Fascinating discussion about what infrastructure is and how the concept may have subtly changed over time (for example, the material and conceptual, the blueprint and the waste, etc.). Quality work from the British Academy.
With some success, I have been teaching Charles Perrow’s “Normal Accident” concept with “Engineering Disasters.” It is a show on the History Channel, which is itself an offshoot of Modern Marvels). Each show is broken-down into usually four or five vignettes that are essentially “case studies” in engineering accidents and disasters.
These shows can easily be harnessed to walk students through the normal accident concept by analyzing each of the case studies using a worksheet (I could share this with anyone that wants it njr12 at psu.edu) that distills normal accidents into a few component parts. See below. I use Modern Marvels Engineering Disasters 7 in my course and in the image you see the final two cases — Northridge Earthquakes in CA and the Underground Mine Fires in Centralia, PA — and they are cross-referenced with the three criteria that I use from normal accidents, namely,
That there is a techno-human-nature interaction that is detectable;
That the relational interaction is sufficiently complex (and/or tightly-coupled);
That, with regard to the resulting engineering accident or disaster, it is not reasonable to expect the designing engineers to have anticipated (i.e., predicted) the issuesthat lead to the engineering accident or disaster in advance.
The students, from what I can gather, enjoy doing this sort of detective work. After four or five case studies, the students typically know how to apply the criteria and, thus, the concept of normal disasters.
Just thought I would mention that I am working on a field-trip project on infrastructure that takes students on a hunt for “signals” of infrastructure in New York based on a book we discussed on the blog a couple years ago. The book is finally for sale, and if you go to the purchasing site, you’ll find a new option to purchase a walking tour that accompanies a copy of the book. It is marvelous.
If you’re on the East Coast, and can get to NYC without a ton of trouble, this is a fascinating look at what the internet infrastructure “looks like,” illustrated with visual examples of what to look for to decode infrastructure cues.
Over the past decade, infrastructures have emerged as compelling sites for qualitative social research. This occurs in a general situation where the race for infrastructural investment has become quite frenzied, as world superpowers compete for the most effective means to circulate energy, goods and money. At the same time, millions of people disenfranchised by trade corridors, securitized production sites, and privatized service provision seek to establish their own possibilities that intersect, disrupt or otherwise engage the high level investments that now routinely re-configure their worlds. The projects of the powerful and the engagements of the poor are thus thoroughly entangled in this contemporary drive to “leverage the future.”
There is an odd combination of care and mockery with regard to infrastructure devoted entirely to sinkholes. Please, please go to thesinkhole.org and check them out. It is not a complex blog, but it is dead serious (for example, note that a number of the stories covered by the blog record casualties). A curious resource and one to keep your eye on.
After reading a short piece by Christopher Jones (assistant professor of history at Arizona State University and author of Routes of Power: Energy and Modern America, 2014), I was reminded of just how essential “demand” is when it comes to actually getting politicians to invest in shared infrastructure (rather than fall back on ill-advised cost-savings measures that delay or push-back maintenance).
The basic idea is that we are focused on “game changing innovations,” rather than the day-to-day maintenance of our infrastructure. For most of us, of course, effective roadways and public transportation are at least as important as ground-breaking innovations. But Jones goes a step further in our understanding of this, effectively suggesting that innovations primarily promote/aid/help the already wealth, monied upper-class elites who can benefit socially, politically, and financially from emphasis on innovation as opposed to maintenance on, for example, roadways, subways, waterways, and all manner of other ways.
Scholars from “MIT’s Media Lab, [in a group] called the Moral Machine,” are testing “a thought experiment that seeks answers from humans on how a driverless car with malfunctioning brakes should act in emergency situations.” Here is the piece.
These situations are bound to happen with self-driving cars. In this case, “The situations all involve the same scenario, where a self-driving car is traveling toward a crosswalk, and it needs to choose whether to swerve and crash into a barrier or plow through whoever’s at the crosswalk. The test is basically to determine what humans would do in these rare, life-or-death situations.”
The American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE) has a relatively new project called “Game Changers,” which (purportedly) captures and shares with viewers “successful solutions across the major infrastructure sectors to identify the most innovative #GameChangers. Imagine what more we could do if we seize the opportunity to replicate these engineering innovations.”
Self, who guides the walking tours, gets meta pretty quick; he “began with a brief introduction to the situationists – the Paris-based artists and thinkers of the 1960s who championed the concept of “psychogeography”, the unplanned drifting through an urban landscape to become more in tune with one’s surroundings.”
The case: I analyze the Transantiago, a mayor infrastructural policy carried out in Santiago, Chile in 2007 with utterly disastrous results. You can see the publisher’s overview bellow.
