Networks, Infrastructures, Logistics: Mapping Capitalist Systems in Words and Pictures

by Ken Ehrlich 

      “Poetic knowledge is born in the great silence of scientific knowledge.” Aimé Cesaire 

A grainy video circulates and re-circulates on the internet, showing a shark casually swimming up to an underwater network cable and taking a bite. It’s somewhat anticlimactic: The shark moves along, in search of other meals, other pleasures, other underwater geographies. In the pixelated moving image of the shark’s seemingly unintended attempt at sabotage, lies a strange constellation of past and present, an eerie map of the places where capitalist infrastructure, networks, and logistics overlap. The moment actualizes a form of poetic knowledge, as if the fragility of the technologies that keep capitalism running is laid bare. 

Captured by an underwater surveillance security system designed both as a form of protection from precisely this kind of attack and as a warning system for operational failure, the video uncovers a site where the typically invisible overlapping systems fundamental to the smooth functioning of contemporary capital meet.

It also highlights the vulnerability of these systems. This video was captured by an automated security system designed to protect the very network infrastructure that then repackages and circulates the video as consumable entertainment. These interconnected systems reinforce colonial legacies and re-orient security and military systems, ultimately reproducing the capitalist forms of production and circulation. As the sea floor has been transformed by a web of intersecting undersea cables, the complex web of overlapping systems of infrastructure, networks and logistics is transforming the ecosystem of the world itself. The hungry shark biting at a cable indexes ecological collapse in the form of a meme rendered as media archaeology. The shark’s inability to damage or destroy the network with sharp teeth and a lazy curiosity marks both the forceful imposition of these technical systems on the world at large and the seeming intractable hold these forms of organization exert over the technological imagination. But the shark will likely return in some form or another in the future, with sharpened teeth and more resolve. 

The shark biting the cable points to a map but it is not the map itself. If the map always produces a kind of double, the overlapping systems of infrastructure, networks, and logistics provide a map of contemporary capitalism, even if that map is always layered and constantly changing.

Infrastructure, Networks and Logistics are each difficult to clearly define in isolation. Infrastructure: The basic physical and organizational structures and facilities (e.g. buildings, roads, power supplies) needed for the operation of a society or enterprise. Networks: An arrangement of intersecting horizontal and vertical lines, or more relevant for this discussion –  a number of interconnected computers, machines, or operations. Logistics: The detailed organization and implementation of a complex operation, the activity of organizing the movement, equipment, and accommodation of troops, the commercial activity of transporting goods to customers. Even these simplified and provisional definitions point to the fact that in a contemporary context each of these terms connotes a system that is literally impossible without the others, each relying on complex historical processes. Here Susan Buck-Morss’ comments in Envisioning Capital: Political Economy on Display are useful, as she suggests that precisely because the economy is not an empirical thing it must go through a process of ‘representational mapping’ by science for it to be seen. [1] 

If networks, infrastructure, and logistics teach us something about contemporary capitalism and how we might undo it, how can these overlapping systems be mapped and seen? Can we orient our variously embodied subjectivities towards or away from this map? Is this a map of words and pictures or something else entirely? Following Cesaire into the spaces of silence within scientific knowledge, is it possible to draft a decolonized or decolonial map of contemporary capitalism through an engagement with poetic form?

For many years, my artistic work visually and spatially mapped localized infrastructural systems in fragmentary and partial ways, with an eye towards understanding how smaller technological systems fit into larger processes. The electrical system at CalTech in Pasadena, the complex hydroelectric system in and around Curitiba, Brazil, the growing network of offshore wind turbines in Denmark, or electrical usage by businesses in the Eagle Rock neighborhood of Los Angeles – each served as sites to explore the intersections of technical systems and social formations. Trying to playfully challenge the overblown and cloud-inspired rhetoric around the internet, this series of works focused on the physical structures of electrical infrastructure as a way to bring discourses around technology back down to earth, to material form and uneven geographies, to all of the dead labor embedded in these technologies. I emphasized in various ways how digital networks being rapidly developed and deployed globally relied upon older forms of infrastructure that themselves carried traces of even earlier forms of technology. I tried to visualize the way that forms of logic and reasoning based on specific codes, normalize and prioritize certain forms of behavior. 

