Revealing Infrastructure — The Spaces of Flows

Envisioning the banal, through image or theory, means paying attention to what is normally ignored, hidden or concealed. For North American urban dwellers, some of the most privileged citizens in the world, much upon which we depend is concealed from sight: we don’t tend to think about how it functions until it fails to deliver to us what we have come to expect. The failure of the electricity grid in Toronto and New York in the summer of 2003 has become a cultural point of reference because of the sudden visibility of so many of the normally hidden elements of urban life: suddenly lights, heat, and cell phone conversations were no longer taken for granted. However, these infrastructures connect us not only to one another, but also to larger forces that extend across the globe through the ties of ownership and the movement of capital. This section presents some theories of global and local urban inequality: Castells’ “spaces of flows” and Graham and Marvin’s “splintering urbanism”

Manuel Castells describes contemporary urban life as an enfolding of the “space of flows” into the “space of places” (Castells, 2004). For Castells, the local and experienced is always part of the global and spatial, and as he writes elsewhere, “flows define the spatial form and processes. Within each city, within each area, processes of segregation and segmentation take place in a pattern of endless variation. But such segmented diversity is dependent upon a functional unity marked by gigantic, technology-intensive infrastructures” (Castells, 1996 p. 406). This insight describes the extent to which the sublime visions users have for ICTs depend upon the banal infrastructure that connects cities and regions to one another. For instance, leaving aside my ability to pay for computer hardware, software, and peripherals, using my wireless internet connection in Montreal depends upon the investment by incumbent cable companies in fibre-optic lines, and upon a cheap and reliable source of electricity, as well as the labour of workers across the world who produce cheap routers and computers. The influence of these webs of dependence will be discussed in the following sections. However, Castells also points out that members of urban society do not experience space and place in the same way. He writes, “people do still live in places. But because function and power in our societies are organized in the space of flows, the structural domination of its logic essentially alters the meaning and dynamic of places. Experience, by being related to places, becomes abstracted from power” (Castells, 1996 p.426). In other words, individuals are to varying extents (depending upon their economic and social capital) made distant from the wider circulations of power. The cosmopolitan elite move in what Castells would call the “space of flows,” engaging with one another in a fluid network of relationships, while the poor and disenfranchised live in places bounded by space and capital. ICTs can therefore facilitate a world of fluid networks and seamless moblility, but only for a few. Access to the weighty infrastructures that permit such mobility is limited to those who already possess adequate capital. For example, the cosmopolitan elite may flexibly work with colleagues the world over, relying on transportation infrastructures, cellular phone systems, and well-developed internet infrastructures. Those without the material resources to access these infrastructures live in a local, not a global world.

Focusing specifically on urban contexts, Graham and Marvin express the same sentiment more precisely as a process of “splintering.” They argue that all kinds of infrastructures, but particularly ICT infrastructures are helping to partition urban life and experience into separate areas reflective of social and economic status. Despite the fact that the rich and poor are living closer together geographically than ever before, many formerly universal services are being “redlined” out of areas deemed unprofitable, while premium services are offered to affluent neighbourhoods. For example, “gated community” subdivisions often create proprietory sewer and transportation grids, as well as other kinds of “closed networks” like the well-known local broadband network in Ontario’s “Netville” (Hampton, 2001). A key aspect of splintering is the migration of services away from universal accessibility and towards an unequal balance of services where high-end services are provided to “cherry-picked’ customers while poorer customers are left without even basic services. The economic rationale behind this type of splintering is clear: it is economically advantageous for companies to target a smaller group of lucrative customers than a larger group of marginally profitable customers. Graham and Marvin provide numerous illustrations of these economics at work, including the tactics of telephone companies, who increasingly target the wealthy consumers that Schiller (1999) calls “power users . . . high value residential customers who spend lavishly on a basket of telecommunications and information services including, on an annualized basis, $650 on cellular, $500 on local wireline telephone; $400 on long-distance telephony; $375 on cable, pay-per-view, and video-on demand” (cited in Graham and Marvin, 2001 p. 236). The social effects of splintering are to marginalize those who are already poor by separating them from even more infrastructures and services.

Graham and Marvin describe the network space that elites inhabit as being not just “different” but “indifferent” to the real inequalities that have begun to characterize urban spaces. However, often elites are not even aware of these inequalities. Since the deregulation of telecommunications services, governments have provided only very limited support for universal telecommunications access. Provision of service has moved from a presumption of universality towards a pay-for-service model where telecommunications providers compete for clients (Bodnar, 2004). To maintain their profit margins, many providers target the elite, ensuring that their systems are not only maintained but enhanced, and leave aside the poor. Because their service is rarely worsened by deregulation, elites are not necessarily aware of the deepening gap that this change has engendered. A gap in perception, as well as a gap in service, widen. This development has created a “disembedding of elite groups from whole systems of public service provision, public space and national consciousness” (Graham & Marvin 2001 p.147). Such a disembedding impacts not merely at the local level but also at the global: elites who are increasingly separated from their local areas form relationships with other global elites, bypassing the disempowered local place and living more and more of their lives in Castell’s “space of flows”. However, this local disembedding does not necessarily mean that ICT networks have obliterated time and space. On the contrary, they have reinforced certain aspects of them. As Graham (1997) argues, “Place-based and place-bound ways of living, and the social, economic, institutional, and cultural dynamics that can arise when urban propinquity does matter are still critically important in shaping how cities and localities are woven into global lattices of mobility and flow” (p.117). The theory of “splintering” and that of the space of flows thus provide ways of visualizing the tangled consequences of ICTs on everyday lives in urban context.