Can every­one hear me. Good after­noon. Thanks very much all for com­ing out. Thanks to Lighthouse for hav­ing me.

I have spent the last year or so try­ing to explain to infra­struc­ture engi­neers why they should care about the arts, crit­i­cal the­o­ry, lit­er­a­ture, design fic­tion, so on and so forth. Today I get to kind of flip the script and talk to artists, crit­i­cal thinkers, and design fic­tion­eers about why you should care about infra­struc­ture. And just to com­plete­ly derail what Simon [Ings] just said, infra­struc­ture fic­tion is not a lit­er­ary move­ment, it is more a sort of gen­er­al man­i­festo of, Hey, wake up.”

the illeg­i­bil­i­ty of infrastructure

In Douglas Adams’ Life, the Universe and Everything, Arthur Dent and Ford Prefect are watch­ing a test match at Lord’s when a space­ship built, as I recall, to resem­ble a small Italian bistro inex­plic­a­bly turned on its side lands on the ground in the midst of an over. Not a per­son notices it but Ford and Arthur, both sea­soned and cyn­i­cal galac­tic hitch­hik­ers. That’s because the space­ship is pro­tect­ed by what’s called a Someone Else’s Problem Field, whose inven­tor real­ized that while mak­ing some­thing invis­i­ble is incred­i­bly dif­fi­cult, mak­ing some­thing appear to be some­one else’s prob­lem is very, very easy.

You can think of this as the flip side of the dubi­ous nudge psy­chol­o­gy that Mr. Cameron’s pol­i­cy unit is so fond of, if you like. The Someone Else’s Problem Field around infra­struc­ture is, iron­i­cal­ly enough, a mea­sure of infra­struc­ture’s ubiq­ui­ty and suc­cess. You don’t think about infra­struc­ture because you don’t need to. It just works. And when it does­n’t, there’s a phone num­ber you can not both­er call­ing, because they’ll only put you on hold any­way, and by the time you get through it’ll prob­a­bly have fixed itself, so why both­er? You pay for these things to work, and com­plaints aside as much as we like to carp about it all, most of the time they do. You pay for them to be some­one else’s problem.

Being remind­ed of infra­struc­ture is rarely pleas­ant. It’s no fun to turn your tap and have noth­ing come out. It’s a dif­fer­ent sort of not fun when you dis­cov­er that a wind farm, town bypass, or high-speed train line is sched­uled to mate­ri­al­ize near your house, or when pro­tes­tors camp out on your dri­ve­way to fight a frack­ing company.

Infrastructure is meant to make life eas­i­er, not hard­er. The bet­ter it gets at the for­mer, the more painful are the moments when it does the lat­ter. The gold­en age of British infra­struc­ture was sure­ly the Victorian era, thanks to a com­bi­na­tion of ambi­tion, new tech­no­log­i­cal devel­op­ments, and an emi­nent­ly exploitable under­class work force. In those days infra­struc­ture pri­mar­i­ly ben­e­fit­ed the mid­dle and upper class­es. If you were work­ing class you were like­ly one of infra­struc­ture’s many unsung human com­po­nents, and new infra­struc­ture was more like­ly to spoil your envi­ron­ment than improve it. To the mid­dle class­es, though, infra­struc­ture, espe­cial­ly the rail­ways, was progress incar­nate. A liv­ing force in the world. Victorian paint­ing and lit­er­a­ture is full of infra­struc­ture, some­times as hero, some­times as vil­lain, depend­ing on the tar­get audi­ence. Majestic bridges in oil on can­vas for the gallery gala, train wreck pen­ny dread­fuls for the pro­les. It was all new, and peo­ple won­dered what it meant.

design fic­tion and reflex­ive macroengineering

Speaking ear­li­er this year, Anab Jain of Superflux, who was kind enough to pub­lish the essay upon which this talk is based described design fic­tion as follows:

These projects bypass the estab­lished nar­ra­tives about the present and future that cre­ate the hyp­no­sis of nor­mal­i­ty, and in doing so, allow for an emo­tion­al con­nec­tion with the raw weird­ness of our times, open­ing up an array of possibilities.

