Extrastatecraft controls everyday life in the it’s the key to power – and resistance – in the twenty-first century.
Infrastructure is not only the underground pipes and cables controlling our cities. It also determines the hidden rules that structure the spaces all around us – free trade zones, smart cities, suburbs, and shopping malls. Extrastatecraft charts the emergent new powers controlling this space and shows how they extend beyond the reach of government.
Keller Easterling explores areas of infrastructure with the greatest impact on our world – examining everything from standards for the thinness of credit cards to the urbanism of mobile telephony, the world’s largest shared platform, to the “free zone,” the most virulent new world city paradigm. In conclusion, she proposes some unexpected techniques for resisting power in the modern world.
Extrastatecraft will change the way we think about urban spaces – and how we live in them.
Keller Easterling is an architect, writer and professor at Yale University. Her most recent book, Extrastatecraft: The Power of Infrastructure Space (Verso, 2014), examines global infrastructure networks as a medium of polity. Another recent book, Subtraction (Sternberg Press, 2014), considers building removal or how to put the development machine into reverse. An ebook essay, The Action is the Form: Victor Hugo’s TED Talk (Strelka Press, 2012) previews some of the arguments in Extrastatecraft.
Other books include: Enduring Innocence: Global Architecture and its Political Masquerades (MIT, 2005) which researched familiar spatial products in difficult or hyperbolic political situations around the world and Organization Space: Landscapes, Highways and Houses in America (MIT, 1999) which applied network theory to a discussion of American infrastructure.
Easterling is also the co-author (with Richard Prelinger) of Call it Home: The House that Private Enterprise Built, a laserdisc/DVD history of US suburbia from 1934–1960. She has published web installations including: Extrastatecraft, Wildcards: a Game of Orgman and Highline: Plotting NYC. Easterling’s research and writing was included in the 2014 Venice Biennale, and she has been exhibited at Storefront for Art and Architecture in New York, the Rotterdam Biennale, and the Architectural League in New York. Easterling has lectured and published widely in the United States and abroad. The journals to which she has contributed include Domus, Artforum, Grey Room, Cabinet, Volume, Assemblage, e-flux, Log, Praxis, Harvard Design Magazine, Perspecta, and ANY.
This oddity comes from one of the more intriguing thinkers I have read so far in 2016. On the surface, Easterling’s theories about the nature of space in 21st century life is designed for architects who are building the “infrastructural matrixes” around us. Her work, however, is not purely theoretical, as many of these books tend to be; she is a practicing architect herself. Her aim is to show us how space contains scripts that import meaning from all corners of the globe. She takes us to Africa to show us how broadband is used in cultures that didn’t design it, or free-trade zones in China where artificial cities have been created, obscenely wealthy ones, as models for the future.
Architectural space, in her reading, isn’t about brick and mortar, steel and concrete, but negotiable space similar to the ones we find in online networks. Many of us will feel the poetry while walking through Tokyo or Paris, or even in buildings that house finance capital, computer design, or biotechnology. Reception windows, lobbies, glass meeting rooms; alleyways, town squares, and café outdoor seating: I couldn’t be more excited to discover that there is a global language for these spaces, and one not all that different from that used by our favorite political and literary writers.
At heart Easterling is teaching us how not to be ruled by our political instincts. Especially ones that teach us how to be anti-capital, anti-surveillance, or what have you. Don’t be so articulate and predictable, the message goes, especially about one’s firmest beliefs. Easterling is driven by a nobler motive. She simply wishes to be wherever the future is.
A close reading of Shakespeare will teach us the same models Easterling proposes. These involve combinations of poetry and cunning. For someone who had to be careful about his Catholic roots in a Protestant dominant culture, Shakespeare had a sharp instinct for the necessities and uses of freedom in a surveillance-rich world – he is read throughout the globe today without anyone really knowing who he is. Though I haven’t been sure how to translate the Shakespearean model into 21st century terms. For that reason, Easterling, and those like her, are an important read for those of us who wish to speak for ourselves.
