filtered by: infrastructure

Technology’s Impact on Infrastructure is a Health Concern

points | 09.10.18

Mikaela Pitcan, Alex Rosenblat, Mary Madden, Kadija Ferryman

Increasingly, technology’s impact on infrastructure is becoming a health concern. In this Points piece, Data & Society Researchers Mikaela Pitcan, Alex Rosenblat, Mary Madden, and Kadija Ferryman tease out why this intersection warrants further research.

“However, there is an urgent need to understand the interdependencies between technology, infrastructure and health, and how these relationships affect Americans’ ability to live the healthiest lives possible. How can we support design, decision-making, and governance of our infrastructures in order to ensure more equitable health outcomes for all Americans?”

Data & Society INFRA Lead Ingrid Burrington traces the history of Silicon Valley and its residents.

“Now San Jose has an opportunity to lift up these workers placed at the bottom of the tech industry as much as the wealthy heroes at its top. If Google makes good on the “deep listening” it has promised, and if San Jose residents continue to challenge the company’s vague promises, the Diridon project might stand a chance of putting forth a genuinely visionary alternative to the current way of life in the Santa Clara Valley and the founder-centric, organized-labor-allergic ideology of Silicon Valley. If it does, San Jose might yet justify its claim to be the center of Silicon Valley—if not as its capital, at least as its heart.”

Effortless Slippage

magazine article | 05.24.18

Ingrid Burrington

In e-flux, Data & Society INFRA Lead Ingrid Burrington contemplates the maps of the internet.

“The historical maps made of the internet—and, later, the maps of the world made by the internet—are both reflection and instrument of the ideologies and entanglements of the networked world. They are one way we might navigate the premise of the networked citizen and her obligations to her fellow travelers in the networked landscape.”

Data & Society INFRA Lead Ingrid Burrington reflects on her visit to Spaceport America.

“It’s a quintessential American desert trope: the future as rehearsal rather than reality. Many promises for technologies of future urbanism start as desert prototypes.”

A rare and toxic age

Increment | 02.02.18

Ingrid Burrington

In the essay, Data & Society INFRA Lead Ingrid Burrington grounds technological development in the environment.

“While the aforementioned narratives are strategic in their own worlds, they tend to maintain the premise that the environmental cost of technology is still orthogonal or an externality to the more diffuse, less obviously material societal implications of living in an Information Age. The politics of a modern world increasingly defined by data mining may only exist because of literal open-pit mining, but the open pit is more often treated as a plot pivot than a natural through-line: Sure, you feel bad about a social media site being creepy, but behold, the hidden environmental devastation wrought by your iPhonedoesn’t that make you feel even worse?”


The informational, economic, and political influence of the dominant tech platforms — Google, Facebook, and Amazon in particular — has become a central topic of debate. In this talk, K. Sabeel Rahman argues that these firms are best understood as the core infrastructure of our 21st century economy and public sphere. The infrastructural power of these firms raises a range of policy questions. What exactly about these firms (e.g., their accumulation of data, their gatekeeping functions, their control over vital public and economic functions like retail delivery or online speech) is “infrastructural?” How should these infrastructural functions be governed and regulated, in light of both their economic and political influence?

Professor Rahman sketches some tentative answers to these questions, drawing on the intellectual history of early 20th century “public utility regulation,” where reformers developed a compelling approach to diagnosing and remedying the problem of private power over the essential infrastructure of the industrial economy, from railroads to finance.

This history suggests some design principles and opens up some novel implications for addressing the problem of platform power in the digital economy. The talk explores more contemporary analogies and applications in the context of our current debates over informational platforms, big data, AI, and algorithms, in order to sketch out some principles for what a public utility-style regulatory approach to Internet platforms would look like.

K. Sabeel Rahman is a Visiting Professor of Law at Harvard Law School, an Assistant Professor of Law at Brooklyn Law School, and a Fellow at the Roosevelt Institute. Rahman earned his AB at Harvard College summa cum laude in Social Studies and returned to Harvard for his JD at Harvard Law School and his PhD in the Harvard Government Department. He also has degrees in Economics and Sociolegal Studies from Oxford, where he was a Rhodes Scholar.

The Daily 360 interviews D&S INFRA Lead Ingrid Burrington about how we can see the internet in everyday life.

“First place to look if you’re looking for the internet on a city street is down because a lot of it runs through fiberoptic cables that are buried under the street.”

To Serve the National Interest

Rhizome | 04.05.17

Ingrid Burrington, Josh Begley, Seth Freed Wessler

D&S artist-in-residence Ingrid Burrington, with Josh Begley and Seth Freed Wessler, created an installation on presentation at the Ace Hotel.