*I am happy to expand/comment on any of the book’s contents — please ask in the comments!
Policymakers are regularly confronted by complaints that ordinary people are left out of the planning and managing of complex infrastructure projects. In this book, Sebastián Ureta argues that humans, both individually and collectively, are always at the heart of infrastructure policy; the issue is how they are brought into it. Ureta develops his argument through the case of Transantiago, a massive public transportation project in the city of Santiago, proposed in 2000, launched in 2007, and in 2012 called “the worst public policy ever implemented in our country” by a Chilean government spokesman.
Ureta examines Transantiago as a policy assemblage formed by an array of heterogeneous elements—including, crucially, “human devices,” or artifacts and practices through which humans were brought into infrastructure planning and implementation. Ureta traces the design and operation of Transantiago through four configurations: crisis, infrastructuration, disruption, and normalization. In the crisis phase, humans were enacted both as consumers and as participants in the transformation of Santiago into a “world-class” city, but during infrastructuration the “active citizen” went missing. The launch of Transantiago caused huge disruptions, in part because users challenged their role as mere consumers and instead enacted unexpected human devices. Resisting calls for radical reform, policymakers insisted on normalizing Transantiago, transforming it into a permanent failing system. Drawing on Chile’s experience, Ureta argues that if we understand policy as a series of heterogeneous assemblages, infrastructure policymaking would be more inclusive, reflexive, and responsible.
Contributors include AbdouMaliq Simone, Maria Kaika, Vyjayanthi Rao, Mariana Cavalcanti, Stephanie Terrani-Brown, Omar Jabary Salamanca, Rob Shaw, Harriet Bulkeley, Vanesa Caston-Broto, Simon Marvin, Mike Hodson, Renu Desai, Steve Graham, and myself. Arjun Appaduria kindly provided a thoughtful foreword for the book.
What is so discouraging about the terrorist acts is that our discussion of what motivated the operations is as insane as the acts themselves. With each attack of this nature, we restage the grand war drama, the nation in peril and the protector-state purporting to rise up against barbarity. This is what states do, we say: we should have a basic expectation of security, and the state should have the means to provide it. End of story.
But what makes the current situation so much more dismaying is that the crimes committed on 13 November have occurred within a few days of another event about to take place that involves tragedies of a different kind, ones that will require that we come up with very different answers to wholly different threats that have nothing to do with ISIS/Daech. I am referring, of course, to the World Climate Change Conference in Paris, the COP21, which we are now liable to deem less serious, less urgent than the police response to the bloody escapades of those machinegun-toting lunatics.
Their mission: “to render visible the oft-invisible guts of modern life, and foster chapters of enthusiasts around these structures throughout the world.”
The group recently came out with this pocket-sized waterproof book about “shipping containers and the corporations that own them” (The Container Guide, 2015). They also held MacroCity, a cool-looking group of critical panels and city infrastructure tours wrapped into one conference.
Their main page is a little with interesting photographs of urban infrastructure — check it out. As of right now (late 2015), they are — somewhat obviously — set in major metropolitan areas: San Francisco, New York, and London. However, I’d love to see, in the future, groups like this China, India, or elsewhere.
This is a useful resource for anyone writing about or thinking about infrastructure from a big name (Gupta) and a rising star (Anand), it is the notion of an “infrastructure toolbox.”
One of the bottom-line insights appears to be that STS has had an impact on general thinking about infrastructure, in particular, legitimizing the “social” study of it (think: infrastructure ethnography, which I’ve discussed before too, especially in relationship to jugaad). Thus, we ask, what does infrastructure mean, even metaphorically, for “theory-making?”
Here is the opening passage (and it is freely available on-line):
Infrastructure is often seen as a pivot-point for addressing social ailments, directly or indirectly. That is what you’ll read — that assumption fully addressed — in Mariana Cavalcanti‘s “Waiting in the Ruins” a book chapter in Infrastructural Lives. What social ailments? Anything in the way of establishing Rio de Janeiro as a world Olympic city.
Questioned is the rhetoric championed by proponents of the favelas pacification programs as a form of “state intervention” — finally!Continue reading →
In “Water Wars in Mumbai,” a book chapter in Infrastructural Lives, we learn an important lesson about infrastructure as a material-social entanglement, in particular, in relation to the poor: infrastructure — or the lack-thereof — can be used to subjugate the poor — thus, reproducing their impoverished state — but infrastructure also, with rare exception, binds the poor to the non-poor.
AbdouMaliq Simone’s “Relational Infrastructure in Postcolonial Urban Worlds” is a book chapter in Infrastructural Lives, and provides a broader context for understanding the art of urban living with emphasis on adjustment, impromptu innovation (or “jugaad“), improvisation with focus on understanding the negotiated and lived experiences of individuals that inhabit these postcolonial urban “worlds.”
