Different Infrastructure, Different Promise

Cristina Cochior


In the late 1990s and early 2000s, Romania witnessed the emergence of grassroots internet networks colloquially known as block or neighbourhood networks. They originated from an amalgamation of devices, neighbourly affiliations, and urban configurations, serving as a unique medium for internet access that extended from individual apartments to entire neighbourhoods. 

These block networks are the subject of Cristina Cochior’s ‘Block Networks’ project included in the Turn Signals— Design is not a Dashboard exhibition. ‘Block Networks’ is a chronicle of a transformative period when residents from Timișoara and other areas in Romania devised inventive solutions such as stringing cables across balconies, or between houses, to facilitate collective internet access and self-reliant services. It incorporates oral histories, online forums, news articles, and assorted documents displayed on interconnected computers, proffering insights into the socio-political and economic contours that marked the trajectory of these networks and their eventual amalgamation into prominent commercial entities. 

Based in the Netherlands, the Romanian Cochior’s design and research practice largely comprises investigations into the intimate bureaucracy of knowledge organisation systems, and more recently, collective and non-extractive digital infrastructures. In this interview, she gives insight into the process of creating the ‘Block Networks’ project, and what she believes it reveals about relationships with technology and industry. 

Can you give a brief insight into the topics you engage with in your practice? 

Cristina Cochior: Much of my work is concerned with various aspects of grassroots infrastructure. The work of Varia, the Rotterdam-based collective that I’m part of, focuses on everyday technology, and we maintain our own digital infrastructure, exploring how social organisation influences our decisions and tools. 

This enables us to understand how people use technology to organise themselves and foster a sense of community. I’m intrigued by the mutual processes of alignment that occur when specific technologies are employed. It’s not just about the usage of technology but also how it influences and shapes communities themselves. 

Additionally, I also work a lot with archives, examining how organisational logics affect access to information and perception. For instance, part of ‘Block Networks’ entailed building an archive of interviews and other snippets that were found on the internet, in articles or forums; mostly it’s an attempt to gather specific knowledge that is either oral or written. 

Another project I’ve been working on with Manetta Berends and Sofia Boschat-Thorez, resulted in a publication called ‘Vernaculars Come to Matter’, which investigates vernacular forms of information organisation. We question how standardised software impacts the way we receive information. 

Our focus is on language processing tools, like the NLTK (Natural Language Toolkit). We playfully named our project VLTK (Vernacular Language Toolkit) as a response to it: ‘VLTK takes a dive into the logical operations that are used to process language with a computer to speak back to a range of unassuming habits in the field of computational language processing, and step towards modes of embedded, slow, and vernacular language processing and knowledge organisation.’¹

The design that you are concerned with is not often visual. How do you work with invisible design in your projects? 

CC: Infrastructure can be challenging to trace, but in ‘Block Networks’, I collected interviews and anecdotes to understand the practices behind maintaining these networks. This anecdotal knowledge sheds light on the intersection of vernacular social organisations and technical work. For example, people often employ everyday objects creatively, like using a five-litre plastic bottle to shield antennas from the rain. 

Although these visceral examples come up, my approach is more oriented towards recognising design as how people use technology and how it shapes their practices. For example, it’s essential to acknowledge that the people who maintain these infrastructures also serve as access points through their specialised knowledge of these systems. They become integrated into the infrastructure, as they assist in computer repairs, troubleshoot issues, and even provide free computer classes to students, as one of the interviewees mentioned. 

How do you view the theme of optimisation in ‘Block Networks’?

CC: Optimisation always raises the question: optimisation for whom or for what? Within the tech industry, optimisation is used to minimise costs and increase performance. Researcher Seda Gürses, who’s done a lot of work around this topic, argues that optimisation-based systems are made not only for the extraction of value from user behaviour, but also for behaviour manipulation. 

In ‘Block Networks’, optimisation similarly appears from the perspective of minimising costs, but it involves the users in the process of defining the needs for which to optimise. The project explores how people started micro ISPs out of necessity, often for their own internet access, and this shaped unique user-service provider relationships that are not only determined by an economic interest but also by the local community connections that constitute them.

This type of dynamic relationship between practices and services is intriguing, particularly when it isn’t yet standardised. It allows for flexibility, as there is the possibility of responding to and adapting to a particular situation that a user might be in. This evokes Lauren Berlant’s assertion that what constitutes infrastructure are the patterns, habits, norms, and scenes of assemblage and use. 

In the block networks, a community-oriented pattern became prevalent, shaping the dynamics of the relationship between service providers and recipients, resulting in unique and somewhat unconventional forms of entrepreneurship. 

One of the individuals I interviewed hesitated to label their work as a business, lacking a more suitable term. However, there was an awareness of the multiple layers of meaning associated with their work, extending beyond mere economic goals and growth aspirations, though those were certainly present. The motivations for running these companies often include a social and community element. Some entrepreneurs began with the goal of affordable connectivity, while others initiated them as extensions of internet cafes or local area networks among friends for better gaming experiences. These varied usage scenarios influenced the emergence of these companies.

How would you characterise what ‘Block Networks’ reveals about technology and industry’s effect on social and material relationships? 

CC: I feel there’s a promise inherent in different forms of infrastructure and services. To me, the fascinating aspect is how these micro ISPs were organised on a small heterogenous scale yet coexisted, creating what appears as a patchwork of various, situated infrastructures converging at specific points. This challenges the notion of a uniform, single infrastructure. It fractures the infrastructure’s promise into numerous smaller promises. 

This fragmentation is compelling. Brian Larkin discusses the poetics and politics of infrastructure, highlighting how infrastructure can also serve as a vehicle for promoting particular ideas of progress. In this context, because micro ISPs often originate from their own communities and modest intentions, they create more room for interpersonal relationships to thrive, in contrast to a more commercialised mode of interaction. As a result, their promises relate more to the groundwork of maintaining multi-infrastructural sites in the face of social and technical everyday struggles.

What was it like for you, a Romanian practitioner now based in the Netherlands, to work on a project in Romania?

CC: Returning to Romania for this project was exciting. I’ve been interested in the micro-ISP phenomenon for a while, and this project allowed me to dive into the topic and connect with those who shared similar experiences and memories about the early days of the internet. Language played a role in making connections with people whose work is crucial to these developments.

It also served as a reminder of how language itself functions as an infrastructure. The ease of communication was notably influenced by our shared background, common understanding of specific terminology, humour, or even the absence of it. It played a significant role in our interactions.


Interview with Nadine Botha


1. Cristina Cochior, Julie Boschat-Thorez, Manetta Berends. 2021. ‘From contradictionaries to formatterings: an introduction to VLTK—Vernacular Language Toolkit.’ https://vltk.vvvvvvaria.org