Order of Multitudes

Data Infrastructures, Metaphor, and Imagination: A Conversation with Shannon Mattern

Shannon Mattern is a Professor of Anthropology at The New School for Social Research. Her recent book A City is Not a Computer: Other Urban Intelligences offers a reassessment of “smart cities” that reveals what is lost when we conceive of our urban spaces as computers. In this conversation we discussed Professor Mattern’s recent research, how data infrastructures are shaped by metaphor, and where libraries can fit in.

Caption: Reading Room, dlr LexIcon, Dún Laoghaire, Ireland. Carr Cotter & Naessens Architects. Photo by the author. 

Katie Colford: By way of introduction, could you share what led you to work on data infrastructures? How has your trajectory evolved to span such a wide range of disciplines—from anthropology to architecture?

Shannon Mattern: Saying that I work on “data infrastructures” is really a means of retrospectively imposing some coherence on a pretty motley set of interests! I started off in chemistry and literature and eventually came to realize, by my senior year in college, that I was interested largely in the materiality of both fields: how epistemology is manifested in the design of the beaker and the book, in the aesthetics of titration and typography. In grad school, then, I scaled up my focus to architecture and examined how the design of library buildings and archival spaces embodies certain ways of knowing. I studied how the design process itself aims to reconcile sometimes complementary and sometimes competing architectural, technological, social, epistemological and ethical demands. In the following years, I studied other media architectures—media workplaces, sites of exhibition, classrooms, reading rooms—and eventually scaled up further to explore how communication technologies shape cities. By “cities” I mean both our contemporary data-infused cities and their historical predecessors—even the earliest human settlements.

It was around this time, well over a decade ago, that the scholarship on “media infrastructures” was emerging, and I realized that the “infrastructure” concept allowed me to think at an even greater scale—the regional and national networks linking cities. At the same time, infrastructure became a useful model for revisiting much of my earlier work. I recognized that databases are infrastructures. Furnishings and architectures are infrastructures, too. And, in an institution like a library, those cross-scalar infrastructures need to be interoperable. 

Along the way, I’ve had the great pleasure of collaborating with geographers, urban planners, architects, archivists, librarians, artists, and creative technologists. And I’ve had the good fortune of teaching in or alongside programs in urban planning, design studies, media studies, and, now, anthropology. Learning with my students in these various fields has profoundly informed my own research and helped me to appreciate that “data” and “infrastructure” are both capacious constructs. 

Katie Colford: In A City is Not a Computer, you employ (and disrupt!) a number of metaphors—even in the title of the book itself. At first glance, data and metaphors might seem to be on opposite ends of an epistemological spectrum, but your book takes a more nuanced stance. How do you approach the relationship between data and metaphor? What can be learned from such an approach?

Shannon Mattern: You’re right! “data” imply cold, hard facts—objective indices of reality—while metaphors purportedly live in the realm of symbolism and poetics. Yet as countless scholars and artists—from Ted Porter and Alondra Nelson to Lisa Gitelman and Mimi Onuoha—have demonstrated, data are never merely “raw” materials. They’re the products of aesthetic, analytic practices: from the development of instruments to effect their collection, to the creation of repositories to allow for their storage and description, to the application of various methods in their interpretation, analysis, visualization, sonification, or “visceralization.” These analytic practices are shaped by symbolic thinking—by aesthetic constructs and by epistemological and ontological models.

If, for example, we think of a city—or a brain—as a computer, we assume that it relies on information processing and algorithmic logics, and we’re thus primed both to feed particular data into it and to extract data from it. If, by contrast, we think of a city or a brain as a biophysical body or an ecology, we’re primed to collect very different kinds of data. What we conceive as data—and how we generate, store, preserve, analyze, and deploy data—are shaped by epistemological and ontological metaphors. And those metaphors have political, economic, and ethical implications. 

Katie Colford: I was particularly delighted by the phrase “special epistemological zones” you termed to describe libraries. Libraries have also been a running focus throughout your work. How has your thinking about libraries grown over time? What’s at stake in these “special epistemological zones” and how can libraries promote just practices of data infrastructure?

Shannon Mattern: I’m glad you enjoyed my not-so-funny pun! I was hoping to merge and modify a few different concepts: Carl Schmitt’s states of exception, Giorgio Agamben’s spaces of exception, and Keller Easterling’s work on the (special economic) zone. I wanted to suggest that public libraries, as they’re situated within increasingly privatized, surveilled landscapes, do serve to remind us that public knowledge matters for its own sake. The knowledge that the library collects, preserves, and cultivates doesn’t have to be “productive” or profitable; it doesn’t necessarily have an immediately measurable “ROI” (return on investment). It embodies different values.

