Paper ‘Opening telecommunications to critical insights and public engagement’ on panel: ‘The Politics of Open Infrastructures: expanding knowledge through activist, participatory, and research-based initiatives’ at STS Austria

Opening telecommunications to critical insights and public engagement
Maxigas, Critical Infrastructure Lab, University of Amsterdam
Abstract of paper for the panel “The Politics of Open Infrastructures”

I focus on opening up programmable infrastructures to critical insights, transposing
digital methods from platforms to infrastructures, the case in point being the next gen-
eration 5G mobile phone networks. In comparison with the information infrastructures
of the Internet, telecommunications infrastructures are notoriously inaccessible. Internet
infrastructures benefit from open standards, elegant protocols, revolutionary imaginar-
ies, public debates and ample civil society engagement. In contrast, telecommunications
infrastructures are rendered inaccessible by standards processes conducted by industrial
consortia, over-engineered protocol stacks, bland visions, regulatory capture, and the
absence of digital rights activists. The convergence of Internet with telecommunica-
tions networks renders this situation increasingly problematic, because as computers
and networks merge in programmable infrastructures, the future of communication and
control will be determined by telecom companies without public debate or civil society
In order to address such a research problem and provide an adequate response to the his-
torical moment, I propose, promote and develop the “People’s 5G Laboratory”, a rebuilt
mobile phone network for parallel operation and public experiments. The purpose of
the research infrastructure is to open telecommunications to critical insights and public
engagement through the innovative methodology of “dissection”. Dissection refers to
an analytical but experimental approach to gaining a materialist understanding of the
medium in which cultures grow. While dissection has been practiced during the Dutch
Golden Age as a means to advance science, in particular anatomy, and thus medicine, it
has also been instrumental in transforming the societal norms and values, promoting en-
lightenment ideologies through public experiments and debatable spectacles. By taking
a similar approach to telecommunications standards, implementations and deployments,
the Critical Infrastructure Lab aims to inject a critique of cybernetics into contemporary
debates on emerging technologies of media and culture.

Conference Programme


Eaten by the Internet: power and the future of the digital society – Oct 31st 17:30 @ Spui25

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Our world is eaten by the Internet. This means that those who control the Internet control the bounds of public speech, economic production, social cohesion, and politics, making its infrastructure a core political terrain in the networked age. This evening we honor a new book about the power of Big Tech and the future of the digital society, Eaten by the Internet. The discussion with the book’s authors and editor will make Internet infrastructure visible as a key force of political power and urge us to ask how can we ensure the Internet will sustain us, rather than consume us?

To understand power in the contemporary Internet industry, we must look closely at its often invisible infrastructure. This is made of material components such as cell antennas, clouds, chips, data servers, and satellites, but also less tangible, equally crucial standards and software components, including the operating systems, browsers, and computing power that enables connectivity. All these components rarely attract our attention unless something breaks down. And even then, many Internet users won’t ask why.

Eaten by Internet makes Internet infrastructure visible as a force of political power, demonstrating how it is transforming the social world. Four of the original contributors of the book will be present to discuss their chapters, taking on thorny topics, such as power consolidation in the advertisement and cloud industry, online censorship in Asia, the role of Internet infrastructure in governmental and corporate surveillance in the city of Amsterdam, and tech’s environmental impact – amongst others. In doing so, this event will root contemporary technology debates in the politics of digital infrastructure and help us design an Internet that answers to public values.

About the speakers

Corinne Cath is a post-doctoral researcher at the University of Delft funded by the Algosoc consortium, a fellow at the UvA’s critical infrastructure lab, and a research associate at the Minderoo Centre for Technology and Democracy at Cambridge.

Gurshabad Grover is a technologist and legal researcher based in Delhi, India. Gurshabad’s research focuses on network security, censorship, and surveillance.

Fieke Jansen is the co-founder of the critical infrastructure lab and a post-doctoral Researcher at the University of Amsterdam. She also coordinates the Green Screen climate justice and digital rights coalition.

Michael Veale is an Associate Professor in digital rights and regulation at University College London’s Faculty of Laws. His research focuses on understanding and addressing challenges of power and justice that digital technologies and their users create and exacerbate, in areas such as privacy-enhancing technologies and machine learning.

Niels ten Oever is an Assistant Professor of AI and European Democracies at the European Studies Department and co-founder of the critical infrastructure lab at the University of Amsterdam.


a visual identity for the critical infrastructure lab

The visual identity of the critical infrastructure lab is the result of a collective thought and creation process between the lab’s co-leads Fieke Janssen, maxigas, Niels ten Oever, and the communication designer Ulrike Uhlig.

For a week, Ulrike not only observed the work of the lab, she also conducted several workshops during which several questions and subjects were researched, the two most important ones:

  • who are we?
  • how do we want people to see/feel/understand the critical infrastructure lab?

the result of these workshops produced several phrases which served as visual clues for the design. “we are a transformative and decentering force” was our most important guiding principle.

we knew we wanted to use a font family which works in print and on screen and which came with an open license. Ulrike conducted tests with several candidates, before we collectively decided to go with the Source font family (Sans, Serif, and Code Pro)

but which color would be infrastructural? some things in the design process are the fruit of hasardous reading. we talked about ingrid burrington’s “networks of new york”, and there we found the colour that we deemed infrastructural: the neon orange used to mark network equipment in the street. this colour then reminded niels and maxigas of the color coding of UTP cables which use the ‘‘25-pair color code’’ industry standard. the lab operating through three different lenses—geopolitics, environment, and standards—it seemed interesting to reuse this color code to subtly mark produced publications, a clin d’œil as well to the color coded tubes of the Parisian Centre Pompidou which can be either esthetically appreciated without explanation.

while discussing how infrastructures are temporary, how antennas work, ulrike stumbled on the evolved antenna produced for NASA using genetic algorithms. even though we strongly question cybernetic principles of optimisation, we thought it interesting to involve a process reminding us of nature into the design. even though we did not rewrite the algorithm, principally because we lacked a fitness function—a function which would test how well the antenna works—the logo of the critical infrastructure lab is based on this evolved antenna. in the digital realm, on the website, we generate a new one every time the page is loaded to remind you—and us—that infrastructures are temporary.

a comma like trait in the logotype is inviting to ask if we are talking about the critical infrastructure—pause—lab or the critical—pause—infrastructure lab? the logotype, the text in the logo, is based on the very geometrical inter font.

there are some more subtle questions being asked through the design:

  • on the website for example, a white trait is drawn, until we click somewhere, symbolising that when creating infrastructures, we are leaving traces—after all, it’s these traces that we interrogate in our work.
  • in some of the print publications you might notice that page numbers subtly move, the further one advances in the publication. again, we are decentering, transforming, and marking progress.

We published our publication pipeline as well as our website theme under the GNU GPL v3 license.


Workshop on international standard-setting for the Dutch Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Interior Affairs, and Economic Affairs and Climate