Gizmo landscapes, gonzo worldbuilding

Paul Raven @ 18-05-2010

Here’s an interesting thought experiment which feels science fictional to me – not science fictional in the “making things up about the future” sense, but in the “teasing the bigger picture out of smaller things” sense. Rob Holmes of mammoth invites us to think about the infrastructural landscapes that support a single use of a consumer-level technological artefact; his Zeitgeist-friendly example is, naturally, some web browsing done on an iPhone somewhere in Brooklyn [via MetaFilter].

The iPhone, however, is not only dependent upon highly developed systems in its production, as Banham acknowledges all such objects have always been, but is also now equally dependent in its operation upon a vast array of infrastructures, data ecologies, and device networks.  Even acknowledging this, though, and realizing that its operative value comes from its ability to tap those data ecologies and attendant socially-constituted bodies of knowledge, it is still possible to miss the landscapes that it produces. Until we see that the iPhone is as thoroughly entangled into a network of landscapes as any more obviously geological infrastructure (the highway, both imposing carefully limited slopes across every topography it encounters and grinding/crushing/re-laying igneous material onto those slopes) or industrial product (the car, fueled by condensed and liquefied geology), we will consistently misunderstand it.

His preliminary examples include the mines that supply the rare semiconductor elements used in chips and touchscreens, the factory megacomplexes where they’re designed and built, the server farms that prop up the internet that the phone connects to, and the transciever arrays that provide the last wireless step in that connection. The point is plain: there’s a whole lot of stuff behind the gadgets in our pockets and satchels that we don’t really think about when we use them.

This is very much like “systems thinking, which I imagine most of Futurismic‘s readers are already familiar with (because you all seem pretty clued up on the science and tech side of things), but which is, as far as I can tell, a fairly uncommon mindset in the population at large (a fact exploited to the fullest by politicians, among others).

But it struck me that it’s also rather like the worldbuilding that informs science fiction: the iPhone is the story, and infrastructure is the imagined world in which it’s set. In both examples, the end user doesn’t need to know anything about the infrastructure, and will probably actively resist being told about it (infodump!). In both examples, that will to ignorance allows the writer/manufacturer a lot of leeway with the infrastructure: so long as thing works, who cares how it works?

I’ll be honest – I’m not sure where I’m going with this, or even if it’s going anywhere at all*. But it gave me a brain-chime, so I’m throwing it out here by way of recording the thought, and to see if any of you can pick up the ball and run with it. Any ideas?

[ * I started writing this post immediately after a post-lunch triple espresso; make of that what you will. ]

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