Proxies are a necessary method of creating efficiencies in the complex social and technical processes characteristic of modern life. A proxy stands in place for someone or something else to achieve a desired outcome, whether it be a proxy voter in a political election ensuring the interests of a citizen do not go uncounted or a crash-test dummy taking damage in simulated collisions to improve the safety features of a car. Dylan Mulvin’s ‘Proxies: The Cultural Work of Standing In’ invites the reader to consider the ways in which representation through proxies, often viewed as an arbitrary scientific or technical process of prima facie neutrality, may provide empirical examples of the influence of ideology, best demonstrated when the purpose or meaning behind a proxy becomes obsolete or problematic as priorities and attitudes change over time.
Proxies, as Mulvin demonstrates, function as integral parts of larger performances that enable knowledge production. When the situation calls for the accessibility of representations of the world, proxies step in to fulfil the role that needs casting. Mulvin wants us to question our collective delegation of the power to represent the world. People interact with proxies and incorporate them into systems of maintenance, evaluation, assessment and normalisation, as a means of being able to simulate the certainty of certain factors in an otherwise unpredictable world. Mulvin considers delegation the “political means of distributing the possibilities of living a flourishing and secure life” [i]. If proxies are integral to maintaining social life, then we require an account of how they originated, how they are maintained and whether they are fulfilling their intended function. Proxies are the forgotten media in production.
Consider Yodaville, the US military’s “simulated city” in the Arizona desert, deep inside the Barry M. Goldwater Air Force Range, primarily used for targeting exercises. It is named after the call sign of Major Floyd Usry, the military commander suggested constructing the installation. Its official name is Urban Target Complex (R-2301-West) [ii]. Yodaville was designed in response to American deaths in the Battle of Mogadishu in 1993. Also known as the “Black Hawk Down” incident, Somali forces shot down two American Black Hawk helicopters with RPGs. Fighting lasted throughout the night as American troops sought to defend the survivors of the crash. Causalities included 19 dead American soldiers and 73 wounded; 1 death and 7 wounded amongst Malaysian forces, and 1 death and 2 injuries amongst the Pakistani forces. The incident prompted a shift in American foreign policy and led to the withdrawal of the UN mission in Somalia. Dead American soldiers were dragged through the streets, shown on American television to public outrage. In retrospect, the claim was made amongst military officials that the model cities for training American troops were too “European” in their model, leading to a restructuring of Yodaville to incorporate more desert terrain and better reflect the allegedly chaotic nature of the developing world. Yodaville becomes more than a space for training exercises, and closer to a cultural imaginary, a means of achieving insight into the US military’s perspective on the world. The military’s imperial power is found in its power to represent the world as a proxy in this context, its “capacity to lay claim to a controllable version of a chaotic and unknown exterior within a managed interior” [iii]. Proxies are instruments of fiction that draw their power from the way they are repeated and reiterated in practice, the way they shape habits of use and reference and provide social anchoring points.
Consider the story of the now-infamous “Lena image”, a test image of a beautiful woman’s face that originated from an issue of Playboy, with the model’s body removed from the picture. Although we take for granted the history of media technology overlapping with sexuality, the choice of image belies underlying social fascinations with whiteness, femininity, desire and the reproduction of cultural norms associated with these aspects of Lena’s face as an ideal. Based on an arbitrary decision made by a horny technician at the University of Southern California, the Lena image would be used again and again by digital image processing teams because the image became synonymous with the practice, thus demonstrating the power that the creation of proxies wields, shaping ‘the default conditions of a knowledge infrastructure and the common connections shared by its participants’ [iv].
The “Lena image” has been circulated around for a generation, and must therefore be approached as culture, as the normalisation of a glossy centrefold as the first image one learns to process, circulated amongst (predominantly white, male, cisgender, heteronormative) engineers as part of their unspoken intentions for the technology’s use more widely. As a result of academic attention being drawn to these issues and activists pushing for more inclusive understandings of photographic reproduction, algorithmic injustices and biased data [v], the Lena image becomes a symbol of the uneasy relationship between social norms and structures and technological innovation. White women’s skin was used to calibrate photographic infrastructure, meaning the frictionless movement of whiteness through these processes of standardisation, whereas darker skin is met with bafflement, misrepresentation and lower quality standards. Famously, Kodak, in their attempt to both signal a change in their methods to accommodate darker palettes whilst simultaneously denying any racial element to previous photographic methodologies, announced a new camera in the 1980s capable of ‘photographing the details of a dark horse in low light’, a phrase which inspired the title of an art exhibition centring on racism in the history of photography [vi].