5Ken Ehrlich Systems Analysis with Hydro-mechanical Expenditure Device, Ybakatu Espaco de Arte, Curitiba, Brazil, 2006.

6Ken Ehrlich  Dispersion and Interference, YNKB, Copenhagen, Denmark, 2007

8Ken Ehrlich Dispersion and Interference, YNKB, Copenhagen, Denmark, 2007

9Ken Ehrlich Kilowatt Consumption Data, Doubled, Pollos a la Brasa Restaurant (Organized by Outpost for Contemporary Art), Los Angeles, 2009

Against the logic of technological determinism, I had some notion that buried within forms of infrastructure lies a complex set of clues both about the world we find ourselves in and the mutually constitutive dynamics between technology and social formations. Infrastructure, as I understood it in relation to these works, brings together not only technical, administrative and financial operations but operates as a vessel and a carrier of cultural memory, desire, and affect. It is through these often anonymous forms that capitalism both imprints itself on the landscape and shapes communities over time. Seen from this perspective, infrastructure can be read as evidence of the material forces of history. These artworks served as discreet indices of ideological structures. Though not directly inspired by Jamesons’ notion of cognitive mapping, I thought of these works as a way to describe parts of a system that is too large and complex to be understood by a single subject. I envisioned each work as a map of an abstracted and masked, even, at times, invisible technological system that might open up other perceptual and spatial experiences in relation to seemingly immovable objects. Like the economic system, infrastructure is very often naturalized as something that simply exists rather than a historical form always in the process of becoming and in the process of being reproduced.  

As diverse spheres of the economy undergo processes of automation, I am interested in unearthing the histories of these technologies to critically track the material continuities of colonial logic. For example, a more recent series of drawings tracks the historical development of shipping container cranes. Not nearly as much attention has been paid to the parallel development of the apparatus that evolved alongside of the container itself and that is now in the process of being automated, as is so much of the technology associated with logistics. 

19Allan Sekula & Noël Burch The Forgotten Space

Much has been made of how the shipping container itself transformed the global economy, perhaps most notably in Noël Burch and Alan Sekula’s seminal film, The Forgotten Space. This film maps the development of modern logistics and re-orients narratives of capitalist development toward the sea. Part of the brilliance of the film is to situate containerization in a historical context, particularly reckoning with labor and environmental struggles within the shipping industry.  However, Christina Sharpe has incisively noted the absence of a meaningful reckoning with transatlantic slavery in The Forgotten Space and Sekula’s earlier work, Fish Story, both of which turn to the sea to narrate histories of capitalist development. If Noël Burch and Alan Sekula aim to re-member the forgotten places in narratives of capitalism, Sharpe asks, how can they leave out the crucial element of slavery? How can the mapping of global capitalism be undertaken without attending to the logistics of transporting slaves across the Atlantic? [2] As Stefano Harney puts it in a recent interview: “ …the Atlantic slave trade was also the birth of modern logistics because modern logistics is not just about how to transport large amounts of commodities or information or energy, or even how to move these efficiently, but also about the sociopathic demand for access: topographical, jurisdictional, but as importantly bodily or social access.” [3]

13   Ken Ehrlich Long Beach Port, Automated System, 2017

As with ports all over the world, companies at the Port of Long Beach are testing automated logistical systems that allow for automatic loading and unloading of ships and autonomous vehicles which transport the container out of the port via either rail or truck. What technologies surround the container itself and what is visible along supply chain routes? Can the geometry of the port be redrawn to point towards the colonial legacy of logistics – not along a simple causal chain – but rather towards invisible spaces in the competing narratives of this history? Is the abstracted American flag superimposed on the armature of the cranes an indication of the contradictions built into a global economy that wreaks havoc near and far? Is the tension between the smooth flow of capital and the restricted securitized movement of bodies and goods in space less a contradiction than a structuring principle of the contemporary economy? 

15Ken Ehrlich Long Beach Port, Automated System, 2017

In attending to the historical evolution of the crane, the drawings also tease out related questions of labor, made explicit through titles. In the sequence, the titles index a parallel evolution in notions of labor organizing, as conventional notions of the proletariat seem inadequate in the face of increased precarity, outsourcing and automation. What can be seen in these images and what remains unseen?

