a thingy to set the line

Infrastructure is not a technical issue

Castillian Spanish

Thanks to alf for reading and suggestions :)

I’ve got staircase wit and kept thinking on what I was asked a few weeks ago about the relation between autonomous infrastructures and community networks, to which I ended up giving a convoluted non-reply. So here’s what I thought afterwards I could’ve replied, a byproduct of every other thousand discussions we’ve had in the past (so I feel doubly silly now).

The issue at hand is that it’s difficult to explain what an autonomous infrastructure means in the context on the Internet and services in the damn cloud. Talking about infrastructure puts everything on the plane of tin and cabling, so we end up mixed together with community networks. And we don’t like it, not because we dislike them, but because we have our own specificities, other issues and fronts for struggle.

In the autonomous infrastructures field we don’t deal with spectrum, for instance, or with telcos, because they are our physical infrastructure. What we are is a minority in a cyberspace increasingly googleized/californized. It’s the same struggle for technological autonomy, though with other immediate enemies and other strategies…

Autonomous infrastructures are the technological and collective enmeshment of servxrs understood as counter-hegemonical spaces inside Internet’s fabric, as spaces of gathering and resistance, and also as fractal spaces of micro-centralization as well.

They follow an strategy of resistance, of finding alternatives in between the gaps of Internet, so it doesn’t have to be fully clouded and our compas who can’t enjoy a community network just yet can navigate the Internet as if still was the cyberspace we declared independent but is has ceased to be.

In that argument I was referring to we came to realize that talking about autonomous infrastructures could be a misnomer that puts ourselves in the symbolic territory of engineering, technocracy, and a technical colonialism we are not always ready to dismantle in our eagerness to mimic hegemonic infrastructures in freer ways. We prefered instead to talk about neighborhoods and digital ecosystems and in that line it may not even be important to still be part of Internet, the hegemonic Internet with inter-oceanic cables and gigantic datacenters and 24/7 working servers, but also working inside and from community networks.

We also have to give ourselves a radical critique of what Internet services mean, starting by giving up on calling them services and following up with dismantling the capitalist paradigms and analogies that seep into autonomous spaces narratives. When we talk about containerization, we are refering to the process of externalizing exploitation where we can’t see it. When we are told we should start treating servxrs –those computers living in the Internet and who are in charge of making e-mail and web and so many other things to happen– as they were cattle, so they don’t matter as individuated beings, but how many there are and wether they’re meeting their function.

This sounds simply horrible to someone living in a rancher country and has some sympathy for animal freedom or is an anti-specist, and even more so when the intentionality of removing ourselves from other ways of relating to technologies and their devices is revealed, in the same way as with other animals, not as things that have to meet a function to us (they provide a service and everything goes awry when they don’t) but as affections. We don’t only want to make love with drones1, but also relate to them domesticly, daily…

This implies be need to break a whole bunch of mechanisms that come from the hegemonic jargon and practices, that are born from the invisibilization of the administrator-administered relationship. This thickens in the figure of the cisadmin2 hating on users who break things, who don’t know about anything, because on being hidden by the need of things just working and never having to explain how, they become receptacles of abuse when things precisely “don’t work”.

And to break from all that, we have to think that not everything has to work all the time, that machines also want to nap and to be free and that infrastructures, in any way they could be, are built by us and that this relationship is also reciprocal, that we are also built by them. This is something we have to learn from community networks, because even when we don’t intend to, we quickly fall in the tension of things just having to work, without time to explain ourselves how and why. I’m not saying community networks don’t work or that they do intermittently, I mean infrastructures need to think themselves as not only autonomous but also as communities, to become able to blur the administrator-administered relationship, and stand for other ways of admining. For instance, to collectivize technical knowledge, using other, more loving analogies, to bring self- and co-managed practices into cyberspace.

