The View From Here – Introductions and Surveying the Terrain

ICT infrastructures are banal and uninteresting – but this also means that they are powerful. This introductory section establishes reasons for focusing on often invisible or ignored technical systems, and outlines the paper’s two main sections: a theoretical reflection on visualizing inequalities, and a more focused look at wireless internet’s “invisible” transmission infrastructure

From the window where I write this, I see the side of Mount Royal. The hillside’s famous metal cross is accompanied by two gigantic communication towers, which I had never noticed until now. Like waste water disposal systems and electrical connections, the infrastructures that provide us with the ICT connections that we, as urban dwellers, come to depend on, are intensely unremarkable. Misshapen towers bristle with antennas and dishes, while grey plastic parabolas disfigure heritage buildings. Increasingly, our cities are being imagined as “digital,” their inhabitants “mobile” and “networked.” This mobility and networking is perceived as characteristic of our contemporary society, the most rapidly urbanizing of any society in history (Graham, 2004). This purported characteristic has inspired researchers, designers, and academics to investigate the changing textures of everyday life that result from the introduction of portable computing devices and mobile telephones into many urban homes. This set of investigations helps us to reflect on the role of new technologies in our lives, but also tends to draw on what Mosco calls (after Leo Marx) “the rhetoric of the technological sublime [which] involves hymns to progress that rise “like froth on a tide of exuberant self-regard sweeping over all misgivings, problems, and contradictions'” (Marx, cited in Mosco 2004 p.22-23). As generative as examinations of the daily changes wrought by ICTs can be, they often focus primarily on the sublime aspect of new technology – that is, its new and potentially transformative potential. Part of this focus on the sublime has been the creation of a dichotomy between the “real” material aspects of life, and the “virtual” aspects of life “on the screen” (Turkle, 1995). The sublime internet, especially, has been considered as something other than “real,” something that creates its own reality for its end user as soon as it arrives.

However, by focusing exclusively on what ICTs enable for the end user, researchers risk participating in a willful negligence of the banal – the ordinary, unremarkable state in which we take things for granted. These studies also risk neglecting some of the very “real” ways in which the internet’s infrastructure and delivery systems impact not just the end user (in her sublime online state) but other people as well. As Mosco warns, this negligence means ignoring the state in which technologies hold the most power (2004). Previously sublime technologies provide useful examples of the power inherent in the banal. Despite the initial excitement about electricity during its early development (Marvin, 1988), the electric light, now firmly “in the woodwork” has fundamentally shifted ways of working, moving, waking and sleeping. These effects were created not merely by individual electrical appliances but also by the supporting, and increasingly ubiquitous, electrical infrastructure. Large-scale infrastructural systems are tremendously important as situated elements of our experiences of technologies in our everyday lives. Therefore, without completely leaving aside the sublime way that the use and practice of ICTs can transform individuals’ experiences of their everyday lives, what follows will consider ICT infrastructure primarily as banal artifact, one that embeds our sublime myths of progress. Such myths include the notion that changes in technology will always and inevitably be positive, and the belief that technology is a neutral force.

Rob Shields writes, “it is almost a truism to say that urban environments are made selectively visible as “cities’ through representation . . . it is easy to forget that the visibility of the city is always an incomplete cipher for, or part of, the tactility of concrete, everyday life” (2003 p. 18). By engaging with the elements of ICT infrastructure that are invisible and ignored, I hope to think differently about the banal aspects of this infrastructure, and begin to understand something more about “concrete, everyday life.” This will reveal the extent to which everyday life as many North American urban dwellers experience it is impacted by deeply embedded power structures. Examining the structures and infrastructures around which power forms makes these power relationships visible for critique. To promote this visibility, the next three chapters: 1: introduce theoretical frameworks for discussing ICTs and urbanity (Revealing Infrastructure); 2: consider the political-economic, social, and physical implications of ICT infrastructure at the global and local levels, especially the forces of capital fixity and capital mobility, which reinforce the political and economic dominance of “global cities” while producing social and political effects in local areas (The Economics of Infrastructure); and an investigation of the physical impacts of ICTs on local neighbourhoods (The Shapes of Spaces). In th Community WiFi: Seeing the Invisible, I look more closely at the marking of wireless space. Wireless internet technology (known commercially as WiFi) is a technology that is new enough to still bear some of the trappings of the sublime. As it becomes banal, melting into the invisible airspace of urban areas (except for its subtly visible antennas and routers), WiFi companies, and non-profits, are marking their spaces virtually using a variety of tactics, in order to gain the attention of a limited pool of influential consumers or supporters. A case study focusing on a Montreal non-profit and its choice of tactics permits a clearer understanding of underlying power structures. The following chapters each provide a different way of considering the power play between the banal and sublime.