In recent decades, fog catchers have been framed as alternative water supply systems in arid geographies where fog is ubiquitous. The hills around the Peruvian city of Lima are one such area. Here, coastal fog is being presented by scientists and local NGOs as a potential water source for the city's many informal or newly formalised settlements. By setting up large, sieve-like structures across the hills, these actors aim to transform fog into water for domestic and agricultural use.
Intrigued by these initiatives, between July 2018 and July 2019 I set out on a year-long ethnographic fieldwork, in the first instance with a small Peruvian NGO well-known for its many fog capture installations around the capital. Over a period of several months, I participated in the NGO's activities as a volunteer, accompanying the members to various ongoing projects around Lima and coastal areas further south. I also conducted fieldwork among some of the NGO's former beneficiaries and enquired into fog capture initiatives run by other organisations. Most of the NGO's work consisted of preparing funding proposals for projects that the five members hoped to undertake. Yet, in order to finance their endeavours, the NGO also needed to find groups of beneficiaries for whom the fog catchers could serve as an alternative water supply system. Besides pitching ideas in the office, then, the members occasionally arranged meetings with peripheral residents who had come across success stories about the NGO online or in one of the local media outlets.
In this article, I begin with a series of observations from one such meeting between the NGO members and a group of pig farmers in Villa María del Triunfo, a low-income district emblematic of the city's broader history of rural–urban migration and improvised urbanisation. Most of the pig farmers resided elsewhere in the district, but they were interested in the prospect of not having to rely on private water supplier trucks (aguateros) for sustaining their activities on their farm. By describing this encounter, I highlight how, in order to convince people about the usefulness of their fog catchers, the NGO often contrasted them with the unwieldiness of absent state infrastructure. The smallness that emerged as a consequence of such comparisons turned out to be central to what I refer to, inspired by Anna Tsing's (2000a: 133) account on speculative and dramatic shows of potential around mining in Indonesia, as the NGO's ‘conjuring act’. Through this act, the members presented their fog catchers as the only logical choice for peripheral residents who might have to wait indefinitely for the arrival of state infrastructure.
The NGO's fog catchers arguably fall under the category of technologies that have been discussed under the labels of micro-infrastructures (Cross 2017), small-device heuristics (Von Schnitzler 2016) or small development devices (Collier et al 2017; see also Cross 2013; Redfield 2012, 2016; Scott-Smith 2013, 2018). As Collier et al observe, examples of such technologies ‘proliferate across the early 21st-century landscapes of humanitarianism and development’ (2017: np). Through a combination of the ‘(purported) rigors of experimentalism’, ‘aesthetics of parsimony’ and ‘small scale’, these devices promise to foster social improvement and (somewhat hyperbolically) ‘replace the monument and spectacle of dams, power plants, or railroads’ (2017: np). Reflecting a wider shift away from modernist development paradigms, they try to respond to problems previously considered structural (Von Schnitzler 2016: 10–11).
In what follows, I focus on the allure of smallness as a means whereby these devices seek persuasion and approval. In doing so, I further suggest that the work of the small in the NGO's activities finds several parallels in how anthropologists have critiqued scalability and, customarily, treated smallness as a disciplinary currency. As Nick Seaver (2021) has recently argued, anthropological critiques of scalability have often postulated a mutually exclusive relationship between scale and care. In this view, scalability precludes care and should therefore be problematised (Tsing 2012), which has in turn come with the implication that smallness, by nature, is more conducive for cultivating care.
Seaver complicates such assumptions by showing how actors in the tech industry, when developing algorithmic recommender systems, invoke scale and care simultaneously. Against this backdrop, he issues a warning against habitual idealisations of the small (2021: 531). The NGO's activities motivate a similar cautionary. Yet they do so not by ‘decorrelating’ scale and care, as did Seaver's interlocutors, but by exemplifying how smallness does not in and of itself impel care. As I will show, the NGO took advantage of the oft-presumed interconnection between smallness and care so as to present their fog catchers as a reasonable alternative to state infrastructure. Even so, it was not at all obvious to their prospective recipients that these were caring technologies, nor that they should care for them (cf. de Laet and Mol 2000). Rather, such understandings needed to be brought about deliberately, through comparative invocations of smallness and a concomitant decoupling between care and the large.
