Microwaves bounce between billions of cell phones. Computers synchronize. Shipping containers stack, lock, and calibrate the global transportation and production of goods. Credit cards, all sized 0.76mm, slip through the slots in cash machines anywhere in the world. All of these ubiquitous and seemingly innocuous features of our world are evidence of global infrastructure
Far from being either historical novelty or recent development, the fundamental importance of infrastructures dates far back. Roads, aqueducts, canals, sewers, shipping lines, or messenger services were all crucial to the success of cultures, cities, states, and empires from antiquity through to the modern era. Furthermore, the innovations of the nineteenth- and the early twentieth century – the construction of vast networks of railroads, power, telegraph, and telephone systems, followed by the highways and oil pipelines of the petro-cultural a little later – still ought to be seen as the heroic, formative years of our contemporary world of ubiquitous infrastructures as described by Keller Easterling in the quote that opens this section. Up to today, an increasing number of large technological systems have become naturalized, largely shaping the environments we all live in today and treat as “second nature.
Yet, another decisive conceptual shift has been happening: this began in around the 1950s and had close links to cybernetic thinking and the invention of computers. Initially, what had started at state level –more specifically at the military and then corporate levels, then dispersed. The introduction of the Personal Computer and the emergence of a worldwide computer network (beginning in the 1980s) drew in the individual citizen, the worker, the employee, and all consumers. This development then accelerated, so that by 2000 mobile communication and computing had dispersed to the extent that just about everything that could be digitized is digitized, transforming daily routines into high-speed actions. Today, digital technology has brought the infrastructure closer, to everybody’s life – to people’s bodies and brains – than probably ever before. We have become infrastructured subjects not only when we are using (or are connected to) large technical systems like public transportation or electricity but also as we are navigating through (and are navigated by) infrastructured space which is almost everywhere.
One aspect of the culmination of the emergent digital sphere – hovering like a gas between and around everything and everybody – is the “internet of things.” Here, the two ubiquitous networks that have been in the process of transforming the world since the second half of the twentieth century and their corresponding processes of digitization and containerization – the operationalization of the cognitive and of the physical world – are coming together conspicuously and inseparably. Logistical systems operate the network of things both at the informational and at the physical level. This interpenetration of computerization and containerization reaches back to the early years of both technologies. The calculating power of computers played a critical role in the development of some of the key elements of the container system. Beginning in the 1960s, it became evident that it was not possible to manage the increasing complexity of container-logistical processes without the help of computers On the other hand, the logistical principles that organize the space and processes inside computers and connect their networks are taken from (or at least inspired by) the physical world of transport. It began with the basic (von Neumann) computer architecture with its busses, hubs, and ports; then continued with the leading metaphors for the organization of file systems, desktops, or programs. Then came the container-formats, take a .pdf, .flv, .mpeg or .wave file-format, which allows the mix of text/image, audio, and video content that accounts for the vast amount of today’s data traffic via the internet. Where the digital sphere touches the material world, therefore, one could suggest that most often it comes in containerized form
The container system ushered in computerization of the world and the corresponding processes of virtualization on many levels, which later became the logistical-epistemic order in which we live today.
Containers are the main physical and conceptual agents in the diffusion of the economic system we have come to call globalization. In performing both conceptual and physical work, the container forms an infrastructural triangle with the principle of money and the function of computers. Exploring the physical spaces of container transport, therefore, is not only an encounter with the vast dimensions and materialities of one of the most powerful infrastructures of today, but evokes the feeling of paying a visit to the micro-worlds of computing itself as well.