El Lissitzky's Lenin Tribute, 1924 -- a platform with potent politics

El Lissitzky’s Lenin Tribute, 1924 — a platform with potent politics

This week I head to Europe for two back-to-back and, coincidentally, highly related conferences. My first stop is Umeå, in northern Sweden, for the Genres of Scholarly Knowledge Production conference. This’ll be my third trip to HUMlab in Umeå — my second wintertime visit — and I’m super-excited about it. My good friend Patrik, former HUMlab director and the conference’s organizer, asked me to share co-moderation duties with him; this should be fun. Patrik’s assembled a fantastic group: among the participants are Anne Balsamo, Johanna Drucker, Jacob Gaboury, David Theo Goldberg, Ben Kafka, Lauren Klein, Pamela Lee, Cecilia Lindhé, Franco Moretti, Lisa Parks, Miriam Posner, Carrie Rentschler, Matt Ratto, Erica Robles-Anderson, Nishant Shah, Molly Steenson, Jonathan Sterne, Fred Turner — and a bunch of other awesome people. In addition to moderating some of the discussions, I’ll be presenting a short paper on “Critiquing Platform Thinking”; I’ll paste the text below.

After spending Tuesday through Friday in Sweden, I head to Vienna for the Poetics of Infrastructure workshop at the Institut für Wissenschaft und Kunst (Wissenschaft und Kunst: how fun is that to say?!?). My friend and former postdoc Simon Ganahl organized the event in collaboration with Thomas Karpacz, Arndt Niebisch, and Martina Süess. The program features some very promising talks on repair, potholes, grain silos, writing systems, Victor Gruen and the shopping mall, the politics of “the stack,” standards — and my own talk, titled “Sense-able Structures: Infrastructural Aesthetics,” which is really mostly a mash-up of my “Infrastructural Tourism,” “Ear to the Wire: Listening to Historic Urban Infrastructures,” and “Intellectual Furnishings” articles. Here’s my abstract:

There’s been much recent interest in “making visible the invisible,” in manifesting the “optics” of subterranean, covert, and seemingly immaterial infrastructures. In this talk I’ll begin by addressing what we can learn about urban infrastructure by engaging it with our *other* senses – by listening to it, touching it, even smelling and tasting it. I’ll then examine how these aesthetics “scale down” by examining infrastructure of a smaller dimension: that of furniture. I’ll share some preliminary case studies from my current research on “intellectual furnishings,” which explores how the design of our media-organizational devices – from book stacks to computer server racks – scaffolds our media technologies, informs how bodies relate to those media, and embodies knowledge. These infrastructures, both physical and intellectual, are also simultaneously functional, affective and aesthetic.


Critiquing Platform Thinking

Perhaps some of you are familiar with the poetic form of the cento: the term is derived from the Latin word for “patchwork,” and the work is composed of lines cobbled together from other poems. I’m going to start off with a Platform Cento, or at least a free-verse pseudo-cento, drawn from that most accidentally mellifluous of dialects, Silicon Vallese.

[2-17] Your “vision is almost too concrete,” grasshopper.
Take a Zen approach to the launch.
Go lean. Think minimum viable product.
Flatten those verticals.
Launch. Iterate.
Combinators and incubators.
Key performance indicators.
Actionable metrics.
Test, test. Pivot, pivot. Build – measure – learn.
Whiteboard. Iterate. Quiet period.
Refract the optics. Do some discovery pivots.
Redeem the failure. Master the redemption space.
Disrupt the disruption space.
Leverage autonomous paradigms. The road less traveled.
Hack growth, growth-hacker. Lead thought, thought leader.
Pivot that platform. Hashtag dirsuptthefuture.

[18] No doubt you were charmed by my honeyed verse. But I exhort you to resist that siren’s song, for it offers little in the way of enlightenment. It merely lures us to the rocky shores of Anthemusa – or, to reframe the Homeric myth, traps us in a psychotic echo chamber, which is in turn locked inside a Latourian black box.


[19/20] Speaking of echo chambers: Tim O’Reilly, one of the premier pillagers of the English language, has famously proposed that we regard government – and, by extension, a host of other institutions and social enterprises – as platforms. As he said at the beginning of his talk at the 2010 Gov 2.0 Expo, “If you’ve been following what I’ve been writing and speaking about in the government space (ack!), you know I’ve been talking about this idea of government as a platform,” which focuses on “designing programs that are enablers,” constructing substrates that “developers outside of government can build on.” He elaborates in a 2012 post on Google+: “government as platform” is “the notion that… government should provide fewer citizen-facing services, but should instead consciously provide infrastructure only, with APIs and standards that let the private sector deliver citizen facing services.” The implication is that there’s a shift in agency, in empowerment.[1]

[21] “This platform meme was, of course, inspired by Silicon Valley,” Evgeny Morozov wrote last year in The Baffler. Apple builds the App Store, then relies on third-party developers to stock it. But is this an appropriate model for government? Morovoz notes,

One of the main reasons why governments choose not to offload certain services to the private sector is not because they think they can do a better job at innovation or efficiency but because other considerations – like fairness and equity of access – come into play. “If Head Start were a start-up it would be out of business. It doesn’t work,” remarked O’Reilly in a recent interview. Well, exactly: that’s why Head Start is not a start-up.