I begin my argument by providing a background to the NGO in question. I then exemplify how the trope of smallness emerged as an effect of a series of thought experiments, in which the NGO members actively postulated state infrastructure as unable to properly care for their beneficiaries. Next, I contrast the fog catchers with ethnographic research on the capacities of off-grid technologies to cultivate care and community, thereby opening up for a discussion on the role of smallness in anthropological enquiry more broadly. By way of conclusion, I will suggest that anthropologists be wary of axiomatically favouring the small and instead consider how smallness can be mobilised in pursuits of macro effects.
Fog Catchers as Small-device Heuristics
The history of fog capture along the South American Pacific coast goes back several decades. Some of the earliest systematic experiments on fog-water collection for community use were documented in Chile in the 1980s. Similar initiatives for reforestation purposes have been undertaken in Peru at least since the 1990s (Fessehaye et al 2014: 54). While it has been suggested that fog capture by other means has a considerably longer history, the fog catchers used in these later, scientific endeavours typically consist of polythene nets stretched between two poles and situated perpendicular to the direction of the wind. As ground-touching clouds are blown inland, some of the tiny water droplets get stuck in the mesh, trickle down into a gutter, and are funnelled into a storage tank, at times adding up to remarkable quantities (Figure 1). The fog catchers also tend to capture dust and airborne pollution, which means that they depend on active maintenance work and care. For example, the mesh must be taken down each summer and protected from the sun, which might explain why most of the water provision projects I encountered across coastal Peru had been discontinued.
Despite these challenges, fog capture experiments in Peru and elsewhere across the world have laid the seeds for fog to become re-apprehended more widely as a potential water source. Caused by regular temperature inversions during the winter season, the foggy weather in Lima has been framed by several local actors as a potential solution for the lack of water infrastructure in the city's auto-constructed neighbourhoods. The NGO under consideration in this article had made itself a name by tapping into and amplifying such imaginaries. By disseminating footage of their fog capture activities to audiences in Peru and beyond, the five members had successfully attracted funding from various local and international donors, including regional governments, multinational corporations and international development aid agencies. The NGO's founder and director, Carlos, confidently assured me that this was a result of the extraordinary ingenuity of what he frequently referred to as his own invention.1
Carlos reiterated his story of discovery in numerous conversations: after moving to Lima from a village outside Cusco as a young man, he took up residence in an auto-constructed neighbourhood (asentamiento humano) in Ancón, one of the city's northern districts. Like those for whom his NGO now aims to provide water, Carlos himself lived without connections to the city's water utility network and had to rely on the expensive and dubious water delivered by private water supplier trucks. Regrettably, his long days at work meant that he was usually out when these drove by. Inspired by the way in which he and his siblings used to collect water back home in his village, Carlos used a variety of techniques to obtain his own water in the settlement too. He had placed a number of buckets under his roof to collect the drizzle (garúa) that drained through gutters and pipes, and one evening on returning from work he was surprised to see how the nets he had used for fencing had captured impressive volumes of fog-water. He began experimenting and, as he often put it, suddenly realised that he had discovered the solution for Lima's widespread lack of water infrastructure.
The NGO director was aware of the fact that fog catchers had been used in Peru and beyond long before his discovery in Ancón. He was therefore careful to point out that he lacked internet access during this period, and so had not then known this. This was his own invention or, as he gradually began to describe it, his co-invention. The story of discovery was important to him, and he retold it several times over the course of my fieldwork, to me personally but likewise to journalists, students and volunteers. It had a particular allure to it, perhaps stemming from the sense of ‘entrepreneurial pragmatism’ – ‘optimist, extrovert, hands-on’ – that Alberto Corsín Jiménez (2017: 460) suggests that the Latin American slum has come to stand for.
The story also reflected what Tom Scott-Smith, in his discussion on the fetishism of humanitarian objects, identifies as processes through which such objects are typically presented as ‘rootless, recent discoveries, “miraculous inventions”’ (2013: 921). Moreover, Carlos's assertion that he held the solution for a large-scale problem resonates with the way these technologies, and small-device heuristics more generally, are frequently ‘credited with almost magical powers’ (Scott-Smith 2013: 914). As Collier et al point out, small scale may seem ‘to correspond to modest ambition’ not ‘revolution or “big push” modernization’ (2017: np). At the same time, however, these devices are ‘designed to save lives, restore communities, improve health, even save the world, all through a dream of scaling up micro-technologies to have macro effects’ (2017: np).
I will return to the question of aggrandisement towards the end of this article. In what follows, I first illustrate how smallness emerged as a consequence of comparison in the NGO's rhetoric.
