Infrastructural Inequalities and Digital Divides

This paper aims to explore digital media infrastructures and their relationship to uneven distributions of power and geopolitical inequality. Much of the hope for the digital age was rooted in the idea of an interconnected “global village,”1Marshall McLuhan and Bruce R. Powers, The global village: transformations in world life and media in the 21st century (New York: Oxford University Press, 2007. in which it was speculated that our rapidly advancing communication technology might serve to connect vast regions, break down regional divides, and put an end to social inequality. But scholars have been highly critical of that assumption through multiple facets of media analysis over the last few decades. This essay contends that studying the infrastructure of our digital media can reveal some of the ways that inequality is reified and reproduced. “The Network” and the “the Internet” have become mysterious entities— they are part of our daily lives, but often widely misunderstood. Infrastructural analysis attempts to understand the physical materials, laws and regulations, and the history of network technologies. Analyzing digital networks is therefore crucial to mounting effective challenges to social inequality.

I begin this discussion by exploring Manuel Castell’s characterization of “network society” in order to understand some of the ideology behind the building of networks.2Castells, Manuel. “An Introduction to the Information Age.” In The information society reader, ed. Frank Webster et al. London: Routledge, 2004. His argument situates networks into a larger capitalist paradigm, which can provide a point of reference for understanding why and how network infrastructures work toward structuring inequality. The subsequent sections will explore examples of media infrastructure that uphold unequal power dynamics. Firstly, I will critically explore the infrastructure of digitizing utility and transportation in cities. Next, I will critique the power dynamics at play in the infrastructure of the Internet in particular. I will then explore the materiality, ownership, and labor paradigms tied to the infrastructure of these networks. Ultimately, my infrastructural analysis will provide some key insights into the possibility (or lack thereof) for a digitally connected world to promote equity. While complicating the myth that digital networks will create a ubiquitous, more equalized, and connected global society, I argue that digital media infrastructures actually inhibit that goal, and may even work toward reinforcing fractured and unequal distributions of power both globally and domestically.

Capitalism and the Network Society
Before unpacking instances where network infrastructure shape inequality, we should unpack the ideologies that shape and define those infrastructural projects in the first place. What kind of society lends support to digital media and communication technologies that reinforce inequality? Thinkers like Castells have grappled extensively with understanding how the advent of new information technology has been applied to the capitalist system and shaped the ideologically uncontested status of global capitalism from the 1970’s onward.

In “An Introduction to the Information Age,” Castells argues that new information technology, primarily communication technologies, have changed the industrial capitalist system. It has become a network-oriented, globally connected economy where finance capital rather than industrial capital dominates the global market, where labor has become divided between “flexible” intellectual laborers and the industrial laborers who are excluded from the freedoms of the network, and where this technology simultaneously creates the conditions for social transformations and resistance.3Manuel Castells. “An Introduction to the Information Age” in the Information Society Reader, ed. Frank Webster et al (London: Routledge, 2004), 139-143, 149. Those flexible workers might look something like the transient IT specialists who easily make the move to the Silicon Valley, who are able to innovate and create from any point on the globe, and therefore to use digital networks to transcend space. The new industrial laborers include the workers located in free trade zones, who are fixed in their labor positions, manufacturing the technology that allows the Silicon Valley to thrive. The Network Society uses its capacity to connect vast regions, but it does so in concert with the needs of capital.

At first glance, the nature of networks— with their ability to communicate and send information across seas in an instant— seems like a way to create a ubiquitous global society. But capitalism is transformed in this process, creating newly divided societies. Castells, for instance, acknowledges that the “Information Age” has become “the age of stepped-up inequality,” in which the networked global economy and the restructuring of organized labourers into transient individualized workers has produced more exploitation, and where communication systems can “bypass/marginalize poor urban neighborhoods” at the domestic level and broaden economic divides.4Ibid., 143, 147. And while Castells acknowledges that this shift toward the Information Economy effects societies where “valuable people and territories are switched on, devalued ones are switched off,” he does not delve into the specific infrastructural projects that shape those outcomes.5Ibid., 148. Other thinkers have more closely explored this phenomenon, as I illustrate in the following section. Nevertheless, Castells’ work is useful because it provides us with a powerful starting point for analyzing these issues. We must understand that because capitalist ideology propels infrastructural projects like building new digital networks to connect new regions, social inequality will always be imbedded in the infrastructure of digital networks.

