On Simone’s ‘people as infrastructure’

People as Infrastructure
A few of us work­ing at the inter­sec­tion of data, civic­me­dia and cit­i­zen­ship are tak­ing a look at this arti­cle by AbdouMaliq Simone. Some ram­bling com­ments follow:
First, just a short point about style: I’m delight­ed to see Simone’s unapolo­getic use of rich descrip­tions of Jo’berg’s streets. They are in strik­ing con­trast to what I see to be the stan­dard ethno­graph­ic account in HCI papers. What I find tedious is the usu­al pre­am­ble in HCI works—explaining method—and then the use of par­tic­i­pants’ quotes as a kind of ‘proof’ of par­tic­u­lar points. Also, both point to a curi­ous idea of what it means to demon­strate evi­dence or proof. Simone both­ers with none of this. He gets straight to the sto­ries, to the rich descrip­tions of inner city Jo’berg and its underbelly.
On to the paper’s con­tent, I like what I take to be its over­rid­ing argu­ment, that the infra­struc­tures of account­abil­i­ty in ordi­nary civ­il soci­ety sit uneasi­ly against what goes on on the streets of Jo’berg. In fact, life in this inner city opens up a man­i­fest­ly dif­fer­ent set of (infra)structures and prac­tices that force a reimag­in­ing of how cities might be organ­ised. Thus I take Simone to be argu­ing that the con­ven­tion­al struc­tures for organ­is­ing soci­ety are alien­at­ing when pro­ject­ed into envi­ron­ments like Jo’berg:
“Efforts on the part of both the urban gov­ern­ment and civ­il soci­ety to recon­sti­tute viable ter­ri­to­ries of belong­ing and account­abil­i­ty through an array of decen­tral­i­sa­tion and pop­u­lar par­tic­i­pa­tion mea­sures may have the con­verse effect of high­light­ing the fail­ures of groups and indi­vid­u­als to secure them­selves with­in any durable con­text.” P. 419
Read­ing Simone’s descrip­tions of Jo’berg street-life, I real­ly want to be con­vinced of this argu­ment. How­ev­er, I have to say his accounts don’t ful­ly sat­is­fy me. I may sim­ply be too con­ser­v­a­tive to rec­on­cile Simone’s argu­ment and his details of city life, but I’m trou­bled because they read to some extent as a ratio­nale for law­less­ness and social trans­gres­sions. They present a case where oppor­tu­ni­ty, cul­tur­al brico­lage, geo­graph­ic flu­id­i­ty and ‘adapt­able col­lab­o­ra­tion’ are placed above civic respon­si­bil­i­ty and, well, good cit­i­zen­ship. I imag­ine Simone’s response to this to be not a defence of the crim­i­nal­i­ty, but to claim the exam­ple as an indi­ca­tion of how oth­er non-con­ven­tion­al forces can be at play, work­ing beyond the estab­lish­ment. How­ev­er, in this case dif­fer­ence and vice (as he artic­u­lates so well) are so bound up with one anoth­er. It is pre­cise­ly because they are nefar­i­ous that the inner-city prac­tices must oper­ate at the fringes of vis­i­bil­i­ty, cement­ed infra­struc­ture, etc.
Some­thing else I strug­gle with are the details of Simone’s points. The paper skips across so many love­ly lit­tle themes and points yet, to me, these don’t always join up eas­i­ly or help to build a coheren­cy of argu­ment. Many could prob­a­bly be papers in them­selves. For exam­ple the points around expan­sion, pro­vi­sion­al­i­ty, and pre­pared­ness are all com­pelling, but they seem to be just left and not brought back to the wider argu­ment of infra­struc­tures (at least not in any clear or con­struc­tive way).
Hav­ing list­ed a cou­ple of what I see to be the paper’s weak­ness­es, I do find inspi­ra­tion in it. What I find pro­duc­tive is the way Simone points to infra­struc­tures (tied to “con­ven­tion­al imag­i­nar­ies”) as social­ly organ­is­ing. They both enforce social or civic order and expect it to be vis­i­bly reproduced.
“Not only does the city become the objec­tive of a plu­ral­i­ty of cod­ing sys­tems, it is meant to man­i­fest itself more clear­ly as a sys­tem of codes. In oth­er words, it is to be an are­na where spaces, activ­i­ties, pop­u­la­tions, flows, and struc­tures are made vis­i­ble, or more pre­cise­ly, recog­nis­able and familiar.
Once this enhanced vis­i­bil­i­ty is accom­plished, urban spaces and activ­i­ties are more capa­ble of being retrieved and com­pared for analy­sis” P. 426
So the codes of (infra)structures are a mech­a­nism of con­trol and vis­i­ble, pub­lic accountability:
“Urban pol­i­tics then oper­ates not as a locus of medi­a­tion and dia­logue among dif­fer­ing expe­ri­ences, claims, and per­spec­tives but as a pro­lif­er­a­tion of tech­ni­cal stan­dards by which every citizen’s capac­i­ties are to be com­pared and judged.” P. 420
Vis-á-vis data (and the research a few of us are doing at the inter­sec­tion of data, cit­i­zen­ship, com­mu­ni­ty, civic soci­ety, etc.), we see a sim­i­lar case in which homo­gene­ity is need­ed. In Simone’s argu­ment about infra­struc­ture, we find the jus­ti­fi­ca­tion for why com­mon (tech­ni­cal) stan­dards are built into infra­struc­tures, they help com­pare and judge (in vis­i­bly account­able ways). Just like the con­tem­po­rary built envi­ron­ment that is built on stan­dards and, at the same time, resem­bles every­where and nowhere (see Iain Sin­clair, Ghost Milk), data enforces regimes of homo­gene­ity to get the data to work at any/every degree of scale. The pop­u­lar imag­i­nar­ies sur­round­ing (big) data are all about this idea of com­par­i­son and judgement.
This itself isn’t an espe­cial­ly sophis­ti­cat­ed point, but what Simone does with it is show how Jo’berg’s inner-city life offers anoth­er pos­si­bil­i­ty of “com­plex com­bi­na­tions of objects, spaces, per­sons, and prac­tices” that are far more pro­vi­sion­al, frag­ment­ed and, to be be blunt, use­ful for those on the streets. I take Simone’s argu­ment then to be one of see­ing infra­struc­ture (in its rich­ness and vari­ety, rather than homo­gene­ity) as an ingre­di­ent for, as he puts it, “expand­ing spaces of eco­nom­ic and cul­tur­al oper­a­tion” P. 407. That is, we might see data (and its asso­ci­at­ed infra­struc­tures) not as a sin­gu­lar ratio­nal­is­ing force for repro­duc­ing social/civic norms and prac­tices, but instead as a oppor­tu­ni­ty to feed into pro­gres­sive move­ments that allow for “alter­na­tive regimes of prop­er­ty and con­tract to coex­ist exper­i­men­tal­ly with­in the same econ­o­my.” (Rober­to Unger, 2009). Ulti­mate­ly, data and its asso­ci­at­ed infra­struc­tures might be refig­ured to extend beyond the flat­ten­ing of social/civic life, and be giv­en over to enabling a ‘fuller life’ for citizens—as Unger phras­es it, “a larg­er life, a life of greater inten­si­ty, of greater scope, and of greater capability.”