The Cloud Hunter
One morning, about halfway through my fieldwork, I received a phone call from Carlos. He asked me if I wanted to participate in a meeting with a pig farm association in the hills around the Villa María del Triunfo district in southern Lima. I had recently joined a group of fog oasis conservationists in an adjacent area, and Carlos contacted me as we were busy irrigating a group of reforested tara trees.2 I hurried down, hailed a mototaxi, and made it back up on the other side of the hill just in time.
Inside the association's communal building, one of the NGO members, Ignacio, soon began giving his part of the NGO's exposition. He described fog as a fully viable water source, and explained why the association members (socios) should work with the NGO rather than awaiting SEDAPAL, Lima's state-owned water and sewage company. He mentioned that he himself had worked for the latter in the past, and informed the pig farmers that the state has certain mechanisms that can be very slow. ‘It can take up to 50 years to get water’, Ignacio said. ‘We can do it within one to three years’, Carlos chipped in, leaning over his employee to remind him about an example he had used in previous meetings. ‘The other option is to do it without the state’, Ignacio continued, framing the association's alternatives in terms of a choice between public and private. The private option is always quicker, he ensured the socios, followed by a simple thought experiment: ‘If you had X amount of money, would you choose to provide 500 people with water or 10,000?’ As expected, the audience responded with the higher number. ‘Exactly. So, if you were [state] functionaries, where would you invest?’ His message was clear. They all agreed that they would not invest here, in the pig farm, but opt for a location where the installation of water infrastructure is less complex and where they would be able to help a larger number of people with the same amount of money.
‘How much water can be captured with one fog catcher over an entire year?’ someone in the audience then wondered aloud. ‘How many months of fog do you have here?’ Carlos asked. ‘Three’, the associate responded, but after a brief exchange with the association leader (dirigente), Raúl, Carlos briskly corrected him, ‘eight!’ Ignacio began calculating the volumes of water on his phone, based on an estimation of around 200 litres per day for each fog catcher. He offered them a number, and again his point came across easily. The audience fell silent. They seemed impressed. Another farmer then suggested that the allotments be provided with one fog catcher each. Carlos turned to Ignacio, whispering, ‘that's a very good idea’, after which he turned back to the audience to say that what is needed is funding. Besides, the fog catchers already set up around the farm were in bad condition. ‘The funders will come and have a look at some point soon, right, señor Raúl?’ The dirigente nodded. ‘But sometimes they are dirty, damaged’, Carlos continued. ‘I ask you to maintain them, conserve them, wash them! Wash them to make sure they function, and so that we can get more’.
The NGO director wrapped up the meeting by urging the members to take up residence in the area, which was currently being used predominantly for pig farming. ‘If you're not going to live here, funding won't arrive’. He explained that as a result of them not having occupied the terrain, they recently lost additional funds promised to them. ‘I don't think more than 30 people actually live here’. Someone protested: ‘Because there's no water!’ Carlos mentioned that there are plenty of pig farms where people have long lived without water, implying that, in order to bring fog-water to the area, the socios would first have to give up the places where they are currently living and depend on private water supplier trucks. At least for a while.
Before the meeting ended, an elderly woman stood up to talk. Multiple discussions had already ensued, but her voice eventually found its way through. She was upset, insisting that the NGO conduct a proper study before installing more nets. She had a fog catcher standing in her own allotment, ‘but it's good for nothing. It's not producing any water’. Her comment was followed by silence. Carlos seemed unsure what to say. Stumbling on his words before collecting himself, he avoided her criticism and answered only indirectly. The NGO consists of various professionals, he asserted, and then mentioned the many prizes they had received. He too was agitated, scowling indignantly while reassuring her of his authority on the matter: ‘You can find it all on the internet!’
Why did Carlos get so upset? Although he managed the situation fairly well, he had run up against an audience who questioned his fog catchers. The woman's objection was not part of the script. The moments of quiet that followed as he searched for a response spoke of the way his ‘conjuring act’ (Tsing 2000a: 133) had momentarily been disturbed. It also revealed it as such, as a magic show, which made me curious about the way it worked. It was, after all, this very same conjuring act that had brought me all the way from Manchester and straight into his office on only my second day in Lima. I too had been seduced. In fact, my presence attested to why Carlos could be so confident in his insistence that the socios seek proof of the NGO's and the fog catchers’ ingenuity online. For there, in the digital virtual, they would learn from journalists that he was the cloud hunter (el cazador de nubes), and they would be exposed to the idea of fog capture as a real infrastructural potential awaiting actualisation.
