WARNING – ACADEMIC WHUNKY-WHUNK! (Models and Representations of Infrastructure)

I have been thinking about the different ways communication networks/infrastructures are built. In particular, I have been trying to come up with a way to explain the relationship between built things and our understanding of built things , which is especially important when the built things are supposedly what let us communicate with one another. This is a salient point in the hype-o-rific Web 2.augh! universe, when we are constantly being told that we are building our own things even as they are being fed into some larger structure . . .

I’m playing with the idea that there are both models and representations of communications infrastructures, and that each plays a role in some kind of construction or innovation. How do they fit together? I’m not sure.

Models can be mental or regulatory models- bottom-up models, top-down models. Policy models. The model responds to the question: how is this system supposed to work? New models are sociotechnical in nature, and have economic and cultural aspects. A model can be and often is physical, but even new mental model – a new way of doing things, thinking about things, and structuring things. In previous generations of communication infrastructure a model was imposed from above. But Wi-Fi, and other kinds of ad-hoc communication infrastructure models, developed from below (and connected to representations of WiFi as emancipatory technology. However, the models can be applied in other representational contexts other than the ones in which they were developed; for example, the model mesh networking is now used in a different representational context.

Representations are cultural. We represent models, but representations might also create models – as new ways of thinking create new ways of doing. These are where we find differences in interpretations of models. Representations respond to the question of “what is this? What am I supposed to do with this?” Representations help us distinguish between change in models and change in what models MEAN. This is most obvious when we consider the case of sharing. A representation of sharing is not exactly the same as a model of sharing, but at the same time, it might be a way of eventually producing a new kind of model. For example, the representational connection between “free WiFi” and “open networks”, which involves an invocation of the other kinds of “free” and “open” representations appears to be creating a mental model of open infrastructure – unlike existing models (how, I can’t exactly explain).

Both representations and models are tangled up together. Untangling them means creating a distinction that rejoins that of the distinction between discourse and practice. This is dangerous stuff for someone who advocates the consideration of sociotechnical systems. However, I want to retain them to help to explain how cultural influences (in the domain of representations) interrelate and influence socio-economic and technical factors (in the domain of models) as various kinds of communication infrastructures develop.