Monthly Archives: March 2007

Infrastructures of openness and enclosure

I’ve been reading Bowker and Star’s excellent book Sorting Things Out today. They write a history of various types of classificiation systems to make an argument that informational infrastructure has a social, political, and economic history. They call this approach infrastructural inversion.

While running in the park in the curiously golden English sunshine, I began to think about how infrastructures (especially the way Bowker and Star describe them) and protocols (especially the way Alexander Galloway describes them in Protocol) work together to define spaces of openness and enclosure. The infrastructures of the park, especially the fences and paths, physically define spaces for specific purposes (dogs here, but not there; children under 5 on these jungle gyms, not those ones; sand in the sandbox but not in the wading pool). But so too do the protocols that have shaped these infrastructures and make them meaningful. They are invisible, and perhaps more subtle, and as a foreigner I am unaware of some of them (pass on the left, not on the right, unless you want to be smushed by cars or step on a small child). Others are more obvious: (don’t talk to strangers) or insidious (language and accent place the park visitors clearly on a defined social ladder).

But still, a curious social scientist out jogging can draw some conclusions about how protocol and infrastructure can define some spaces as public or open (like the park) while still maintaining strict forms of control or enclosure over them. The argument becomes more difficult when we consider the mediated public spaces we build through mediated communication.

On the lunch table below are the physical traces of any number of infrastructures and protocols that regulate communications (among other human endeavors). A thorough enumeration of them (which I will spare you) would have to include the infrastructures of book distribution, electricity, cellular telephone communication, computer operating systems both open-source and proprietary, and innumerable protocols ranging from the arcane (integration of sensors into ad-hoc networks) to the banal (creation of legible cursive writing using a pen).

lunch table 2.jpg

If as Bowker and Star point out, infrastructures have their histories and futures built into them, and if cultures are necessarily built upon protocol, how can we manage this bewildering jumble of infrastructures and protocols to create some public space for communication? Is it possible to use the terms of openness and enclosure when both of them are necessary?