A talk Easterling gave in 2015 where she states many of her themes.
At first I found her difficult to follow, assuming that she is speaking the architectural jargon. Then I realized, no, this is just the way a person’s mind works when thinking at a highly conceptual level.
She is paired with Geoff Manaugh, an intriguing figure himself whose beginnings were touring China and writing hundreds of poems at a go, now into less daunting tasks like conceptualizing technology. At the end he has interesting things to say about postmodernism, i.e. the failures of our generation. But what really made me sit up and take notice were his thoughts on Chinese and Japanese scientists genetically-manipulating coral so that islands might be created out of nowhere to house the kind of economic free zones we see in places like Shenzhen (pictured above). In other words, look no further, ladies & gentlemen, the world of science fiction is upon us.
A few days ago, on July 12, at least some of the science was taken out of the fiction. The United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, in the case Philippines v. China, ruled in favor of the Asian Pacific over China. It held that “irreparable harm” was done to the marine environment while excavating the seafloor to expand rocks or reefs into islands capable of supporting airfields, piers and other infrastructures. Needless to say, China is not amused. (My source for this ruling, The National Interest).
Very interesting nudge to rethink how the world works, and to play the game. Asks you to be craftier.
Edit: longer version below
I read this book because it was recommended during the book discussion on cities and urban design. And so I thought it would talk about highways and ports and traffic lights. Wrong - the discussion is beyond the tangible.
If I can divide the book into neat chapters, it would be free tax zones, broadband, and ISO standards. But its not exactly clean as the chapters relate to each other, and the author further elaborates on the concept that connects these seemingly different features of our world. Some things - things that I take for granted as none of my concern - are extrastate, ie outside of state, which makes it powerful. And the way it became powerful is to sneak into our lives, our economy.
Which then brings us to the conclusion chapters which are, I have to admit, unexpected. She gave parallels and suggestion on what I suppose, defense mechanism for activists to navigate activism. It's arguable but clever. I think it's a must read.
Popular (but with a solid set of footnotes with the real scholarship) exploration of the non-state, "soft" infrastructure of free trade zones, standardization policies, availability of broadband, language and management theory. Similar to Seeing Like a State, this is a good conversation starter and reading list.
“The matrix of repeatable spatial products like malls, resorts, golf courses, and suburbs, as well as the urban formulas for zones and broadband networks, contribute to a global spatial operating system. Altering infrastructure space is often a matter of global concern, exceeding the reach of nations and businesses and requiring the scale and leverage of extrastatecraft…”
Very interesting read. Extrastatecraft is both the creation and feeding of globalized infrastructure, and the subversion of it. The author, Keller Easterling, focuses on the zone as a basic unit of global development. Free trade zones, export processing zones, manufacturing zones, and commerce/residential zones that are dropped into existing developing countries -- China has hundreds of them -- and that largely ignore any local circumstances or cultures. Zones evolved out of ports that had basic import/export tax exemptions, which have been around for a long time (there's evidence of them existing during the bronze age). From humble beginnings, the zone has become a panacea for developing countries seeking economic development. And it has become a global, mutating virus with many, many strains at this point.
She covers other powerful elements of global infrastructure, too, including broadband networks and the power of information flow, and global standardization. ISO standards for shipping containers and their locking mechanisms provide plug-and-play capabilities at the port, and standardized global management practices like ISO 9000 sells the idea that manufacturing quality and consistency is a mere copy-and-paste job and can happen anywhere, in any culture. So we have both infrastructure hardware and software.
Easterling also lays out the keys to resistance in its many forms: "pandas", exaggerated compliance, doubling, comedy, remotes, distraction, and, of course, the hacker/entrepreneur who cares about maximizing information flow and allows everything else to iteratively play out from that—toward a more perfect state.
I think it's worth reading about infrastructure because it's often so invisible, yet it controls so much of how we live our lives. We live within it, and we should understand the tools of its development, and what we might do (as individuals and as a society) to introduce some favorable mutations into the system.