13 thoughts on “On Simone’s ‘people as infrastructure’

  1. Thanks for post­ing this, Alex! I found myself think­ing a lot about an oft-over­looked moment in Jacob’s DEATH AND LIFE OF GREAT AMERICAN CITIES where she talks about the pur­pose of neigh­bor­hoods. For Jacobs, “the con­cep­tion of neigh­bor­hood in cities is mean­ing­less – so long as we think of neigh­bor­hoods as being self-con­tained units to any sig­nif­i­cant degree,” (p. 117), where the excep­tions for think­ing of neigh­bor­hoods as use­ful are first, in the capac­i­ty for draw­ing assis­tance from larg­er bod­ies of gov­ern­ment and sec­ond, “to weave webs of pub­lic sur­veil­lance and thus to pro­tect strangers as well as them­selves; to grow net­works of small-scale, every­day pub­lic life and thus of trust and social con­trol; and to help assim­i­late chil­dren into rea­son­ably respon­si­ble and tol­er­ant city life” (p. 119). For Jacobs, neigh­bor­hoods offer a means of draw­ing gov­ern­men­tal sup­port, as well as estab­lish­ing mech­a­nisms of col­lec­tive social con­trol. Spa­tial bound­aries thus pro­vide a way of artic­u­lat­ing social bound­aries, where res­i­dents can make deter­mi­na­tions of inclu­sion based on adher­ence to spa­tial norms.