Smallness as Trope
The NGO's conjuring act drew on a number of tropes, one of which was to present the fog catchers against the background of large-scale state infrastructure. Here, smallness was an outcome of comparison with dual effect: while the prospective settlement was framed as small and, therefore, unworthy of state attention, the fog catchers were framed as small and, by virtue of this, capable of filling that gap. As we saw, Ignacio allowed the NGO's prospective recipients to arrive at the conclusion themselves about the advantage of the fog catchers, through a series of thought experiments. It was only logical that the socios would have to wait long, perhaps indefinitely, for SEDAPAL to extend the water infrastructure grid to the pig farm. As a small-scale alternative that bypasses the state's bureaucratic apparatus, the fog catchers would be able to do the job much faster. Pace Tsing, in whose account spectacularity is key, the NGO's conjuring act involved not ‘moving the audience beyond the limits of rational calculation’ (Tsing 2000a: 118 n11). On the contrary, the NGO foregrounded the conditions wherein the fog catchers could be posited as the only self-evident option.
As I have discussed elsewhere with reference to another of the NGO's projects (Ojani 2021), the members drew on an amalgam of qualities commonly attributed to small-device heuristics, emphasising the fog catchers’ capacity to provide quicker outcomes and to more effectively address spaces that it was unlikely the state would ever reach (Redfield 2012: 178). Still, as evident from the way Carlos tried to urge the socios to actually take up residence in the pig farm and accept living without water, this was not necessarily because such spaces escaped the state's attention or ‘grid of observation’ (Scott 1998: 82), as it were, but because they did not exist as spaces of state absence until the NGO helped to constitute them as such; the drama to which the fog catchers aimed to respond first needed to be summoned forth. Akin to the speculative enterprises of which Tsing writes, and in which the self-conscious use of various techniques helps to gather investment funds around resource extraction, here it was only by joining the NGO in an ‘economy of appearances’ (Tsing 2000a) that the socios would potentially be able to become beneficiaries worthy of the NGO's alternative water supply system. In this way, the NGO's proposition of an alternative micro- infrastructure could be made to appear reasonable to potential funders.
This reflects the evidence-based system of prioritisation typical in planning and development, according to which proof of insufficient water is required before an investment in water can be made. If scale is at play here in a temporal sense, and with regard to need and proportionate response (see Knox 2020: 49), the NGO's exposition of their fog catchers also engaged scale with respect to their size vis-à-vis state infrastructure. This is a spatial register that is arguably at the heart of discourses on small-device heuristics, albeit one that is often underdeveloped as an explicit analytic in anthropological writings on such technologies (e.g. Cross 2013, 2017; Redfield 2012, 2016). Scale, Tsing explains,
is the spatial dimensionality necessary for a particular kind of view, whether up close or from a distance, microscopic or planetary. I argue that scale is not just a neutral frame for viewing the world; scale must be brought into being: proposed, practiced, and evaded, as well as taken for granted. Scales are claimed and contested in cultural and political projects. (2000a: 120)
In other words, and as Seaver remarks, ‘We should be wary . . . of making claims about scale as though it were simply an objective phenomenon’ (2021: 527). Indeed, anthropologists have shown how infrastructural publics, as scalar phenomena, are far from given, but must be deliberately brought into being. At the same time, these endeavours are seldom unambiguous, and can entail slippages of various sorts, meaning that infrastructural publics might be ‘impossible’ and susceptible to differentiation and divergence (Harvey and Knox 2015).
In contrast to the large-scale projects to which such studies usually attend, the smaller scale of the fog catchers help to give the impression of fog capture publics as not at all having to be drawn together. Against the selective and exclusionary logic of extensive, state-induced infrastructure in Ignacio's example, smallness instead comes across as perfectly neutral. Through such comparisons, fog capture publics can be made to appear as already there, waiting (cf. Marres 2005). Accordingly, the NGO's fog catchers became an alternative micro-infrastructural system that, by virtue of its smaller scale, presented itself as much more capable of delivering socio-material transformation in spaces where water pipes had not yet arrived. Most of the job had already been achieved by the larger scale of absent state infrastructure, which, as scholars have shown, exposes informal and peripheral residents to unreliable water vendors (Ioris 2016) and feeds into widespread experiences of state absence in Peru (Harvey and Knox 2015; Rasmussen 2016).
