“Bundled, Buried & Behind Closed Doors” @Rhizome
Bundled, Buried & Behind Closed Doors is a short documentary explaining internet infrastructure, focusing on the art deco building 60 Hudson Street in Tribeca, which is now one of the most concentrated carrier hotels in the world. The internet has an “ironically very limited geography in terms of big strategic concentrations,” explains Stephen Graham, professor of cities and society, Newcastle University, in the short film. “The big affluent high tech information rich regions” is where the infrastructure is densely located. And 60 Hudson Street was especially ideal as a hub, given that the building was already designed to accommodate cables as it was first fitted for pneumatics tubes, then telegraph cables and telephone lines.
The documentary does a fine job explaining the materiality of the internet, and the city as a site of circulation. Communications infrastructures have often supported empires throughout history, and the concentration of the internet is no different. The material structure of the internet follows earlier infrastructure just as telegraph and telephone lines followed the railways. This calls to mind Harold Innis’ classic study The Fur Trade in Canada: An Introduction to Canadian Economic History (1930), in which he re-narrates the history of Canada as being crucially influenced by the beaver pelt trade, its transportation lines, and indeed its borders, being influenced by the network of the fur trade. I wonder if we can push the similarities further. Innis’ narrative emphasizes the necessary contributions of the First Nations peoples in the fur trade, dependent as it was on their ability to hunt, make use of knowledge of the land, and use tool such as snow-shoes. Of course the new technologies and social structures of the European settlers (and the violence of colonization in general) proved to destabilize their society. Whose labour is being exploited to run the material infrastructure of the internet?
Wu Ming, an Italian collective of collaborative novelists which grew out of the Luther Blisset project, recently published a blog post dealing with some of these issues. “Fetishism of Digital Commodities and Hidden Exploitation: the Cases of Amazon and Apple” focuses on Amazon’s shipping warehouses, Apple’s factories in China, e-waste, and a refreshing reading of Marx.
Judging by online comments, many people were taken by surprise, finding out for the first time that Amazon is a mega-corporation and Jeff Bezos is a boss who – as bosses customarily do – seeks profits at the expenses of any consideration for dignity, justice, and safety.
As should have been suspected, Amazon’s “miracle” (super-discounts, ultra-quick shipping, “Long Tail”, a seemingly infinite catalogue) is based on the exploitation of workforce under vexatious, dangerous, humiliating conditions. Just like the Walmart “miracle”, Sergio Marchionne’s FIAT “miracle” or any other corporate “miracle” the media have dished up to us in recent years.