A guest post from speaker and mentor at the City Infrastructure LabPaul Graham Raven. Read Part One here.

3: We are a cyborg

We are surrounded by infrastructure; it sustains almost every activity which we undertake, from the mundane to the heroic, but we only ever see – or take notice of – the technologies through which we interface with those vast networks. To a greater or lesser degree, almost every built environment we pass through or inhabit has an infrastructural back-stage waiting to light our way – both figuratively and literally. Increasingly, cell and satellite technology are enabling this field of potential to extend right out into what we once, not all that long ago, considered to be “the wilds”; so long as you have the appropriate tools – and, most importantly, the appropriate rights of access, or the ability to pay for such – you can do almost anything almost anywhere.

Doing almost anything almost anywhere is easy, because we are a cyborg.

Note that I wrote we are a cyborg, as opposed to we are cyborgs. The individual human condition is plural and subjective, but the infrastructurally mediated human condition is collective and subjective; this is a fancy academic way of saying that we are not only connected to our infrastructures individually, but that those connections connect us, in turn, to one another.

This is not quite the same as the sense in which we might say that “the internet has made us more connected” – though that is, perhaps, a part of what I’m getting at. But the interconnectedness we talk about when we talk about the internet is an end-to-end connection; this is infrastructure as a system or medium through which communication or exchange can take place between two “users” thereof.

But there’s a subtler and deeper connection that I’m trying to get at, here – something almost fractal, perhaps. So let’s try this: infrastructure is people.

It might be fairer to say “infrastructure is also people”, but we can leave the semantics for another day. Above, I described the ways in which our bodies are extended by infrastructures – but those infrasytructures, those prostheses through whose habitual use I am cyborgified, are themselves already cyborg systems. Among the pipes and pumps and ponds of a water network, among the pylons and power stations of the electricity grid, among the servers and switches and backbones and baud of the communications systems we increasingly think of as “the internet”, there are people making things work (or, occasionally, making them not work); infrastructures are sociotechnical systems, systems in which neither the social or technical elements are sufficient to operate alone. When I turn my kitchen tap, I extend my own body, and at the same time I incorporate into it – if only momentarily – the bodies of those employees, and of their managers and their PR departments, of the bus drivers who took them to work, the petrol station clerks who sold the petrol that filled the tanks of the company’s response vehicles… the network is endless. It takes a whole water network to make my cup of tea happen, but it takes a whole nation to make a water network happen. All such networks are subnetworks of the network-of-networks, the infrastructural metasystem – the global machine through which we extract, distribute, process and dispose of resources and waste.

If you’re reading this, you’re almost certainly living in a part of the world where the metasystem is effectively ubiquitous, even if – like William Gibson’s future – it is unevenly distributed, spatially and politically speaking. The infrastructural metasystem is a machine the size of the Earth’s surface, and we live in the spaces in between its components. But while we live within it, we also operate and manage this system; we are its benefactors, but we are simultaneously its servants. (The ratio of benefaction received to service provided is, regrettably, neither proportional or linear.)

Driving to work, selling a tank of petrol, going to school, working in a nursery, filing that audit with HR before the deadline, replacing the blown components in a remote substation, buying a microwave meal on the way home, cooking a meal for family and friends, messaging lovers from the sofa while Netflix plays in the background, we are a cyborg.

4: Gaia is a cyborg

We are not the only things caught in the mesh of this net that we’ve woven from pipes and pylons, from cables and carriageways; we caught something much bigger.

Doing almost anything almost anywhere is a problem, because Gaia is a cyborg.

We don’t notice the planet we’ve caught in our net. This is partly a problem of scale: the planet is big, but individually we are very small by comparison, and so – to steal unashamedly from Pratchett and Gaiman – we cannot see the planet caught in our net for the same reason a tourist stood in Trafalgar Square cannot see England. Just as we human beings both inhabit and partly constitute the metasystem, the metasystemic infrastructural network is coextensive with the planet; the former is quite literally stitched through the latter. The density of the network may vary – quite considerably, in some cases – as may your ease of access to it, but it’s the same wherever you go: you stand on the planet’s surface, surrounded and supported by infrastructure. The metasystem is a map which we have very thoroughly mistaken for the territory.

While no one ever sat down and decided it should be so, infrastructure has become in essence a gigantic stage-magic trick. Think again about what it is that infrastructure allows us to do: it extends our bodies through time and space, allows us to acquire things we desire and bring them closer to us (or us closer to them), and to send undesirable things further away. But where do the things we desire come from? Where do the things we despise go? They come from and go into the environmental capacities of the planet on which we live; infrastructure is our machine for managing and mediating our relationship with said capacities, and thus with said planet.

Trouble is, we’re doing a poor job of it – because we’re making the same false distinction I discussed above, just in a wider context. We tend to think of the metasystem (when we think of it at all), we tend to think of it as a medium, just as we do when we talk about “how the internet makes us more connected”; it’s an end-to-end connection, transactional, a zero-sum game. We forget that the planet isn’t just at the far end of the system to us, like a broker hanging on the phone for the next order; the planet and the metasystem permeate one another other, just as we human beings simultaneously permeate and are permeated by both of them. There is no edge to the network, no outside. Everything is connected – not just in the sense that in which internet connects us, but in the sense that the mutual and interdependent reliance of everything on the surface of this planet upon the energy provided by the sun connects us.

But our connection to the planet is obscured by precisely those systems through which we are connected to it, and all the magic of the world – those capacities and resources which are increasingly framed as “ecosystem services”, as the prelude to their seemingly inevitable privatisation and exploitation – is managed by and through them. Infrastructure displaces the capacities of our environment, and brings them into our most immediate surroundings; in doing so, it also displaces the consequences of our consumption; we watch the left hand pull a rabbit from a hat, but miss seeing where the right hand got the rabbit from. Infrastructure brings the desirable close, and takes the undesirable far away – or at least out of sight.

And make no mistake, we can’t do without it – it’s far too late to turn back the infrastructural clock. But nor can we keep running blindly forward. We must come to understand (and, more crucially, come to terms with) the mutual dependency which exists between us and the environment. We must pull aside the infrastructural veil to reveal the beauty and the damage beyond: the beauty of potential, and the damage of exploitation. We must come to realise that our bodies and the body of the planet are not separate agents, but a symbiosis – and that infrastructure is the medium of that symbiosis, as intimate a part of us as our own internal organs.

We must learn that we are Gaia, that Gaia is a cyborg, and that it was we who made her so. We will not save her, or ourselves, until we accept that we are one – and only through understanding what infrastructure really does, what it really means, might this be achieved.

The way out is through.

– Paul Graham Raven


The City Infrastructure Lab took place 4-5th June 2015 at Citylabs.

With thanks to:
New Economy Manchester
Manchester Science Partnerships
Future Cities Catapult
Digital Catapult
The Cabinet Office
Red Ninja
Hyper Island


Photos: Red Ninja