The Infrastructural-Political

Forms of Attachment and Sites of Differentiation

How to Cite

Mackenzie, A. (2003). The Infrastructural-Political: Forms of Attachment and Sites of Differentiation. M/C Journal, 6(4).
Vol. 6 No. 4 (2003): Fibre
Published 2003-08-01

To analyse critically contemporary communications and network technologies, and to understand how they become more (or less!) political, we need to learn about the forms of attachment, the kinds of 'stickiness', and the 'velcro effects' which block or negate as well as enable contemporary infrastructural politics. In the following tableau, the heuristic fiction comes from psychotherapy (Orbach, 2000). Imagine the cultural/new media/critical researcher as the analyst. The forms of attachment to be analysed include the analyst's own as she/he comes into relation with changing infrastructural regimes. Her or his reflections are italicised.


The clients are a male couple, a community-minded activist artist-hacker, Pete, and a corporate IT strategist, Roger. They come to the consultation. It starts off badly. Pete shouts at Roger, who sits quietly beside him. Pete's clothes are loose and dark, he wears funky fluorescent trainers and his laptop backpack is geek-cool. Roger is in suit and tie, neat haircut, closely shaven, a slim aluminium briefcase leans against his pinstriped trouser leg. A few minutes into the session, it looks like Pete might come to blows with Roger. Interceding, the therapist asks them to say what brought them there. Pete and Roger begin to talk about the dilemma that had precipitated the anger and distress. Pete appeals for affirmation of how he has been wronged. But as Roger talks, the dominant feeling shifts to confusion. They are certainly in trouble as a couple, but clearly neither is about to relinquish this relationship.

When cultural researchers of technology open the door to a new problem, they do not occupy a separate critical space in which knowledge about objects, practices, relations, processes, or figures come to be represented. Rather, only through 'articulation,' as Donna Haraway suggests, can they add another link, another twist in the knotted linkages which constitute the domain in question (Haraway, 1997, 63). What link(s) would we want to add to the contemporary contests over network infrastructure, where the central issue is figured as access to bandwidth and ubiquitous connectivity?

Revolution and convolution

Before the dotcom crash, Pete and Roger's relationship had been blissful and imaginative. Together, through the years of virtual reality and the browser wars, they had agreed on and implemented protocols, cut code, designed new applications and increased connectivity. Imagining full-blown virtuality had been a shared project; they were making a world together. The arrival of online shopping, email spamming, music swapping, massive on-line gaming and even open source software had not damaged it. Although they had come from different backgrounds and upbringings, they needed each other. For Roger, Pete had represented an urban sub-cultural well-spring of invention in contemporary technological cultures. Despite his corporate confidence and affluence, Roger knew that kudos on the street underpinned commercial success. From Roger, Pete trusted he would gain access to infrastructure and technical capacity that was the basis of a shared domain of communication. Their relationship before the dotcom crash had worked well because there had been no question about their desirability to each other. There had been conflicts, but both loved their work and found it meaningful.

Already we see attachment to infrastructure becoming convoluted. The infrastructural-political lies neither outside or inside technology itself. What appears as a technological revolution – the arrival of the Internet – can be a convolution in relation to collective life. The affective energy attached to communication infrastructure can be seen as the 'historical and political reality of the mass and of crowds in movement' (Balibar, 1998, 16). We could say, as Gatens & Lloyd (1999) put it, that '[r]elations of communication of affect between human individuals are ... subsidiary to the relations of communication between the affects themselves' (66). From this standpoint, the relation between the couple refracts different affects meshing with each other. Hence, we need to understand the fears and hopes, desires and mourning associated with technological media differently.