Building on Wessler’s journalistic investigation into privately run immigrant-only federal prisons, Burrington and Begley present seventy-five individual lenticular prints of satellite imagery capturing these sites and government documents pertaining to them. Together the images, arranged into three distinct grids, explore and abstract “the terrain of U.S. immigration and carceral policy and the human stories usually conspicuously absent in the aerial perspective.”

D&S artist-in-residence Ingrid Burrington explores the importance of domain names at NamesCon, an annual conference for the domain-names industry.

In addition to being crucial to making the web work, domain names are also a highly political pocket of the web, particularly shaped by the legacy of colonialism. Most of the underlying protocols that make the internet work—including DNS—are encoded in ASCII, which translates bits into letterforms, numbers, and punctuation marks. But ASCII’s letterforms only represent the Latin alphabet, limiting expression in domain names to Western languages (while arguing that a character encoding is an instrument of imperialism sounds bold, so does assuming that “text” is synonymous only with “English”).

D&S advisor Susan Crawford writes about communication infrastructure in rural parts of America.

This year, I’ll be traveling the US talking to people in scrappy communities who are building fiber on their own. They’re fed up with waiting for enormous incumbent communications companies to decide it’s in their corporate interests to invest in 21st-century communications capacity for Americans. These communities have run the numbers and looked at their economic development needs — as well as the possibilities for advanced healthcare, world-class educations, effective governance, energy management, and public safety that publicly controlled wholesale “street grids” of fiber make real — and they’ve come to the conclusion that if they hang back, they’ll become irrelevant.

D&S artist-in-residence Ingrid Burrington analyzes the infrastructure factor of the Oct. 21 internet outage.

The locations of internet exchanges tend to follow population hubs because the routes of internet connectivity often follow older routes of telephone connectivity (which themselves often follow telegraph routes, railways, and highways). In turn, internet exchanges attract data centers and more network infrastructure. For dense coastal areas, some internet exchanges are also key switch points for data traveling across transoceanic submarine cables, as in the case of Manhattan’s 60 Hudson Street or Los Angeles’ One Wilshire. In all likelihood, devices used for Friday’s DDoS attack located across the Atlantic or Pacific probably passed through or possibly connected to Dyn’s network through these buildings.

That being said, some of the overlaps between population centers and network outages are more a reflection of the number of connections in an area than the number of humans living there. The Portland, Oregon metro area has six IXes. So does Manhattan, which is surrounded by nine additional IXes in the surrounding metro areas of New Jersey and Long Island. Dallas, Silicon Valley, and Seattle were all areas that were subsumed by the grim red cloud of No Tweets For You in outage maps yesterday.

D&S advisor Susan Crawford discusses how streetlights are becoming a part of the Internet of Things.

But the third step was the charm: This past summer, Santa Monica adopted an ordinance requiring that wireless carriers get access to Santa Monica’s streetlights and traffic signal poles only on a neutral basis. It also sets design requirements for these rights-of-way assets, emphasizing the need for nice-looking poles that conceal gear. But the important thing is that carriers will not be able, in the words of former Santa Monica CIO Jory Wolf, to “delay or preclude” competition. The desired result: no one can lock up these poles.

D&S artist-in-residence Ingrid Burrington details the infrastructure of the internet and who owns the physical pieces of this infrastructure.

The miles of fiber-optic cable that connect the country to the world are mostly visible in fragments—signs for buried cable along the side of a road, telephone poles running between houses forming serpentine labyrinths beneath city manhole covers. These glimpses of networks tend to feature the names of at least a few different companies—sometimes well-known ones, like AT&T, but just as often companies that don’t tend to become household brands or that haven’t existed for years. US-West, MCI/Worldcom, Embarq. It’s hard to really get a grasp of who, exactly, owns all of this stuff and how they came to own it.

D&S artist-in-residence Ingrid Burrington was interviewed for The Intercept about her book and took a walking tour with her interviewer, Cora Currier.

I asked Burrington what she hoped people would do with her guide. It is empowering to know what you’re looking at, but also overwhelming to consider the scale of the apparatus around you. Burrington described a public records battle she lost to get the locations of NYPD cameras; the city said the data could help criminals. In the process, Burrington realized that the data she was seeking wouldn’t account for unmarked cameras and privately owned cameras that could be turned over to police. To map the entire surveillance network of a city would require a huge effort and become quickly outdated.

D&S artist-in-residence Ingrid Burrington speaks “on architecture, industry, alchemy, violence, and computation”.

D&S artist-in-residence Ingrid Burrington published a new book, Networks of New York: An Illustrated Guide to Urban Infrastructure, which is an iteration of Burrington’s published field guide.

