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.

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