Performing absence and infrastructure

As Americans collectively sighed over the fact that the National Zoo’s Panda Cam went dark during the shutdown, I also saw a friend’s complaint that her need to peek into the digital archives of the Library of Congress was thwarted. A quick look revealed NASA had a similar error message.

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Even the official White House, though functional, put up a large splash page that darkened the site’s content and clearly articulated that the shutdown could affect the site. More than just a notice,’s response to the shutdown was (is, as I’m writing) to literally take the actual homepage dark (literally, but briefly; anyone can click through to the actual site).

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Sure, websites need to address the fact that they are not changing/updating content, just like museums and national parks need signs that say they are closed for the time being But other government websites like the Smithsonian managed to place a notice on a page without closing its virtual doors. So why the big show?

My first reaction was that it was about optics, of course–and these are well-executed optics. I was even all prepared to investigate the details of the optics and write about them here. But even after Jonathan Feldman published a list of apolitical reasons they might shutter the virtual windows I was still thinking about it. After spending what is probably too much time looking for visual performances of the 1995-6 shutdown and not finding many, I keep thinking about what it is about now that requires this larger-scale performance and what the role of digital media are here, beyond simply acting as amplifiers. Beyond perhaps performing the shutdown in an effort to make an argument (and making a persuasive one!*), and having more spaces to enact this performance, the role and capabilities of digital media are interesting as they’re represented here.

This throws the mechanisms of information production into relief. And not just in a “hey, the government does more than you think!” way.  Here (if you take the argument that its about the cost of bandwidth etc.), production information production is about electricity and the cost of information that is free and public is on display. We know it takes labor to tweet, and are not surprised when people have to tweet that they will not be tweeting, but we do not think about the labor of keeping the lights on. Here, the performing the shutdown—and helpful articles that point out why websites go dark—highlights the labor that otherwise remains behind the scenes. Making the infrastructure that keeps websites in operation visible provides an especially interesting parallel as it relates to government, as our often-unnoticed goods and services are the very infrastructures that are shut down. Beyond the national parks and all of these other websites that citizens expected to be operative, the highway systems and infrastructure of everyday life are often invisible despite being very public.

The thing that makes this more interesting, messier, and worth more thought than a blog post is that while the labors above are made visible, others are papered over and elided. Creating these other sites to explain the shutdown and the splashpages that link elsewhere requires more *actual* labor in terms of people the sites and creating content. No one just hung their hat on a hook and called it a day when the government shut down—people and agencies took precautions, implemented alternative plans and created actual items in order so that there would be a lack of labor in the future. Maybe that’s less interesting than a sad analogy of futile and silly approaches to work . . . In that case though, if webpages are legally obligated to shut down, it highlights the fact that in most governmental cases – FEC policy being the one I’ve thought most about – digital media are problematically subjected to very similar regulations as brick and mortar institutions.


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