01 November 2010

On The Right Track

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On The Right Track ©d_fowler35

Ever wondered what it’s like to be blind, or unable to walk? Most of us take our daily round for granted, but for thousands worldwide, being a functioning member of society is, or may once have been, a brave act of the will.

For some time now, social scientists have been concerned about the increasing fragmentation of our world. The trend towards individualisation and the loosening of those ties which traditionally bound social groups, classes and communities – through such institutions as the family, the church, neighbourhoods, associations, trade unions and marriage – have meant that we no longer have a clear idea of our place in society. Consequently, the stock of trust we once invested in these holdings, and on which we drew to solve social problems, is no longer there.


It is this lack of reciprocity which we hope is being addressed by Prime Minister Cameron’s concept of ‘The Big Society’; the reduction of the role of the state and the establishment of new networks and norms of trust. The idea is to foster new alliances and connections to enable individuals or groups to pursue their goals more effectively. To help them on their way, individuals may draw on resources, or rather, different forms of infrastructure that would not normally be available to them and, in the process, replenish social ties. However, if infrastructure is assumed to be a basic component in the generation of social capital, then it’s important to understand more about how it informs and shapes our social world.


Take, for example, the ‘Big Society’ idea of car-sharing. For people without cars, car-sharing is a common-sense idea. But this idea glosses over the fact that congestion-charging hasn’t really worked because there are too many cars on the road anyway. The irony is that the increasing expansion of car-society has undermined the very freedom and independence promised by the car in the first place. More fundamentally, it takes the concept of infrastructure to be neutral, when in reality it is far from this, as car-society clearly demonstrates.


There seems to be no doubt that the development of infrastructure has been integral to the automobilisation of society, and has brought with it uneven benefits. Beckmann maintains that from the time of their introduction, cars changed the ‘lived’ spaces and times of human activity. Developed alongside the streetcars and metropolitan rail systems of the latter part of the 19th century, cars accelerated the expansion of suburban spaces. Today, with individual use of the automobile, space has become ever more fragmented and dispersed, in that individual activities are tied to a particular place – out-of-town shopping, garden centres, computer warehouses, DIY stores.


Consequently, the car system has stratified and polarised geographies, disenfranchising sections of the community, for example, the elderly, the young and non-users. This gives rise to questions about how inequalities in infrastructure arise, and what the consequences of these inequalities are. Not everybody uses, wants to use, or has access to, roads and cars. So the question is, why aren’t these individuals served by basic infrastructural resources? And if the state is to be reduced, do we really want private enterprise to be responsible for the provision of basic infrastructures?


The concept of infrastructure, albeit in different forms, is at the heart of everyday activities in all cultures. In the Western world, switching the light on, watching television, running a bath or driving to the shops all require our activation or engagement with an array of infrastructures – electrical, water, transport. Moreover, the ‘everydayness’ of infrastructure belies its importance as a necessary resource or condition for the performance of human tasks. This importance is only gauged, along with its visibility, when problems arise with its consistency, or ruptures occur in its permanence. Compare, for example, the relatively minor frustrations experienced when a fuse blows or a journey is delayed through roadworks, to the trauma unleashed by the devastation of essential transport networks or water supplies when annual floods and storms wreak havoc in parts of the Indian subcontinent.


Generally considered as providing the economic and technical platform for the development of a society, infrastructure is commonly thought of as a system of substrates – railway lines, roads, water and sewerage pipes, electrical power plants and communications networks. However, the significance of infrastructure goes deeper than basic economic and technical resources. Depending on the form it takes and its openness to change, infrastructure may constrain or enable sociality; it may mobilise new forms of sociality or limit existing forms; it may make people feel part of the world or isolated from it.


Typically, the technology of infrastructure is considered to be neutral. But this image becomes more complicated when we start to enquire as to who is and is not being served by infrastructure. Robert Moses’ highway system is a case in point here. In the 1920s Moses, a New York City planner, knowing full well that a particular social class were the primary users of buses, is alleged to have deliberately designed a highway system (parkways) from New York to Long Island with low bridges which allowed only cars through. Embedded within the artefact, or system, were ideological meanings which had political and ethical consequences.


One person’s infrastructure may be another’s barrier or constraint. Steps typically form part of a building’s infrastructure, for instance, but only for those who are not users of a wheelchair. Similarly, traffic lights don’t work for the visibly impaired. In other words, infrastructure is not fixed as neutral but relational, and sometimes political.


When telephones were introduced to the Philippines in 1885, it was imagined that they would enhance the democratic process, enabling greater communication for all. But the technology was expensive and difficult to install, and its performance erratic. By the 1990s, mobile phones had become popular, satisfying the desire for greater connectivity. This desire had emerged primarily in response to deteriorating infrastructures provided by an inept government.


‘People Power’ revolts had occurred in the 1980s, demanding the resignation of President Joseph Estrada. As writer Vicente Rafael suggests, it was the failed impeachment trial, aborted by senators who were believed to be under his influence, that galvanised people to action. Rafael argues that television, radio and other media, which had followed the corruption trial, had situated their audience of viewers and listeners passively in their home, whereas it was the mobile phone’s interactivity that finally enabled crowd mobilisation to happen. The spread of rumours, jokes and information via mobile phone had already eroded the legitimacy of the presidency.


