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Institutions, Infrastructure and Information

May 7, 2012

I’m not exactly sure when in the last few months I first noticed Google’s subway advertising campaign, but whenever it was, I was immediately confused.   The ads relate to Google’s Good to Know initiative and focus on privacy, security and netiquette.  More than anything, the ads reminded me of seemingly well-intentioned and yet always-already obvious PSAs.  But even assuming that Google is manifesting its Don’t Be Evil mantra through giving people a heads up about things like password security and the (alleged? ostensible?) reasons for locative functionality, the ads were weird.  Were they proactively attempting to curry favor with at least semi-net savvy folk who use Google but have concerns about privacy?  Or reactively working to deflect or dispel some form of anti-Google criticism?

Google is far from the first company to launch a subway ad campaign that’s perplexed me (how weird are these Tidy Cat ads??) and it wasn’t until I happened to see the Google ads right next to a series of promotions from the MTA (simultaneously documenting and advertising progress on various station, line and service improvements) that I started to think about the ads in terms of institutions and infrastructure.  To back up for a second, I am not an urban studies scholar, but my work on immigration and information practices in city space often leads in that direction. In particular, I’ve been puzzling through issues of information, navigation and infrastructure.  A few weeks ago, my advisor and I were talking about interviews from my dissertation, and I mentioned the MTA as an NYC institution that migrational individuals learn to navigate.  Mor objected to my labeling it an institution, at which point I suggested that it was, instead, infrastructure.

The line between the institutions and infrastructure is not always all that solid.  According to Mary Douglas, “Institutional structures [are] forms of informational complexity” (p. 48). where past experience with institutions encodes expectations, thus shaping rules of behaviour and controlling (or managing) moments of uncertainty. In contrast, Bowker and Star argued that infrastructure refers to “hybrid creations of work practice and information medium” (p. 132).  In reviewing these texts to disambiguate institution from infrastructure, I was struck by the use of the term information for both. Douglas argued that “nothing else but institutions can define sameness, similarity is an institution” (p. 55), meaning that institutions are tied up in expectation, sameness and predictability, manifest (partly but significantly) through information about what an institution does and how to interact with it.  For Bowker and Star, infrastructures embed modes of practice, of informational acumen, where knowing what to do with any given piece of information speaks to the organizational infrastructure at play.

By using a form of communication that echoed a PSA and a progress report, Google and the MTA obscure the extent to which they are institutions and position on themselves as infrastructure.  We’re used to thinking about the politics of institutions, much less so (I think) than we are in the politics of infrastructure (Langdon Winner and Bruno Latour  notwithstanding). Some of the SMC folks have been working on the ethics of search engine algorithms, and it’s partly because I’ve seen some of those conversations unfold that I can’t help thinking about it here.  MTA subway ads broadcast themes of progress and improvement, but for whom?  Other than extending a general benevolence to other New Yorkers (and during a busy rush hour on the A train, I wouldn’t bank on that kind of goodwill) why do I feel a sense of satisfaction at the MTA’s announcement of renovating stations I don’t use and services I don’t need? These ads act as both a justification for the burden (of time, money and patience) placed on New Yorkers who take trains, subways and ferries as part of their daily urban lives.  When Google points out the affordances of its security precautions and its SNS as socially responsible, it elides the other kinds of ethics at stake in daily uses of Google products. In both sets of ads, the MTA and Google present information about themselves as infrastructure, rather than as institutions.

I think part of my confusion about the Google ads and part of the sneakiness of the MTA campaign is tied up in the extent to which they encourage thinking of the MTA as co-constructed with daily acts of moving through the city, and conflating Google with daily acts of being online.  What’s happening is an institutionalization of infrastructure, an obfuscation of the ways in which daily practices of information and technology are bound up in the ethical, in issues of access and in privilege.  I don’t think I’m completely satisfied with how to divide institutions from infrastructure, but I do think I’ve worked out an awareness of how the performativity of information can conflate the two.  I’m used to thinking of daily practices of technology as indicative of privilege, but tend, I think, to be less aware of institutional coopting of infrastructure’s perceived impartiality.  Not, perhaps, the goal of the Good to Know campaign nor the MTA progress ads, but useful as a researcher of information practices, social context and urban space.

P.S. Shout out to Aaron Trammell for helping me work through some of these ideas over a Cinco de Mayo beer!

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