In Extrastatecraft, Easterling discusses various interesting topics that are driven by business outside proper state control, such as special economic zones set up for (among others) discounts on worker rights, standards created for the sake of profit rather than sake of standardisation, broadband optimised for the broadband provider rather than the broadband user, etc. However, there was one thing missing for me, a clear and concise point.
Despite having plenty of references, the book read more like a rant of a rightfully angry person rather than a work of an academic. The book contains plenty of words, but they are not always easy to decipher. For example it was not clear to me if "perspectives of neo-realist, state-competition, world-system, and neoliberal institutionalist theories of globalisation" was simply a synonym for "questionable perspective", or if there was something more to it.
Maybe I am too simple minded, but this book did not do it for me.
Easterling uses three examples-- the special economic zone, broadband development, and global technical standards—to show how these seemingly apolitical, technical concepts intersect and maintain a disposition that impacts global economies and governance. Looking deeper, she identifies a number of points of inflection that allow the perceptive designer, activist, or entrepreneur the opportunity to influence the hardware, and thus the entirety of the system. Lots to consider here. I bury it under scholarly-ish writing, but the implications are big. I’m already thinking.
This book was informative and helped me understand the frameworks, complexity and contradictions behind everyday and global-scale phenomena. I would highly recommend this book, especially the chapters on Disposition and Quality. I thought the chapter on Broadband did not add much value to the book. If you do want to read the whole book, you can safely skip the entire chapter without missing much. I would have given this book 5 stars if it weren't for that chapter and also if the first chapter were a little easier to read. Disposition was the best chapter. :)
Not a light read, but this was an excellent book. Easterling takes lots of basic infrastructure that it's all too easy to take for granted, and skilfully deconstructs them to the tiniest detail - clearly, a lot of research went into this book.
In terms of readability, there were definitely parts that I found more interesting than others - chapter 3, for example, on broadband - and chapter 6, which mentions a variety of forms of activism against extrastatecraft, and includes this wonderful description about the power of gifts as a form of activism:
"Excessively soft and cute, the panda is a steamroller of sweetness and kindness- an armtwisting handshake that disarms and controls with apparent benevolence"
Generally, I was impressed with the diversity of examples given - geographical, thematic and strategic. I would recommend this especially for tech activists and those interested in the role of technology in society.
Easterling outlines the incredible power of cities and organizations that exist outside of any national or sovereign jurisdiction. The book reads as equal parts warning for designers and a survey of international policies that have led to the creation of zones that attract investment by offering freedom from laws and taxes. The book is thoroughly research and avoids spending too much time arguing established writers on this broad topic of economics and international development. The sections on broadband and international standards were surprisingly illuminating.
Extrastatecraft, according to Easterling, describes the unseen, undisclosed activities that are carried out behind the official public face of the state. These activities operate through the medium of infrastructure space: a web of active forms, spatial products and networks that is shaped not only through physical objects like submarine cables, cell towers, and high rises, but also through stories that subtly affect its disposition, as demonstrated in free trade zones and international standards organisations. In this field, “knowing how” to design and manipulate these active forms in relation to changing situations or designing the apparatus is more important than the “knowing that” of describing the entirety of the system or designing a fixed plan or form, a distinction borrowed from Gilbert Ryle.