Jugaad is Hindi for “an improvised solution bom from ingenuity and cleverness” (De Vita, 2012: 21). Sometimes referred to as “frugal innovation,” jugaad is a way to think about most of the world’s experience with and approach to infrastructure, according to Vyjajanthia Rao (2015) in an essay featured in the edited book Infrastructural Lives. Defined as “innovative, improvisational urban practices and the objects they produce as temporary “fixes” or solutions to systematic problems,” Rao (2015: 54) notes that while the dominant “decay discourse” overwhelmingly depicts infrastructure as dilapidated and falling apart, this dominant discourse provides an almost too perfect foil for the conviviality and colorfulness with which jugaad is often celebrated with.
ETHICS OF CELEBRATING JUGAAD
Celebrating jugaad, however, is not an innocent act, especially from the “outside looking in.”Continue reading →
I’m reviewing the book this week, and will post commentary about it as I go.
Here are some thoughts and concerns about the foreword, and, thus, the project as a whole:Appadurai is an important figure for the burgeoning area at the intersection of sociology, anthropology, geography, political science, urban studies, and so on and so forth — many are invited to the table to dine on the topic of urban infrastructure. What makes this book extraordinary, Appadurai notes, is the approach: Continue reading →
One of the themes that seems to be perpetually associated with post-apocalypse is collapsed, dilapidated, or overgrown, but always kind of recognizable, infrastructure, laying around like an inert and massive scrapheap, as though the surface of the earth were just one big dumping grounds for modernity. The human-infrastructure relationship hums in the background of so many post-apocalyptic thrillers, as if, as we watch such television or cinema on our big screen TVs while the air conditioning also hums away gently in the background, we see and are entertained by this strange relationship between humans and infrastructure that seems destined not to lastusing the technologies destined not to last (similar to one of Žižek’s concluding remarks in “The Pervert’s Guide to Ideology” see about 1:50:15 …).
If this is the case, and I think — like picking at a scab — that it is, then what is the function of post-apocalyptic thought? I am not particularly picky about what is expressed or in what format it is expressed, but the post-apocalypitc vision of derelict infastructure being displayed on larger and larger TVs with sharper and sharper images seems sort of like an invitation NOT to rock the boat or reflect and instead as encouragement to entertain ourselves — not to death, as Neil would have it, but — into the inevitable post-capitalist world where the human-infrastructure relationship is bound to change BUT not look away a moment sooner than we must.
I just imagine a small group preparing for a world like the Walking Dead, but watching the Walking Dead on Netflix right up until the final moment when they must join the same world.
As a closing sidebar, I was originally going to write about an odd conversation I got into about the possibility of a time after rapture — just one of many possible interpretations of a post-apocalyptic world — where all the faithful would ascend and, hypothetically, at this time the remainder of Earth would be inherited by whomever or whatever was left. This was obviously NOT at all a careful theological discussion. As the discussants were pretty hardcore environmentalists and not one of them religious, they actually pondered whether or not the current abuses of the planet would be more or less bad than whatever rapture brought. Those of you with your ear close to the grindstone in religious studies no doubt already know about some of these discussions as manifest in recent overlap in environmental religious studies. It was a rousing discussion, much of which reminded me — in tone — of Stef’s tale, which initiated the discussion this week.
It would have been unthinkable before, but I have a circle of companions. We even have a jokey motto: “life is change.” A feeding doesn’t pass without one of the group uttering it, eliciting knowing smiles, the occasional laugh. Our children and theirs share in our humor, but the joke lies in our generation’s history.
Our earliest memories of life are pregnant with change. From egg to adulthood, we pass through five stages of growth. Our first eight weeks consist only of feeding and molting. Back then, life was change. But for me and many of my kind, change consisted only of that, only of the molt and eventually that glorious passage into adulthood. After that, the days passed in a constant dance of mating and egg laying.
In those days, I experienced my day-to-day transformations alone. They were, after all, personal. There were plenty of opportunities for mating, of course. But these were always the product of random encounters—a sudden awareness of another, anticipation and that sharp pain I’d come to enjoy as males would probe and then pierce my abdomen. But these mating partners and all who shared my harborage were strangers. I took pleasure in the routine transformations that my body would undergo: the wound management, the egg laying. But no sense of togetherness was required to ensure that life’s “changes” could proceed unchanging. Life was change and we all experienced it alone.