It’s the single most essential aspect of modern life, and yet, for many of us, the Internet looks like an open browser, or the black mirrors of our phones and computers. But in Networks of New York, Ingrid Burrington lifts our eyes from our screens to the streets, showing us that the Internet is everywhere around us, all the time—we just have to know where to look.

D&S artist-in-residence Ingrid Burrington speculates whether or not possible threats to internet infrastructure are in fact threats.

To take out some of the major chokepoints of the internet wouldn’t be impossible, and it would have pretty devastating consequences, but any kind of attack on such a space at scale would require a degree of coordination and resources more likely in the hands of a sovereign country than a terrorist cell. And in an age where every war is a propaganda war, taking out the internet at scale is an act of mutually assured destruction: ISIS needs a global internet to coordinate and recruit, and western governments need a global internet to surveil that coordination and recruitment. Most sovereigns are far more content to exercise limited control and outages within their own boundaries using far less labor-intensive methods than physical infrastructure attacks.

Code is key to civic life, but we need to start looking under the hood and thinking about the externalities of our coding practices, especially as we’re building code as fast as possible with few checks and balances.

Points: “Be Careful What You Code For” is danah boyd’s talk from Personal Democracy Forum 2016 (June 9, 2016); her remarks have been modified for Points. danah exhorts us to mind the externalities of code and proposes audits as a way to reckon with the effects of code in high stakes areas like policing. Video is available here.

D&S fellow Mark Latonero considers recent attempts by policymakers, big tech companies, and advocates to address the deepening refugee and migrant crisis and, in particular, the educational needs of displaced children through technology and app development projects. He cautions developers and policymakers to consider the risks of failing to understand the unique challenges facing refugee children living without running water, let alone a good mobile network.

The reality is that no learning app or technology will improve education by itself. It’s also questionable whether mobile apps used with minimal adult supervision can improve a refugee child’s well-being. A roundtable at the Brookings Center for Universal Education noted that “children have needs that cannot be addressed where there is little or no human interaction. A teacher is more likely to note psychosocial needs and to support children’s recovery, or to refer children to other services when they are in greater contact with children.” Carleen Maitland, a technology and policy professor who led the Penn State team, found through her experience at Zaatari that in-person interactions with instructors and staff in the camp’s many community centers could provide far greater learning opportunities for young people than sitting alone with a mobile app.

In fact, unleashing ed tech vendors or Western technologists to solve development issues without the appropriate cultural awareness could do more harm than good. Children could come to depend on technologies that are abandoned by developers once the attention and funding have waned. Plus, the business models that sustain apps through advertising, or collecting and selling consumer data, are unethical where refugees are concerned. Ensuring data privacy and security for refugee children using apps should be a top priority for any software developer.

In cases where no in-person education is available, apps can still play a role, particularly for children who feel unsafe to travel outside their shelters or are immobile owing to injuries or disabilities. But if an app is to stand a chance of making a real difference, it needs to arise not out of a tech meet-up in New York City but on a field research trip to a refugee camp, where it will be easier to see how mobile phones are actually accessed and used. Researchers need to ask basic questions about the value of education for refugees: Is the goal to inspire learning on traditional subjects? Empower students with academic credentials or job skills? Assimilate refugees into their host country? Provide a protected space where children can be fed and feel safe? Or combat violent extremism at an early age?

To decide, researchers need to put the specific needs of refugee children first—whether economic, psychosocial, emotional, or physical—and work backward to see whether technology can help, if at all.

Brian Standing interviews D&S Researcher Ingrid Burrington about the material impacts and labor of a seemingly immaterial network.

D&S Board Member Anil Dash contrasts two recent approaches to making internet connectivity more widely available. Comparing the efforts to build consensus behind Facebook’s Free Basics initiative to LinkNYC, the recently-launched program to bring free broadband wifi to New York City, Dash views each situation as a compelling example of who gets heard, and when, any time a big institution tries to create a technology infrastructure to serve millions of people.

There’s one key lesson we can take from these two attempts to connect millions of people to the Internet: it’s about building trust. Technology infrastructure can be good or bad, extractive or supportive, a lifeline or a raw deal. Objections to new infrastructure are often dismissed by the people pushing them, but people’s concerns are seldom simply about advertising or bring skeptical of corporations. There are often very good reasons to look a gift horse in the mouth.

Whether we believe in the positive potential of getting connected simply boils down to whether we feel the people providing that infrastructure have truly listened to us. The good news is, we have clear examples of how to do exactly that.