The book is structured into six sections: Zone (free trade zones), Disposition (types of active forms and how they shape disposition: the multiplier, switch/remote, wiring/topology and interplay/governor), Broadband (its growth in Africa), Stories (state narratives of war and liberalism), Quality (ISO and related standards) and Extrastatecraft. The final section suggests practical ways of putting this knowledge into action by detailing activist techniques that employ methods of inflecting disposition, as opposed to traditional activism that names a single opponent or binary stance and is vulnerable to misinformation campaigns. The techniques listed are: gossip/rumor/hoax to destabilize power; “pandas” or gifts that disarm and obscure true intentions; exaggerated compliance, for example Danish architecture firms producing designs for affordable housing to press the mayor to fulfill her campaign promise of building 5000 of such apartments for the city; doubling, e.g. creating imposters or hijacking identities; comedy/satire, remotes (indirect effects such as drawing pressure from the international community, or consumers); distraction/meaninglessness/irrationality (though published in 2014, this is a good description of Trump’s strategy); hackers/entrepreneurs; exposing inadmissible evidence/dissensus e.g. the migrant worker who is often explained away; english (in the sense of imparting spin on the ball in billiards, or the unintended consequences and ripple effects and swerves); and lastly “knowing how”. In this auxiliary activism, or “ethical Möbius”, the declarative approach “aligns with the maintenance of consensus around stated principles”, while the enacted approach “describes the maintenance of dissensus around a necessarily indeterminate struggle with undeclared but consequential activity.”
Although the book covers a lot of ground and draws connections across a large variety of topics, Easterling’s writing is dense with facts, citations and academic jargon, which can have the effect of obscuring her main argument during the initial read. For example, the chapter on the expansion of broadband into Africa, though interesting, seemed unnecessarily long. Also, some of the many concepts introduced appear to overlap or seem like the same concept described in slightly different manners, making their exact definitions unclear.
Easterling’s descriptions of how active forms can be manipulated have proved to be rather prescient. In describing how topologies (networks of multipliers and switches) illustrate how authorities circulate or concentrate information and power, for example in the monopolising of electrical utilities in the US and how Google and Facebook could do the same for the “open web”, she accurately describes today’s tech oligopoly. Russia’s Internet Research Agency is also an example of an organisation that has perfected the techniques that Keller describes, through its fake social media accounts that have influenced public opinion to promote Russian interests and the 2016 US presidential election. Unfortunately, it seems that the most adept users of extrastatecraft have only used it to entrench or strengthen existing power hierarchies and indirectly increase inequalities, perhaps because its employment involves immense resources and also morally ambiguous means. Whether social activists fighting to dismantle such structures can (or should) successfully adapt the same techniques, especially as the field of action shifts toward the use of deepfakes and other digital tools of misinformation, remains to be seen.
This is an amazing, dense introduction into Easterling’s world of extrastatecraft—her discussion at length of zone policies and their consequences by itself was already mesmerising, and that was just the first chapter. The key idea of the book may be summarized in the following quotation: “In all these examples, there is no desire for a singular, comprehensive, or utopian solution. Power lies rather in the prospect of shaping a series of activities and relationships over time.” This concept of breaking out of object forms and master plans into the interstices which direct differential flows of power and agency is a convincing portrait for reengaging the world in which we live. The last chapter of the book employs her dialectic in service of new forms of activism that resist binary confrontations in favour of Sun Tzu-esque misdirections, decoupled stories, and organisational dispositions to generate the infrastructural equivalent of “spooky action at a distance.” I find her generally convincing, especially with regards to the dispositif of institutions and the multiplier effects of standardization (which she goes into in great detail, comprising most of the book). However, it was somewhat lacking in specific details on how extrastatecraft as an interplay of variables can be implemented. Part of it can be attributed to the nebulousness of the concept that lends it its distinctive advantage, but I think a larger section on how extrastatecraft has played out in the world (beyond the short anecdotes she provides) would be reasonable without requiring a detailed blueprint, which would have been deleterious to her argument anyway. Multiple high-profile grammatical, formatting, and spelling errors were mildly annoying as well, but perhaps these are merely the author’s own little game of misdirection. Overall, this is an excellent entry into meta-architecture and design, a required read for those seeking tools to understand the soft, unspoken frames constricting reality and how to break them.
This incredible book condenses history, analysis and prescription in little more than 200 pages of lucid prose. Although I would like to see the last part developed into a full volume.