Network Infrastructure Converging with Urban Infrastructure
Castells points in a more general sense to the ways that network technologies have structured inequality when he talks about how space is transformed by networks. “The space of flows,” he argues, “shapes the space of places, as when differential fortunes of capital accumulation in global financial markets reward or punish specific regions,” which leads to “intra-metropolitan dualism” and “regional uneven development.”6Ibid., 147. In other words, transnational activity that occurs through networks like global financial institutions happen outside space, through non-material networks of connection, but their effects are still tangibly felt. This point reinforces that networks have an effect on the physical and social realities of societies, and in particular, urban centers. This dualism, in which class divisions become more geographically reinforced and pronounced, occurs in part because of the nature of digital network infrastructures. Network technologies do not represent a kind of freedom of access and total redistribution of power, but they are used to actually concentrate power among certain elites and broaden socioeconomic divides. This problem of inter-city socioeconomic division has been explored through the network studies perspective in greater detail, and Castells himself points to some of these thinkers. Stephen Graham and Simon Marvin in particular give a detailed overview of the specific urban operations that combine communication technologies and infrastructures, and create great disparities of access to urban services. They argue that “cities and urban systems, in particular, are today intensely dependent on dense and interwoven lattices of technical networks,” where transportation and utilities infrastructure are now being inextricably cross-invested with telecommunications.7Stephen Graham and Simon Marvin, “Urban Infrastructure and Transportation” in Telecommunications and the city: electronic spaces, urban places (London: Routledge, 2005), 278. Old transportation and utility infrastructures are being built upon, their technological capabilities are being expanded and layered with new communication technology, and all of this is in an effort to liberalize and privatize these previously public infrastructures.8Ibid., 303.

Clearly, Graham and Marvin’s analysis fits well with Castells’ argument. Indeed, the pursuit for capital growth and efficiency has taken hold of communication technology, and urban infrastructural providers are now shaping the spatial realties of cities to suit that ideology. There are a few serious problems that need to be addressed. Firstly, telematics in utility infrastructure has led to an increase and concentration of control— processes like “smart metering” for utility services “allows infrastructure providers to decide the basis on which low-income households have access to these services” by gathering data and establishing tariffs and regulations for access.9Ibid., 305. While this is one way of structuring inequality, the transformations in transportation infrastructure is another significant way that telematics shape the physical space of urban centers. Transportation telematics massively work toward structuring spaces that reinforce economic divides. Tolled roadways, for instance, allow for specialized access for paying customers, and this “limits the power of some while propelling others to the exclusive heights of controlling space and thereby everything contained in it.”10Ibid, 308. Graham and Marvin show us that the Network Society influences the infrastructure of media and urban spaces not in an effort to bridge gaps between the poor and the elite, but to actually widen those gaps for capital gain. Looking at the infrastructural logistics that lead to economic inequality and access divides is crucial for truly understanding the structural conditions that Castells outlines. Here, it is the amalgamation of telecommunication technology and urban infrastructure that concentrates power in the hands of the few. Clearly, these infrastructural providers are not concerned with establishing ubiquitously accessible urban services through networking capabilities, but quite the opposite.

Networks Reproducing Power Dynamics
I have explored the way digital technologies interact with other essential infrastructures to produce inequality, but the next step in this analysis is to further deconstruct the network paradigm, to look further inward. What about the infrastructures of these network technologies themselves? What can we glean from the shape, history, and logistics of networks in the Global North? The most pervasive and currently relevant network entities have to be that of the Internet and the highly misunderstood cloud computing apparatuses that exist to archive our digital data. Looking at how and why digital networks came to be, the logistics of their construction, their materiality, and where their ownership lies will show where and how power is distributed through those infrastructures. A great entry point for deconstructing network infrastructure is Tung-Hui Hu’s exposé on the digital network’s origins and “shape.” An essential point he makes is that much of the network’s shape (at least in America) is mapped along the same routes and follows the infrastructure of old railroads.11Tung-Hui Hu, “The Shape of the Network,” A Prehistory of the Cloud, 2015, 1-2, doi:10.7551/mitpress/9780262029513.003.0001. Moreover, the infrastructure of the railroads created opportunities for fiber optic cable innovation. Hu notes that the owners of the Southern Pacific Railroad easily sold the capability of their internal communication network to outside companies, and from there, they evolved their telecommunication sectors into companies that “comprise two of the six major fiber-optic carriers of the US Internet,” creating a kind of network nepotism.12Ibid., 2. Again, we can see how pre-existing infrastructures intimately interact with new infrastructures, so that even when networks seem like new and transformative entities, they are always reproducing and reimaging pre-existing infrastructures, pre-existing conditions. Hu also aims to show how the network attempts to disguise itself as an immaterial entity, when in fact it has a significant a topographic existence and a material history. The problem of cloud computing is one example. The infrastructure of the cloud is entirely misunderstood in everyday life, often considered as a floating immaterial entity, it disguises geopolitical processes that are tied to its infrastructure, where massive servers house the digital data, providing services for different areas of the globe, and owned and operated by an elite few transnational companies.13Ibid., 4-5.