I was particularly privileged. I had never left the nest I hatched into. I never had to. Back then, the conditions of my life were blissfully constant. My feedings so routine I took them for granted. My life played out in the sheltered confines of a third floor wing in what I would later come to know as 664 West 46th Street. Continue reading →
A friend recently turned me onto the idea that somebody, somewhere is embedding USB ports into infrastructure in various places around the world— like a treasure hunt (sometimes called a “USB dead drop“). Turns out that some of these early devices were embedded in 2010 by Berlin artist Aram Bartholl. There is even a manifesto — interesting, in my mind. This is part of, I think, the broader DIY culture, and, though it is dated, it is a bit cool.
The idea of inhabiting infrastructure like this — they claim that it is the data equivalent of geo-caching for P2P file sharing, but the implications are bigger — is not merely as an expression of “un-clouding data” or even DIY freedom (from the Borg); the promise of this sort of intervention into infrastructure is “enchantment.” I do mean this, in the Weberian sense of the word, although Weber mainly referred to rationalization and secularization in reference to their de-mystifying or “disenchanting” quality for our world.
The reason I bring this up is that I recently found a documentary film set in San Francisco called “The Institute.”
The film, for all its flaws, contains something I found powerful about engaging our infrastructure and intervening in it to produce enchantment out of the ordinary. Granted, it is like an artistic way to play in infrastructure, to transform the ordinary world. There is some promise, as idealistic as it might sound, in the logic of these USB dead drops for producing such an effect in our cityscapes. I get the feeling that university settings in urban areas could really make this work.
“… many people have never experienced true darkness,”a report reads. The discussion is mainly about light pollution, and the body-burdens associated with 24 hour light exposure, which are on the rise:
It’s estimated that the amount of light in the night sky globally is increasing by around 6 per cent a year, but that statistic can be deceptive, according to Paul Bogard from James Madison University [author of The End of Night].
There is hope, however, from the marketplace:
The Amsterdam-based company Tvilight is one of those firms leading the way in the practical roll-out of smart lighting technology. Tvilight manufactures street-based lighting systems that automatically respond to traffic and pedestrians. The idea is to create urban lighting systems that limit light pollution in suburban areas, with lights dimming or illuminating depending on the level of human and vehicular traffic detected.
I get the feeling, however, that access to darkness is going to become another equality issue: the wealthy in wealthy areas will get access to the diminishing resource of darkness based on their access to other resources (which, quite ironically, may have been earned through the bright lights of some other company) while the less than wealthy suffer light pollution. The capitalist logic is breath-taking: Sell them light and then sell them darkness! (this would work as a case lesson for students about resources and access to those resources, especially something as “given” as access to darkness … no doubt, college students have low access to darkness many campus locations)
Two months ago the European Commission’s Mobility and Transport wing announced “Infrastructure – TEN-T – Connecting Europe,” an approximately €700 billion financial investment (into 2030), which is an extension of previous efforts to unite Europe infra structurally, where TEN-T means Trans-European Transport Networks. Continue reading →
Worth seeing: The Ship Breakers. Ships, at the ends of their lives, are rammed into the beach, thusly beaching these “end of life” ships onto the shores of ship-breaking yards of Bangladesh, India, and a few other states. The work is dangerous and the environmental consequences are visually obvious. There are other examples here, here, and especially this piece in the Atlantichere.
Thanks to our friends at “Politika i Technologija” we just learned about a free city infrastructure course on-line called “TechniCity“ (brought to you by the Ohio State University. I’ve got mixed feelings about free on-line courses, but this one might be interesting if you’re curious about how technology is used to engage people in city spaces to help improve our cities. While my usual response is “try fixing bridges” when I am asked about crumbling US infrastructure, the course appears to contain some techniques and strategies for mapping human emotions and frustrations onto cityscapes in order to determine which spots in town are positive environments and which could use some improvement (i.e., where are the traffic jams and unhappy pedestrians).
The two faculty sponsors for the course are up to the task:
Dr. Jennifer Evans-Cowley is the Associate Dean for Academic Affairs and Administration in the College of Engineering and Professor of City and Regional Planning in the Knowlton School of Architecture at The Ohio State University. She has passionate interests in technology that can help the public engage in participatory planning for the future of cities. She was named by Planetizen as one of the top 25 leading thinkers in urban planning and technology. She has won numerous awards for her teaching, advising, and research. Cowley publishes and speaks widely on technology and the future of the city. You can follow Dr. Evans-Cowley on Twitter @EvansCowley.
Dr. Tom Sanchez earned his PhD in City Planning from Georgia Tech in 1996 and has since taught at Iowa State University, Portland State University, the University of Utah, and is currently professor of Urban Affairs and Planning at Virginia Tech. Dr. Sanchez conducts research in the areas of environmental justice, technology, and the social aspects of planning and policy. He also serves as editor of Housing Policy Debate and is a nonresident senior fellow of the Brookings Institution. You can follow Dr. Sanchez on Twitter @tomwsanchez.
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