Infrastructure as Document: Gray Literature
Despite infrastructure’s omnipresence, it can be difficult to pin down because of its complexity and omnipresence. But traces of it often manifest “as lists of numbers and technical specifications, or as hidden mechanisms subtending those processes more familiar to social scientists.”13 The material form that those lists of numbers and technical specifications often take is called “gray literature.” Gray literature, like infrastructure itself, is a congeries. This mass of bland and generally unobtrusive writing occupies the fuzzy middle zone on the spectrum between literary writing and scientific writing. Gray literature itself breaks down into what John Guillory has famously called “information genres,” which we pretend have been flensed of all rhetorical value in order to better convey that peculiar modern invention called “information.”14 Examples may include but are not limited to: instruction manuals; documentation; reports; specifications; dissertations; conference proceedings; white papers; bibliographies; and so on.15
Gray literature is particularly constituent of labs in the context of universities and other institutions that house them. It is the stuff of mission statements, grant applications, annual reports, and web pages, all of which (must) make claims to cultural, governmental, and grant-providing institutions for how labs produce and circulate knowledge and how they expect the gifts of legitimization and funding in return. This constitutive relationship between labs and gray literature is most visible in the specific case of hybrid labs housed inside universities (which actually run on gray literature, despite the loathing of faculty to produce or read it), but it is never entirely absent, even in the most iconoclastic of hybrid labs.
Journal articles, book chapters, newspapers, and other kinds of popular journalism describe what labs have accomplished, but gray literature makes labs into labs in the first place. Gray literature organizes the jumble of objects, practices, techniques, discourses, and subjects into institutionally recognizable forms. None of this organization requires that the people filling out the grant applications, Requests for Proposals, expense reports, and other documents believe what they are writing; passion, conviction, and good intent have nothing to do with it (which is partly why this stuff is called “gray” in the first place). All that matters is that the forms and reports have been completed, accepted, filed, and processed, and that they continue to appear according to the institutional timetable in question. The job of gray literature is to fade into the background. It is a conduit that powers the claims of the laboratory and its denizens with the silent assent of the accrediting institution.
So how do we begin to discuss lab infrastructure when its precise job is to blend in, passing itself off as something too mundane to worry about? We are now quite familiar with methods for thinking about other aspects of the extended lab assemblage—subjects, discourses, material objects, and cultural techniques. What remains is for us to consider the role that infrastructure and policy plays in the production of labs as labs, and in their articulation to larger cultures. Making visible this see-saw relationship between production and articulation is what Bowker and Star refer to as “infrastructural inversion”—learning to look at technological assemblages in such a manner that it becomes difficult for them to disappear from view.16 Gray literature is an ubiquitous component of infrastructure, and, therefore, like other manifestations of ubiquity and interdependency, is a good starting point.17 It provides a set of articulations that makes the productive work of the lab possible, yet infamously, it is seldom read after its creation.18 Our job is to adequately describe both the work of production and the work of articulation in this scene. In this instance, Bowker and Star are more helpful than, say, McLuhan’s notion of the figure/ground inversion, because they provide both an account of the properties of infrastructure and a set of methods for beginning to discern it. Given that it’s possible to find the gray literature around both contemporary and historical media labs in the backs of long-forgotten filing cabinets, used bookstores, and, increasingly, in the hastily digitized and unsorted stacks of digital repositories such as archive.org (all of this is part of what Bowker and Star refer to as the “materiality and texture” of infrastructure and its classification systems), gray literature provides a significant opportunity for beginning to think about the larger assemblage of lab infrastructure.
An analysis of gray literature should also involve a hunt for the work it makes invisible and for the workers whose labor is discounted or not formally recognized. For Bowker and Star, recovering the indeterminate multiple “voices and silences” that classification systems have elided in their drive to standardize is an important task.19 Who types up the reports and makes the phone calls bothering the Principal Investigator until they finally fill in the forms, and where and how are those reports filed? Who requests price quotes for the purchase lists of tech, who organizes timetables and schedules for work, and what productivity software do they use? Who cleans the lab? Who patches the software and runs the cables, and where do the cables come from? Who watches the kids during crunch time? The production of gray literature, it seems, involves considerable amounts of affective labour, which, at least, we now have a critical language to describe. But there is also a “practical politics” of design at play; someone made the decisions to create standards that include some people and some things and exclude others. Behind the creation of those standards is power, as always, but how does it exert itself on anyone in any particular instance? Who wields it and how long do the decisions they make last?20
The process of working through the gray literature that is part of the assemblage around any technology, labs included, is vital because it provides clues about how political decisions become embedded in infrastructure and then disappear from view, where they can do their work of classification, inclusion, and without relatively little oversight. As Bowker and Star point out, the tendency of infrastructure to fade into the background likewise allows tyrannies of various sorts (large and small, intentional and unintentional) to take hold.21 If we’re going to take labs of any sort as an object of study, never mind contest or reform such processes of erasure, we need a better sense of the factors that guide our relationship to institutional infrastructure. One of those factors is policy.