Power is concentrated in the Network Society. It trickles down to an elite few corporations which control the network, shaping it along the same lines as existing infrastructures, thereby upholding the same power structures that have always been in place from the colonial nation building era to now. This becomes even clearer when we look at the material reality of digital networks. Who builds and maintains network infrastructure? Communications have relied historically as a medium on laborers from the telephone operators to the manufacturers of fiber optic cables, but “labour itself has been written out of the network’s history.”14Ibid., 4, 18. The labor processes embedded in the infrastructure of the network are tied to unequal power distribution and capitalist exploitation paradigms, even though they appear to create a more equalized and connected global society. The shape of our networks and digital infrastructures creates very little opportunity and possibility for subversion. In fact, networks reinforce normative power dynamics because they have been so cultivated by their industrial and colonial pasts.

The challenge of resisting against these power dynamics is another infrastructural reality of the network. While Castells’ remains optimistic about the potential for individuals from diverse identity groups to band together and mobilize through network technologies, Hu points out the limitations of this ideal. Network ownership and control are the major road blocks for effective and meaningful resistance. This is illustrated through Hu’s example of the Bay Area Rapid Transit’s underground Internet access. Hu explains that this particular transit system provided access to an exclusive underground network so that the public could connect to the Internet while in transit. In the wake of police brutality carried out by the Transit Police, protesters used this network to mobilize and organize rallies underground.15Ibid., 23-24. However, in the midst of organization, the “kill switch” was effectively pulled on the undergrown transit network, shutting down access and subverting the protest by subverting the public’s ability to connect online. This was a sobering reminder that while the public has access to the network, they do not enjoy the rights of ownership. Internet infrastructure is not administrated by the public; it is administered by overarching authorities. Users of the network are privy to the whims of infrastructure designers and operators. There seems to be a potential for using the network in proactive and transformative ways, but because the Internet relies on material and logistical infrastructure— and because the control of that infrastructure is in the hands of states and transnational corporations— there are substantial roadblocks to mobilizing social change in meaningful ways. The internet is imbedded in pre-existing power structures, limiting access to its full potential, and essentially rendering resistance against the structure as obsolete in many cases.

Undersea Cables and Global Divides
This exploration of the infrastructure of the Internet can be taken a step further by focusing more closely on materiality. Hu outlines that networks are built with fiber optic cables which follow old infrastructure, but the nature of fiber-optic cables alone may also structure inequality in new ways. In Nicole Starosielski’s analysis of fiber-optic cable infrastructures, she argues that “cables implicate users within new and unseen structures of power.”16Nicole Starosielski, “Fixed Flow: Undersea Cables as Media Infrastructure.” In Signal traffic: critical studies of media infrastructures (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2015), 56. This speaks directly to Castells’ Network Society and the previous discussion. Users of the network might access the internet without fully coming to terms with the materials that shape their access, and where that access positions them both geographically and geopolitically. There is a crisis of equal access when it comes to the Internet. For instance, the United States—where cable infrastructure is looped domestically for relatively homogenous access across the nation— is set apart from nations without that advanced development of cable infrastructure, who are privy to their locale, and the lengthy, often “sluggish” processes of transcontinental cable linkages.17Ibid., 65. Castells’ description of Network Society is epitomized quite well within the problems we see in cable infrastructure. It is especially clear given the opportunities that the wealthy have for maximizing network capabilities. Starosielski writes that “high-frequency traders on global stock markets use computer algorithms to take advantage of the slight price changes in different locations, secure trades at slightly quicker rates, and exploit short cable paths for profit.”18Ibid., 65. Is there hope for closing this gap? Where Castells implies that the digital access divide is only a temporary side effect of the structural shift, evidence has shown that Internet infrastructure continues to divide the globe, divide low income countries from the high income, and fracture the network in terms of speed and access. Even recent studies documenting transnational bandwidth speeds have concluded that “the digital divide in terms of bandwidth is rapidly evolving and here to stay.”19 Martin Hilbert, “The bad news is that the digital access divide is here to stay: Domestically installed bandwidths among 172 countries for 1986–2014,” Telecommunications Policy 40, no. 6 (2016), 18, doi:10.1016/j.telpol.2016.01.006. Within this paradigm, the so-called “global village” finds itself as a network of multiple villages, operating at different speeds, with some taking advantage of the network as a whole in order to grow, and leaving the rest fixed without access to the full potential of network technology. It is impossible for the Network Society to be an equal one when rich nations have better and more effective access to digital networks.