16Ken Ehrlich Untitled (The increase of the productive force of labour and the greatest possible negation of necessary labour is the necessary tendency of capital, as we have seen. The transformation of the means of labour into machinery is the realization of this tendency. – Karl Marx) 2017

17Ken Ehrlich Untitled (By going global with its supply chains, capital is creating the opportunity for global working class struggle. In order for such struggles to succeed we need to know how the present composition of capital works. The craft worker and the mass worker knew how the system produced commodities in their day; we need to develop such knowledge today. – Brian Ashton) 2017

18Ken Ehrlich Untitled (This is one of the most important consequences of the restructuring of the labour process superintended by the logistics revolution: the casualisation and irregularisation of labour, the disaggregation of the work process into increasingly illegible and geographically separate component parts, as well as the incredible powers which capital now has to defeat any struggle for better conditions, mean that it is not only impossible for most proletarians to visualise their place within this complex system but it is also impossible for them to identify with that place as a source of dignity and satisfaction, since its ultimate meaning with regard to the total system remains elusive. Most workers today cannot say, as workers of old could (and often did): It is we who built this world! It is we to whom this world belongs! The restructuring of the mode of production and the subordination of production to the conditions of circulation therefore forecloses the classical horizon of proletarian antagonism: seizure of the means of production for the purposes of a worker-managed society. One cannot imagine seizing that which one cannot visualise, and inside of which one’s place remains uncertain. – Jasper Bernes) 2017

***

If slavery played a formative and overlooked role in the development of the global logistics industry, the cold war laid the ground for contemporary visions of the network. In “A Prehistory of the Cloud”, Tung-Hui Hu describes how the legacy of the cold war has imprinted certain logics of security upon communications networks and continues to shape the discourse of networks. The implementation of a distributed communication network in the U.S. was inspired in part by the perceived threat of an imminent nuclear attack. The national communications network was in fact subject to a spectacular act of sabotage in 1961, which destroyed three microwave towers in the Great Salt Lake desert and temporarily shut down a large swath of the transcontinental telephone system and a portion of the national defense circuit. The event triggered a national response, with heightened security at sites of critical infrastructure as far away as Los Angeles and Illinois. [4]

20

Hu asserts that in addition to accelerating efforts to install a distributed form to network infrastructure, this attack inserted a kind of paranoid conspiracy theory into the heart of the network. If this communications system becomes (either through paranoia or imagination) critical to national security, it is during this historical period when everyday forms of communication are broadly and directly linked to the national security network. The secrecy of the government’s security policy during this period, based partly on the nuclear threat, reinforces the conspiracy of total control. It’s almost as if the NSA’s desire and efforts to monitor absolutely all U.S. communications in the post-9/11 period can be traced to cold war ideology less by direct technological links than by a form of “network fever” that both imagines total control and relies on a certain kind of deviance that reinforces the need for control, whether that is reacting to the current panic over Muslim “terrorists,” immigrants and outside agitators or communists, saboteurs and sexual deviants as hold-overs from that previous era. The attackers in 1961, apparently motivated by what was perceived to be AT&T’s monopoly control over the telecommunications system, triggered an outsized response that ultimately reinforced the need for a secretive, mostly invisible system, that in turn feeds conspiratorial network fever. The fear of total control finds its double in systems designed for total control. These are totalizing and yet incomplete word and picture systems.

21

Hu’s scholarship also reminds us that digital networks do not “transcend territorial logic.” Despite the rhetoric of the cloud and the globalized economy, the pipes and cables through which data travels across the internet are firmly grounded in geographical spaces and physically moored to a diverse range of land and seascapes. Taking this as a starting point and writing against many of the mythologies of the network, Nicole Starosielski argues in The Undersea Network, that the structure of the internet remains a fairly centralized system and is vulnerable to acts of sabotage. [5] Tracking the evolution of satellite and undersea cable technology implementation, she demonstrates that undersea cables were touted as more effectively secretive, harder to disrupt and therefore conducive to colonial relations. The ocean provides a “layer of insulation” from physical, social and economic conflicts. The spatial pressure contemporary capitalism puts on oceans – from the acceleration of shipping, underwater mining and alternative energy projects – points again to the direct links between logistics and the infrastructure of the network. Today, almost all international data leaving the continental U.S. travels through 45 undersea cables – hardly a completely decentralized network. Combine that fact with the relatively few multinational corporations who control the technologies of internet infrastructure and the decentralized network seems more and more like an apparition. Therefore the potential to target and disrupt the operations of the financial system – whether by a shark or otherwise – is very real. 

