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The Cruelty of Networks

The past week’s events have given journalists and bloggers a free pass to reflect on Facebook’s trajectory and its present and future roles in society, not long after an Atlantic feature stirred the debate about whether the social network is making people more lonely. At the risk of adding to an over-saturated topic, I can’t resist marveling at Facebook as a form of infrastructure. If the following doesn’t make sense, blame Sanford Kwinter, whom I’ve been rereading lately.

A popular but narrow definition of infrastructure is the set of physical utilities that enable civilized life: roads, pipes, wires, and terminals. Kwinter offers a broader definition: the largely invisible tangle of “ubiquitous and foundational” systems. Bridges and power lines are infrastructure, of course, but they’re only its most visible manifestations. There’s plenty of infrastructure that few see because it’s buried underground or otherwise hidden, and far more that is intangible: software, laws, transactions, information.

Facebook is visible but it doesn’t take up space like infrastructure made of concrete or steel. Its visible interface, in fact, conceals much of its basic structure—the code itself—and the network’s hardware, like data centers and server farms, are purposely hidden. As a whole, though, Facebook fulfills the same observable roles as its heavier counterparts: In its different functions, Facebook is the postal service, the street corner, the radio, and the coffee shop, plus much more. While it hasn’t replaced any of those, it does serve many of the purposes that they do. The question of whether Facebook is really making us lonely begins with an assessment of this tradeoff. Can the digital versions of activities that formerly needed physical space enable the same quality of social interaction? Thousands have asked that question about Facebook (and the Internet in general) since the social network’s emergence eight years ago, and thousands more will ask it in the coming years.

Understanding Facebook as infrastructure—something qualitatively similar to roads and buildings—won’t answer these questions, but it is a critical first step toward accurately situating this technology in the world. Sanford Kwinter’s brilliant essay “The Cruelty of Numbers,” published in 1995, seems to prophesize the Facebook era a decade in advance. Most importantly, Kwinter attacks the false distinction between the mechanical and the electronic, along with the fallacy that the latter is only “immaterial processes and pure intelligence.” Facebook and the class of infrastructure to which it belongs still exists in the physical, “real” world more than any virtual one, and to think otherwise is to misunderstand these technologies’ true nature.

Instead, Kwinter calls for us to “expand the concept of the concrete and to extend the play of intuition into new domains.” In other words, we must resist the routinization that accompanies the “correct” use of computers, smart phones, Facebook, and countless other digital tools (all of which had a long way to go in 1995 if they existed whatsoever). He writes:

“It is our duty and mandate to refuse this new, pseudo-material space entirely, and to follow the ‘minor,’ archaic path through the microchip, that is, to make the electronic world work for us to reimpart the rich indeterminacy and magic of matter out of the arid, cruel, and numericalized world of the reductionist-mechanical and the disciplinary-electronic.”

Make the electronic world work for us. If Facebook’s critics have reached a consensus on any point, it is that Facebook’s users tend to work for Facebook more than the reverse. In an earlier post on this blog, I describe how apps can oversimplify the rich realities of cities and impoverish our experience of those realities. Ultimately, I suggest that we make technologies like Yelp and Foursquare work for us. We must strive to keep the places described by those apps mysterious and strange, while resisting the temptation to reduce urban environments—or our perception of them—to something that easily fits the digital models. Above all, as Kwinter also suggests, we must understand how technologies impact our humanity. Having done this, we can use our devices as “the early moderns used the telescope and microscope: to engage aspects of nature whose logic and pattern had previously remained ungraspable.”

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