As a way of thinking through the possibility of extending infrastructural imaginaries, I want to discuss briefly Darin Barney’s ethnographic study of “grain-handling technologies” and “railway branchlines” on the Canadian prairies (Figure 2). Immersing himself in the lifeworlds of small-town grain farmers, Barney describes grain silos and railroads as places of focused attention and exchange in rural communities One of his informants describes the grain elevator at Fairlight, Saskatchewan, as “a place to hear the news ‒ news of births and deaths and war and peace. It’s been a place to debate politics, wheat prices, wheat boards and hockey; a place to shake the loneliness of life on the land. The takeover of these facilities by big agribusinesses over the last two decades, Barney explains, has not only resulted in the gradual demolition and replacement of these infrastructure sites with more “efficient” farming equipment, but also generated feelings of isolation and frustration among farmers, who now sit alone in long queues in their trucks waiting to unload grain in the conglomerates’ new “through-put terminals.” By shedding light on “the complex ways in which infrastructural technologies mediate the organization of social and political life,” Barney’s research brings affective dimensions of infrastructures to the surface, while bringing different objects and actants into the repertoire of media studies
A phenomenology of infrastructure and affect might begin by excavating the various dispositions, feelings, moods, or sensations people experience during encounters with infrastructure sites, facilities, or processes. Such an imaginary might begin with a continuum that recognizes, on one end, the general tendency of infrastructures to normalize behavior (such that they become relatively invisible and unnoticed) and, on the other, as the potential for disruption of that normalization, which occurs during instances of inaccessibility, breakdown, replacement, or reinvention. By sketching out this continuum, I hope to build upon Wendy Chun’s crucial work on networks of control and freedom and to suggest that an array of interesting infrastructural affects lay in the gray zone between them The intention of this critical move, then, is not to reduce affect or turn it into a list of discernible emotions, but rather to catalyze further thinking about the range of ways people perceive and experience infrastructures in everyday life and how these experiences differentially orient or position people in the world.
In addition to this phenomenological approach, I want to briefly touch on the relationship between media infrastructures and affective labor, a concept derived from critiques of late capitalism’s shift from purely industrial labor to “invisible” or “immaterial” forms of labor involving various social skills, services, and modes of care As Brian Massumi puts it, “affect is a real condition, an intrinsic variable of the late capitalist system, as infrastructural as a factory. The case has already been made that network infrastructures rely upon the affective or immaterial labor of users in order to function and sustain themselves over time. Tiziana Terranova reveals that the internet is not only a technical system; it operates by virtue of the time, energy, and attention of the scattered collectives of people who use it Building on Terranova’s work, I argue that the use of immaterial labor to sustain media infrastructures is a historical and pre-digital process that dates back at least to the emergence of telegraphy in the mid-nineteenth century. What we have in the current historical conjuncture is a compounding and intensifying demand for immaterial labor as industrial societies have undergone a shift from only one telecommunications infrastructure – telegraphy – to a post-industrial order in which multiple media infrastructures – telephony, radio, television, cable, satellite, internet, and mobile telephony – cooperate and compete for user time, attention, and energy. Landline telephony has fewer users today than it did a decade ago not because the system no longer technically functions, but because most people simply do not have enough time, attention, and money to use their landlines and their mobile phones. Satellite radio networks shower hundreds of niche signals into continental footprints, but listeners do not have enough time to hear them all. Since most listen to satellite radio while driving, users would have to drive around perpetually for the rest of their lives in order to try to hear all content streams and still probably would never get through them all.