Anab Jain, Design for the New Normal (Revisited) [404; new]

It’s the best and most con­cise descrip­tion that I’ve yet found of what design fic­tion does. How design fic­tion does what it does, on the oth­er hand, is a much more open ques­tion. Its tech­niques emerge from the medi­ums it makes use of. So, we might per­haps wink at McLuhan’s ghost and say that the medi­um is the method. Design fic­tion can be writ­ten, it can be still images on mock­up pack shots, a fake pro­mo spot or mock doc­u­men­tary video, or even per­for­mance the­ater, or live action role play. I don’t know if there are yet any design fic­tion com­put­er games, but I would­n’t be at all sur­prised if some­one tells me there are.

The main require­ment, it seems to me, is that in order to be effec­tive, design fic­tions must believe in them­selves, though there are some tricky caveats on that that I’ll come to lat­er on. But for now, the point is that putting togeth­er a project pro­pos­al for some wacky new idea is not enough. If you present a design fic­tion as a pro­pos­al, you give your audi­ence to say, That’ll nev­er make it to mar­ket.” which ends the con­ver­sa­tion instant­ly. You might as well try feed­ing social metaphors to hard sci­ence fic­tion fans. So you don’t pro­pose a solu­tion to the prob­lem. No, in a design fic­tion, you imag­ine the prob­lem to already be solved, and then you ask what that solu­tion has to say about the prob­lem that you had­n’t thought about before, and what it tells you about the future in which it might actu­al­ly get built.

Asking what an object or struc­ture means is an intrin­sic part of what design­ers, archi­tects, and artists do all the time. It’s not nat­ur­al for engi­neers at all. Engineers are prac­ti­cal peo­ple. They build things to spec, they keep lights on, they keep the trains run­ning. To be clear, this is not to claim that engi­neers have no imag­i­na­tion; far from it. A sur­pris­ing amount of sci­ence fic­tion read­er­ship are engi­neers as well. Engineers have plen­ty of imag­i­na­tion, but it is direct­ed very dif­fer­ent­ly. Engineers solve prob­lem, they imag­ine how. The artists, by con­trast, imag­ines why. The engi­neer’s prob­lem is the end prod­uct of the artis­tic process. 

(re)defining bound­aries

Before we can ask what infra­struc­ture means, how­ev­er, we need to first deter­mine what infra­struc­ture is. We need to define it, we need to sketch out the field of inquiry. The Institution of Civil Engineers define infra­struc­ture as the phys­i­cal assets under­pin­ning [the UK’s] net­works for trans­port, ener­gy gen­er­a­tion and dis­tri­b­u­tion, elec­tron­ic com­mu­ni­ca­tions, sol­id waste man­age­ment, water dis­tri­b­u­tion and waste­water treat­ment.” Exciting stuff, right? This pure­ly mate­ri­al­is­tic con­cep­tion of infra­struc­ture, so use­ful for an engi­neer, gets the rest of us every­where and nowhere at once because it hides the social impact of infra­struc­ture behind func­tion­al gen­er­al­i­ties. To reveal that social impact, we have to destroy two very impor­tant assumptions. 

Assumption A: Infrastructure enables tech­nol­o­gy. A design­er will usu­al­ly take infra­struc­ture as a giv­en, if they think of it at all. Just a set of stan­dards and pro­to­cols upon which they can rely to sup­port cer­tain func­tion­al­i­ties in their designs. Infrastructure is the oxy­gen of the design pro­fes­sion, if you like. Always invis­i­bly ready to breathe life and capa­bil­i­ty into the design­er’s cre­ations. Assumption A isn’t so much wrong as it’s incom­plete. It assumes a sim­ple Y fol­lows X” causal­i­ty. If infra­struc­ture, then tech­nol­o­gy. But the real­i­ty, as real­i­ty often is, is more complex. 

Of course infra­struc­ture does enable tech­nol­o­gy, but tech­nol­o­gy has at the same time been a major dri­ving force in the devel­op­ment, expan­sion, enhance­ment, and ubiq­ui­ty of infra­struc­ture. Infrastructure and tech­nol­o­gy have always been locked in a sym­bi­ot­ic co-evolution to the extent that the divi­sion implied by the sep­a­rate terms is in fact large­ly illu­so­ry. Infrastructure and tech­nol­o­gy are two sides of the same coin, if you like. But infra­struc­ture is the ugly, bor­ing, and prag­mat­ic side, while tech­nol­o­gy is flashy, excit­ing, and trans­for­ma­tive. Consider Edison, arguably most famous for the inven­tion of the incan­des­cent light bulb. We tend to for­get that Edison and the oth­er elec­tri­cal inven­tors of his time were strug­gling to crack the light bulb prob­lem in order that they had a prod­uct with which they might con­vince peo­ple that they should get con­nect­ed to the ear­ly elec­tric­i­ty sup­plies. The light bulb con­cretized the poten­tial of elec­tric­i­ty to do use­ful work in the home, turn­ing what had up til then been an abstract and rather fright­en­ing sci­en­tif­ic dis­cov­ery into a house­hold util­i­ty. And the rest is quite lit­er­al­ly history.