A Large-scale Problem
Much of my fieldwork with the NGO consisted of long and uneventful days at their office in Surquillo, a working-class and lower middle-class district not too far from the city centre. The office was modest. It occupied the first floor of a three-storey building and consisted of four rooms and some additional shared spaces. There was little more than a desk and a few chairs in each area. The most spacious, shared room was also the most elaborate. It sported a large wooden table with several black office chairs placed around it. A standing banner displayed the NGO's logo in one corner, and in another part of the room stood two miniature fog catchers (Figure 2), accompanied by prize trophies from various organisations, companies and regional governments.
One day when Carlos was away on an errand, Ignacio played a YouTube video on his laptop. ‘Look, this one is old’, he said, and turned his laptop around for me to see. Carlos was being interviewed in a Peruvian television studio, where he, as a rural–urban migrant who had himself once lived in an asentamiento humano, had been invited as a spokesperson for residents lacking water infrastructure in Lima's peripheral neighbourhoods.
The television presenter welcomed him with a serious and to-the-point voice. She asked what the government was doing about the situation. ‘Nothing’, Carlos lamented, but soon switched to a smile, explaining how his NGO was in the midst of carrying out two important projects, together with a number of corporations that provide him with financial support. ‘We use fog catchers’, he declared, and added that they were also working to provide sewage systems by way of each settlement's own economic capacities, ‘given that the state and its “wonderful company [empresa estrella]” SEDAPAL is incapable of providing water to the thousands and even millions who live in the human settlements in Lima and Callao’.3 The hostess interjected, ‘Oye, so you don't receive any direct government support at all?’ ‘No’, Carlos replied, and went on to list some of the organisations and private companies they collaborated with. He described how peripheral residents, despite their scarce resources, paid for the most expensive water in the world, with the presenter then informing the viewers about the unreliability of the water distributed to settlements by the water trucks. Water pipes need to be replaced to meet the requirements of a growing population, the NGO director explained next, but there was a lack of ‘political will [voluntad política]’. The conversation continued in the background.
Ignacio: Carlos always criticises SEDAPAL.
Author: You worked there, didn't you?
Ignacio: Yes. Do you want my honest opinion? Those who do not have water are those who lack land titles. The rest stand in queue. It's not SEDAPAL's fault.
He explained that the problem is also technical. Water needs to be distributed from high up, all the way down to the coast:
Rímac [one of the city's main rivers] does not have enough capacity. Instead, water is being channelled from the Andes through pipes, and these are also used for generating energy. SEDAPAL stores 330 million cubic metres of water for Lima each year. The water we consume today is from last year's rainy season.
People do not always understand the complexity of the matter, Ignacio seemed to be inferring. I asked him what Carlos has to say about this. ‘It's a way of putting pressure’, he responded, after a moment of deliberation, with the NGO director's rhetoric in the video clip in mind. A variation of his usual example served to clarify why SEDAPAL is not to blame:
Ignacio: If you have 2 million litres of water, would you rather use it for a population of 10,000 or 2,000? 10,000 of course!
Author: So, it's too expensive to move the water up to the hills?
Ignacio: Have you seen the roads up there?
He showed me a YouTube video from another broadcast, one that illustrated the condition of the roads. This one was shot by a British news media company a few years earlier, up in the hills in Villa María del Triunfo. Ignacio explained: ‘In the state, they prioritise some projects. They go to the bank of projects and analyse the indicators. So, an area like this one will always lose with respect to a flat zone where more people are living’.
We watched the rest of the second video in silence. Carlos gave his usual explanation of the fog catchers, assuring the interviewer as always about their capacity, as unconventional technologies (tecnologías no convencionales), to solve the problem of water scarcity in Lima and Peru more broadly. ‘He's convincing, isn't he?’ Ignacio soon asked. ‘Carlos, when he speaks, is convincing’, he repeated. ‘Aahh this Carlito, what a personality!’
Smallness and Care
Ignacio complained that Carlos did not really grasp the complexity of the matter. Nevertheless, the ideas they both expressed worked together to present the fog catchers along similar lines: as alternative water supply systems that, owing to their smallness, were able to bypass a cumbersome state apparatus and more effectively respond to the problem of infrastructural absence. And yet, as we saw, whether or not the fog catchers would actually be able to live up to this promise remained unclear to the pig farmers in the above meeting.
