A Politics of Digital Infrastructure

Kelsie Nabben
5 min readJun 18, 2020

Kelsie Nabben, June 2020

I recently participated in a research study with a human-focused UX/design not-for-profit called Simply Secure (thanks to DXOS.org for funding my time and Shuttleworth Foundation for supporting travel to enable some of the interviews).

We spoke with over 100 builders (including; researchers, software engineers, designers and connectors) through conferences, surveys, and interviews to produce decentralized design recommendations in the form 7 Maxims. The meaning of a maxim is a general truth or rule of conduct.

I find one of the most relevant Maxims to be the idea of ‘Trust Models’. The idea is to use trust as a framework instead of threat, to pursue privacy and security with communities that interact with technologies.

What I found most difficult in the process of creating the report was politics. By ‘politics’ I mean the beliefs, values and ideologies that inform thoughts, influence perspectives and manifest through design decisions. From introducing ideas on ‘capitalism’, ‘corporates and governments’ to extrapolating the goals of ‘decentralization’. It was disconcerting to navigate the politics, and enactment of those politics in others, as well as confront my own.

This discomfort has caused me to reflect on the politics of digital infrastructures, as well as the importance of this awareness for anyone designing, building, implementing or funding digital systems.

Infrastructure Studies:

Infrastructure studies offers an approach to conceptualise emerging technology as a network-based infrastructure that shapes and is shaped by human organisation. Digital infrastructure can be conceived of as something that emerges for people in practice, connected to relational activities and structures. Studies on the history of science have begun to describe large-scale systems as digital infrastructures that are part of a broader system of policy, law and norms. Similarly, technology is a tool that takes on meaning when used by people, in the context in which it is applied, perceived and experienced.

‘What distinguishes infrastructures from technologies is that they are objects that create the grounds on which other objects operate, and when they do so they operate as systems.’ — Larkin, 2013.

The Politics of Digital Infrastructures:

Technologies that form digital infrastructures are not politically neutral. In the context of people, socio-technical systems introduce ‘technopolitics’.

Political ideologies influence the engineering principles used to create digital infrastructure. Thus, it is worth examining in what ways does social engineering drive technology, versus technology influencing social outcomes. Through the lens of digital infrastructure studies, systems are a co-creative process that forms out of the interactions between people’s context and beliefs, and engineering processes. Thus. digital infrastructure is inherently political.

Designing Digital Infrastructures: avoiding disappointment / destruction

As an example of a digital infrastructure, the internet is an example of how people’s politics influences the ways in which digital infrastructure is conceived, designed and built. This process is fraught with fallacies, for example:

1. Making promises, versus the reality of operating within the constraints of existing systems.

The internet was promised as a free and independent cyberspace. Although the promise and narrative of tech-utopianism is an important one, the internet, like all other infrastructures, responds to funding, regulation, user demand and the historical context in which it was conceived.

2. Assuming universalism: the promise of [anything] ‘for all’.

Infrastructure does not benefit everyone equally. It distributes information or ability, reflects values and instantiates or propagates norms through conscious or unconscious assumptions.

3. (Un)happy accidents: failure to consider unintended consequences.

Most often, systems are designed with a use in mind, not all the possible uses. This can be referred to as weaponized architecture. For example; although WiFi was intended for connectivity, it is also a very effective de-facto location tracking infrastructure.

In the recent words of a colleague; resisting both disorder and dictatorship is a public good which is in short-supply.

Thus, the question is not ‘how do we overthrow existing systems?’. This is wracked with assumptions and naïve to one’s own subjection to the political influences of the contexts we are in. The question is what do we do from within the confines of the systems we have for stronger accountability and guarantees?

One answer is to design digital infrastructures better.

The ‘Decentralization Off the Shelf’ report is an effort towards this.

Amongst the valuable trove of ideas in the report is an essay by New Design Congress. In this essay, Cade predicts a ‘clash of centralizations’, between the decentralized and centralized tech communities. While (very reasonably) commanding designers to be aware of the second and third order own ideologies, the narrative of impending confrontation risks designing reactive systems that perpetuate existing infrastructural concerns.

Re-creating the context in which you build against is also a common criticism of blockchains (especially of the Bitcoin community). Under the influence of liberalist origins that seek to organise through technological domains that are far removed from formal political institutions, the ‘invisible politics’ at play in the process of crypto-economics propagates the very fallacies of the systems that people seek to circumvent with blockchain based infrastructure. The Bitcoin genesis block makes specific salute to central banks by encoding the news headline; ‘chancellor on brink of second bailout for banks’. Of course, this is now on the brink of all going horribly wrong with central bank digital currencies.

Instead, you need to play a different game.

What is possibly more strategic, is incremental change towards better systems that seek checks-and-balances. In defence of the ideals of public decentralised blockchains; the idea is not to replace trust with code but to provide an accountability mechanism to ensure existing systems behave.

The lesson?

Digital infrastructure does not emerge from nothing, but in response to its context. Any system we build requires the interdisciplinary nouce to navigate the same issues as infrastructures today; from addressing market failures such as monopolization, to information accessibility and ownership of public and private goods. Legal frameworks already exist to address these failures, such as anti-trust law (referred to as anti-monopoly law in China and Russia).

Fundamental then, to how politics influences the design of digital infrastructures, is trust. While technology is about people interacting in new ways to do the same things (communicate and trade); trust is about clear guarantees of security and accountability for people to interact and coordinate in better ways.

Thus, the two substrates of digital infrastructure design are:
i) technology design, and,
ii) the political activity of governance design.

One goal, could be to maintain the ability to act.

My discomfort in working on this project was having to confront my own politics; to inspect, reason out and justify my purposes and actions. In the infinite game of infrastructure, be it physical or digital, you cannot avoid the politics of yourself and others, and you should not if you plan on designing systems.

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With thanks to Sinclair Davidson for review and feedback and each person that contributed to the DOTS report.

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Kelsie Nabben

Social scientist researcher in decentralised technologies and infrastructures. RMIT University Digital Ethnography Research Centre / Blockchain Innovation Hub