On 18 January 2001, one million people massed on one of Manila’s main highways, Epifanio de los Santos Avenue, calling for Estrada to stand down. Broadcast media had been bypassed as mobile-phone users received and transmitted messages for mobilisation. Through the interactive nature of mobile technology, new forms of sociality had emerged. This was the first civic revolution to be organised by text.


Some forms of infrastructure are more open to negotiation or modification than others. As a much less visible and mundane part of hotel infrastructure, for example, room keys and their locks enable the separation of private from public spaces, providing room security when sleeping. The loss of any keys, therefore, potentially undermines that separation, and hence guest security. French social theorist Bruno Latour recounts the anecdote of the hotel concierge with exactly this problem. Replacing locks because of lost keys is an expensive business, so the concierge asks guests to return their keys to the desk before they go out. A certain number of guests conform, but the concierge cannot be present all the time, so a sign is erected over the desk: ‘Please return your keys to the desk’. More guests respond, but still there are a number of guests who lose their keys. Finally, the concierge decides to attach a large, awkward weight to the key.


Rather than carry the weight around with them, guests return their keys to the desk. By losing their keys, guests jeopardise the hotel’s infrastructure and its – and their – sociality, producing a problem for hotel management. Rather than continue to spend money on new locks, management translates the problem from the locks to the keys, making the guests do the work of returning their keys. In the process, guests are re-enrolled to the hotel’s infrastructure, with its private–public distinction. How infrastructure works can be hidden from view by its familiarity. Only when it breaks down or is modified do we get to appreciate the sociality it engenders.


More recently, sociologists have begun to consider forms of classification as infrastructure, as categories that order human behaviour in areas of private, social and civic life.


Just reflect for a moment on the start of a typical day in the Western world and the idea of ‘preparing for work’. The day begins with attention to our bodies: their washing and cleaning, clothing, followed by breakfast. The shower has been set for a certain temperature and power, soap is in the soap dish, towels placed near to hand, toothpaste and toothbrush are contained separately from shaving accessories, but both share the same convenient shelf over the sink. Clothes are chosen from particular spaces in the wardrobe; tops and trousers or skirts from one area, shoes from another. Food is selected from separate compartments in the fridge or from specific cupboards, while breakfast is eaten from dishes and plates which have been appropriately positioned on particular shelves in the cupboard chosen for regular, easy access.


We have learned from experience that, especially when it comes to morning routines, it pays to be organised; to order the placement and function of things. These spatial separations or arrangements are related to each other through the coordinating concept of ‘preparing for work’.


Although these routines mostly depend on the technical infrastructures of the built environment, the categories they engage are informed by the personal taste and wider cultural leanings of the individual. But certain types of knowledge connect most cultures. We know, for example, not to confuse categories of cooked and uncooked meat, or put medicines on low surfaces within children’s reach, or eat from dirty dishes, or have waste anywhere near food. We ignore these separations at our peril.


This process of separation and placement is apparent throughout the day: in the way we arrange our desk or computer to prioritise to-do items; in the way we allocate emails to junk or put letters in wastepaper bins; and in the way we organise meetings, manage our time or juggle our social and family concerns. Put simply: to classify is human.


It’s these ad hoc, invisible categories or orderings that form the infrastructure of everyday life. Without such ordering, daily life would be chaotic, disorganised and unworkable. The effect on day-to-day living of the absence of such order is easy to imagine. Less easy to imagine is the ideological, political and ethical impact these orderings can have when extended to areas of social or public life.


In Spanish pharmacological dictionaries, for example, the Pill was defined primarily as a means of regulating periods. Its ability to prevent pregnancy was listed as a side-effect. Classification, according to Susan Leigh Star and Geoff Bowker, has real effects. Until disease classification systems were developed, people who were ill were more likely to die if they went into hospital than if they stayed away. As Star and Bowker point out, unless patients and their symptoms could be isolated and categorised, diseases were shared, and as a consequence, people died wholesale. The existence or absence of such framing determined whether patients lived or died. Equally, misdiagnosis of symptoms can lead to the death of patients, even today.


Until its demedicalisation in the face of gay and lesbian civil rights, homosexuality was considered up until relatively recently to be a physical or mental disease. Star and Bowker highlight the interactive nature of this change: ‘In the Santa Cruz, California phone book, under the community events section in the beginning, next to the Garlic Festival and the celebration of the City’s founding, the Gay and Lesbian Pride Parade is listed as an annual event. Behind this simple telephone-book listing lie decades of activism and conflict. For gays and lesbians, becoming part of the civic infrastructure in this way betokens a kind of public acceptance almost unthinkable 30 years ago.’


The social and political consequences of classification under apartheid were unmistakable. During apartheid in South Africa, people were reduced to colour classifications. Racial classification played a key role in unjustly segregating the population by physical characteristics. Social interaction was shaped, or rather determined, by where you lived, where you could go, how you could travel, who you could marry and much more.


Seen in this context, infrastructure is far from a mere backdrop to living. It actively shapes our sociality, crafting identities and aspirations; including some people while excluding others. If infrastructure is assumed to be a basic component in the generation of social capital, then we need to be sure about how it informs our social world. Its many forms, their invisible and embedded nature, highlight the need for further research and discussion to engage more democratic options. At the moment, these options seem thin on the ground. In the film The Matrix, the character Neo has to make a choice between a red or blue pill; between a virtual sociality and a ‘real’ one. But it may be as philosopher Slavoj Žižeck puts it; perhaps, today, we need a third pill.


George Woolaghan is a freelance product and materials researcher and analyst. He has a PhD in the sociology of design

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