Order of Multitudes

Utopian Connections: A Conversation with Michael Faciejew

Michael Faciejew is a Mellon Sawyer Postdoctoral Associate of our seminar project. He received a joint doctorate in the History and Theory of Architecture and the Interdisciplinary Doctoral Program in the Humanities from Princeton University. In this interview with Yi Lu, Faciejew discusses the history of “information architecture”: from furniture and buildings to central classification schemes, past dreams of universal connectivity offer essential lessons for our present age of big data.

Yi Lu: Your research focuses on the architecture of documentation. What does that include? How does the physical constitution of information — buildings, furniture, and even city plans — matter?

Michael Faciejew: Before our age of virtual “information architecture”, physical memory institutions (libraries, research centers, administrative offices) functioned as the interface between an individual information user and a database of knowledge. These built environments reveal how knowledge systems are determined, and often constrained, by their spatial organization and materiality. 

My research focuses on a turn to “document culture” at the turn of the twentieth century, an epistemic category bracketed by nineteenth-century “print culture” and postwar information. Specifically, I study the science of documentation, derived from bibliography in the 1890s by the Belgian internationalist Paul Otlet and understood as a forerunner to today’s age of big data. One of documentation’s greatest contributions was its foregrounding of principles of information management which relied less on the aggregation of knowledge in terms of individual books or individual facts than on the construction of relationships among different epistemic units. Documentalists also proposed that the knowledge stored in all kinds of media—not just books—could be flattened and indexed for future retrieval and that it had a social and economic value.

Within this documentation culture, information needed not only to be stored in physical buildings; it moved within an existing organization and beyond it. What interests me here is how architecture was no longer considered for its symbolic function, but as a technical system alongside other information techniques and technologies. One new spatial typology I study is the documentation center (centre de documentation): unlike the library, it was a priori understood to be a node in a larger network of knowledge production. There is something infrastructural about these buildings and spaces, which developed alongside communications technologies such as the railroad and telephony. 

The architecture of documentation anchors questions about knowledge and power in a rich socio-material history. These spaces—created in real places under specific political circumstances—provide a kind of roadmap to how larger systems of governance and culture are implemented through knowledge systems.

Yi Lu: The architecture of documentation does not only give structure to information; it is a prototype for world governance. What are the connections between these cultural institutions and political governance?

Michael Faciejew: By the early twentieth century, the growth of documentation systems and communication technologies created a new ethos of centralization: Documentalists proposed that the world’s knowledge could actually—rather than figuratively—be stored and indexed so that it was accessible, in principle, to anyone on the planet. If print culture had been instrumental to the creation of the nation-state in the nineteenth century, European proponents of documentation science—librarians, scientists, politicians, and other internationalists—assumed that this free flow of information would naturally lead to global democratization and ultimately the erasure of borders. For this reason, laboratories, museums, and other institutions were thus leveraged in the interwar period as a counterproposal to the traditional diplomacy of organizations like the League of Nations.

It’s important to remember that these internationalists looked at the world from the vantage point of Europe, with apologetic views regarding the colonial and imperial projects of their home nations. The Belgian Paul Otlet’s lifelong attempt to produce a “World Museum” was one component of a larger documentation project that was explicitly promoted in the context of the colonization of the Congo River Basin. Indeed, the seemingly neutral ideals of a “worldwide society”—instrumentalized in the League of Nations and in the postwar liberal world order of organizations such as UNESCO—are compromised by the legacy of empire and the European project of civilization. Any information practice is ultimately a political proposal about how the world comes together. Techniques of documentation—of the circulation of knowledge—are political acts of worldmaking, and the buildings that house these systems become essential.

Yi Lu: Documents do not only exist in physical space; they also participate in a broader economy of information. Your work chronicles how the emergence of documentation science led to an increasing division between “intellectual labor” and “manual labor.” What caused this shift to happen? How does information technology reconfigure the concept of “work” and its role in society?

