Measure for Measure: Human Scales of Digital Infrastructures
by Nishant Shah
We often fall into the binaries of the digital and the analogue, positing one against the other. Even when we diffuse those boundaries, we continue to maintain the separations of IRL/VR or metaspace/cyberspace; acknowledging their co-constitutive nature only serves to establish them as inherently discrete. Thus, when we think of a metaphor like ‘digital earth’, we imagine it as a frisson of frictional concepts, as if the idea of the ‘digital’ and ‘earth’ coming together is a fanciful one — one being so grounded in dirty materiality, and the other elevated to the sterile clouds. The invocation of ‘digital earth’ also triggers a pre-wired set of responses to explore this dissonant pairing: There are images of satellite maps, GPS triangulations, Augmented cartography and the seductive visualization of the planet that we have now naturalized on our location sensitive devices. There are ideas of infrastructure — of the giant network of cables and electricity that run below oceans and across ravines to connect us in the digital ether — which is also politically examined for the costs of natural resources and climate crises. In both these set of responses, the tacit declaration is that the digital and the physical (in this case, the earth) have a contrary relationship which, when explored, produces new knowledges of the current state of being.
These easy formulations shy away from thinking through the real conceptualization of the digital, reducing it to devices, hardware, networks, and data. The digital has become such a de facto condition of life and living that it has become the unquestioned truth that arrives without explanations and maintains its mysticism through these teleological formulations of how the digital renders the physical or the analogue. However, if we rescue the digital from the ubiquitous Internet of Things existence where we have rendered the computational invisible, it offers us new forms of thinking about the real points of conflict where the digital touches the earth. I want to propose, that ontologically speaking, the contrary to the digital is not the analogue or the physical, but a state of uncountability and condition of indeterminacy.
At the heart of the engineered hardware, application-driven software, and transactional networking logic of the digital, is counting. The promise of digital is to be able to render and reduce everything we know, think, feel, experience, and believe in, into countable data sets which can be mobilized to form patterns that can be infinitely performed to molecularize, taxonomize, and govern the globe through predictive and correlative algorithms. The dream of efficiency of the digital is also a threat as it seeks to reduce the variable, intuitive, possible, and fanciful forms of life that we also sometimes call human. Hence, the discussions around the digital, even when they are about the materiality, infrastructure, and logistics of digital operations — from imaginations of stacks to the organization of networked traffic — eventually stop at the edges of the messy and unpredictable practices of being human. In fact, the edges are valorized as the rehabilitative courses that seek to train, cure, and integrate the human into cyborg circuits for it to become, once again, countable, discrete, and numerical, rescued from the vagaries of its indeterminate and illogical existence.
The dream of efficiency of the digital is also a threat as it seeks to reduce the variable, intuitive, possible, and fanciful forms of life that we also sometimes call human.
The Digital Earth, it would seem, is not so much an inquiry into how we live on a planet being designed as a giant supercomputer, but more an intervention into how we can escape our mortal human concepts — singularity, immortality, life as code — in order to fit the new computational algorithm that our life is being programmed to become. This is evident in how the visualisations of Google Maps removes the human motion, movement, and migration out of its sterile and abstracted reductions of routes and landmarks. It is illustrative in how even our social media networks deploy metrical indices that map our emotional landscape into geographies of data points. It is present in the genetic mapping of the human body that strives to render our carbon-based life-forms into data streams that can be encoded in silicon dreams riding on an android vessel. It is obvious in how new forms of regulation of territories, place, and space create conditions of erasure for those who cannot be counted, or who can be miscounted, and eventually discounted because they do not fit the neat data streams which predict a clean future of inhuman determination and computational determinacy.
Ishita Sharma and Khyati Saraf, Digital Earth 2018–2019 Fellows, in their urban geography and social justice based art-driven design practice begin with a questioning of the relationship between the digital and the earth. For them, instead of beginning with the digital, which often reduces everything into visuals, screens, interfaces, and infrastructure, they begin with scale. How much do we zoom into human life? How do we eschew the Jamesonian idea of surface driven postmodernity, in favor of the temporal and temporary existence of people who live in the interstices of computational and logistical infrastructures? In their playful, poignant, and human scaling of the Kandla port, Sharma and Saraf remind us of three things:
First, that the project of digitization is neither complete nor packed up. It is a continuous negotiation where what is at stake beyond deployment and integration of digital technologies into people, places, and things, is the very idea of what the digital is. Hence, they locate the digital into the most wobbly space of territoriality — at the site of a port which has no fixed boundaries because it gets redefined by the ebbs and tides of the waters, regulation and policy of different governmental visions, and the occupations and inhabitations of the local communities that squat, perch, appropriate, flee, re-habilitate and habituate the landscape through a series of practices that resist the digital, not because they are ineffable but because they are not computationally legible.
Second, that the infrastructure of the digital goes way beyond the machinery and buildings that often become the invisible complex for mobilization of digital traffic. Because computational digitalization is a closed loop cybernetic system of fixed logical units, it often misses out on the mathematically lived lives that do not give in to the cruel algebra of resource management that the digital presents in the guise of efficiency. They quickly identify that because the digital computers are time-based counting devices, the one thing that they cannot count is time: Time is what the computers count with, and hence they rely on other measures of time to continue their calculations. Hence their work slows down time and speeds it up. Their scale is simultaneously wide in focus and deep in scope, where they do not allow for easy scrolls and pinches of an interface as they explore the different sensory, slow, and sibilant experience of time as felt by the different communities that they work with.
Third, that the map which is not just a digital metaphor but also a method of reducing complexity, is a powerful site of negotiation where both the methodological and the interpretive jostle together to form multiple realities. They gesture towards the minor-literatures of life which do not get plotted in territories or written in histories, and thus offer pockets of unknowingness that is a respite for those who cannot bear the unbearable lightness of being digital. Their work, both in the visual aesthetics as well as in the maps of deliberate information overload, shows ways by which the digital can be countered, not by a luddite disengagement but by shifting the axis of power and production within those domains. Their work shows the lyrical possibility of counting different things, and counting with different measures, when the straightforward scripts and expectations of the digital are subverted by tuning them to the resonances of the people who are far removed from the intentionality of silicon valley design and developmental policy.
…the map which is not just a digital metaphor but also a method of reducing complexity, is a powerful site of negotiation where both the methodological and the interpretive jostle together to form multiple realities.
In this inquiry into the infrastructures of digital territories, through their fragmented and resolutely multivalence narrative, they produce a fascinating collage of the digital as the point of contradictions, unintelligibility, and interpretation rather than clarity, databases, and algorithmic predictions. The project soars when it crystalizes the temporality and temporariness of the communities they work with at the point where the digital (policy, hardware, governance) meets the earth (embodied, lived, remembered), to create a fractal fracturing of the infrastructural narratives of digitization, replacing them with stories, songs, visual poetry, and playful maps that remind us that our lives are more enchanting than the ways in which a computer counts them.
About the author
Dr. Nishant Shah is the Vice President of Research and Acting Director of Research Development of the Graduate School at the ArtEZ University of the Arts, The Netherlands. Simultaneously, he serves as a Professor at the Institute of Culture and Aesthetics of Digital Media, Leuphana University, Germany, where he teaches courses in Digital Humanities, Computer-Human Interaction, and Information and Communication Technologies for Development.