I recently saw the mock-ups of my college's new website: it's terrible. It emotes a fascist and fetishistic adherence to a white/black/red color scheme, includes lots of shouty titles in ALL CAPS and deploys a cramped font that even at normal reading distance and size is hard to read. My friend pointed out these issues, and I agree with him, and am taking his critique one step further. As digital infrastructure, it's a new strip mall, reflective of 2021 digital architectural values that somehow ignores humane design cues. The smiling student pictures (always in boxes) can't penetrate the modernism. Horkheimer and Adorno would giggle and then weep. The new site isn't all bad: finding material should be easier, but it's not going to be pleasant or welcoming.
Reviewing the new site made me think about how we have different and lower expectations for digital infrastructure than for physical infrastructure. Our content management tools are a great example. We try to "manage" learning with CMS that are like the worst Old Country Buffet ever: endless choices laid out in confusing groups, like hot mac and cheese next to jello which is perched on bbq ribs, all of which sit behind curtains that only open when you tickle them with feathers. What, you didn't click on the tiny down-arrow carrot coquetishly hiding behind the ALL CAPS section title?, shame, no syllabus for you!
And this is just the digital infrastructure of the college. The wider digital world has so many more failures, including privacy invasion, the ballooning mis and disinformation worlds of social media, racist and opaque search algorithims, and the failure to treat internet access as a utility, rather than a service. So many households (urban, suburban, and rural) lack access to reliable high-speed internet, it's hard to complain about poorly made internet when so many lack access to it. Even when one was has access to the internet, searching for accurate information is incredibly challenging and that's not just because there's more information available. We largely see what people who pay for search engine optimization want us to see.
The internet can be a place of discovery, support, and learning, but most of our digital infrastructure actively discourages that. As I contemplate redoing my world history 1 course for the spring semester, I'm wondering, when do I just give up on some infrastructure? If I rode my bike on a road that consistantly resulted in flat tires, when would I just try another road?
Some of my favorite authors are black women fantasy authors, such as Octovia Butler and N.K. Jemison. Their protangonists always understand the connections between social systems of oppression and the built world. To succeed, the protagonists always leave the road to find a new path.