and perhaps write their histories together.
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    [SLIDE44] Edwards lays out a general framework for how these “constellations” might form, in the cyberinfrastructure world, at least: it begins with system building; then technology transfer across domains; then the emergence of variations in the original system design and the appearance of competing systems; then the eventual merger of these various systems, via gateways, into networks; then standardization of these networks and their merger into internetworks – with, all the while, “early choices constrain[ing] the options available moving forward” (i-ii). [SLIDE45]Such a model might seem rather deterministic to those of us who are looking at technology from a humanities orientation, or those of us who are constructivists – yet I think this model identifies several phases, or pivot-points, that occur during the maturation of technological systems that we already recognize, and that we should be encouraged to look for. Edwards reminds us, too, that “modeling” the formation of these networked infrastructural “constellations” doesn’t imply that they’re rigidly interlocked systems:
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    [SLIDE46] [T]he eventual growth of complex infrastructure and the forms it takes are the result of converging histories, path dependencies, serendipity, innovation, and “bricolage” (tinkering). Speaking of cyberinfrastructure as a machine to be built or a technical system to be designed tends to downplay the importance of social, institutional, organizational, legal, cultural, and other non-technical problems developers always face (6-7).
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  4. [SLIDE47] Path Dependency in particular is such a useful concept for those of us who’ve been taught to avoid at all costs being labeled a technodeterminist, which, as Geoffrey Winthrop-Young jokes, “is a bit like saying that [one] enjoys strangling cute puppies.” In our overcompensation to avoid the scarlet TD, we often resist acknowledging the existence of these well-trodden paths, and how they might limit future choices. Yet architectural historian Kazys Varnelis offers us a concrete example of paths’ potency: [CLICK] “…new infrastructures do not so much supersede old ones as ride on top of them, forming physical and organizational palimpsests – telephone lines follow railway lines, and over time these pathways have not been diffused, but rather etched more deeply into the urban landscape.” (27-8). [SLIDE48] In Edwards’ model, we’re able to balance a recognition that technologies do have material effects – that the channels laid and spaces configured by preceding technologies dosteer the development, to some degree, of successor technologies – with an acknowledgment of the roles played by serendipity and tinkering, by social and cultural factors, in technological development.
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    Several other scholars support this model of inter-infrastructural path dependency. Graham and Marvin agree with Varnelis that[SLIDE49]…there are very close physical parallels and synergies between the development and routing of telecommunications networks within and between cities and the patterns of other infrastructures.… Because of the costs of developing new telecommunications networks, all efforts are made to string optic fibres through water, gas and sewage ducts; between cities existing railway, road, and waterway routes are often used (329).
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  5. [SLIDE50] Material Evidence. Things like palimpsests, networked histories, and path dependencies aren’t mere historical theorizations. Studying infrastructure, we can find material evidence of these complex pathways of historical development. We can read the archaeological record, conduct forensic analyses – or, when we’re dealing with a medium like the voice, for which there’s no collectable artifact, we can use techniques from archaeoacoustics to “listen” to spaces past – the Coliseum, the ancient marketplace, etc. We can dig up the cables, pull out the wires, analyze the disks – and observe their layering and interconnection.
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  6. [SLIDE51] People as Infrastructure. That material record often shows that people haven’t been mere beneficiaries of infrastructures, but actually infrastructures themselves. I’m thinking of Greg Downey’s work on telegraph messenger boys, for instance. In Africa – and, undoubtedly, in much of the Global South and throughout much of global history – people often compensate for “underdeveloped, overused, fragmented, and often makeshift urban infrastructures” (425). The “incessantly flexible, mobile, and provisional intersections of residents…operate without clearly delineated notions of how the city is to be inhabited and used” – and constitute and infrastructure (407).
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  7. [SLIDE52] Informal / Shadow Development: This mention of the flexible, mobile, and provisional reminds us that infrastructure history – and media history in general – has often deeply informed by informal and “shadow” developments. Brian Larkin writes about the jury-rigging, repurposing, or pirating of existing infrastructures in Nigeria. Such improvisations have undoubtedly appeared throughout media history. And it’s these peripheral practices, the “paths not followed” that media archaeology often likes to trace.
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  8. [SLIDE53] Scale: Infrastructure makes us think about the granularity of our observations; Graham and Marvin list the corporeal, local, urban, regional, national, international, and global scales. When writing media histories, we have to consider whether we’re we writing media object histories, local media histories, urban media histories, national media histories, cultural media histories, etc. – and making such a choice is complicated by the fact that our infrastructures flow across these scales, connecting technologies into networks into internetworks. Paul Edwards suggests that scale needn’t be conceived of as merely a geographic quality; [SLIDE54] we can also consider scales of force (from the human body to the geophysical), scales of time (from human time to geophysical time), and scales of social organization (from individuals to governments) (186). Again, infrastructures span all these scales.
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    But the macro view is a particularly illuminating in that it forces us to consider the forms of our media and infrastructures in relation to their long-term functions – “the reasons they came to exist in the first place” (204). Rather than thinking about how the telegraph supplanted the postal service, for instance, we can reconceive of these two systems as two instantiations of a shared infrastructural purpose. [SLIDE55] Edwards suggests that contextualizing the telephone, the telegraph, the post, and other modern technologies within James Beniger’s “’control revolution’ concept allows us to understand, not only the genesis and growth of the many large infrastructures that characterize modernity, but also the process of linking these infrastructures to each other” (207). These links allow us to appreciate the historical continuity among infrastructures – and the “deep time” of media.

And in characteristic fashion, I petered out before writing a conclusion — so I had to extemporize here. I’m pretty sure I concluded by acknowledging that most of the aforementioned examples mentioned modern infrastructures — primarily because that’s what most infrastructural scholarship deals with — and noting that my challenge, for my next book, is to show how these lessons also apply to the deep time of media infrastructure.

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