Commentary about the Internet and the various communication services it provides, regularly fall into utopian or distopian visions of radically new worlds. The utopias tell of a future in which we are all continually connected in a seamless egalitarian web of techno-democracy. The distopian warnings describe overstimulated zombies shuffling from computer screen to smartphone, hermetically sealed in the echo chamber of their choosing. These predictions are equally unlikely to occur any time in the near future, and for one simple reason- Its really hard (and expensive) to get a stable internet connection in a park.
For the last month or so, I have been involved in my local Occupation here in Albany, NY. I have divided most of my time between, sanitation, IT, and facilitation. When I have half an hour to spare, I might rake some leaves, when there is an active demonstration I’m helping out with our social media, and during the GA I might help do a “temperature check”. These are all somewhat mundane and unromantic activities that are nevertheless necessary for a sustained occupation. As I said to a fellow occupier holding a broom, “No one said the revolution would be sexy.”
And so- while my twitter feed swells with reports of hundreds of righteous arrests all across the country, I want to write about signal repeaters, and 4G wifi hotspots. Our camp has been plagued by a severe bandwidth drought. In the first few days of the occupation, I bought a little prepaid G4 mobile broadband stick and strapped a webcam to my head. I was able to stream the first few GAs until the expensive bandwidth ran out and my overdue papers (and blog posts!) piled up. I had to step back from that position and since then, our occupation has reevaluated our capabilities and our priorities. If an occupation relies on one person to achieve a certain goal or accomplish a certain task, then that is not something the occupation is capable of doing. It is not sustainable, and it is certainly not in keeping with the ideals of leaderless movements and horizontal organization.
This is an example of isometric social and technical systems: the assemblage of people that monitor and maintain technical systems are organized in a similar fashion. One person with all of the internet is not democratic. Our new solution, is to “throw” a signal into the park from a nearby wired connection. This is not ideal (access to the hardline will be limited) but it is our best option right now. The wifi signal will be sent wirelessly into the camp, and base stations will repeat the signal within the park. This is an excellent example of technical innovation following -while simultaneously reinforcing- social norms. Our options for providing internet access to fellow occupiers is constrained by the available market of hardware and software. Two months ago, before the occupations, there was little need for sustained internet access to horizontally organized communities living in open air encampments. There are a few excellent options but they are not widely available. Occupations must adapt to the existing material realities of our technosocial world if they want to appropriate existing tools for their own ends.
These material realities beget a sort of material agency. Whether it is high energy physics, mapping the human genome, building a nuclear power plant, or trying to get a broadband connection into an urban park, we are met with resistance by nature or existing technosocial realities. (e.g. The Higgs-Boson doesn’t show up in the spectrometer readings, the line-of-sight internet connection is blocked by a stand of trees.) As we move forward, we must accommodate nature (alter the sensors in the LHC, move the antenna,) and learn from our mistakes and failed experiments. This performative, real-time process of discovery and innovation is what Andrew Pickering calls The Mangle of Practice. Inanimate objects do not have the same ability to act in the world as humans do, they do not have intentions or motivations, but the laws of physics and the operational parameters of routers require us to act in particular ways.
From what I have described, material agency seems to affirm the worst fears of distopian authors and gives credence to the excited musings of techno-rapture utopians. But if we focus on the mangle, the point at which we are actively building our future, I think we are forced to consider a much more complicated reality. The affordances of routers and the laws of physics do provide constraints. But just like the rules of chess, the restrictions on what each piece is allowed to do is also what makes the game playable. When the IT Working Group sits in a tent and figures out what it takes to get a wifi signal in a park, they are not just overcoming material agency, they are engaging in prefigurative politics. Overcoming the material restraints of existing technosocial systems -engaging in the mangle of practice- is valuable in and of itself. The visions of utopias and distopias are static entities that assume an end to history, and end to the mangle of practice. Our relationships with technologies are constantly evolving and it is in that evolution that we should be searching for meaning, not some sort of imagined end point.
Follow David Banks on Twitter: @da_banks
David also writes about his experiences at Occupy Albany for the Times Union’s Occupy Albany blog.