The Case for Alternative Infrastructures

Existing infrastructures are becoming ineffective at supporting the work of many creative communities — so they’re starting to come up with their own.

I’ve been doing a lot of thinking recently about the ways in which creative networks mobilise resources in order to push forward their ideas and projects, especially in those contexts where infrastructures in place are either non-conducive, or simply obstacles to their creative visions. Over the summer, I had the opportunity to observe this in detail while working with the video game development industry in Lima, Peru — an industry that, from a strictly financial point of view, shouldn’t be there at all, yet has managed to accrue a 20-year history of working almost invisibly. And it has been able to do so despite the lack of any formal recognition, the inadequacy of the local educational system, the relative lack of funding sources, and the difficulties of attaching themselves to the fast growing international market that is video games.

The question that keeps coming up is, how was this all possible? And the answer keeps coming back to various forms of “hacking” systems, not only in the sense of circumventing technology layers to get access to underlying software or hardware architectures (though this is at times the case), but also and interestingly in the sense of circumventing various circuits of institutional and social processes that just don’t work for people trying to make a living out of this industry. When I started talking about some of these issues with Rodrigo Davies, my colleague in the Comparative Media Studies program at MIT who is doing his own research on the area of crowdfunding for civic and social projects, some common themes began to emerge in the ways communities are negotiating their relationship with institutions and infrastructures and navigating their way towards achieving their goals. And this has begun to push us in the direction of thinking about “alternative infrastructures” as a concept that encompasses how networks and communities of practice at the edges of formal institutions are making a space and logic for themselves.

Our early notion of alternative infrastructures is built on the observation that, for the most part, many of these communities — such as emerging creative industries in the case of video games, or socially-focused organisations in the case of civic crowdfunding — are not in the business of dismantling existing infrastructures. In many cases, while they’re very much interested in making these existing infrastructures work for them, the processes through which this may happen (think, for example, about influencing policy change) are far from immediately accessible, and are far from delivering change at the pace they require: when you’re operating on a shoestring budget and can’t see more than a few weeks into the future, just thinking about a resource-intensive process spanning many months is just out of the question. It then comes down to a simple trade-off: I can work towards transforming the existing infrastructures so that they may be effective for me as well (with little guarantee of success) and then disappear in the process, or I can figure out ways in which I can leverage bits and pieces of the existing infrastructures, mash them together in an arrangement that works and then build on top of that while not being entirely outside of “the system”. Alternative infrastructures are not so much about undermining institutions, as they are about assembling together alternative possible futures.

Just what do we mean when we talk about infrastructure in this sense? In describing the practices and processes of Nigerian cinema in his book Signal and Noise, anthropologist Brian Larkin articulated “infrastructure” as the “totality of both technical and cultural systems that create institutionalized structures whereby goods of all sorts circulate, connecting and binding people into collectivities”. Infrastructures then become enablers for creativity, establishing the rules and conditions within which some things will be easier to do and make than others. Infrastructures are combinations of sociotechnical systems (technologies and the various ways in which they’re adopted, used and managed), institutional arrangements and physical/material configurations. Alternative infrastructures become similar ad hoc constructions that emerge at those locations where existing infrastructures become ineffective, inaccessible or unjust.

How the Peruvian gaming industry has arranged to address some of its challenges can be illustrative here. One of the core issues the industry is facing is circulating information and building skills: for a long time in its early history, there were simply no local resources through which someone could learn how to make games, and Internet access was not readily available to large amounts of the population even in Lima, the capital. Formal education in areas such as software engineering or information systems did not include training in topics important to game development, such as graphical programming or artificial intelligence. All of which means that over time, getting access to qualified, competent talent has become a consistent challenge.

But spaces to compensate for this have self-organised — that is, alternative infrastructures of learning have emerged even in the absence of any central coordination or strategic planning. In the early days, “copy parties” emerged as social gatherings where people could get together to display and circulate software and game mods — people would hack a game in some form (say, by adding an intro splash screen with their names on it) and would then circulate these hacks by copying them on to floppy disks at parties, where attendees could ask them directly about how they did it and get live demos and tutorials. Copy parties were, of course, controversial because of intellectual property issues. But physical meetups for knowledge circulation remain active even today, where game jams — gatherings were strangers of various backgrounds and skillsets work on teams to take a game from concept to prototype in 48 hours — remain popular and have become one part of the core infrastructure for the game industry. Game jams allow people to come into contact with games through low-risk, low-commitment engagements. But they also provide an accelerated training process towards understanding how the production chain operates in the world of games, and it serves as the platform for building social connections and getting acquainted with people in the sector. People who collaborate on projects on a game jam can end up starting up new game studios with people they meet, while people from existing game studios often participate in game jams to source and engage potential new talent.

Game jams are only one example of an alternative infrastructure for learning, but they already provide some insight into what alternative infrastructures are and are not. On the one hand, they don’t pretend to be substitutes for established infrastructures, like formal educational systems, and they don’t pretend to be transforming said infrastructures just by virtue of their own existence. But on the other hand, they provide mechanisms that address specific needs in specific ways, and that open up opportunities and possibilities for other players within the same space. Perhaps even more importantly: they do it now, rather than later. They may not be effective forever, and they may ultimately operate as jumping points for communities to better engage with established infrastructures, but they’re especially effective at doing two things: they evidence how established infrastructures are failing many communities and networks and exert pressure for their structural transformation; and they allow creative networks to sustain themselves, consolidate and grow to their next stage of evolution.

We’re just getting started unraveling this thread, so any feedback is more than welcome. Rodrigo also has some other interesting thoughts on the reasons communities are turning to alternative infrastructures, and how they remain connected to established ones, and we’re very interested in hearing about other cases and examples that illustrate these ideas — so let us know what you think!