Anthropology of Networks

Undergraduate Studio, with Greta Byrum

While we imagine an Internet that blankets the earth, providing even its most remote and marginalized inhabitants with seamless connectivity, the reality is that a sizable portion of the world’s population lacks reliable access. Here in New York, as across most of the US — especially in rural and poorer urban areas — roughly 30% of households still lack access to broadband. New York City’s just-released Internet Master Plan calls for updated next-generation digital infrastructure, with a promise to afford universal, equitable access to this 21st-century utility: the network.

Building on existing anthropological, media studies, and urban studies research about infrastructures, networks, and digital technologies, this seminar-workshop will engage with NYC’s forthcoming plan to help us better understand the interplay between technical and social network infrastructures. The laying of wires and installation of antennae involve the embodiment of politics and values, just like the buildout of telephone wires, cable systems, and even highway and postal networks. We’ll examine the evolution of networks, and use NYC’s digital master plan as a practical case to understand the equity implications of network design, suggesting ways to build on the existing work of practitioners, activists, scholars, planners, and designers to create healthier sociotechnical ecosystems. We’ll also speak with researchers and activists who’ve practiced media and network ethnography; meet with city officials and local community leaders; embark on field trips around the city; design our own speculative networks; and work with NYC’s digital equity community to formulate a response to the Plan, including proposed community benefits and impact indicators. [images referenced on class website]

Spring 2020 Website