talk - presentation - panel 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 November 2023

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