D&S Fellow Mimi Onuoha tries to figure out where her electrity comes from…and runs into a few roadblocks.

To know where your electricity comes from is to know all the points it travels through: the generators that produce it, substations that route and distribute it, transmission lines that transport it, transformers that raise and lower its voltage, and the service that directs it into your home. But lest you think the process is as straightforward as I have described, I should mention that for each step there are further caveats and complications. Feeders are divided into primary and secondary; there are upwards of eight transformers in each substation; service boxes are also connected to manhole vaults that serve as access points to equipment; and power plants go by a plethora of other names (generators, power stations, powerhouses). Each step of the process could prompt its own exploration.

The grand finale of D&S artist-in-residence Ingrid Burrington’s gonzo series of essays on Internet infrastructures, this piece explores northern Virginia in search of Amazon Web Services data centers — and explores the geographic coincidence of network infrastructure and significant intelligence operations.

D&S artist in residence Ingrid Burrington explores how the FCC’s net neturality rules are applied differently to mobile carriers than to wired broadband carriers and the effects on how people experience and perceive the mobile Internet vs. the Internet accessed on a laptop or desktop computer.

It really seems too obviously out of line to be true—mobile carriers are literally partnering with large media companies to subsidize data-devouring streaming services, while what might be considered the “open Internet” remains a paid service (and, considering the amount of data consumed by advertising alone, a lot of users are paying to view stuff they actually don’t care about at all).

D&S Artist in Residence Ingrid Burrington contemplates network infrastructure, underlining the fact that today’s infrastructure can’t last much longer under the strain of exponentially expanding connectivity demands. She suggests that the tech industry will soon have to face long-term questions concerning time, maintenance, and scale.

The impact of data centers—really, of computation in general—isn’t something that really galvanizes the public, partly because that impact typically happens at a remove from everyday life. The average amount of power to charge a phone or a laptop is negligible, but the amount of power required to stream a video or use an app on either device invokes services from data centers distributed across the globe, each of which uses energy to perform various processes that travel through the network to the device. One study(weirdly enough, sponsored by the American Coal Association, its purpose to enthuse about how great coal is for technology) estimated that a smartphone streaming an hour of video on a weekly basis uses more power annually than a new refrigerator.


D&S artist in residence Ingrid Burrington shares impressions from a tour of Facebook’s massive Altoona data center, and wonders about the extent to which Facebook might be creating an infrastructure to rival the internet itself.

The entrance to the server room where all of this hardware lives is behind both an ID-card reader and a fingerprint scanner. The doors open dramatically, and they close dramatically. It is only one of several server rooms at Altoona, but just this one room also seems endless. It is exactly the glimmering-LED cyberpunk server-porn dreamscape that it is supposed to be.

D&S artist in residence Ingrid Burrington on how the history of infrastructure in the U.S. contributes to Iowa’s status a hub of the data-center industry.

Google didn’t come to Council Bluffs because of historical resonance. They came for the fiber, which runs parallel to Iowa’s many railroads and interstates. Rail infrastructure has shaped the language of the network, the constellation of companies that form the network (most famously with Sprint emerging from the Southern Pacific Railroad’s internal-communications network), and, most relevant to this story, the actual routes that fiber-optic networks run.

D&S artist in residence Ingrid Burrington answers three important questions about submarine internet cables: who owns them, who builds them and how do they end up where they end up?

Today’s submarine-cable networks are increasingly governed by logistics, bottom lines, and latency, rather than colonial control or Cold War paranoia. But they remain useful objects for understanding some of the public and private power dynamics that play across the network at the infrastructural level, literally across oceans.

Internet infrastructure

interview | 07.20.15

Ingrid Burrington

“…we’ll take a tour of the visible internet infrastructure in Lower Manhattan with Ingrid Burrington, a fellow at the Data & Society [Research] Institute.”

Ben Johnson, Marketplace Tech for Monday, July 20, 2015

D&S fellow Ingrid Burrington’s popular field guide which, in the style of an Audubon Society bird book, enumerates the street markings and network devices located throughout NYC’s public spaces.

An online field guide to network infrastructure is an OK way to share information about infrastructure, but when you are out in the world actually seeing infrastructure maybe you don’t want to pull up some website on your phone.

So, here’s a book. The book has lots of cool extra things that aren’t on this website, like lengthy narratives about the NYPD’s surveillance apparatus and high-frequency trading. If you’re into those sorts of things, you might like this book!

“Even if 50,000 people shorten their showers, this is a drop in the proverbial bucket.”

The drought in California is a serious issue that needs to be addressed but as D&S advisor Janet Vertesi explains in this article, we should begin thinking about the solutions beyond the individual.

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