  2. {oops! This belongs with the ear­li­er quote, word­press is wonky some­times} In read­ing the Simone piece, I was con­nect­ing the descrip­tions of sur­veil­lance and mon­i­tor­ing of behav­iors to Jacobs’ ideas of the role of neigh­bor­hoods in main­tain­ing behav­ior. Thus, peo­ple aren’t just infra­struc­ture of rela­tion­ships, they also form infra­struc­tures of surveillance.

  3. Haha, very good. I have Jaobs’ book sat on my desk — but alas, I haven’t read it yet. I like the unfold­ing ten­sions behind local con­struc­tions of infra­struc­ture and top-down ones. They help to see, and think through, how cities and enact­ed in mul­ti­ple ways. And, yes, sur­veil­lance seems very much to be apart of this. Have you seen the film Red Road? It’s a won­der­ful (if dark) exam­i­na­tion of the mul­ti­ple sides of surveillance.

  4. Simone’s piece cov­ers infor­mal economies that have devel­oped in post-apartheid, inner-city Johan­nes­burg. He char­ac­ter­izes these economies as being large­ly sup­port­ed by the pro­vi­sion­al, col­lab­o­ra­tive prac­tices of the city’s res­i­dents. These inter­ac­tions do not nec­es­sar­i­ly com­ply with gov­ern­men­tal reg­u­la­tions, rather they are based on need and con­text. He claims that these con­junc­tions of peo­ple con­sti­tute infrastructure.

    Though there is a planned nature to tra­di­tion­al infra­struc­ture, it is inap­pro­pri­ate to apply sim­i­lar pre­dic­tions to the types of devel­op­ments that Simone is describ­ing. Instead, he sug­gests that cities are mul­ti­va­lent and that “the crit­i­cal question…raised in this ethnog­ra­phy of inner-city Johan­nes­burg is how researchers, pol­i­cy­mak­ers, and urban activists can prac­tice ways of see­ing and engag­ing urban spaces that are char­ac­ter­ized simul­ta­ne­ous­ly by reg­u­lar­i­ty and pro­vi­sion­al­i­ty.” (408)

    One of the more impor­tant aspects of the piece, for me, is the recog­ni­tion that munic­i­pal and cor­po­rate enti­ties do lit­tle to acknowl­edge the real­i­ties of the city and (if they do any­thing at all) pro­duce inter­ven­tion­ist pro­grams that clash with res­i­dents’ ways of life. Simone notes that there is a cul­ture that has formed here, out­side of for­mal des­ig­na­tions, and that the inter­ven­tion­ist pro­grams do not fit into or com­ple­ment the way of life for these res­i­dents. He observes also that the efforts of local church­es or NGOs to sup­port a sense of “com­mu­ni­ty” have been unsuc­cess­ful because res­i­dents see com­mu­ni­ty build­ing as a “periph­er­al dis­ci­pli­nary exer­cise that dis­tracts res­i­dents from devel­op­ing the real skills that they need to sur­vive.” (420) Encour­ag­ing peo­ple to invest time and ener­gy into com­mu­nal devel­op­ment is inef­fec­tive because peo­ple need not to be trans­par­ent to their neigh­bors. Their liveli­hood depends on dif­fer­ent types of alle­giances and responsibilities.

    Simone states ear­li­er in the read­ing that 90% of Johan­nes­burg’s pop­u­la­tion is made up of peo­ple who were not liv­ing there 10 years pri­or (411) and that many don’t have the inten­tion of stay­ing in the city (425). They are instead there to earn a liv­ing to sup­port their fam­i­lies who are like­ly liv­ing else­where. It makes sense then that res­i­dents would­n’t be inter­est­ed in “com­mu­ni­ty build­ing” because they may not see them­selves as a part of this prox­i­mate community. 

