Decoding Infrastructure: Locating Humans Within Infrastructural Networks

by Hira Nabi

“Material Networks that allow us to live, to dream and to desire.” – Nikhil Anand

Collective imagination holds urban spaces to be constantly functional, in ceaseless, unstoppable ways. They are imagined as utilitarian destinations that remain alive and at work, and are expected to hold the capacity to provide services at all hours of day or night. This is a paradigm of utopia and dystopia, inhabiting the same urban landscape in simultaneous motion: the perpetual state of being active. Being continuously functional ultimately means there is no stopping, no time to rest, no recharging and no time out. It means unyielding ceaseless operation.

This simultaneous horrific and wonderful moment of constant service is a function of the contemporary moment, which prizes efficiency and accessibility as targeted developmental goals to be achieved for the progression of urban human civilization. Apart from the horror of unending stimulus and changing cultural expectations around time and space of work, leisure and productivity, it is both useful and necessary to think about what comprises the back end of this eternal efficiency. How do our cities stay ‘on’?

Who runs these spaces? Are they programmed to be infinitely alive and serviceable? What does it mean to be of service at 3.30am on a Thursday? If infrastructure is to be understood as a technological system, then it depends upon labor to function. As we increasingly interact with mechanized interfaces and touchtone surfaces and preemptive question and answer sets that are arrayed on a numeric keypad – we lose sight of the humans designing and maintaining the spaces of artificial intelligence providing round the clock service. As infrastructures are understood as forms of networks, the structure and relationships within networks must be acknowledged. Especially in the way “network structures are infra-structures that shape human notions of meaning, value, and autonomy.” How do we recognize humans as part of infrastructure? Are they separate from the machines they run, and the code they design? Or do we place the same expectations upon them that we do upon machines and software?

The workers of urban infrastructure come to be represented by the services they provide, in time becoming consumed whole by the demand for efficiency. As our world becomes increasingly mechanized, relying heavily upon technological advancements to maintain daily operations, the machinery undergoes a kind of camouflage. The machines become sleeker, interfaces are repackaged and rebranded, and a crafty disappearance occurs. This disappearance is chronicled on two levels: firstly, the machines undergo a physical transformation, shrinking their size and presence, and secondly, we begin to normalize mechanized structures, rendering them less strange, less alien, less rare. The sounds that refrigerators, air conditioners, car engines, trains, vending machines, printers, scanners, projectors etc. make all fill up the lo-fi2 soundscape that we currently occupy. We become aware of the technology and machinery around us only when it breaks down, or when there is a malfunction. This awareness, or lack of awareness has been extended to include the human workers of infrastructure who only come to attention when infrastructural services are not provided: when the trains stop running, or the markets have no fresh produce available, or when airport workers go on strike.

Movement through a city is segregated by time, and class, and professional patterns: the city belongs to its different inhabitants at different times – of course it is always home to, and occupied by all of its inhabitants at all times, however there are distinct patterns in how people of different income brackets through the city. This is layered upon other filters such as age, gender, and ethnicity to name some broadly divisive categories. Early mornings before school, teachers, office workers, bankers, corporate workers etc. fill up the public transit system, and roads. Next is the school rush, which repeats itself in the afternoons.

The workers of urban infrastructure rise before anyone else does, to clean the streets, to start transportation shifts to provide for rush hour traffic, to transport fresh produce to markets, to deliver newspapers, to brew morning coffee, and open cafés for breakfast. The earliest risers are the ones to get the cogs of the city turning, the infrastructure of infrastructure.

How can we visualize these movements? How do we map their journeys? The labor that runs this infrastructure has become invisible in it; it has become indistinguishable from the machinery itself. By focusing on the human materiality of infrastructure, I intend to re-imagine infrastructure as people, moving beyond systems of highways, cables, pipes, railway tracks, sensory buttons, and espresso machines.

These photographs were taken by Janus Van den Eijnden in 2008, as part of a photo essay on subway drivers. His work reveals the drivers operating the MTA trains that ferry New Yorkers all across the different boroughs and neighbourhoods, ceaselessly, unfailingly, through day and night. Eijnden’s work calls attention to the train operators who are driving the rail cars. The drivers have limited interaction with the passengers, and remain anonymous, and completely unknown. This photo essay seeks to make known or to identify the human materiality that makes up networks of infrastructure.

As the mechanics and technology of these networked systems becomes more ubiquitous and infrastructural development is seen as a marker of progression and the growth of human civilization, the front and back end programmed and operated by humans erodes from sight. The expectations placed upon these operators of infrastructure mimics the requirements of the machinery: in the ad above, for a light maintainer posted by the MTA, the job description includes this caveat: “special working conditions: light maintainers may be required to work various shifts, including nights, Saturdays, Sundays, and holidays.” There is already an uneasy unrelenting expectation of full functionality at all times.

This reality is at once utopic and dystopic, where the expected efficiency and constant access to services is seen as a feature of development, yet it is also tireless and frightening in its constancy. It is tiring for those who maintain it, working round the clock, sleeping during the day, working at night, working holidays for its continued upkeep. It is also frightening in how it affects those who engage and interact with it, those who depend upon its constancy – will it ever break down? Will it remain sustainable? If not, what then? Infrastructure affects human geography, affects human emotion, and ultimately alters human experiences.