The Cultural Work of Standing In
How those with the power to design technology, in the very moment of design, are allowed to imagine who is included—and who is excluded—in the future.
Our world is built on an array of standards we are compelled to share. In Proxies, Dylan Mulvin examines how we arrive at those standards, asking, “To whom and to what do we delegate the power to stand in for the world?” Mulvin shows how those with the power to design technology, in the very moment of design, are allowed to imagine who is included—and who is excluded—in the future.
For designers of technology, some bits of the world end up standing in for other bits, standards with which they build and calibrate. These “proxies” carry specific values, even as they disappear from view. Mulvin explores the ways technologies, standards, and infrastructures inescapably reflect the cultural milieus of their bureaucratic homes. Drawing on archival research, he investigates some of the basic building-blocks of our shared infrastructures. He tells the history of technology through the labor and communal practices of, among others, the people who clean kilograms to make the metric system run, the women who pose as test images, and the actors who embody disease and disability for medical students. Each case maps the ways standards and infrastructure rely on prototypical ideas of whiteness, able-bodiedness, and purity to control and contain the messiness of reality. Standards and infrastructures, Mulvin argues, shape and distort the possibilities of representation, the meaning of difference, and the levers of change and social justice.
The open access edition of this book was made possible by generous funding from Arcadia – a charitable fund of Lisbet Rausing and Peter Baldwin.
"Underneath the world we know, there is a hidden landscape of carefully constructed stand-ins, models, prototypes. This ferociously original book maps that region and opens up new ways to explain how our technological infrastructures become what they are.”
Fred Turner, Harry and Norman Chandler Professor of Communication, Stanford University; author of The Democratic Surround
“Moving from fake towns built by the US military in Arizona as proxies for 'enemy territory' to Playboy centerfolds at the heart of image processing, Dylan reveals the dance between abstraction and embodied labor that underlies politics of 'standing in.' Insightful and engaging, this book is key to understanding how proxies affect our capacity to imagine the world.”
Wendy Hui Kyong Chun, Professor of Communication, Simon Fraser University; author of Updating to Remain the Same
“Proxies should be mandatory reading for anyone who has ever relied on a proxy—and that means all of us.”
Nanna Bonde Thylstrup, Associate Professor at Copenhagen Business School; author of The Politics of Mass Digitization
“A deeply original piece of analysis and backed by a rich bank of examples, Proxies succeeds in equipping—and provoking—historians of science and technology to ask, to whom or to what do we delegate the power to stand in for the world?”
The British Journal of the History of Science
Funding provided by: Arcadia Fund