The electrical charge against infrastructure

Anusas, Mike and Ingold, Tim (2013) The electrical charge against infrastructure. In: 112th Annual Meeting American Anthropology Association (AAA), 2013-11-20 - 2013-11-24, Hilton Chicago.

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Abstract

One of the fundamental physical properties of electricity is the flow of charge through a conductive material; thus enabling energy to be transmitted from one location to another. Over the last century, industrial development has exploited this property to the extent that energy production is now accepted as both conceptually distinct and geographically separate from energy consumption. With this separation, the everyday use of electrically-powered objects and spaces can occur without any direct awareness of the characteristics of the power-generating resources or their associated environmental effects. Furthermore, as a sensorially subtle form of energy transmission, electricity affords the opportunity for its material apparatus to be concealed within the fabrication of everyday objects and spaces. Electrical wiring and circuitry can be hidden within the opaque sealed enclosures of modern objects, positioned behind the smooth plastered walls and dropped ceilings of conventional buildings, or positioned outwith the sphere of quotidian observation in less frequented urban areas or uninhabited rural landscapes. Thus the electrically-powered modern world has resulted in energy production and transmission being formed as an infrastructure, below the realm of everyday perception and conceptually distinct from, and culturally subordinate to, superposed surfaces. As the wiry electrical apparatus is enclosed within simple and smooth surfaces, the material world comes to be presented as a series of block-like objects which can be attached to, and stacked upon, the foundation of the infrastructure, but which rarely reveal the internal nature of their energetic entanglements that cut through surfaces and interweave object, space and environment. Such a conventional formation of the world limits everyday understandings of how materials, energy and environmental effects are inextricably tied together in the sustainment of human life. What then might it mean to pose an anthropological charge against electricity as infrastructure, and to reimagine material formations so that electricity becomes more perceptible in everyday life? We can consider this through a process of design anthropology which creatively explores future possibilities of perception and form through a combination of anthropological analysis and critical design.