Grids:Remote support infrastructures

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Approaching Grids

The process of going ‘on and off-the grid’ is a crucial societal topic and ongoing discussion at stake in both design/art and developer practices. To be able to reflect on the roles, meanings and impacts of different grids we are relying on as hackers and designers, this first article will explore the nature of grids, what they are, what they can be, where they come from, and what their impact is on our work- and personal environments. Serving as a broad examination of how ‘a grid’ can affect our interactions this submersion into the world of grids will be followed by further writings that highlight more specific examples and cases, and by doing so hopefully creating a curious and experimental path towards an alternative or new grid.

When looking up ‘grids’ in the Cambridge Dictionary [1] we find that a grid is “a pattern or structure made from horizontal and vertical lines crossing each other to form squares.” Since going off-grid for sure does not mean stepping out of a graphical structure, a more clear explanation for the grids we can go on or off can be found in anthropologic studies and literature about cultural motives and infrastructures.

In her book “Gender” [2] sociologist Lisa Wade describes these grids as “persistent patterns of social interaction aimed at meeting the needs of a society that can’t easily be met by individuals alone”. Grid systems are there to provide a structure or connection between several people and enable a more efficient execution of goals, than we as individuals are capable of if we would try to reach the same goals alone. Sociologists also tend to call these grids institutions and distinguish five main grids in our society: education, family, religion, polity, and economy. The problem with these big institutions is that once they are established, it is almost impossible for an individual to step out of them and they are not always set up with the goal of meeting the needs individual members of a society.

A more accurate description of what grids can be is formulated by Shaun Hargreaves Heap and Angus Ross in “Understanding the enterprise culture” [3]: [A grid is] “The set of rules which govern individuals in their personal interactions. Strong or “high” grid means strongly defined roles, which provide a script for individual interaction.” While Lisa Wade assumes that grids always have a serving position in society, the previous definition is neutral in its judgement on whether the intention or impact of those grids are designed or put into place to serve society or a certain social group.

While studying the nature of grids it seems rather impossible to disconnect them from their relation with the participants. Without participants, there is no grid. A grid cannot exist without its initiators, actors, and participants. The relation between participants and grids is described as the grid/group theory by several anthropologists.

The Grid/Group theory

The Grid/Group theory was developed by anthropologists Mary Douglas, Michael Thompson and Steve Rayner.[4] The intention of the theory was to show how rituals and traditions are relevant to modern society. Douglas, Thompson and Rayner describe the group as “the extent to which an individual’s interactions are confined within a specific group of people who form a sub-group within the larger community.” There would be four different social models defined by their group/grid balance. These models are: hierarchism, egalitarianism, individualism and fatalism. The hierarchists, who have a high grid and high group balance, show respect for authority and are conformative to the dominant norms in a society. Egalitarians who have a low grid, high group balance, tend to identify with the group holding outsiders responsible for risk. Individualists with low grid, low group balance act independent and are entrepreneurial, avoiding and anticipating to risks by themselves. They are willing to take risks and recognise personal benefit in these actions. The last group, a group with a high grid and low group structure are called fatalists. This group’s approach to risk is not seen as a collective problem that has to be solved but a personal trust in fate or luck. [5]

Thus the grids I would like to discuss here are remote support infrastructures with an anticipated goal initiated by the developer or are based on the need of the participator. The grid’s effectiveness and impact is strongly connected to the position and relation it has with the participating individuals, and therefore can not be neutral.

On the grid

So what does it mean to be on a grid as an individual, being part of different groups and subgroups? What are different ways to be on a grid, or to be using the facilities of an infrastructure?

