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Shannon Mattern: Acknowledging Interconnections (Interview)

These are excerpts from an interview with Shannon Mattern originally published by Project Information Literacy. Read the full interview here.


Shannon Mattern
Professor of Anthropology, New School for Social Research                                                                                         

(Interviewed by Barbara Fister)

. . . PIL: An overarching theme of your work concerns the ways our material infrastructures influence our intellectual infrastructures and vice-versa: The ways we shelve books in our libraries, the ways our streets are laid out, and the data we choose to collect and represent through digital dashboards all reflect certain knowledge assumptions and practices that attempt to reduce complexity by elevating some concepts and rendering others invisible. As you write in your most recent book, The City is Not a Computer: Other Urban Intelligences, the metaphors we use matter because they “give rise to technical models, which inform design processes, which in turn shape knowledges and practices, not to mention material cities.” What are some of the “other urban intelligences” that might be overlooked when we rely on computational models of human behavior?

Shannon: Of course we can conceive of computation very capaciously, to include analog computing, non-Western genealogies of computing, and so forth. But when governments and their tech contractors are talking about computationally modeling things — not only human behavior, but also urban systems, ecologies, economies, etc. — they almost always have in mind models that are digital, binary, algorithmic, automated, and addressable. Yet not everything that matters conforms neatly to a data model or lends itself to algorithmicization. And there’s a real danger, a hubris and totalizing tendency, to assuming that everything is computation, or that everything wants to be computational.

The first half of A City Is Not a Computer focuses on the uses and limits of these computational ways of thinking about cities, and the second half provides two examples of realms that exemplify the prevalence and value of “other urban intelligences,” which both encompass but also far exceed the computational. The first realm is the library and adjacent civic knowledge institutions, and the second realm is maintenance. I’ll focus here on the former. So many community-engaged libraries — those who recognize the distinctive interests and skills and intelligences of their constituents — succeed in building collections and programs that reflect great epistemological diversity: they integrate data repositories and electronic resources with books by local authors, oral history projects, community archives, and events that celebrate the wisdom inherent in embodied practices and intergenerational exchange.

I write briefly in the book about the new Greenpoint Library and Environmental Education Center in Brooklyn, which draws on decades of lived, embodied experiences of the neighborhood’s toxicity — Greenpoint is home to a few Superfund sites — in supplementing its local print and electronic resource collection with local environmental data, oral histories about environmental (in)justice and activism, and indigenous knowledge.

PIL: You’ve argued in your recent book, and in other publications, that librarians and archivists have ethical standards, knowledge, and practices that could provide valuable correctives to techno-determinism and “data-driven” decision making that influences civic life. As algorithmic systems begin to take over the human work of social systems and cities become “smart,” you argue that “we must push our civic leaders to bolster their planning teams with experts in the ethical collection, organization, preservation, and dissemination of information resources.” Though libraries and archives have their own biases and faulty metaphors, what are some of the ways they can serve as knowledge and social infrastructures that provide positive alternatives to commercialized and often monopolized information systems? 

Shannon: I certainly agree that we don’t want to excessively romanticize libraries and archives; our knowledge institutions continue to grapple with their own ongoing legacies of white supremacy and colonialism and other forms of bias and injustice, as I’ve also discussed in my “fugitive libraries” article. But many of the core principles and commitments of librarians and archivists — concern with access and privacy, preservation and the public good, social responsibility and sustainability, and, increasingly, justice — are quite unlike those that drive commercialized and monopolistic tech platforms and information brokers.

Libraries and archives can build and maintain access to and preserve collections that are shaped more by epistemological concerns and social obligations than by profit. They can develop access policies that are informed more by equitable distribution than by paywalls. They can foster information discovery practices that are driven more by intellectual and ethical considerations than by algorithms that foster extremism. And we can build on some of the historical work within library networks, and the recent work in various “library labs,” to build hardware and information infrastructures that embody very different values than our commercial service providers. In all these ways they serve as lessons to, as alternatives to, commercial information systems and Big Tech.

And yes, libraries can serve — and have long served — as social infrastructures, too. They can provide critical contexts for all those information resources and collections that embody community knowledge. As trusted institutions, and as facilitators of life-long learning, they can offer — through reference services and web services and programming — critical information literacy and algorithmic literacy and infrastructural literacy. This public pedagogy function is among the many social infrastructural roles that libraries serve, and that they have served for over a century.

But in this age of increasing privatization and decreased public funding for social services, such as housing and child care and mental health support, we can’t always expect our libraries and archives to step up and fill in where commercial platforms and defunded social services fall short. The library’s program is not infinitely elastic — nor are the people who work there, as Fobazi Ettarh has powerfully acknowledged through her work on vocational awe. . . .

PIL: In your most recent book, and elsewhere, you express a growing need for data literacy and algorithmic literacy. How would you like to see those who care about media and information literacy incorporate this kind of learning into their practice? Have you done this in your own teaching at The New School? And, given your experience with design, what role could design literacy play in understanding our information environment?

Shannon: I think this goes back to our earlier conversation about the scalar dimensions of knowledge: how investigating a knowledge artifact, whether a zine or a library catalog interface, can help us understand the larger systems through which it emerged and which it serves. If we care about media and information literacy, we already recognize that media, broadly conceived, are among the chief conduits for information. We should then also recognize that algorithms, in many cases, determine how that information is filtered and presented to us, and how we discover various media. Data are the building blocks of information, and they feed the algorithms that deliver it to us. We are both the producers and consumers of those data. And all of this material is distributed via and stored within various infrastructures, which shape the architectures and flows of information. So, I’d add infrastructural literacy to your list, too!

Design has the potential to make these systems and operations, and their logics and politics, material and experiential and intelligible. Graphic design, interface design, sound design, systems design, organizational design, architecture, and even urban planning — which informs how information infrastructures are situated within a society — all shape the way we encounter information. If we recognize the presence of design in all aspects of this ecology, we also recognize the potential to design things otherwise.