    Due to the infor­mal nature of their activ­i­ties, the res­i­dents don’t prop­er­ly fit into the cod­i­fied under­stand­ing the city. This does­n’t mean that their val­ues and con­cerns don’t mat­ter, but it is more like­ly that those inter­ests will be left unad­dressed by offi­cial bod­ies. In the exam­ples above, this seems to be part of the prob­lem. Devel­op­ment pro­grams and com­mu­ni­ty orga­ni­za­tion con­sis­tent­ly mis­in­ter­pret the actu­al needs of the res­i­dents and are ren­dered inef­fec­tive (by those terms). 

    Cod­i­fi­ca­tion is, of course, always val­ue-laden and this is prob­a­bly espe­cial­ly the case in a place with a dis­tinct his­to­ry of sys­temic racism. So what is con­sid­ered “ille­git­i­mate” should viewed with a healthy dose of skep­ti­cism. That is not to say that drug deal­ers are doing the right thing, but per­haps it is the best option under their con­di­tions. Simone sug­gests “dif­fer­ent ways of see­ing” among peo­ple with some pow­er (pol­i­cy­mak­ers, researchers, activists) and this seems to be a call to sit­u­ate these peo­ples lived experiences. 

  5. Thanks for ini­ti­at­ing this dis­cus­sion Alex. It was a real­ly thought-pro­vok­ing read and a offers a very dif­fer­ent take on what city and street life can be. A few things stood out for me, in rela­tion to the our own project.
    — The idea that organ­i­sa­tions and ter­ri­to­ries appear bound­ed, but that this bound­ed­ness is a ‘per­for­mance’ rather than ‘a descrip­tion of actu­al oper­a­tions’ (p. 422). This bound­ed­ness is made vis­i­ble in Simone’s account of Jo’berg in par­tic­u­lar ways — nation­al­i­ty being a promi­nent fac­tor — but I think this state­ment has much broad­er rel­e­vance. It’s always going to be the case that ter­ri­to­ries over­lap and that bound­aries between them will be flu­id, being mit­i­gat­ed by par­tic­u­lar inter­per­son­al rela­tion­ships. There is a sense that, in our project, dif­fer­ent organ­i­sa­tions and ter­ri­to­ries are broad­ly recog­nised (indeed, some are explic­it­ly defined), and that the two over­lap. I won­der to what extent these cat­e­gories are per­formed and how, and to what extent they can be seen as a descrip­tion of oper­a­tions, and what these oper­a­tions are. I won­der too, if and how this could be rep­re­sent­ed as data.
    — Relat­ing to this, I was struck by the idea that indi­vid­u­als in Jo’berg are ‘in some way a com­peti­tor .. based on self-inter­est, self-pro­tec­tion, and cama­raderie, not on a long-term invest­ment in the cul­ti­va­tion of a place of oper­a­tion’ (p. 423). I find it inter­est­ing that cama­raderie is in the mid­dle of this sen­tence, as though this is a way of keep­ing things run­ning smooth­ly with­out actu­al­ly mak­ing any real invest­ment. Cama­raderie here seems super­fi­cial, and per­haps this is mag­ni­fied by the fact that even where good rela­tion­ships form, the peo­ple that they are formed with aren’t like­ly to stay in the area. Themes of com­mu­ni­ty and tran­sience are both applic­a­ble in our project, as is the notion of self-inter­est. It’s inter­est­ing to con­sid­er how these inter­sect — what do tran­sient pop­u­la­tions as opposed to those firm­ly root­ed in the street hope to get from the project? How is this man­i­fest­ed in rela­tion to data?
    — As a final point, the ten­sion between mak­ing things vis­i­ble as a way of sup­port­ing admin­is­tra­tion and the use of resources is inter­est­ing. I think we’ve seen this in some of our meet­ings; it’s been expressed that bet­ter knowl­edge of the resources avail­able in the street would sup­port flex­i­ble and shared use of them. We haven’t real­ly con­sid­ered what the com­plex­i­ties of doing so are, and I think this could feed nice­ly into some of our broad­er dis­cus­sions about account­abil­i­ty and openness.

