Tag Archives: infrastructure

Infrastructure as Iron Cage

Weber’s metaphor of the iron cage is one of the most famous in all of sociology. It’s certainly stuck with me: I keep a bookmark in my copy of The Protestant Ethic (Talcott Parsons’ translation) at page 181 so I can always turn to the Iron Cage when I need it. Cos, like, you never know when you need to comment on the relationship between capitalism and the pervasiveness of rationalism.

Let’s pop in for a refresher.

It’s 1905 and Weber’s project is to undermine materialistic explanations for economic change by arguing that Protestant asceticism (self-restraint and the denial of pleasures) and the notion of having a calling (showing devotion to God by attending to worldly matters rather than seeking transcendence) laid the foundations for “modern rational capitalism.”

The Puritan wanted to work in a calling; we are forced to do so. For when asceticism was carried out of monastic cells into everyday life, and began to dominate worldly morality, it did its part in building the tremendous cosmos of the modern economic order. This order is now bound to the technical and economic conditions of machine production which to-day determine the lives of all the individuals who are born into this mechanism, not only those directly concerned with economic acquisition, with irresitible force. Perhaps it will so determine them until the last ton of fossilized coal is burnt. In Baxter’s view the care for external goods should only lie on the shoulders of the “saint like a light cloak, which can be thrown aside at any moment.” But fate decreed that the cloak should become an iron cage.

Since asceticism undertook to remodel the world and to work out its ideals in the world, material goods have gained an increasing and finally an inexorable power over the lives of men as at no previous period in history. To-day the spirit of religious asceticism – whether finally, who knows? – has escaped from the cage. But victorious capitalism, since it rests on mechanical foundations, needs its support no longer. The rosy blush of its laughing heir, the Enlightenment, seems also to be irretrievably fading, and the idea of duty in one’s calling prowls about in our lives like the ghost of dead religious beliefs.

Not ten years after The Protestant Ethic was published, Gregor Samsa awoke to find his soft flesh transformed into the hard carapace of a beetle (see Peter Baehr’s “The Iron Cage and the Shell as Hard as Steel”). Why does rationality behave so irrationally? It is strange when capitalism, which in the contemporary scene so values flexibility and mobility, invents constraints for itself that inhibit the very qualities it thrives on. It can also be more than a little bit funny, if you don’t mind gallows humor.
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Data Havens of Iceland

Alix Johnson, a PhD student in cultural anthropology at UC Santa Cruz, will be going to Iceland to study the practices and discourses of data centers. She studies information infrastructures in capitalist economies and postcolonial politics, and researches these questions in Iceland where they take strange and fascinating forms.

Adam Fish: What makes Iceland important for information activism?

Since Iceland’s pretty spectacular financial crash, and the subsequent protests that kicked the government out of office, information technology and politics have cropped up in many projects of reform.  In a lot of ways the crisis was framed as a problem of secrecy – too much secrecy had allowed for massive banking risks and backroomban deals, and this was a problem more public information could solve.  The politics of information freedom, then, have been appealing and are taken up in a range of ways: for example, the so-called “crowdsourced constitution,” Iceland’s ongoing connections with WikiLeaks, and most recently the election of three Pirate Party MPs – the first Pirates elected to a national parliament.

But the part of this turn that interests me most – and the piece that my research aims to address – is the way that information is used to carve Iceland out a new niche.  In recent years Iceland has been pitched as an “information haven”: an attractive place to store the data of the world.  The idea is that data stored in Iceland is subject to Icelandic laws – so by passing “information friendly” legislation (favoring free speech, online privacy, and intermediary liability protection), and building data centers where information can live (an easy sell in Iceland thanks to the cool climate and inexpensive geothermal power), Iceland can change the rules of the game. In my research I ask how these efforts reconfigure the internet and re-imagine the nation, by following the “information haven” as it’s materially made.

AF: Cloud computing companies are the quintessential black box, difficult to access the people who work inside and once inside difficult to understand. How have you overcome these difficulties?

Honestly I’ve had to structure my approach to work around them.  But I’ve mostly come to terms with these limitations, as I’m less interested in data centers’ inner workings, and more concerned with their impact on and role within the communities where they “live”.  That is, while I do spend time with data center developers, I hope to spend more time interviewing locals – who more often see these new structures as big buildings that block ocean views, capital-intensive construction projects that redirect municipal funds, or concrete tributes to transnational connection.  From this perspective, secrecy can make an interesting starting point.  That said, I also read the trade publications, and look forward to my very few allotted trips inside!

AF: You are going for a year, what are you going to do? With which companies will you work? Continue reading