Networks...22

In her ‘media archaeology,’ Starosielski notes three distinct but overlapping periods of undersea cable installation: copper cable colonization, the coaxial cold war, and fiber optic financialization. The implementation and the geography of 19th century telegraph cable lines, and especially those laid under sea, followed transportation and trade routes pioneered by British colonialism. In the 1950’s, analogue coaxial cables were installed under the oceans as a response to emerging and historical forces, including the dynamics of the cold war. These systems were able to carry telephone, telegraph, telex, photo telegrams and slow scan television and relied directly on colonial cartography for their routes. In the late 1980’s through the early 1990’s the development of fiber optic technology and the process of telecommunications deregulation transformed the network geography significantly. New cable routes were considered but as with the installation of coaxial cable, existing routes were perceived to be more secure. The network itself is an index of the technologies and ideologies that are built upon layers of history.

The desire to both see the whole of the world as a static image or even as layered, moving images, returns here as a colonial fantasy, elsewhere as a conspiratorial cold war impulse and today as a fetishistic capitalist fantasy.  Where does this leave those anti-capitalists among us who wish to see a picture of the world to undo it? To return to Cesaire, and to the sometimes antagonistic silences within scientific knowledge, I want to suggest that even within the loaded, complex, and dynamic systems of Networks, Infrastructures, and Logistics there are spaces for a decolonizing, anti-capitalist poetics, which should accompany the pressing task of undoing these very systems and all of the misery that attends them. As Brian Larkin points out in The Politics and Poetics of Infrastructure there is no ‘inherent condition of infrastructure’ but rather the space to examine how invisibility is mobilized and why. [6] If Networks, Infrastructure, and Logistics produce the ‘ambient conditions of our everyday lives” it is precisely in and through these systems where we must struggle to dismantle the many strands of colonial and white supremacist logic. 

[1] Buck-Morss, Susan. “Envisioning Capital: Political Economy on Display.” Critical Inquiry, vol. 21, no. 2, 1995, pp. 434–467.

[2] Sharpe, Christina Elizabeth. In the Wake: on Blackness and Being. Duke University Press, 2016.

[3] Cuppini, Niccolo and Mattia Frapporti,  “Logistics Genealogies. A Dialogue with Stephano Harney,” Into the Black Box. http://www.intotheblackbox.com/articoli/logistics-genealogies-a-dialogue-with-stefano-harney/

[4] Hu, Tung-Hui. A Prehistory of the Cloud. The MIT Press, 2016.

[5] Starosielski, Nicole. The Undersea Network. Duke University Press, 2015.

[6] Larkin, Brian. “The Politics and Poetics of Infrastructure.” Annual Review of Anthropology2013 42:1, pp. 327-343.

——

Earlier versions of this paper and portions of the material included here has been presented at two conferences:

The Association for the Study of the Arts of the Present Conference, Oakland 2017

 Algorithms, Infrastructures, Art, Curation conference, West Hollywood Public Library 2019

Ken Ehrlich is an artist and writer based in Los Angeles. He has exhibited internationally in a variety of media, including video, sculpture and photography. His project based practice interweaves architectural, technological and social themes and he frequently collaborates with architects and other artists on site-specific and community-based projects in public spaces. His work was featured in the 2017 California-Pacific Triennial – Building As Ever– at the Orange County Museum of Art. He is the editor of Art, Architecture, Pedagogy: Experiments in Learningpublished by viralnet.net and co-editor of Surface Tension: Problematics of Site, Surface Tension Supplement No. 1  and What Remains Of A Building Divided Into Equal Parts And Distributed for Reconfiguration: Surface Tension No. 2all published by Errant Bodies Press. He currently teaches at The California Institute of the Arts (CalArts) and in the Department of Art at U.C. Riverside.

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