Marianne de Laet and Annemarie Mol's (2000) study of the Zimbabwe Bush Pump makes an interesting point of comparison. As the authors explain, the pump's success depended in part on its ability to effectively gather people around it. It participated in constituting a community of caring users by virtue of its own ‘fluidity’ – a particular material disposition that encouraged modification and continuous adjustment.
Similar traits are highlighted in recent scholarship on off-grid infrastructures in other contexts. For example, Annabel Pinker observes how small-scale energy systems on Scoraig ‘are at once established and emergent; practices of maintenance, breakdown, and repair are assumed by the design’ (2018: 743). In this way, and more or less akin to the Bush Pump, these devices become meaningful through their capacity to ‘radically reorganize established ways of doing and being’ (Pinker 2018: 710).
Laura Watts (2018) describes the experimental nature of energy initiatives on Orkney in an analogous vein. These high-tech renewable energy innovations are ‘community-making endeavours’ (2018: 177). They ‘draw people together who have shifting interests and allegiances’ (2018: 175). However, and as is also the case for Pinker (2018), the contingency of what these experiments will actually engender implies a certain degree of risk. Yet it is precisely by inhabiting those turbulences that initiatives such as these are able to bring something potentially new into being: ‘What people valued about the energy set-up on Scoraig was not its efficiency, . . . but its excessiveness, its exuberance – or, you might say, the plethora of effects it generated’ (2018: 744). The negotiations that ensue become ‘generative, experimental sites of social and political possibility’ (2018: 711).
Given how the fog catchers became a means to enact state absence, the fog catchers, too, engendered certain unexpected outcomes. At times they even began drawing the state in as a potential provider of the very infrastructure to which the fog catchers were supposed to stand in as an alternative, thus gradually writing themselves off (see Ojani 2021). Still, the built-in fluidity of the devices in de Laet and Mol's, Pinker's and Watts's respective accounts sets these technologies apart from the fog catchers. It is not just that the fog catchers were often introduced in settings where water infrastructure was absent and that, in consequence, it was not a question of going off the grid, which is often the case in ethnographic accounts on off-grid infrastructures. What I wish to highlight is an additional contrast. The experimental nature of the above-mentioned accounts by de Laet and Mol, Pinker and Watts can be said to have resulted from what Michael Fisch, in his ethnography of Tokyo's commuter train network, calls ‘an ongoing process of collective making involving the coemergence of humans and machines’ (2018: 29). By comparison, in Lima, micro-infrastructure publics needed to be drawn together before fog capture could potentially take place. If in the above-mentioned studies local engagement and care came about through what might be characterised as more-than-human coemergence, here commitment among the socios was solicited in part through the framing of fog capture against the size and concomitant incapacity of state infrastructure. As Ignacio tried to bring home in our above conversation, the smallness of the collectives that were to be provided with water ostensibly rendered untenable their inclusion in large-scale, state-induced initiatives.
The work that smallness did in these endeavours finds a parallel in notions of the local, which anthropologists have effectively utilised for countering universalist claims about the global (Tsing 2000b). Famously, assumptions about the givenness of locality have themselves been questioned (Appadurai 1995: 207), for the local must also be brought into being somehow. The NGO's efforts to pitch the fog catchers as an alternative water supply system reveals how smallness equally needs to be summoned forth. As we saw, this was a small too small to ever expect to successfully reattune and re- direct the state's observational and infrastructural grids in its own favour, and as an effect of which the fog catchers could be made to appear as caring technologies ready to step in for an uncaring state.
Smallness, then, was assumed to be more intimately connected to care, which again finds an analogy in anthropology. As Seaver intimates, in anthropological critiques of scalability, scale has usually been considered ‘an object of suspicion, implying calculation, capitalism, and hierarchy’ (2021: 526). For example, in Tsing's (2012) assessment, scalability entails ‘care's abandonment’ (Seaver 2021: 526), which is illustrative of how some of the most influential anthropological studies on scaling are ‘premised on the idea that [scale] is (inversely) correlated with care’ (2021: 526). By the same token, ‘[c]alls for attention to care often figure it as an alternative to the large scale’ (2021: 511). We see examples of the connection between smallness and care in the above-mentioned accounts on micro- or off-grid infrastructures, where built-in fluidity, deriving in part from the limited scale of the technologies in question, cultivated relations of care between humans and their machines in a way that the large-scale purportedly cannot. A similar disposition is present in central works on care where ‘alternative caring relations with soil’ are evoked through examples of ‘small-scale reorientations of growers’ skills’ (Puig 2017: 200) or, alternatively, where the one-size-fits-all approach in public health care campaigns lack the specification that ‘good care’ depends on (Mol 2008: 68).
