One way of thinking about the role of geography in the environmental history of computing is to think about information technology as a form of infrastructure. The key idea here is that infrastructures are critical enabling technologies; their primary purpose is to make other technological and commercial activities possible. As a result, as Susan Leigh Star and Karen Ruhleder have reminded us, infrastructures are intended not to be seen. Technologies become infrastructure only after they are perfected to the point of being routine. We notice them only when they fail.
The global Internet is in that respect the perfect infrastructure: it is omnipresent and invisible; everywhere and nowhere. Using it we can connect to anyone, anywhere, from anywhere, but it does not otherwise intrude on our material reality.
One of the aspects of the Dirty Bits project that has received the most attention is the section that challenges this notion of an “immaterial” infrastructure.
When we look closely at the flows of material that make the virtual possible, we discover that many of most significant social and economic nodes of the Information Society sit at the intersection of traditional, material infrastructures like railroads, power grids, and river systems. The Information Infrastructure of the 21st Century is built around the bones of the 19th century transportation and communication network. These were in turn constructed along river beds and mountain passes. Geography shapes technology, and vice versa.
There is a large and growing literature on infrastructure. Here is what I have been grappling with lately:
Starosielski, N. (2015). The Undersea Network. Duke University Press.
Hecht, J. (2004). City of Light: The Story of Fiber Optics. Oxford University Press.
Jackson, S. J., Edwards, P. N., Bowker, G. C., & Knobel, C. P. (2007). Understanding Infrastructure: History, Heuristics and Cyberinfrastructure Policy. First Monday, 12(6).
Edwards, P. N. (2010). A Vast Machine: Computer Models, Climate Data, and the Politics of Global Warming.
White, R. (2011). Railroaded: The Transcontinentals and the Making of Modern America. W. W. Norton & Company.
Jones, C. F. (2014). Routes of Power. Harvard University Press.
Preda, A. (2009). Framing Finance: The Boundaries of Markets and Modern Capitalism. University of Chicago Press.
As you can see from the inclusion of books like the Preda, I am adopting a very broad understanding of what constitutes infrastructure.