Following a feminist media studies approach, the question of how the Lena image became so standardised against digital image processing, how the object moved from lab to lab, from computer network to network, all the way to being regularly cited in the pages of academic journals, invites retrospection on the cultural norms of the academy. Proxies are given certain in-built affordances to travel, to circulate amongst knowledge communities, but as Mulvin notes, the popularity of the Lena image was hardly inevitable given the primary concerns of certain models of imaging techniques were often military in nature. Mulvin concludes that, ‘digital image processing is a continuation of a longer history that weds militarization and the control of women’s bodies, and the practices of professional vision traced by the Lena image force us to see these two forms of optical control as inseparable [vii]. The same engineer pioneering military techniques that would end up being used in Yodaville and beyond were drooling over naked women in the lab. When Playboy intervened with a lawsuit, the industry fought back, claiming that the Lena image served a unique research purpose due to its common circulation amongst image processing engineers and its cultural role as a proxy.
The Lena image is now one of the key images in the history of the Internet and the visual culture of engineers. The Lena image became a stand-in not only for digital image processing in the profession but a social proxy for the “heteropatriarchal relationships that structure the spaces and institutions of engineering and computer science” [viii]. At any time, the Lena image could’ve disappeared from history; it was never formally mandated as the image to be used across the board, but any kind of refusal would require addressing a system that maintained its circulation out of normative habit. Mulvin concludes that the history of the Lena image is a story of “gender, sexuality, race, and power: the power to choose test media, to inscribe new techniques of vision, and to dictate a new vocabulary of seeing. But it also tells a history of resistance to that structure of vision, and it demonstrates that the meaning of a standard is never fully determined” [ix].
Mulvin contends that writing the biographies of proxies can disclose the thinking behind infrastructures, proposing three complementary reasons for adopting such an approach: that the concealment of technical processes that form infrastructure is an ongoing and always partial process, that infrastructure transparency is political, rather than an ontological status of infrastructure, and that techniques can be applied to map the relational and political dynamics of infrastructure. Mulvin argues that the “internetworked dependability of standards is what makes them infrastructural”, that they “work as the conditions of operability for other systems” [x]. Standardisation provides the fixed points that contribute to the acceleration of social systems of production, in that they are the starting point for future endeavours in the same field. Mulvin’s example is “if every time someone wanted to build a house, they had to get architects, engineers, contractors, and inspectors to agree on length standards, building would take a lot longer” [xi]. The case for standardisation, therefore, is a practical and technical one; it is simply inefficient and inviable to imagine a world without these necessary shortcuts and stand-ins. Nevertheless, the study of proxies remains important in understanding the “affective, creative, and embodied dimensions” [xii], the fact that proxies, however technical, are always social, dynamic and reliant on a shared cultural imaginary that itself may bear the iniquities of social imperfection. Proxies are designed to do clarificatory work, so a critical material analysis of proxies is a means of charting the context of their creation, their implementation, and hopefully, catching instances where proxies draft from their purported objectivity (if such an objectivity is ever truly possible) and contribute to the reproduction of social injustices.
It is worth teasing out the ways in which Mulvin’s theory of proxies contributes to a broader critical political framework. Consider the claim that it is inevitable that “an affective dimension emerges from proxies, in that we interact with each other and our world through these references that are themselves the work of culture, living with these affordances as given, for to question those references would risk undermining the coherence of the knowledge production and ‘threaten the coherence of our community’” [xiii]. On the face of it, we might say, ‘hang on a minute? Are you suggesting people will get emotional about the metric system?’, mumble with incredulity for a moment, and then recall that one of the promises of the Brexit campaign in the United Kingdom to leave the European Union was the promise of a return to the complicated and cumbersome ‘imperial weights and measures’ system, one of the few promises that the government appear interested in keeping [xiv].