Assumption B: Infrastructure ends at the wall of your house. Assumption B is as far as I can tell a sort of late-stage muta­tion of Marxist com­mod­i­ty fetish in that it man­i­fests as the erro­neous notion that the val­ue and util­i­ty of a tech­no­log­i­cal object is locat­ed entire­ly with­in the object itself. Take this pow­er drill. Fairly stan­dard house­hold tool for most of us, I think. Or at least for most house­holds, any­way. If I was to ask you what a pow­er drill can do, you might say to me, That’s obvi­ous, Paul. It can drill holes in your walls, can’t it?” Well, actu­al­ly, no. The drill bit, the pointy bit, for peo­ple who don’t know the struc­ture of drills, which I’m assum­ing isn’t that many of you. The drill bit is the bit that drills the holes in your walls. That is the tool there, that lit­tle bit, the black pointy bit at the left-hand side. The rest of it, the motor unit, the plas­tic han­dle, so and so forth, the cable, the motor unit of the pow­er drill sim­ply enables you to use the drill bit to make more holes more quick­ly before you get tired, and through a greater vari­ety of mate­ri­als than you could drill through using your own elbow grease.

The drill bit is the tool. The pow­er drill is a function-specific exten­sion of the infra­struc­ture, an inter­face between the drill bit and the abstract world of har­nessed ener­gy. When you con­nect a device to an infra­struc­ture, the lat­ter is effec­tive­ly sub­sumed by the for­mer. To use a lit­er­ary term, it’s a sort of metonymy. The pow­er and poten­tial that we imply when we speak of a pow­er drill is actu­al­ly the pow­er and poten­tial of the elec­tric­i­ty grid, an elec­tri­cal spir­it that ani­mates the drill’s unliv­ing body. The pow­er drill is nei­ther tool nor infra­struc­ture. It is quite lit­er­al­ly some­thing in between.

You don’t believe me? Unplug the pow­er drill from the wall and take it some­where there are no wall sock­ets or even just the wrong sort of wall sock­ets. Or take a pow­er show­er to some­place with­out a water dis­tri­b­u­tion mains, or your smart­phone to some­where there’s no sig­nal cov­er­age. Not much use to you now, is it? 

This con­struc­tive dis­il­lu­sion­ment is what infra­struc­ture fic­tion should aim to achieve. It must prob­lema­tize not just the dis­crete tech­nol­o­gy or ser­vice, but the entire infra­struc­tur­al stack on which the tech­nol­o­gy or ser­vice is depen­dent. Infrastructure fic­tion must col­lapse the Someone Else’s Problem Field, finger-snap you out of Anab’s hyp­no­sis of nor­mal­i­ty. It must reveal the hid­den meta-system that under­pins every­thing you do.

It’s all well and good to shat­ter illu­sions, but infra­struc­ture fic­tion should also present alter­na­tives, sub­sti­tute visions. (And those of you who are doing the con­fer­ence Bingo card, Bruce Sterling men­tion com­ing up here.) Bruce Sterling talks a lot about bad forms of design fic­tion and makes the point that design fic­tion should­n’t be hoax‑y, deceit­ful or packed with FUD: Fear, Uncertainty, and Doubt. As I said ear­li­er, design fic­tion must believe in itself to do its work. But it must simul­ta­ne­ous­ly sig­nal its fic­tion­al­i­ty, how­ev­er sub­tly. This is, not at all inci­den­tal­ly, the cen­tral chal­lenge to writ­ing good sci­ence fic­tion, and the rea­son why air­port techno-thrillers can feel less believ­able than an out-and-out sci­ence fic­tion nov­el. The lat­ter is almost always wink­ing at the audi­ence while the for­mer tries to pass for real­ism and thus falls into fic­tion’s equiv­a­lent of the Uncanny Valley.