The real question is not whether developers should be able to submit apps to the App Store, but whether citizens should be paying for the apps or counting on the government to provide these services.[2]

[22] Earlier this year I published an essay in Places, a landscape and urbanism journal for which I’m a columnist, asking similar questions about libraries. For the remainder of my time, I’ll share some (slightly modified) excerpts from that essay:

[23] Throughout their multi-millennial history, libraries have assumed a host of ever-changing social and symbolic functions. They have been expected to symbolize the eminence of a ruler or state, to integrally link “knowledge” and “power” — and, more recently, to serve as “community centers,” “public squares” or “think tanks.” Even those seemingly modern metaphors have deep histories. The ancient Library of Alexandria was a prototypical think tank, and the early Carnegie buildings of the 1880s were community centers with swimming pools and public baths, bowling alleys, billiard rooms, even rifle ranges, as well as book stacks.[3] The library has always been a place where informational and social infrastructures intersect within a physical infrastructure that (ideally) supports that program.


[24/25/26] Now we are seeing the rise of a new metaphor: the library as “platform” — a buzzy word that refers to a base upon which developers create new applications, technologies and processes. In an influential 2012 article in Library Journal, David Weinberger proposed that we think of libraries as “open platforms” — not only for the creation of software, but also for the development of knowledge and community.[4] Weinberger argued that libraries should open up their entire collections, all their metadata, and any technologies they’ve created, and allow anyone to build new products and services on top of that foundation. [27/28] The platform model, he wrote, “focuses our attention away from the provisioning of resources to the foment” — the “messy, rich networks of people and ideas” — that “those resources engender.” Thus the ancient Library of Alexandria, part of a larger museum with botanical gardens, laboratories, living quarters and dining halls, was a platform not only for the translation and copying of myriad texts and the compilation of a magnificent collection, but also for the launch of works by Euclid, Archimedes, Eratosthenes and their peers.

[29/30] Yet the platform metaphor has limitations. For one thing, it smacks of Silicon Valley entrepreneurial epistemology, which prioritizes “monetizable” “knowledge solutions.” As O’Reilly acknowledges, a “platformed” model of government is “designed from the outset… [to] allow for extensibility and revision by the marketplace.”[5] Morovoz, too, notes that “In all of O’Reilly’s theorizing, there’s not a hint as to what political and moral principles should guide us in applying the model. Whatever those principles are, they are certainly not exhausted by appeals to innovation and efficiency – which is the language that O’Reilly wants us to speak.”[6]


31[31/32] Further, the platform’s association with new media tends to bracket out the similarly generative capacities of low-tech, and even non-technical, library resources. One key misperception of those who proclaim the library’s obsolescence is that its function as a knowledge institution can be reduced to its technical services and information offerings. Knowledge is never solely a product of technology and the information it delivers.

[33/34] Another problem with the platform model is the image it evokes: a flat, two-dimensional stage on which resources are laid out for users to do stuff with. The platform doesn’t have any implied depth, so we’re not inclined to look underneath or behind it, or to question its structure. Weinberger encourages us to “think of the library not as a portal we go through on occasion but as infrastructure that is as ubiquitous and persistent as the streets and sidewalks of a town.” [35] It’s like a “canopy,” he says — or like a “cloud.” But these metaphors are more poetic than critical; they obfuscate all the wires, pulleys, lights and scaffolding that you inevitably find underneath and above that stage — and the casting, staging and direction that determine what happens on the stage, and that allow it to function as a stage. Libraries are infrastructures not only because they are ubiquitous and persistent, but also, and primarily, because they are made of interconnected networks that undergird all that foment, that create what Pierre Bourdieu would call “structuring structures” that support Weinberger’s “messy, rich networks of people and ideas.”