Attachment to technology

After the dotcom crash of early 2001, things became more difficult. Their relationship met an extremely simple dilemma: low or high network bandwidth (Lovink, 2003, 370). Pete loved technical limitations like narrow bandwidth. They stimulated artistic, political, economic and collective creativity. He was fond of the Unix command line, shell scripts, cutting code in Python or Perl, ascii art, and hand-coded html. Roger, by contrast, saw technical limitations, especially those of bandwidth, ruining the Internet. Slow or unreliable access to the net thwarted its development into a truly mass popular entertainment medium. Only high bandwidth and mobility could rescue it. He thought Pete was part of the problem. Pete represented over-attachment to the platform. Pete's love of the intricacies of code, his insistence on tinkering, making-do, recycling, sharing and re-appropriating was all very well but it was an obstacle to popularity. In his more idealistic moments, Roger even thought that Pete's truculent defiance of the popular Internet and his attempts to save the masses from being duped only 'obscured the real social significance of their pleasures' (Walkerdine, 1999, 192-3).

Strong technological attachments are no accident for two reasons. Firstly, the political is underpinned by collective affects or an awareness of bodies in relation (Gatens & Lloyd, 1999, 77). Secondly, 'human affairs (praxis) and the management-production of things (technç),' (Stengers, 2000, 163) are integrated in our politics. When politics integrates human affairs and technical things, collective affects concerning infrastructure arise. In contemporary politics, utopian and dystopian fantasies and visions of 'the good life' figure through communication infrastructure. Infrastructures are integral to how cultural forms of life render and inhabit their worlds. Thus, politics increasingly concerns technoscapes (Appadurai, 1996).

Dilemmas of technical capacity

By the end of 2002, contact between them was perfunctory. Pete was active in community networking projects in East London and 'Pico Peering' ( In conjunction with a local housing association, he installing a wireless backbone for community access. The projects of the late 1990s - virtual spaces for artists, on-line communities, direct action hacktivism, collaborating on open source projects - seemed less important, although he did still work on them. Connection to a vibrant, ethnically complicated and crowded inner city seemed more interesting than either the relative abstraction of code or the predictability of commercial Internet. 'Carving out mobile space is good', Pete often said, 'but reclaiming public space is better' (Gerritzen & Lovink, 2002, 93). Roger, meanwhile, had embraced broadband connectivity, not caring that it mostly seemed to be used for pornography and music downloads. It was fast, popular, and becoming the norm in Europe and USA (Warwick, 2003). Like others, he thought 'never enough Internet capacity can be provided to the velocity-hungry on-line masses' (Lovink, 2003, 370).

The dilemma of bandwidth forks from a deeper ambivalence about technical capacities and their role in futurity. On the one hand, technical capacity promises to overcome existing limitations. On the other hand, limitations only become relevant when they function as sites of differentiation or problematic zones open to diverse technical and non-technical solutions. All kinds of contestation, production, representation, identification and regulation cluster around these sites. The problem for cultural analysts of technology is articulating how certain sites of differentiation attract significations, technical innovations, objects/gadgets, infrastructures, regulatory apparatus, commercial-legal conflicts, feelings and concerns. The work of articulation involves disembedding these sites and extracting the relations of communication between affects that flow through them.

Connectivity and collectivity

Roger is having an affair. He met Erica at a wireless LAN trade exhibition held in the Olympia Exhibition Hall during late May 2003 ( Hewlett Packard-Compaq, Toshiba and Fujitsui had stands, some of the telcos and network operators were there too. Lining the back alleys, generic hardware and software manufacturers displayed their gadgets and ran their software demos on laptops. 'Directors' and 'sales executives' eagerly explained their products and handed out their sometimes less-than-glossy information sheets. At the centre, Intel occupied a large glass-walled stand lavishly kitted out with plasma screens on the walls, free laptops and wi-fi hotspots, pseudo-Japanese rock garden, comfortable seating in 'breakout cubicles' and well-groomed product managers and sales managers. Their Centrino™ wireless ready processors and corporate wifi solutions were featured in TV advertisements playing on large plasma screens. These advertisements dazzled Roger. They showed a broadband world without cables, without complicated configuration tasks, and without the clutter and hassle of wire infrastructures. They meant freedom from points of attachment, network connections, dongles and plugs. Like many others, he thought to himself 'wireless networking is the best thing to happen to the Internet since the browser' (Boutin, 2003).

