Pylons, pipes and power stations: it's not just engineers who should get excited by them. Photograph: Andrew Milligan/PA
Pylons, pipes and power stations: it's not just engineers who should get excited by them. Photograph: Andrew Milligan/PA

The artist as engineer: we need to talk about infrastructure

10 September 2013

It falls to artists to make the invisible visible, writes Paul Graham Raven, and ask what infrastructure means and why it matters.

Paul Graham Raven spoke at Lighthouse’s Improving Reality conference on this subject. The following is reblogged from The Guardian Culture Professionals Network

The Institute of Civil Engineers defines infrastructure as “the physical assets underpinning networks for transport, energy generation and distribution, electronic communications, solid waste management, water distribution and wastewater treatment”.

Pipes, pylons, bypasses and power stations, in other words – pretty dull stuff, right? Well, engineers get excited about it, but that’s why they’re engineers. For most of the rest of us, infrastructure is a thing that we only fully perceive in its absence or failure.

In Douglas Adams’ book, Life, the Universe and Everything, Arthur Dent and Ford Prefect are watching a test match at Lord’s when a spaceship lands on the ground in the middle of an over. No one notices it except Ford and Arthur, as seasoned and cynical galactic hitchhikers. This is because the spaceship is protected by a Someone Else’s Problem Field, whose inventor realised that while making something invisible is incredibly difficult, making something appear to be someone else’s problem is very, very easy.

The Someone Else’s Problem Field around infrastructure is a measure of its 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 – 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, bypass or high-speed trainline is scheduled to materialise near your house, or when protestors camp out on your driveway to fight a fracking company. Infrastructure is meant to make life easier. The more reliably it does so, the worse it feels when it stops.

The golden age of British infrastructure was surely the Victorian era, thanks to a combination of ambition, new technology and an exploitable underclass workforce. In those days, infrastructure primarily benefited the middle and upper classes; if you were working class, you were probably one of infrastructure’s many unsung human components, and new infrastructure was far more likely to spoil your immediate environment than improve it.

To the middle classes, though, infrastructure (especially the railways) was progress incarnate. 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-goer, train-wreck penny dreadfuls for the proles. It was all new, and people wondered what it meant.

We notice infrastructure less often nowadays because neoliberal economics have done a good job of hiding it. We want the functionality, but we don’t want the mess – and what the market wants, capitalism provides. Regardless of the consequences. Many of the “network-underpinning assets” in that engineer’s definition are not near you. Indeed, many of them aren’t even in the UK.

Your car needs more than just the road network to get you from A to B; it also needs a global supply-chain of refineries, tankers and oil wells. Your smartphone depends upon a planet-wide spiderweb of copper wire and optical fibre, studded with vast routers and water-cooled server farms, and on satellites orbiting miles above your head (plus all the hardware required to put them there). Meanwhile its construction required rare-earth metal mines and hi-tech sweatshops; its packaging the logging of forests, and its shipping the flights of planes, the sailing of ships and the driving of trucks.

Making your life simple turns out to be a staggeringly complex and messy job. You just never see it being done. Arthur C Clarke famously said that any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic. A stage magician would tell you that invisibility is the ultimate magic trick. But it’s still a trick. An illusion.

Infrastructure is at least as old as agriculture, perhaps even older. It’s not just a part of our lives as modern humans; it defines our lives – to the extent that you literally cannot conceive of a life without its support. It’s our meta-technology: the technology that makes other technologies possible; the system of systems that extracts, processes, distributes and disposes of the resources that keep us alive. And yet we never talk about it, except to argue about cost or complain about inconvenience.

Pretty soon we’re going to have to make some hard and unpalatable choices about what we can reasonably expect infrastructure to do for us, what consequences are acceptable, and who those consequences should affect. Engineers are ready to build the systems we choose.

But it falls to artists to ask what infrastructure means: to dispel the magic, collapse the Someone Else’s Problem Field, make infrastructure a legible thread in the story of our species. Because until we understand what infrastructure means to us – not just what it does, but why that matters – we make those choices in ignorance, or avoid making them at all.

Paul Graham Raven spoke at Improving Reality on illegible infrastructure. Improving Reality is a part of Brighton Digital Festival which runs throughout September. To find our more about Lighthouse’s programme for the festival, visit our BDF 2013 page.



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