[36/37] It can be instructive for our libraries’ publics — and critical for our libraries’ leaders — to assess those structuring structures. In this age of e-books, smartphones, firewalls, proprietary media platforms and digital rights management; of atrophying mega-bookstores and resurgent independent bookshops and a metastasizing Amazon; of Google Books and Google Search and Google Glass; of economic disparity and the continuing privatization of public space and services — which is simultaneously an age of democratized media production and vibrant DIY and activist cultures — libraries play a critical role as mediators, at the hub of all the hubbub. Thus we need to understand how our libraries function as, and as part of, infrastructural ecologies — as sites where spatial, technological, intellectual and social infrastructures shape and inform one another. And we must consider how those infrastructures can embody the epistemological, political, economic and cultural values that we want to define our communities.[7]


[38] It’s particularly important to cultivate these critical capacities — the ability to “read” our libraries’ multiple infrastructures and the politics and ethics they embody — when the concrete infrastructures look like San Antonio’s BiblioTech, a “bookless” library [39] featuring 10,000 e-books, downloadable via the 3M Cloud App; 600 circulating “stripped down” 3M e-readers; 200 “enhanced” tablets for kids; and, for use on-site, 48 computers, plus laptops and iPads. The library, which opened last fall, also offers computer classes and meeting space, but it’s all locked within a proprietary platformed world.


[40/41] In libraries like BiblioTech — and the Digital Public Library of America — the collection itself is off-site. Do patrons wonder where, exactly, all those books and periodicals and cloud-based materials live? What’s under, or floating above, the “platform”? Do they think about the algorithms that lead them to particular library materials, and the conduits and protocols through which they access them? [42/43/44] Do they consider what it means to supplant bookstacks with server stacks — whose metal racks we can’t kick, lights we can’t adjust, knobs we can’t fiddle with? Do they think about the librarians negotiating access licenses and adding metadata to “digital assets,” or the engineers maintaining the servers? With the increasing recession of these technical infrastructures — and the human labor that supports them — further off-site, behind the interface, deeper inside the black box, how can we understand the ways in which those structures structure our intellect and sociality?

[BLANK] We need to develop — both among library patrons and librarians themselves — new critical capacities to understand the distributed physical, technical and social infrastructures that scaffold our institutions of knowledge and program our values. And we must consider where those infrastructures intersect — where they should be, and perhaps aren’t, mutually reinforcing one another. When do our social obligations compromise our intellectual aspirations, or vice versa? And when do those social or intellectual aspirations for the library exceed — or fail to fully exploit — the capacities of our architectural and technological infrastructures? Ultimately, we need to ensure that we have a strong epistemological framework — a narrative that explains how the library promotes learning and stewards knowledge — so that everything hangs together, so there’s some institutional coherence. We need to sync the library’s intersecting infrastructures so that they work together to support our shared intellectual and ethical goals.


[1] See Joe McCarthy, “Platform Thinking, De-Bureaucratization and the Redistribution of AgencyGumption (Jun 11, 2010).

[2] Evgeny Morozov, “The Meme HustlerThe Baffler 22 (2013).

[3] Casson explains that when Alexandria was a brand new city in the third century B.C., its founders enticed intellectuals to the city — in an attempt to establish it as a cultural center — with the famous Museum, “a figurative temple for the muses, a place for cultivating the arts they symbolized. It was an ancient version of a think-tank: the members, consisting of noted writers, poets, scientists, and scholars, were appointed by the Ptolemies for life and enjoyed a handsome salary, tax exemption … free lodging, and food. … It was for them that the Ptolemies founded the library of Alexandria” [Lionel Casson, Libraries in the Ancient World (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2001): 33-34]; Donald Oehlerts, Books and Blueprints: Building America’s Public Libraries (New York: Greenwood Press, 1991): 62

[4] David Weinberger, “Library as Platform,” Library Journal (September 4, 2012).

[5] Tim O’Reilly, “Government as Platform” In Daniel Lathrop & Laural Ruma, Eds., Open Government (O’Reilly Media, available under the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License).

[6] In her recent book The People’s Platform, Astra Taylor calls for designing desirable values into our online platforms, for “developing structures that encourage fairness, serendipity, deliberation, and diversity” (The People’s Platform: Taking Back Power and Culture in the Digital Age (New York: Metropolitan Books, 2014).

[7] For more on “infrastructural ecologies,” see Reyner Banham, Los Angeles: The Architecture of Four Ecologies(Berkeley, University of California Press, 2009 [1971]); Alan Latham, Derek McCormack, Kim McNamara and Donald McNeil, Key Concepts in Urban Geography (Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage, 2009): 32; Ming Xu and Josh P. Newell, “Infrastructure Ecology: A Conceptual Mode for Understanding Urban Sustainability,” Sixth International Conference of the International Society for Industrial Ecology (ISIE) Proceedings, Berkeley, CA, June 7-10, 2011; Anu Ramaswami, Christopher Weible, Deborah Main, Tanya Heikkila, Saba Siddiki, Andrew Duvail, Andrew Pattison and Meghan Bernard, “A Social-Ecological-Infrastructural Systems Framework for Interdisciplinary Study of Sustainable City Systems,” Journal of Industrial Ecology 16:6 (December 2012): 801-13. Most references to infrastructural ecologies — and there are few — pertain to systems at the urban scale, but I believe a library is a sufficiently complicated institution, residing at the nexus of myriad networks, that it constitutes an infrastructural ecology in its own right.

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