[NetBehaviour] Counter-Infrastructures: Critical Empowerment and Emancipation in a Networked World

furtherfield furtherfielder at gmail.com
Thu May 21 10:54:36 CEST 2015

Counter-Infrastructures: Critical Empowerment and Emancipation in a
Networked World

By Daphne Dragona

Independent Curator and PhD Candidate, Department of Communication and
Media Studies, National and Kapodistrian University of Athens

“With every receding seam, from cable to code, comes a techno-political
risk. Without edges we cannot know where we are nor through whom we speak”
Julian Oliver writes while discussing stealth infrastructures in the urban
environment. [1] Similarly, his colleague Danja Vasiliev remarks, “we
hardly know what our device does behind our back.” [2] The network of
networks within which we communicate and interact today is, to a great
extent, based on infrastructures and devices that are increasingly
disappearing, becoming invisible. And with such a disappearance, the user,
if we follow the thought of the artist Olia Lialina, is “silently becoming
invisible” too, losing his or her rights over the technology being
employed. [3] Therefore, it seems that we have entered the era of
“stacktivism,” a term which derives from Benjamin Bratton’s “Black Stack”
and describes the invisibility of the infrastructures, the fact that we
might have no understanding or access to them. The “stack” according to
Bratton “staged the death of the user” while other kinds of nonhuman users,
like the sensors and the algorithms, were at the same time empowered. [4]
And as the “stack” reflects a new nomos for the relationship among
technology, nature and human, it is also made clear that this
non-transparency, opacity and invisibility concerns the functioning of the
networked environment in its entirety, and the capturing of users’
interactions throughout their daily life. [5]

And while Thrift’s “technological unconscious,” the “operation of powerful
and unknowable information technologies that produce everyday life” as
David Beer explains, seem to take over, at the same time voices opposed to
this “black boxing” sovereignty significantly grew in number. [6,7,8]
networks should be made visible, computerized systems should become
transparent, and technologies should be made responsive and available,
Saskia Sassen writes. [9] Citizens and network users should reclaim a new
right today, their right to ‘infra-structure’, which relates to an ongoing
search, re-invention and re-appropriation. [10] A new form of ownership and
a new form of literacy directly related to infrastructures therefore seems
to be needed which connects to what Greenfield has also framed as a need
for translators, for “people capable of opening these occult systems,
demystifying them and explaining their implications” to the others.

Taking this context as a starting point, the paper will discuss the role of
the initiatives, critical perspectives and alternatives that have been
formulated by artists, arguing that they can be seen not only as steps
towards critical awareness but also as significant moves towards users’
emancipation. Looking to the last ten years, the paper will present
significant examples from a scene of artists who have been active in the
field, capturing the changes in networked infrastructures and architectures
of communication, and responding to them with collaborative projects,
actions and workshops. The paper’s last portion will further identify and
discuss main common features of these initiatives through case studies.
Paying attention to the overall aims, methodology, and outcomes of these
case studies, the paper will focus on how artists’ initiatives empower
users to develop their own competencies and skills through a creative
engagement with technology.

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