The issue for the Conservative Government was not a dismissal of the metric system because of its inefficiencies or perceived difficulties in being integrated into society; on the contrary, imperial measurements were switched to metric in 1965, which means that unless you are over the age of 60, you did not learn the system in school. The government, however, wishes to roll back the EU law that prohibits trading in the imperial measurements as they pushed for European standardisation (so far, so logical). In practice, the consequence of rolling back these laws is the legalisation of making your job slightly more confusing, so chances are, you won’t be taking advantage of this newly possible scenario. The affective dimension here is a radical and bizarre politicisation of the question of ‘who gets to choose a proxy?’ to signal to a conservative base of nostalgic retirees that the UK is indeed ‘taking back control’. Thus, even in the seemingly innocuous question of which side of the ruler to use becomes politically charged terrain in certain contexts.
Another one of Mulvin’s proxy examples is the ‘International Prototype of the Kilogram’, an object that was used to define the magnitude of the mass of the kilogram from 1889, when it replaced the Kilogramme des Archives, until 2019, when it was replaced by a new definition of the kilogram based on physical constants. During that time, the IPK and its duplicates were used to calibrate all other kilogram mass standards on Earth. Mulvin’s recounting of the ritualistic burial of the original IPK in France also clarifies the distinction between proxies as aspects of a purely technical enterprise and proxies as cultural stand-ins of a more esoteric and social purpose (often in modernity, the reaffirmation of our collective commitment to scientific progress, technical excellence, etc.). There is an episode of the UK sitcom The IT Crowd which mirrors and parodies the way the French government orchestrates the protection of the IPK to preserve a physical avatar to represent the metric system. In the episode, the IT engineers play a prank on their supervisor by revealing a small plastic black box and claiming that the box is the Internet. The supervisor triumphantly reveals the box during a speech to the shareholders, and to the indignation of the engineers, rather than mocking her ignorance, the shareholders mumble thoughtfully amongst each other, before marvelling at the box and asking questions like “is the Internet heavy?” The box is accidentally knocked to the floor and smashes, leading to a frenzied panic at the assumption of imminent civilisational collapse.
May we go as far as to suggest that Mulvin’s account of proxies, and their inherent relationship to the configuration of social life, to those conditions we all take for granted, can be understood as part of a larger interrogation of the ways in which ideology concretises itself in contemporary societies? That is to say, the importance of critical infrastructure studies is its focus on those aspects of social life that appear banal in their objectivity, and expose the fragile contingencies of their operation, contingencies that are themselves often reliant on certain ways of viewing the world that reproduce imbalances of power.
Mulvin’s work is a reorientation towards the material, not just in the classical Marxist sense of the material conditions of our social relations and our relationship to the conditions of production, but also an analysis of the very stuff of living, the intersection of social expectations and technical configuration, where the power often lies secreted and unregistered in systems of efficiency and organisation, unthought yet accessible, emerging as problems only when their underlying logics compromise our attempts at social transformation. Consider the world we take for granted; then, consider it again.
Jamie Ranger is a DPhil Candidate in Politics at St. Hugh’s College, University of Oxford.
[i]. Dylan Mulvin (2021) Proxies: The Cultural Work of Standing In. London: MIT Press, p.7.
[ii]. Ed Darack (2009) Welcome to Yodaville https://www.smithsonianmag.com/air-space-magazine/welcome-to-yodaville-121614889/
[iii]. Mulvin p.24.
[iv]. Mulvin, p.80.
[v]. See Ruha Benjamin (2019) Race After Technology: Abolitionist Tools for the New Jim Code. Cambridge: Polity
[vi]. Marco Bohr (2012) “Adam Broomberg & Oliver Chanarin / To Photograph the Details of a Dark Horse in Low Light” – Reviewed, Photomonitor – https://photomonitor.co.uk/exhibition/to-photograph-the-details-of-a-dark-horse-in-low-light-2/
[vii]. Mulvin, p.112.
[viii]. Ibid, pp. 126-127
[xiv]. BBC News (2021) Brexit: Imperial units only part of laws revamp, says No 10 – (17 September 2021) – https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-politics-58597693