Being too immersed in the chaos of online media, I am fascinated but still skeptical of the author's prescription for sly activism and propagation of "dissensus". Contrary to the author's, my perception is that the familiar forthright/utopian forms of activism are in need of the most urgent update. They are lacking a strong vision and articulation. And I have found in the last few years that misguided attempts at subversion (or what passes for it) often backfire severely. But as I said, I may just be too immersed in the wrong online environment and there is a whole world beyond it. I certainly found her perspective refreshing and her examples persuasive. I might take on some titles in the bibliography and footnotes.
Great food for thought here, and a catalyst for future reading.
Easterling clearly has a lot to say. Extrastatecraft does a good job at identifying forms of global polity that go largely unquestioned (or at least, undiscussed), and often assumed as innocuous: ISO standards, export/free-trade zones, broadband connection, the production and design of infrastructure space in general. At times I thought the book didn't do a particularly good job of explaining the importance of the observations being made - it was like there were so many great arguments that could have been evinced but never quite got there. When Easterling does make recommendations or suggests paths forward, she is until the last chapter, incredibly timid about it. Extrastatecraft does not really take a bold position, but it's an interesting read, albeit slightly filled with postmodern jargon.
It’s hard for me to capture accurately how much I enjoyed this book. An incisive, thoughtful take on the place of infrastructure in contemporary and historical political developments. The focus on the banality of infrastructure as effectively a technology of control in and of itself resonated strongly with me, particularly as this was explored in the chapter on the ISO. Throughout the book, Easterling’s vignettes and riffs on the potential for hacking infrastructure were conceptually exciting and left me thinking that this will be a critical site of praxis for progressive politics in the 21st century.
A good look at a topic I previously knew very little about, so I'm thankful for the primer. The writing was overly academic at times (here's looking at you, Boston.gov, for having me expect things to sound like they're coming from a helpful human), but incredibly well foot-noted. I loved the chapter on the ISO and the accompanying nonsense of self-determined standards and badges and levels of quality. The typology of utopian designer, activist, hacker/entrepreneur was also a useful frame, discussed throughout but summarized in the last chapter.
Compelling ideas about urban spaces aimed at trying to understand how they shape and are shaped by factors seldom discussed in relation to architecture - broadband, quality control, stories, and extrastatecraft. The book can also be read as a guide to subversive activism in the realm of infrastructure space.
A relevant analogy that the author makes which puts the book's contents in a better perspective is in relation to McLuhan's dictum, "the medium is the message", where infrastructure space is the medium, and particular buildings the content which are otherwise discussed as the message.
An intriguing approach to see the fluidity of capital arrangement through the emergence of free zones and standardisation. Nicely structured, Easterling provides a deep analysis of infrastructure space. In this book, cities are understood as an operating system and space is information technology. Furthermore, Easterling's exploration of the relation between urbanity and war is an interesting text considering the networked society we are living, where nation-states are governed by the internet connection. Extrastatecraft is a really compelling piece of writing and research.
There is a lot of historical detail in Easterling's accounts of various infrastructure interventions: but its often rather repetitive and irrelevant to her larger argument. Is it intended as a "proof"? I am not sure. There were a few interesting points made, but overall, I found it a real slog to get through. And then when she turns to the political activity that is supposed to be capable of responded to this extrastate power of infrastsructure she reiterates a few weak examples that in the end seem to have had little long-term impact on politics (Yes Men?).
Interesting, frustrating at times but a good starting point for more reading on the topics of soft infrastructure/more covert features of the built (and unbuilt) environment. The book is at its best when weaving a historiographic narrative of the deployment and proliferation of extrastate systems, but at times is a bit vague when fully delving into these concepts. Not a light read, but a very enlightening one considering the oft overlooked nature of these issues.
Marking this as abandoned because it is unlikely I will pick it up again anytime soon. Not because it's terrible but because my reading time is precious. I started this early in my Ph.D., thinking it would be relevant, and then my plans changed (as they do), and it no longer was. I still wanted to finish it because the topic and argument were interesting. But at this point, it's clear I won't. Life's too short.
First chapter reveals a critical stance on special economic zones that has proliferated in developing countries as a form of neo-colonialism movement. A provocative book for understanding technological infrastructure advancements in the 21st century.