Review. ‘Microwaves bounce between billions of cell phones. Computers synchronize. Shipping containers stack, lock, and calibrate the global transportation and production of goods. Credit cards, all sized 0.76mm, slip through the slots in cash machines anywhere in the world.’

Universal infrastructure standards: an extra-legislative form of control

The fact that the prestigious Friedrich-Ebert Foundation has awarded one of its two annual prizes to the book Foundational Economy: The infrastructure of everyday life (Italian edition: “Economia fondamentale. L’infrastruttura della vita quotidiana,” ed. Einaudi, 2019) is a major signal that should not be overlooked. Coming as the result of an extensive international research program in which several Italian scholars are also taking part, this analysis of foundational economics has the great merit of effectively combining the production of knowledge with the political reflection that this process of learning makes possible. 

The meaning of “foundational” here is that set of economic activities that provides essential goods and services to all citizens (from healthcare to mobility, from electricity to water supply and so on), which clearly points to the need to analyze public action in its various forms, as well as the multiple forms of self-organization of the citizens themselves. In other words, these are forms of infrastructure that make a significant contribution to the configuration of the shape of our daily lives.

In general, infrastructure—not only of the types that can be classed as part of the foundational economy—plays a crucial role. If we recall what Mark Fisher wrote about capitalism, these are impersonal and abstract megastructures and, at the same time, they are also that material and immaterial network that could not function without our cooperation (or, better put, our connection to it). They are highly heterogeneous in terms of material characteristics and functional processes, and they come into play at all times, whenever we move around, whenever we communicate, whenever we order a book or a pizza online or entertain ourselves watching a movie on a streaming service, and so on.

The centrality of these socio-technical systems has perhaps become the main feature that characterizes the contemporary phase of capitalism: we need a politics—and a poetics—of infrastructure. That is, we need to get a deep understanding of their material characteristics, technical specificities and the relationships (and conflicts) that exist between the different subjects—often both public and private— that give shape to the activities of the different types of infrastructure. 

But we also need to investigate the way in which, by using these forms of infrastructure in order to get things done in and around the world—a very heterogeneous set of elements, but deeply informed by the principle of achieving dominion over the world—infrastructure is, in turn, making something different out of us, out of our conception of our relationship with others, and, more generally, with the ecosystem of which our lives are an integral part.

Keller Easterling’s book Extrastatecraft: the Power of Infrastructure Space (translated in Italian as “Lo spazio in cui ci muoviamo. L’infrastruttura come sistema operative,” ed. Treccani, 312 pages, €21, translated by Andrea Migliori) is a valuable contribution to this direction of research. “Microwaves bounce between billions of cell phones. Computers synchronize. Shipping containers stack, lock, and calibrate the global transportation and production of goods. Credit cards, all sized 0.76mm, slip through the slots in cash machines anywhere in the world. All of these ubiquitous and seemingly innocuous features of our world are evidence of global infrastructure.”

As the object of Easterling’s analysis, this global infrastructure is investigated in order to yield particular insights, with the aim of tracing the “disposition” that emerge as a systemic effect of their interrelation, i.e. the “potential” for action that forms of infrastructure make available or foreclose. The author is a professor of architecture at Yale University, and, as a result, favors the investigation of the way in which global infrastructure operates on and through space, for example by conditioning the transformations of urban organization or the development of “high bandwidth” connections to the African continent, by land and by sea.

Easterling reconstructs the “multiple, overlapping or nested forms of sovereignty” that configure the hybrid type of power named in the book’s title: “extrastatecraft,” a form of power “far removed from familiar legislative processes,” in the context of which “dynamic systems of space, information, and power generate de facto forms of polity faster than even quasi-official forms of governance can legislate them.”

A telling example in this sense is the “spatial software” of the so-called “zone.” Heirs of the experience of major projects in the past, the present Special Economic Zones (while there are many definitions of this “social reality formed in space”) have multiplied from 79 at the end of the 1970s (in 25 countries, employing 800,000 people) to 3,500 in the mid-2000s (in 130 countries, employing no less than 66 million). They are a form of spatial software whose functionality, according to the dominant socio-economic logics, tends to impose them as a model of the contemporary metropolis, able to welcome and interpenetrate with any residential, economic or cultural program with great plasticity, with the advantage of removing from the urban form those circumstances of conflict that have historically arisen in it. 

But Easterling’s analysis goes even deeper into the nature of global infrastructure. A whole chapter—a very enlightening one—is devoted to the way in which our forms of life have become deeply infrastructuralized by the standards produced by the “extrastate parliament” of extrastatecraft, namely the International Organization for Standardization, better known as the ISO.

From the already-mentioned uniform thickness of credit cards to the threads of screws, from the technical parameters of a JPEG file to the ISBN system of identification for books, magazines or other publication, this private “organization of organizations” has widened its scope to the fields of healthcare, education, environment, social responsibility and so on. The example of quality standards, at the core of this chapter, is paradigmatic: forms of control have been introduced which are centered on procedural mechanisms, without any reference to content (“quality” is not defined anywhere in the standards relating to it), and a social coordination mechanism centered on the model of the private contract, which is increasingly taking over the legislative power of states, is being imposed on a universal scale.

This is indispensable work in order to be able to deploy a Kulturkritik capable of subjecting to critical thought (both political and poetic, as we mentioned) the type of capitalism that makes use of a certain “code”: one mandating connectivity as an indispensable socio-cultural imperative, within the paradigm of “the world as home,” which presupposes a very sophisticated synchronization between the infrastructure as a technical and logistical mechanism and the infrastructure of experience consistent with that paradigm.

This code also has its own depths of meaning to explore in relation to its history, which must certainly be included as part of this enterprise (in this regard, see also Imaginaries of Connectivity: The creation of novel spaces of governance, ed. by Lobo-Guerrero, Alt and Meijer, 2019), which has taken up an unprecedented intensity today. As a side note, we must also highlight the fact that—although this aspect does make the text pleasantly readable as a whole—the Italian translation sometimes takes excessive liberties with the original, also introducing inaccuracies of significant importance, which is why we suggest the readers should also keep the English version close at hand.

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