As an individual–being put on certain coordinates when born into this world, placed in a predefined context and time, we are certainly bound to participate in the grids that are designed for us. This may be through the laws of the country you live in, the laws of nature, or even the structure of your own body. Those grids have clear limits, do’s and don’ts. If you don’t participate they can have an extensive impact on yourself as an individual. As we grow up we get a slow but steady introduction into already established grids. It goes from how to eat, walk, talk, draw, to what study to chose, how to approach work, and so on. These grids imposed upon us by external factors come with differences in, for instance strength of their force and extend of the impact on an individual or group when they opt out. Choosing to not obey governmental law will probably have a big impact on someone’s individual freedom, as to not participating in certain technological progress will cut into the freedom to socially interact but might have a rather small impact due to smaller influence of that grid on one’s personal life. Individuals might choose to hop on a specific grid-train because they strongly believe in the benefits of participating in that specific grid. These benefits can be personal, but can also have a positive impact on one’s surroundings.

Off the grid

Although grids can imply a lot of benefits for a participant like providing health care, ensuring safety and enabling efficient transportation, the same grids can also imply negative outcomes. Deciding to go off the grid will enable an individual to function without the use of that particular remote support system. Going off-the-grid by choice is often the result of a conscious and extensive process of comparing the pro’s and con’s of this action. It can be in favor of this person’s or group’s privacy, independence, economic situation, environmental impact or ideology. Although going off-the-grid can have big benefits it is not always easy to do so as Denney describes: “Where a group is strong there is a clear boundary between members and non-members, and though it may be possible for an individual to leave the group, that will have high costs in that membership if the group confers many benefits. As a result, members of the group are able to exert considerable pressure on the individual to conform to its requirements.” [5]

Although there is the possibility to go off-grid by choice, it can also be forced upon a person. It can be due to an inability to participate, for example, because of remoteness, unavailability of facilities, or an absence of resources. Choosing individually or collectively to go off-grid can not only have big impact on your personal environment but also on the external world. It can evoke change or undermine established grids and structures, since a grid needs its participants to enable its existence.

The importance of going on and off the grid

As hackers, designers, artists and net-workers, there are several grids that are almost inseparably connected to our professional and social environments. These grids seem to occur in four main categories: our way of communicating with each other, the valuation of our work, the facilities we use, and our own practice. While considering means to challenge new as well asand established grids that fabricate our environment questions emerge such as: What are the conflicts we encounter while participating in different grids? What kind of demands arise when we choose to go off the grid? What is the influence of established grids on us? How can we initiate processes that enable change in existing grids? How can we experiment and imagine a sustainable work method and environment that allows us to develop new technologies? How can we think about consequences of projects, research, and interventions we undertake? How can we embrace our interests in technology and experiment without turning our surroundings into Grey Goo? Can we use existing grids to find new working methods with different impacts?

As we observe a rise of conflicts in our environments in the fields of privacy, efficiency, monetary value system, time investment, resources, accommodation, transport, ecology, morals and methods, we are proposing to re-evaluate the grids we became accustomed to and take action to prepare ourselves and be ready to take position. Shall we participate or leave familiar grids and start a quest to look for alternative options and create new grids and solutions within our environment?

Written by Vicky De Visser, edited by Anja Groten. Published on February 13th, 2017.


[1] Oxford dictionary, “grid”., accesed on 13-2-2017.

[2] Wade, L., Ferree, M. M. Gender: Ideas, Interactions, Institutions. New York: Norton Independant publishers, 2014.

[3] Shaun Hargreaves Heap, S. ed, Ross, A. ed. Understanding the enterprise culture. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 1992

[4] Verweij, M., Luan, S., Nowacki, M. PS: Political Science and Politics: How to Test Cultural Theory: Suggestions for future research. Vol. 44, No., pp. 745-748. Published by: American Political Science Association, October 2011.

Douglas, M., Cultural Bias, London: Royal Anthropological Institute, 1978.

Thompson, M., Ellis, R., and Wildavsky, A., Cultural Theory. Colorado: Westview Press, 1990.

Wildavsky, A. Choosing Preferences by Constructing Institutions: A cultural theory of preference formation. American Political Science Review 81: 1. 3-21, 1987.

[5] Denney, D. Risk and Society. London: Sage publishers, 2005.