Jun 04 2009

on dynamic stability

by at 3:28 pm under Uncategorized

We speak of “flows”. By these, we mean the movements — of ideas, of information, of resources, of people — that describe paths through, around, and in the networks we speak of as landscapes. In this way, we talk about dynamics. We begin to think of change, in the structure of relationships, as constant. And, as we turn our attention to these flows, we find that they move in the same way metaphorically as physically. That is to say, the changes we describe tend to follow the paths of least resistance.

"Path of Least Resistance", by Shelbi Lynne

"Path of Least Resistance", by Shelbi Lynne

But, in terms of strategies for development that draw upon technology, the path of least resistance is not determined by some abstract, universal system before it is taken. To illustrate the agency of objects within a complex system, we must consider as many of the layers of that system as we can. In general, a technological strategy for development will involve a high degree of information exchange; we can further generalize that this exchange takes place in the developed world at the level of the visual. For example, consider the proliferation of graphs that describe statistical relationships; consider also the images of wealth and of suffering with which we are all so familiar. However, since visual culture does not exist in a vacuum, we must ask what structures support its dissemination.

“Cultural” modes of communication, like development strategies, rely on a vast and complex network of media. These include broadcast, one-to-one, and (inter-)networked forms of media. For example, a particular strategy, proposed by development policy-makers, may originate in a face-to-face meeting. That set of ideas, the strategy, is then distributed among the social networks of those who attended the meeting, as well as through the institutions of publications, television and internet broadcasts, and all the other channels available to the participants of the strategy session. What supports these channels, then?

The media through which messages flow are supported by both physical and organizational infrastructures of production and distribution. These include, at the physical level, the network of connections that links end users all over a region, and even all over the globe. In this network, we find the wires, satellites, roads, rails, and transportation equipment that moves not only correspondence, but resources and capital as well. We also find, in this physical part of the infrastructure, buildings (and, more generally, territories), like offices, stations, factories, farms, and homes. The complexity of this layer of the network increases exponentially when we consider the organizational infrastructure supporting the media and messages of our strategies, including institutions like schools, industries, markets, and governments.

Following this analytical path through the system, we must now ask, what supports the infrastructure layer? Here we reach a foundational level: that of power. Again, we must think of power in both its physical and organizational forms. The first meaning is, perhaps, more apparent. Flows of power refer to the production and distribution of energy, its conversion from natural resources like water, coal, wind, the sun, heat from the earth’s core, and nuclear material into electricity, running water, and heat for the users of the infrastructure. We know that these kinds of flows are important to continue and progress in the establishment of secure water, food, shelter, and sanitation resources for those users. We can also see the flows of power, however, in an organizational context. This refers to social resources, and to the maintenance of behavioral norms and standards among people.

If our strategies for development are to take technological factors into account, and if we are to focus on the needs and welfare of the worst-off billion inhabitants of this planet, we must recognize that development for a region between each of these layers rests on the establishement of stable flows within the foundational layer first. In other words, there can be no “cultural development”, say, the implementation of Internet access for residents of a poor area, without the prior development of stable internet channels (i.e. the physical resources of computers with reliable links to the web) through which that access can flow. These channels, in turn, necessitate the social and technical infrastructure to maintain their potential as modes of communication; further, a sustainable infrastructure relies on steady power sources. Those who need the most help also need the most basic help: food, shelter, sanitation, and water. If we, in our privileged position as aid-givers and strategists, focus on providing these resources, then those who receive them can focus on building the stable social organizations and networks of power that reduce resistance to the path of greatest gain. This is what is meant by “the bigger picture.”

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