  6. Hard to know who’s post­ed what here, but a few responses/reflections.
    I like the idea that organ­i­sa­tions and ter­ri­to­ries are per­formed cat­e­gories, and that these may in some way describe or enact oper­a­tions. This mud­dies the dis­tinc­tions between things, process­es and prac­tices. I’d like to find some com­pelling exam­ples where the data does­n’t try to tidy up the sub­ject cat­e­gories and leaves them messy and, at times, in ten­sion. It’s a chal­lenge to think about how this might be rep­re­sent­ed intel­li­gi­bly, but it does seem a chal­lenge worth pur­su­ing. The alter­na­tive are data rep­re­sen­ta­tions that per­sist in telling us what we already know — and we all know there are plen­ty of those around.
    The tran­sience of the street is some­thing we’ve dis­cussed but nev­er quite got a han­dle on. My hope is it might devel­op in some of the his­tor­i­cal archive work and how this sits against con­tem­po­rary and every­day nar­ra­tives pro­duced either by the res­i­dents or data we col­lect. Siân’s been giv­ing some thought to the tem­po­ral aspects of the project and I think this is going to be some­thing to work up.
    The issues raised about how the munic­i­pal enti­ties and the very dif­fer­ent (cod­i­fied) under­stand­ings they have of Jo’berg’s streets to what appears to be hap­pen­ing on the ground def­i­nite­ly has some rel­e­vance to the Teni­son Road project. Of course the scale and degree of vice/crime is of an entire­ly dif­fer­ent order, but nev­er­the­less, I think not sur­pris­ing­ly there are mul­ti­ple views of the street being enact­ed by the res­i­dents, devel­op­ers, local coun­cil, etc. Again, we have def­i­nite­ly touched on these things and they will, I’m sure, come up again. Our con­cern should I guess be for how to sur­face them in the data work and allow them to be put to pro­duc­tive use. 

  7. Sor­ry to be pick­ing this up rel­a­tive­ly late. I real­ly enjoyed the ethno­graph­ic accounts in this piece, par­tic­u­lar­ly the mean­der­ing along Qau­rtz street, which led me to see Simon’s pre­sen­ta­tion as a kind of dis­ci­plin­ing in itself of the argu­ments he attempts to make. I total­ly agree with Alex’s cri­tique around the mul­ti­ple arti­cles that could be writ­ten about one or more of Simone’s arguments.

  8. Sor­ry to be pick­ing this up rel­a­tive­ly late. I real­ly enjoyed the ethno­graph­ic accounts in this piece, par­tic­u­lar­ly the mean­der­ing along Qau­rtz street, which led me to see Simon’s pre­sen­ta­tion as a kind of dis­ci­plin­ing in itself of the argu­ments he attempts to make. I total­ly agree with Alex’s cri­tique around the mul­ti­ple arti­cles that could be writ­ten about one or more of Simone’s arguments.

  9. Okay, so ‘enter’ equals sub­mit. Learn­ing slowly. 🙂
    To con­tin­ue… I also agree with Alex that Simone’s heavy use of the term ‘col­lab­o­ra­tion’ to describe res­i­dents’ inter­ac­tions some­times skirts issues of law­less­ness con­nect­ed to the upheaval and dis­tress in the city, cast­ing vio­lence as some­times banal and even nec­es­sary. But still com­pelling is how these ‘social col­lab­o­ra­tions’ could serve as “occa­sions to be pub­lic,” as in the city’s night mar­kets where one can “sit­u­ate one­self so one can assess what is hap­pen­ing… with­out con­sti­tut­ing a threat” (p.427). In these spaces, res­i­dents inter­pret, fix, and nav­i­gate in ways that pro­duce unique forms of social visibility.
    But what I found most use­ful in this piece is Simone’s treat­ment of “com­mu­ni­ty build­ing,” which he devel­ops as a kind of red her­ring. Projects ini­ti­at­ed by munic­i­pals like the Met­ro­pol­i­tan Coun­cil of Johan­nes­burg can micro­man­age, becom­ing “a periph­er­al dis­ci­pli­nary exer­cise that dis­tracts res­i­dents from devel­op­ing the real skills that they need to sur­vive” (p.420). This made me won­der how the ten­sion road project (or oth­ers in HCI that strive to bring ques­tions of com­mu­ni­ty engage­ment to tech devel­op­ment) might account for this strain­ing of polit­i­cal and eco­nom­ic rela­tions — or whether they con­tribute to these ‘ten­sions’ (hehe) instead.

  10. Ten­sions, Teni­son — it’s so apt! Thanks Daniela. Nice points. I’d love to see how we could keep these kinds of fric­tions going in the project and at the same time see them as productive.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.