It isn’t just a mat­ter of lit­er­ary aes­thet­ics, though. Sterling is seek­ing an eth­i­cal dimen­sion to design fic­tion because he knows first-hand the pow­er of the tech­niques he’s dis­cussing and he’s cyn­i­cal enough to know that pow­er­ful tech­niques work just as well in bad hands as good ones. The term diegetic pro­to­type” was coined by David Kirby (who some­one else trumped me to men­tion­ing first) in a paper called The Future is Now: Diegetic Prototypes and the Role of Popular Films in Generating Real-world Technological Development.” Kirby’s paper is a dis­cus­sion of the way that tech­nol­o­gists and design­ers are draft­ed into sci­ence fic­tion film pro­duc­tion units so as to get the tech in the movie’s story-world look­ing con­vinc­ing. But we’ve now reached a point where films are becom­ing a vehi­cle through which these design­ers can inject their design ideas into the cul­tur­al soup, act­ing as what Kirby calls pre-product place­ment,” a par­tic­u­lar­ly appo­site term, giv­en the touch-screen inter­faces of Minority Report are a prime exam­ple and one of the ones he uses in that paper. I hearti­ly rec­om­mend check­ing it out.

My col­league Scott Smith talks a great deal late­ly about flat-pack futures,” espe­cial­ly those grotesque­ly asep­tic lifestyle tech­nol­o­gy ads that are sud­den­ly every­where, show­ing clear­ly how the pur­chase of a cer­tain brand­ed piece of hard­ware will sit­u­ate you in a bland­ly con­tem­po­rary and impos­si­bly unsmudged ide­al of the middle-class Western lifestyle. There’s a crude sort of diegetic pro­to­typ­ing at work here, too. The dif­fer­ence between this stuff and prop­er design fic­tion is that flat-pack futures exchange the cri­tique of tech­nol­o­gy for the uncrit­i­cal advo­ca­cy of tech­nol­o­gy. The prob­lem is that to Josephine Public the dif­fer­ence between fore­sight and mar­ket­ing may not be imme­di­ate­ly appar­ent, espe­cial­ly in a medi­um that relies on the inter­nal coher­ence of false real­i­ties to do its work. 

For exam­ple, one might make the argu­ment that tran­shu­man­ism is a great exam­ple of a very sophis­ti­cat­ed and col­lab­o­ra­tive shared-world design fic­tion veneer over the top of a cyn­i­cal me-first lib­er­tar­i­an ide­ol­o­gy which in turn obscures an elab­o­rate Ponzi scheme based on cryo­genic life insur­ance poli­cies and unfal­si­fi­able pro­pos­als for AI research grants. But as I don’t have a lawyer on retain­er, I would­n’t want to claim such a thing publicly.

Sketches of Elon Musk's proposed Hyperloop project.

However there’s a val­ue even to flat-pack futures in that the biggest ones get a lot of pub­lic atten­tion and hence a lot of pub­lic cri­tique. It was very gen­er­ous of Elon Musk to come out with a per­fect exam­ple of flat-pack future infra­struc­ture fic­tion so short­ly after I coined the term. (Thanks, Elon. If you’re watch­ing, the check is in the mail.) But real­ly, the Hyperloop thing is a great exam­ple of design fic­tion acci­den­tal­ly done bad­ly. For instance the loca­tions that Musk’s pro­pos­al joined togeth­er made it very obvi­ous that Elon Musk’s idea. cus­tomer is him­self, in stark con­trast to the PayPal user inter­face, whose ide­al cus­tomer is pre­sum­ably a human being of infi­nite patience. But screwy demog­ra­phy and mar­ket research, this instance of pinko, crypto-socialist pro­pos­al for improv­ing the gen­er­al human con­di­tion, this is seri­ous Silicon Valley techno-shit, yeah? Blithely pre­sent­ed as a shovel-ready project just wait­ing for the right amount of ven­ture cap­i­tal to light the blue touch­pa­per, so stand well back ladies and gentlemen.

It’s also wrong in many, many ways. There weren’t quite so many robust cri­tiques of Hyperloop as there were breath­less fawn­ing reblogs of the pret­ty pic­tures, but there were quite a few tak­ing the idea to task from pret­ty much every angle pos­si­ble: the geog­ra­phy, the eco­nom­ics, the mate­ri­als, the engi­neer­ing, the health and safe­ty, so on and so forth. 

beneath the street, the conduit!