Michael Faciejew: While “intellectual labor” – typically associated with occupations like journalism and law – emerged as a distinct category in the nineteenth century, it was only in the interwar period that the economic potential of information began to be formally recognized by the International Labour Organization and the International Confederation of Intellectual Workers, among other institutions. Intellectual activities – ranging from low-wage repetitive labor, as in secretarial work, to higher-level thinking activities – could be rationalized to increase profitability and unleash the productive forces of industrial modernity. In the interwar period, this made it possible for scientists to refer to a “knowledge market” and for libraries to be reframed as “intellectual factories” contributing to national economies.

In making thought more “technical,” the standardization and rationalization of information practices subsumed it as a category of labor, and therefore as a locus for the production and disciplining of subjects. Where the manual worker has occupied a central position in our understanding of class struggle and political economy, there is another history that shows how middle-class intellectual workers emerged as a central category for the organization and stratification of society. And just as the study of factory environments tells us a lot about the reorganization of society, so do the rationalized environments of libraries, patent offices, newspaper clipping services, and other spaces of intellectual work reveal a lot about modern ideas of order. I’m interested in how the historical coupling of human thought and information technology tells a story about the development of capitalism that is distinct from contemporary ideas about “immaterial labor,” which is overly determined by the digital.

Yi Lu: One key case study in your thesis is Paul Otlet, a Belgian bibliographer whose ambitious Mundaneum project sought to create a universal repository of recorded knowledge. How have his ideas changed the way information is organized? Amid calls for data sovereignty, do his universalist ideals still matter? If so, how?

Michael Faciejew: Otlet is often discussed as a utopian visionary, but many of his endeavors – such as the Universal Decimal Classification, still in use in libraries and archives today – left indelible marks on our modern conception of information. Unlike earlier encyclopedic projects that focused on the collection and preservation of knowledge, Otlet focused on making information mobile and modular—in other words “flatter.” At a time when few people discussed the impact of data management on society, he also promoted the idea that the organization of information was fundamental to the organization of local communities, nation-states, and international relations.

Figures like Otlet reveal the contingent politics of any form of universalism. Some of these “world projects” – such as Belgium’s quest for colonial expansion – failed, but other universalist projects are still alive, and they have been firmly attached to the private sector and technology firms. This inevitably leads to concerns about the surveillance economy, the protection of individual rights, and data ownership policy. This new universalism should be treated with caution because it is bound to reproduce the coloniality of earlier world projects. But reflecting on universalisms can thus also be helpful because they help to attach values to ostensibly neutral information systems and to think about the ethics of worldmaking.

The debates around data sovereignty make it clear that there is no such thing as raw data, as scholars such as Lisa Gitelman have pointed out. Data is always already personal and politicized. The idea that data is somehow “universal” is tied to the truism of the dematerialization of information, which elides the massive infrastructure of fiber-optic cables, servers, and buildings that anchor information to specific places. The protection of data based on this materiality should not be treated as a deterrent to knowledge production or innovation, as the tech industry would claim, but as an opportunity to reclaim a broader set of individual rights and democratic principles in a changing media ecosystem.

Yi Lu: How has your research on documentation architecture changed your own information practice? Do you have any lessons for our age of Big Data?

Michael Faciejew: My research into the architecture of documentation has led me to reflect on the tremendous amount of labor that goes into data management, even in its most mundane forms, as in organizing pdfs on one’s hard drive. On the one hand, I’ve become more systematic, almost mechanical, in my own recordkeeping. But it has also alerted me to the pitfalls of hoarding: like photographing thousands of archival documents that I’ll most likely never fully process. All these failed historical projects for total knowledge should encourage us to consider what it means to not know something and to acknowledge that knowledge can never be total. As opposed to emphasizing the “Bigness” of data, there are many “small” meaningful linkages in knowledge production—made individually or socially—that can help to realize a positive information ethics.