While I’ve worked and played in libraries for my entire life, I first started working on libraries in grad school, where I was exposed to lots of romantic and radical theorization about the archive. I thought libraries were equally radical places—and that they deserved their own theorizations, too. I spent a good amount of time trying to convince folks in my home field of media studies why they should care about libraries—and why libraries were a valuable (and tenure-able!) topic of study. I think my justification often manifested as mild evangelism: libraries are vibrant, valuable places! Yet over the years, as I’ve not only continued to study libraries, but also to work with them—as a collaborator on library design projects, as the president of the board of the Metropolitan New York Library Council (METRO), as a curator of library-based exhibitions, and so forth—I’ve come to appreciate all the more the vital roles they serve in our society, while also recognizing their fraught histories and political ambiguities.

As much as folks like to celebrate the fact that libraries are the “last remaining free, open, and democratic place” in our town and cities—I’ve taken part in far too many symposia where this is the primary talking point—I’ve also recognized, as many librarians (and especially queer and POC librarians) have long known, that libraries are not “free to all”; that they’re not universally democratic; that they’re not “neutral” institutions; that their colonial, patriarchal, white supremacist legacies inform their contemporary operations; and that many of today’s librarians prioritize information justice over the neutral provision of information. And while I’m also grateful for the myriad social infrastructural roles that libraries play in American culture, I’m also wary of condoning this continual expansion of the library’s portfolio: it’s simply unfair and unwise to ask librarians to solve our public housing, public safety, mental health, child care, and misinformation crises.

At the same time, I’ve also come to appreciate that, despite underfunding and undervaluation, libraries can and do play critically important and thrillingly progressive roles in promoting digital justice and equitable data infrastructures. I’ve seen libraries band together to pressure exploitative, disreputable publishers and data brokers. I’ve seen libraries rent hotspots and build community networks to enhance digital equity. I’ve seen libraries collaborate on the creation of public interest technologies that prioritize access and exploration over profit and popularity. I’ve seen libraries build oral history collections and community archives and validate the local knowledges embedded in their communities. I frequently close our METRO board meetings a bit misty-eyed; I’m both thrilled and moved by the ambition, creativity, and dedication of New York City’s librarians. 

Katie Colford: Your work critiques the totalizing mindsets that are all too prevalent in city planning, architecture, “smart cities,” and so on. It is often necessary to hold two things in mind at once—as you point out, for example, grafting can be a practice of both stewardship and exploitation. How do multiplicity and contingency play a role in your work?

Shannon Mattern: I think our discussion just now offers one example: libraries are worthy of both exuberant celebration and constructive critique.

So much of my thinking takes shape in the classroom. I talk often with my students about the grey areas that comprise much of the terrain we have to navigate every day. When we talk about “design justice” in my Anthropology + Design class, we acknowledge that justice isn’t equitably distributed or homogeneously experienced; designing to enhance one user group’s access might limit the opportunities for another group. In my Design Ethnography Workshop, where we observe things that are often ethically ambiguous, we talk about the futility of seeking ethical purity; everything is complicated and compromised—even the sanctity of our classroom at an expensive, private university!—and we need to acknowledge and work through those ambiguities. We also talk about having license to hold contradictory options and change our minds—to be unsure, to learn and grow. And we show how critique can be a form of care. 

I’d like to think that similar principles inform my own research, writing, creative practice, and public service. I try to blend joy, humor, disappointment, anger, and hope in my work. I aim to integrate—or carefully graft—the insights of various disciplines and realms of practice; it’s been very gratifying for me to learn that folks know me as someone who cites widely and generously. That epistemological grafting is an ethical and political practice. It’s also a formal and aesthetic one: by exploring ideas in various popular and scholarly venues, in short and long form, in writing and exhibition, through theory and art, I try to graft together the ways of knowing that these myriad formats cultivate. Each of my articles is a “graft” of multiple disciplinary literatures, various public presentations and their ensuing discussions, a bunch of Twitter conversations with generous strangers from all across the world, and often poignantly caring interactions with familiar, trusted editors. And the books are then grafts of these articles and conversations and classes—supplemented with new fruit cultivated through all that cross-pollination. 

Katie Colford: Do you see speculation and imagination beginning to play a role in our understanding of data infrastructure?

Shannon Mattern: Absolutely. Our conception of what’s possible has to extend beyond the visions conjured up by Big Tech and commercial media and totalitarian governments—not only because those dreams evidence their creators’ demographic homogeneity and ethical deficiencies, but also because “data” and “infrastructure,” broadly conceived, have so much more potential than capitalism and authoritarianism can conceive. The infrastructures we live with today are, for the most part, the products of path dependencies and political-economic power imbalances. We can look to fugitive libraries, radical archives, indigenous AI, abolitionist technologies, and a host of other practices and provocations to remind ourselves that data infrastructures could be designed otherwise—and with sufficient imaginative courage and political-economic will, they can be.