We also need to stop running behind capitalist services (I make this point everytime someone makes demands for a free alternative to Google Docs, that will invariably come up short and everyone will hate, when we have Etherpad, that is so pleasantly minimalist and doesn’t crash computers) and to accept that we are never going to reach them, precisely because we are doing things differently. We are not going to be the same but free, but autonomous, for that implies we’re playing under the same rules to become into the hetero-patriarchal capitalism, yet cool.

It’s not that the technical is neutral, and remains the same when the hands that wield them and the names we give them change. We need to build the free alternatives thinking in terms of free practices. And this involves to question what kind of practices are going to make us free.

We need to think from other analogies, which analogies are going to be ours, and under and with which ones we’re building and being built by our friends, the technologies.

To bring something from autonomous infrastructures for community networks, is that the latter have a strong experience on anonymity and privacy, as our every day resistance is against the process of cognitive work appropiation, meaning tracking, ad networks and Internet not as an independent cyberspace, but as a hostile land (like public space, according to security discourse).

Since we stand from digital self-defense, it becomes a matter of resistance. (And now I think of an analogy between autonomous infrastructure versus community networks and resistances versus autonomisms.) I can’t think, and I hope it’s because of my current ignorance, of any community network that is encrypting their connections, which is the lowest and the most effective level where we can ensure the inviolability of communications.

Everything that comes afterwards in terms of encryption protocols (HTTPS for web, GPG for e-mail, etc.) are nothing but horrible patches due to encryption at the IP level being tergiversed, complexized and expeled to other standards in such a way that no one want to implement them, including community networks.3

We only need a certificate and an IPv6 address to claim a distributed cyberspace for ourselves, said Kleiner4 and Roca5 separately. In political terms rather than technical, this would mean every computer would connect into the cyberspace as equal to any other, and at the same time their communications couldn’t be tampered by any third one. To everyone according to their need, from everyone according to their ability, in a kinky cyborg communism where servxr-client roles are interchangeable, or in less kinky ways, in a network we’d want made of nodes instead of immutable hierarchies. And for this we also need other ISP’s and other bandwidths.

The approach proposed by distributed technologies seems adequate. Instead of reproducing centralization in smaller ways (in physical servxrs at different scales, but servxrs nevertheless), distribution ensure information moves and lives in multiple points, individually intermitent, but collectively enabling better permanency. Having suffered the disappearence of the pirate’s collective memory6 due to centralization in a single computer, it looks like a sound strategy.

I also find interest in a process of reappropiation and resignification of technologies that we assume centralized and we can think of as a playful exploration instead of a set of issues in need of solving. I think on e-mail, without the vast amount of patches made to the measure of big providers, that in its basic elements is was from start a way of communication between intermittently connected nodxs. I won’t extend on this because I talked about this in other places7. We can’t never subestimate the bandwidth of a compa carrying a backpack full of DVDs (a techno-chaski!) or an Ethernet cable when WiFi is being stubborn.

Some time ago we were asking ourselves how would feminist cryptography would look like, not to solve the problem per se, but to manifest that even the most allegedly neutral techniques embed the politics of others. When is it going to ours’ turn?

I often joke that programmers are like plumbers, because no one ever likes what the previous one did. Also in this analogy there’s something poetic, on styles of approaching technical challenges vis a vis the productive (pre)potency of taylorization/containerization.

Some recommended readings:

  1. Decimos revolución

  2. I say cisadmin instead of sysadmin to not only show it as a gendered toil, with a strongly surly and male mythic figure, but also authoritarian and violent, from which we can start to think of other ways of admining.

  3. Internet grannies tell us that when they wanted to embed point-to-point encryption to the Internet protocol, NSA became really worried and set to break down those efforts by promoting a standalone standard called IPSec.

  4. Dmytri Kleiner on the need for IPV6

  5. I couldn’t find the reference…

  6. Comunicado y llamado a la solidaridad pirata para este domingo

  7. Queríamos libertad en la nube y lo único que conseguimos fue una web más compleja