I hope it’s clear now if it was­n’t from the start that infra­struc­ture fic­tion” is less a method­ol­o­gy (and with apolo­gies to Simon, def­i­nite­ly not a lit­er­ary move­ment) than a man­i­festo, a plea for a par­a­digm shift in how we think about our increas­ing­ly technology-saturated world. How exact­ly you take it on board, what exact­ly you do with it, will depend on who you are and what it is you do. 

When I talk to my engi­neer col­leagues about infra­struc­ture fic­tion, I tend to pitch it as anoth­er sort of mod­el­ing. Engineers do a lot of mod­el­ing; not cat­walk stuff, dif­fer­ent sort of mod­el­ing. But it’s an almost pure­ly qual­i­ta­tive and con­cep­tu­al form of mod­el­ing by com­par­i­son to the mod­els that engi­neers usu­al­ly use. The tricky bit to get across to an engi­neer is that in design fic­tion, fail­ure is not only instruc­tive but active­ly desir­able. Engineers rarely waste time think­ing about some­thing which they already know can’t be built, or won’t be built. This is the good thing about Musk’s Hyperloop. It got thou­sands of peo­ple think­ing imag­i­na­tive­ly and crit­i­cal­ly about infra­struc­ture, talk­ing about what it means, what it should do, and about how and for whom it should do those things. 

You try hav­ing that con­ver­sa­tion around High Speed 2, by con­trast, and all any­one will then care about is how much it’s going to cost, who’s back gar­den it’s going to run through, who’s get­ting the back hand, and so on and so forth. HS2 is too real and polit­i­cal a prob­lem, too root­ed in the here and now for us to get to grips with the real­ly big ques­tions that sur­round it. By con­tract the imag­i­na­tive and spec­u­la­tive bits of Hyperloop serve to dis­pel an Anab’s hyp­no­sis of nor­mal­i­ty and open up the pos­si­bil­i­ties and pit­falls for dis­cus­sion. And even if that’s all it achieves, I still think it’s done good work. I rather doubt Mr. Musk would agree with me on that point, however.

For artists, writ­ers, design­ers, and the­o­rists, and thinkers and all you oth­er fas­ci­nat­ing peo­ple out there infra­struc­ture fic­tion is pos­si­bly best described as a call for you all to rad­i­cal­ly change the way you under­stand role of tech­nol­o­gy in your lives. To look afresh at the rela­tion­ships between the things you do and the sys­tems that make it pos­si­ble for you to do them. One thing I want to make a real­ly strong point about is that I am not ask­ing you to think out­side the box.” 

On the con­trary, I want you to think exact­ly about the box. Infrastructure fic­tion is not about tran­scend­ing con­straints, it is about com­ing to terms with our con­straints, not just indi­vid­u­al­ly but as a civ­i­liza­tion. It is about under­stand­ing the nature of our con­straints and inter­nal­iz­ing the sys­temic lim­its that come from liv­ing in a social ecosys­tem with finite resources.

Nor do I want you to, as one response to my essay sug­gest­ed, write more sto­ries about bridges. Though if you’ve got a sto­ry to tell about bridges I think you should go ahead and tell it. The clue is in the name. Infrastructure fic­tion is obvi­ous­ly inter­est­ed in infra­struc­ture. But it’s fic­tion, and fic­tion is for and about people. 

So, by all means write a sto­ry or draw a pic­ture or make a video that involves a bridge, but make the bridge more than a prop, more than a set­ting or a sym­bol or a back­drop. Make it a char­ac­ter in its own right, an agent in the net­work of soci­ety in which it is a struc­tur­al and func­tion­al com­po­nent. But, write about peo­ple too, because they’re the most reli­ably invis­i­ble part of any infrastructure. 

Not just the peo­ple who use it, but the peo­ple who main­tain it, the peo­ple who oper­ate it, the peo­ple who protest against it, the peo­ple who blow it up, or steal bits of it, even the peo­ple who live among its ruins. Write about the rela­tion­ship that peo­ple have with that bridge, and that the bridge has with those peo­ple. Remember that nei­ther makes sense in the absence of the other. 

Think about the box. Think about con­straints. Failure is instruc­tive. Thank you.

Further Reference

Paul post­ed his script (not found until after this tran­script was pro­duced) at Futurismic. The word counts dif­fer by ~500 words, how­ev­er, so this is post­ed as reflect­ing the talk as presented.

The orig­i­nal ver­sion of Anab Jain’s Design for the New Normal.