Seaver challenges some of these conceptions by showing how, in the tech industry, actors ‘decorrelate’ care and scale in order to create algorithmic recommender systems capable of working at scale while simultaneously treating their materials and users with care. This finds some resonance in observations on how ‘forms of care exist even within apparently careless settings’ and, furthermore, that care can be present ‘in sites of violence and harm’ (2021: 525). More crucially, it impels us to consider how ‘[t]hinking decorrelatively about the relation between care and scale can help us avoid idealizing the small for its own sake’ (2021: 531).
Whereas Seaver concludes his article by encouraging us to ‘discern variety among large-scale projects and recognize emergent forms of care within them’ (2021: 531), the NGO's work exemplifies how smallness can be put to work productively for ends that do not necessarily yield care. Unlike accounts on off-grid systems where care grows almost organically through local tweaking and tinkering, the NGO's activities ultimately worked across the relation between these ostensibly interlinked qualities – not by decorrelating care and scale, but by taking advantage of the connection between smallness and care so as to enact state absence and, potentially, shore up funding. As is evident from Carlos's pleas that the socios maintain and conserve the fog catchers already implemented in the area, care did not arise spontaneously as an effect of smallness. What is more, it was far from obvious to the NGO's prospective beneficiaries that these were caring technologies. This was a perception that needed to be summoned forth through Ignacio's postulations of an uncaring state, including claims about the fog catchers’ capacity to produce remarkable volumes of water, despite objections suggesting otherwise and the NGO members’ pronounced desire to care for the farmers.
The NGO's work is thus a reminder that smallness and care are not axiomatically conjoined. Beyond this, my ethnography also points to the productive work that smallness can do in projects of scaling. Though actively contrasted with state infrastructure in order to carve out its own little niche, the fog catchers also promised a solution for a problem of great pervasiveness. Phrased differently, the fog catchers were imagined to offer a small-scale alternative that could be scaled up to meet a demand of considerable ubiquity. As Carlos often proclaimed on our tedious and uneventful days at the office: ‘they are technologies of global impact [impacto global]!’
I have demonstrated in this article how smallness was made to emerge by the NGO members as an effect of comparison. In contrast to studies where micro-infrastructures generate community and care by means of their improvised, local and, indeed, small nature, here fog capture publics were sought through the rhetoric of smallness and its presumed relation to care. As we saw, it was offered by the NGO that the fog catchers’ limited scale vis-à-vis state infrastructure rendered them better capable of addressing spaces and populations that easily escaped state attention.
At the same time, I have hinted how this very capacity, deriving from smallness, motivated imaginaries and claims about fog capture as able to respond to problems of extensive scale. This calls attention to the work that smallness can do for aggrandisement more generally, and especially the generous use of smallness by anthropologists for carving out space within a wider economy of academic knowledge-production. Anthropological writings on care and critiques of scalability are a case in point, but we may also glimpse this in how the small and the local have served as a means to comment on (notions of) the large – an inclination that is epitomised in titles such as Small Places, Large Issues (Eriksen 2001). Mirroring the NGO, anthropologists have long tapped into variations of the small as tropes for aggrandising their own findings and methodological dispositions.
Without objecting to such undertakings – for smallness is a powerful epistemological trick that lends anthropology a great deal of its currency – here I am simply curious whether this history of attention to smallness can also be put to use self- reflexively.4 Besides seeking leverage in the small, might anthropologists likewise in- vestigate how smallness is sometimes mobilised in pursuits of scalability?
I take the freedom to modify a comment by Marilyn Strathern to, as it were, leverage my own proposal: ‘Anthropologists have no need to aggrandise [the small in] their own accounts; in any case, to do so runs the risk of failing to see the work that [such] aggrandisement does in human affairs’ (1995: 180).
Throughout this article, I use pseudonyms for all interlocutors.
Tara is a small leguminous tree native to Peru, now widespread around South America and beyond.
In 2019, approximately 1.5 million residents lacked access to the city's water infrastructure grid. See https://peru.oxfam.org/qué-hacemos-ayuda-humanitaria/entre-7-y-8-millones-de-peruanos-no-tienen-acceso-agua-potable (accessed 10 September 2021).
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