Infrastructural Media

Bundled, Buried & Behind Closed Doors from Alex + Ben on Vimeo.

This is a great short film on Lower Manhattan’s 60 Hudson Street, which according to the filmmakers is one of the world’s most concentrated hubs of Internet connectivity. The building once served as an infrastructural hub for pneumatic tubes, telegraph wires, and telephone lines, but now houses Internet cables. The film does a wonderful job of showing both the historical and material layers to the building, which looks rather dull and unassuming on the surface. I especially love the inscription of the word “communication” on the manhole which opens and closes the film. It perfectly captures the flows, networks, assemblages, and connectivities made possible by the materiality of stone, concrete, metal, wire, and all the other infrastructural supports, not to mention the holes drilled into them.

The inscription reminds me of Charles Horton Cooley’s definition of communication in Social Organization: A Study of the Larger Mind (1909), only newly minted with a more grounded understanding of the term. Here is Cooley at length, Emersonian as always:

By communication is here meant the mechanism through which human relations exist and develop – all the symbols of the mind, together with the means of conveying them through space and preserving them in time. It includes the expression of the face, attitude and gesture, the tones of the voice, words, writing, printing, railways, telegraphs, telephones, and whatever else may be the latest achievement in the conquest of space and time. All these taken together, in the intricacy of their actual combination, make up an organic whole corresponding to the organic whole of human thought; and everything in the way of mental growth has an external existence therein. The more closely we consider this mechanism the more intimate will appear its relation to the inner life of mankind, and nothing will more help us to understand the latter than such consideration.

A beautiful definition, but one that stinks of Hegel and Spencer. Cooley’s “mechanism” prefers the realm of the spirit to the ground of materiality. Its organic extension never quite hits the ground, hence my appreciation for the inscription of “communication” on the concrete metal of a manhole. I imagine the film would be a great resource in the classroom, reminding students that all that time they spend on-line carries a more literal meaning when those lines are extended into physical space. I plan to use it soon, for it raises a number of questions about power, control, ownership, storage, and so much more.

#infrastructure#internet#materiality#media studies#technology

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