Infrastructure: a theory of state

So, I wanted to write something about infrastructure for a while. Or anything in fact, but I always postponed it for reasons. The thing I wanted to write about is a theory of state, and specifically, one that basically ties infrastructure and state together.

And, well, I’m supposed now to stay at home to limit the spread of the CORVID-19 viruses. And we, french people, are exceptionally bad at it. I mean, everyone was out enjoying the sun last Sunday (and not voting for the first round of the municipal elections with a staggering 54% abstention rate) instead of staying at home, enjoying whatever movie or TV shows you haven’t seen yet. Or playing online games with friends. Or chilling on a social media app to share your life with the people you care about (and if you care about them, you do not want to expose them to a contamination, so please, stay at home, wash your hand with soap).

And I was thinking that we, as people living in 2020, have it easy. We can work remotely. We can enjoy culture remotely. We can have sex remotely. We managed to build an infrastructure that makes this remote socialization easier. We do not need to gather in an office to have a productive meeting, we have the luxury of having high speed bandwidth which allow for video conferencing (and I now that you wanna do those meetings from your bed too). We can share documents almost instantly and most of the office work can reasonably be done remotely. Even elementary teachers are told to setup remote classes for kids during those epidemic days.

We built an infrastructure which makes gathering people in the same space an oddity from the past. We even have a bunch of reactionaries worrying that those technologies are going to kill society and make people ignoring themselves more. Even if I think that what makes you ignore the people around you is the forced promiscuity of the commute/car infrastructure (and believe me, as long as you haven’t commute during rush hours in one of the densest cities on Earth, you do not know what forced promiscuity is).

A civilization, according to wikipedia, is “a complex society characterized by urban development, social stratification imposed by a cultural elite, symbolic system of communication [ie: writing, communication tech, etc] and a perceived separation from and domination over the natural environment”. Basically it’s a society that can build infrastructure. Without infrastructure, you don’t have separation and domination over the natural environment. You do not have transport and exchange (of goods, but also cultural). You do not have ledgers or record of history.

Infrastructure brings some social stratification. There’s the ones who build it, which are often not the same as the ones who uses it or than the ones who makes decisions about it. The power balances between those three groups are at the core of most if not all of the social issues we face nowadays and, choices made in infrastructure management have a long and lasting impact on the social structures we have. And this power balances is what a state is. Not a government, not a nation, but a state. It what makes possible the existence of an infrastructure.

In these times of CORVID-19 and quarantine — because that’s what it is — we have to change our infrastructure uses, mostly because the virus benefits from our physical use of the commute/car infrastructure. Commuting is horribly bad from an epidemiology point of view, as well as offices complexes and restaurants. That’s why the government, the state managing the infrastructures, asks us to use a different one, one that does not require the virus hosts to move around. And yes, they have power over us users, and as our uses changes, we exert power over the builders.

Internet traffic is skyrocketting (we’re consuming 40% more data than usually according to akamai), which means the infrastructures conveying all those 0 and 1 all across the world are under stress and, everywhere, IT workers and CERT are probably busy maintaining it. And we want our ledgers and record of history to stay online, because if we lose it, we lose the infrastructure that helps fighting the epidemic spread of the disease — which is the medical one and yes it is bad in a lots of places but it exists. We can, of course, fall back to good old pen and paper, but our collaboration capabilities are based on the time it requires to exchange data. If we need ten days, or even only one day, instead of ten seconds to transmit critical packets of data, make copies of them (including copying data on USB key) and distribute them to everyone involved in fighting the disease, then it will be less efficient or not efficient at all.

Internet is a bit weird — understatement of the year — because the workers, the users and the managers used to be the same group of people. Roads builders, traditionally, have almost no say in where to build roads. They just have to build a road, and they receive a compensation for that, or at least they should be. Internet brought an interesting twist to the whole social stratification thing. Builders, users and managers can be the same people. They don’t need to, but that’s where the politics kicks in.

We have people building companies using old money (because all money is old), mostly white men, to build infrastructure that’s moving away from the be your own media model. Most of the infrastructure being built is about data access now, not traffic. This data is used by users who depends on those same data to make a living out of crap jobs. All the delivery services, drivers and such are users subjugated to the infrastructure built by those rich white men. We could have a community driven infrastructure about sharing life tips, cats pictures and data about CORVID-19, but instead we subjugate precarious workers to data we create to allow us to remain in a comfortable situation and social stratification.

I think that we can’t do without a state. Not anymore. Wanting to dismantle the states is dismantling infrastructures, and you’ll have millions or billions of death in the process, because we won’t have nice things such as hospitals. Or shops. Or library. However, I think that there are other form of states than the ones we have today. And it starts with the uses we make of the infrastructure and so, with the users, aka you. You, as an infrastructure user, have to make choices in your uses of them. And you cannot escape that, safe for retiring as an hermit, growing your own food and having almost no social contact.

You can, of course, use our global food delivery system driven by surveillance to continue exploiting poor people in dark kitchen or on bikes for your own comfort, while staying confined and remotely working. Or you can try a different model to achieve the same goal (you being fed and not sick) which does’ny involve that kind of social stratification.

We need states. Not nations, not necessarily governments, but states. Entities that can figures out how to develop an infrastructure. And it can be as distributed as one might want, there’s no need for a global cloud platform to displays advertisements to people or to invade their privacy. But there might be some use for a global library of all recorded events and history, including fictitious and conflicting ones. It does not needs to rely on sixty über rich white people to decide what do we do with the data. It does not need to rely on post-colonial nation who abuses their position to ensure that their former colonies will stay dependent of them. It does not need to rely on administrators, roots and superusers to tell us what we can and we can’t do with the infrastructure. There’s other ways, we can all be users, workers and managers of our collective infrastructure.

In a global infrastructure — and yes I know it’s not global yet — you can speak to any of the seven, eight or nine billions of people connected to it. As long as you speak a common language. So you can probably speak to a big chunk of those billions. But you don’t have that much energy to develop empathy with each and any one of us. You have to choose who you want to spend time with. The neighborhood does not really exists as a physical place, it become a clade, a community of shared interests, not bound by time, space or efficiency of engines, but bound by symbolism, lag and efficiency of information transmission. Yes there is some physicality to our virtual communities, timezone being one. But then again, I spent time with people who were leaving on the other side of the world, chatting live with them. And yes, one of us would probably have a hard time the day after to wake up on time for work, but this is an artifact of the commute/car infrastructure.

This infrastructure allows us to interact without forced promiscuity. To retract from social life as needed or to go full socialites and parties, if that’s what you want. Remote working makes obsolete the need to get to the office. We can choose who we want to care about, who we want to spend time with.

Instead of a data-driven infrastructure that’s about delivering ads, we can have a care-driven one in which the state would improve our well being, not the wealth of sixty people. We need states to maintain infrastructures and our societies. The question should be about what kind of state we want. Do we want a state which helps deliver care and love over IP? Or do we prefer the one we currently have, motivated by unlimited profit only ?