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Discussing Technical Territories

By: Danielle Coty-Fattal | Date: July 7, 2023 | Tags: Author Post

This guest author post is written by Luke Munn, author of Technical Territories: Data, Subjects, and Spaces in Infrastructural Asia , from the University of Michigan Press, soon to be available in hardcover and open access.

Street crowd reflecting in the polyhedral mirrors of Tokyu Plaza Omotesando, Harajuku Station, Tokyo, Japan, a sunny Sunday afternoon. Designed by architect Hiroshi Nakamura. CC-BY-SA Basile Morin

As the figure strides into the frame, the algorithm goes to work, latching on to the tell-tale configuration of eyes, nose, and mouth that signals a human face. It draws a pixelated rectangle around this face and tracks the woman as she walks down the street, continuing her journey. The camera is made by Huawei, a massive Chinese electronics manufacturer. Along with the camera, Huawei has supplied and installed the vast array of 5G hardware needed to run this network of cameras, to transmit these images back to datacenters, and to assemble all this information into dashboards, platforms, and databases, ready to be acted on. This is the “smart city” underpinned by sophisticated Chinese technologies. But we are not standing in China or even in Asia. We are in New Harare, a brand new city on the outskirts of Harare, Zimbabwe. This is Africa.

Territories are being reworked. If territories were once a bounded power container, that container is now shot through with the signals and circuits of information infrastructures. Undersea cables blaze high wattage trails through the ocean, delivering media, merging markets, and stitching together zones of connectivity. Data centers act as a nexus, interconnecting partners, channeling data points into pools, and mining these massive repositories for insights. These technical operations offer new vectors for territorialization, allowing it to be extended and reshaped. The stable line of the border may persist, but it is overlaid with more flexible and fluid configurations of power.

Infrastructural empires work for those who erect them. As lives become increasingly dependent on data, power comes to those who best capture and capitalize on it. Information infrastructures lay hold of these flows, coordinating their movement, structuring them toward certain ends, and collecting their value. And yet these interventions do not take place in a peaceful void, but in a fiercely contested milieu—a territorialized world. In this antagonistic space, infrastructures carve out zones of compatibility, enclaves that run according to their standards, their values, and their visions—and not those of their rivals. Powerful public/private actors take up these capacities, further amplifying their control while marginalizing communities and undermining individuals. States grasp these affordances, eager for new tools to advance sovereign dreams and exert strategic influence. In advancing some interests at the expense of others, these “purely” technical infrastructures become both political and geopolitical.

My new book with the University of Michigan Press explores these “technical territories.” It examines how layers of infrastructure come together to create forms of spatialized power. It traces how these technical territories intersect with existing formations and spill over borders, creating strange new topologies. But, above all, it investigates how these territories touch down at the level of the individual, altering the abilities and experiences of their inhabitants. It moves from sand miners in Singapore to asylum-seekers on Christmas Island and protestors in Hong Kong, pointing to the kinds of forces wielded against lives and livelihoods. Technical territories construct new zones where subjects are assembled, rights are undermined, labor is coordinated, and capital is extracted.

CC-BY Studio Incendo

Such force is effective precisely because it is often imperceptible, subtle rather than spectacular. Cables are buried from the public eye; data centers are nondescript beige boxes; technical standards are arcane and boring. This is invisibility through banality, a tactic that has seemed to work politically as well as visually. When scanning for the sources of power, these services and systems are overlooked. And yet it is precisely here where we should focus. Contemporary power is carried out by design as much as by decree, by protocols as much as by parties. As Keller Easterling stresses, these “dynamic systems of space, information, and power generate de facto forms of polity faster than even quasi-official forms of governance can legislate them.” Technical structures rapidly establish wide-ranging rules at scale, while conventional state power lags behind.

CC-BY-SA Victorgrigas

In one sense, then, these technical territories peel governance away from government, fulfilling the cloud imaginary of decoupled control and collapsed distance. There is, as Stephen Kobrin argues, “an emerging geographic incongruity between the reach and domain of the territorially defined Westphalian state—as legal jurisdiction, political authority and self-governing democratic community—and the deep and dense network of transnational economic relations that constitute the early twenty-first century world economy.” But rather than floating in some nebulous ether, these territories remain partially bound to their political and geographical roots. These infrastructures are dug into the soil, they are grounded in corporate structures and legal frameworks, and they rest on local sociocultural norms. Indeed, technical territories exploit this tension to their benefit, drawing upon the rights that accompany a jurisdiction, for example, while simultaneously venturing beyond it.

Such technical territories take strange new forms and exhibit novel modes of operation. The aim here is not to “solve” the concept of territory with an all-encompassing theorization, but instead to work up territories as a productive problem. The study of territories “should not be deduced axiomatically from disciplinary conventions, requirements, agendas, or common sense,” asserts Andrea Brighenti, but “should emerge piecemeal through engaged problematizations and critical explorations.” Contemporary technologies frustrate former assumptions and fracture long-held relations, forcing formations to be rejigged. My goal is to crowbar into these cracks rather than smooth them over with theory. What kind of capacities do these infrastructures offer? How are these affordances spliced into existing formations of power? And how does this territorial force manifest in the everyday lives of subjects?

The conditions produced within these spaces are not neutral but motivated. They assume a specific understanding of the world, advance a certain set of interests, and privilege particular values. Here, information is captured, parsed, and recirculated, rapidly and often invisibly. Such politics exerts significant force precisely because of its silent, structural qualities. It is functional, not rhetorical, procedural, not theoretical, maintaining asymmetries of power as a matter of routine. If technical operations construct worlds, they are undeniably political worlds. From Singapore to Sydney, “technical territories” reveal how spatialized power intrudes on these lives, altering labor, transforming environments, ordering practices, and shaping the experience of its inhabitants.