Accepted Paper:

Experiments with elemental infrastructures  


Derek McCormack (Oxford University)

Paper short abstract:

Discussing the Google Loon project and ongoing efforts to develop carbon free air travel, this paper explores recent experiments with infrastructures in order to show how they draw together in novel ways three senses of the elemental: the physico-chemical, the meteorological, and the ontological.

Paper long abstract:

In what ways might we understand infrastructures as elemental? The points of departure for the paper are claims about the elemental and atmospheric qualities of media networks (e.g. Galloway and Thacker 2007; Hansen 2015). The paper builds upon this work by arguing that infrastructures can also be understood as elemental in two further senses. First, infrastructures can be understood as elemental in a physico-chemical sense insofar as they depend upon and are differentiated on the basis of the material properties of particular elements. Second, they are also elemental insofar as they work with the materiality and movement of the meteorological atmosphere. The claim developed here is that we are witnessing the emergence of experiments with infrastructures that try to draw together each of these senses of the elemental as part of efforts to develop new kinds of collectives in flux through engineering and crafting the relation between humans and non-humans in distinctive ways. I support this claim via two case studies. First, through a discussion of the Google Loon project, which involves the use of balloons as High Altitude Platforms for enhancing internet coverage, and second, through emerging experiments with carbon free air-travel. Both experiments, while still relatively small in scale, provide glimpses of the kinds of practices through which future elemental infrastructures might be piloted. At the same time, as the paper shows, these experiments point to potentially very different possibilities for elaborating an ethico-aesthetics and politics of such infrastructures.

Panel T006
Infrastructures in practice and in flux