He met Erica when he went to ask if he could have an Intel showbag full of promotional material. With Erica, a telecommunications marketing director responsible for a wireless broadband roll-out in hotels, airports, pubs, cafés and train stations throughout the UK, he ended up going to the exhibition café to talk about wireless security issues. That afternoon, together they managed to squeeze into the most popular seminar at the exhibition, 'The Typical Wireless Hacker and W-LAN Security.'

Andrew Barry writes, 'rapid technical change may sometimes have to occur in order to anticipate and stifle invention by others' (Barry, 2001, 213). Sometimes, we could add, rapid technical change may occur in order to anticipate and stifle the very presence of others. Remarkably many images of wireless connectivity involve empty spaces (e.g. Toshiba ads, Intel Centrino™ ads), just as so many car ads show empty roads. What is affectively at stake in these figurations of network infrastructure? What encounter or unwanted intimacy needs to be controlled here? Conversely, what space is there to imagine other connectivities, ones that do not rest on the promise of unobstructed private access to everything everywhere? Can we treat connectivity as something that opens relations between people, that lifts the ban on others being present?

What sustains relationships: what does not yet exist

The affair has brought Pete and Roger's relationship to a crisis point. Pete complains that the trust and intimacy between them is defunct. He argues that in Roger’s affair with Erica, he firewalls public culture in favour of a narrow understanding of the public as consumers of bandwidth. Even though Roger is increasing connectivity through wireless networking, it is not with the purpose of augmenting public space. Indeed, Roger is working with Erica to filter public spaces through a corporate, proprietary platform. If wired infrastructure has been successfully transformed into an interlocking matrix of proprietary relations, the task is now 'full spectrum' coverage of the spaces available to wireless infrastructures. For his part, Roger no longer regards technology itself as the basis of their mutual attachment. He now sees the technology as a given, and as something on which new kinds of freedom and mobility could rely. Wireless infrastructures promise to unleash people from the wires and cables that trap them at their screens. It will bring connectivity to other places - departure lounge, hotel lobby, Starbucks, beside the pool or in the garden, throughout the campus, etc. It allows them to work and be entertained in places they've never tried before.

They leave the consultation in conflict. There is no obvious solution to their problem. Pete sees techno-utopian visions of freedom dying front of his eyes (Lessing, 2003), and is dealing with that by trying to move lower into the infrastructure. From his perspective, the technology is not a given but something whose conjunctions with other objects, activities, groups, figures and spaces cannot be left to chance. Roger too regrets the death of techno-utopian visions, but rejects the expectation that he should bail out the activist communities by giving public access to infrastructure.

We can fall in love with a technology imagining that we create a relationship on a blank canvas. None of us have a clean attachment to technological media or infrastructures. Earlier relationships, other media, other practices and politics indelibly stain and sustain present ones. They often repeat older imaginings of connectivity and collectivity. The problem of the infrastructural-political centres on how to identify the object of attachment or identification. ''Incorporation into collectivities which determines our individuality involves affective imitation - dynamic movements of emotional identification and appropriation.” (Gatens & Lloyd, 1999, 77). Not so long ago, it may have been possible to imagine infrastructure as part of the fabric of collective reciprocity (along with housing, health, justice and education). Individuality as a citizen, spectator, commuter, traveller, resident, consumer, worker, student, child or immigrant was underpinned by infrastructural access. In many places, infrastructure no longer looks like a space of reciprocity, a space without negativity. Hence, attachment to infrastructure, the indispensable condition for a politics of infrastructure becomes contested. The link we might want to add to infrastructural imaginings concerns the very possibility of the infrastructural-political. Contestation of the collective mode of existence of infrastructure, this tenuous and still fragile fibre, is a promising development.

Author Biography

Adrian Mackenzie