This paper has attempted to deconstruct the mythology that surrounds the network as an entity by digging into evidence brought forward by specific media theorists. Castells provides a first step into understanding the function of networks in the digital age, arguing that communication networks are not free and autonomous global linkages, apolitical, or benign. Networks shape the socioeconomic structure of our societies on global and domestic scales. We can see recent trends where urban infrastructures have adopted and fused utility and transportation services, previously public and relatively free entities, with communication technologies in order to liberalize and privatize those services. This in turn leads to the concentration of power, and the “commodification of information.”20Graham and Marvin, Telecommunications and the city, 305. It especially divides space socioeconomically, limiting freedom and access through transportation with priced roadways. If we look further inward at the infrastructure of the Internet itself, we can also see where the ownership of media infrastructure lies. It may seem that the network provides ample opportunity for groups to mobilize against injustice and inequality, but the infrastructure can be manipulated to exclude and to suppress dissent. Moreover, the network has also always been the product of labor, and it has always relied on the imbalance of power for sustainability. Its infrastructure is the reproduction of past infrastructures, the reproduction of unbalanced power, and a tangible example of capitalism in transition. Finally, the problem of undersea cables solidifies the socioeconomic divides so wrapped up with the Network Society. There is a real division of access between poor and rich areas of the globe, and endless opportunities for rich nations to utilize the network in more beneficial and effective ways. What should media analysts take away from these examinations of infrastructure? This research should provide some concrete illustrations of what Castells means when he talks about the Network Society and the changes that it makes to the global economic and political structure. While the evidence does not seem to support much of Castells’ optimism for the potential of the Network Society, or for the ways that groups can effect social change through these infrastructures, Castells and thinkers like Hu agree that socioeconomic divisions are reinforced and structured by digital network infrastructure.

Notes   [ + ]

1. Marshall McLuhan and Bruce R. Powers, The global village: transformations in world life and media in the 21st century (New York: Oxford University Press, 2007.
2. Castells, Manuel. “An Introduction to the Information Age.” In The information society reader, ed. Frank Webster et al. London: Routledge, 2004.
3. Manuel Castells. “An Introduction to the Information Age” in the Information Society Reader, ed. Frank Webster et al (London: Routledge, 2004), 139-143, 149.
4. Ibid., 143, 147.
5. Ibid., 148.
6. Ibid., 147.
7. Stephen Graham and Simon Marvin, “Urban Infrastructure and Transportation” in Telecommunications and the city: electronic spaces, urban places (London: Routledge, 2005), 278.
8. Ibid., 303.
9. Ibid., 305.
10. Ibid, 308.
11. Tung-Hui Hu, “The Shape of the Network,” A Prehistory of the Cloud, 2015, 1-2, doi:10.7551/mitpress/9780262029513.003.0001.
12. Ibid., 2.
13. Ibid., 4-5.
14. Ibid., 4, 18.
15. Ibid., 23-24.
16. Nicole Starosielski, “Fixed Flow: Undersea Cables as Media Infrastructure.” In Signal traffic: critical studies of media infrastructures (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2015), 56.
17, 18. Ibid., 65.
19. Martin Hilbert, “The bad news is that the digital access divide is here to stay: Domestically installed bandwidths among 172 countries for 1986–2014,” Telecommunications Policy 40, no. 6 (2016), 18, doi:10.1016/j.telpol.2016.01.006.
20. Graham and Marvin, Telecommunications and the city, 305.

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