Doomsday Arks

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With a trillion-ton iceberg cleaving from Antartica, and debate over the exact causes seems never to end, I wonder “what is the infrastructural equivalent of it?” 

One immediate answer is found the giant, offshore seed vault Svalbard (Norway), which was colorfully referred to as one of the “Arks of the Apocalypse” in the New York Times Magazine. The anthropocene stirs, no matter what the International Union of Geological Sciences (IUGS) suggests, and seed banks are a fascinating reflection of this transition for so many reasons. 

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US: D+

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We have written about this previously, the state of American infrastructure and the problem that is not appealing to the masses, and we can report that not a lot has changed. According to ASCE, the US got a 2017 report card for infrastructure and the outcome is pretty static … D+ (same as it has been for the past half-decade or more). Part of that story has to do with the grading system in the first place, but most (near all) has to do with the dwindling state of infrastructure in the past decade of austerity policy that effectively kicks the proverbial can down the road such that the next generation inherits suboptimal infrastructure in the US.

Teaching Disasters

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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,

  1. That there is a techno-human-nature interaction that is detectable;
  2. That the relational interaction is sufficiently complex (and/or tightly-coupled);
  3. 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 issues that lead to the engineering accident or disaster in advance.

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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.

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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.

End of Year Reflection

… while the topics associated with infrastructure were plentiful this year, one of them sticks-out and consistently lingers in my mind’s eye. It is a topic implied in what I saw again just today while scrolling through my facebook and twitter feed.

It is called a number of things, although, apparently, “ruin porn” is term that has come to encapsulate the phenomenon. For example, I saw it today: an abandoned Wizard of Oz theme park that “will haunt you.”

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Demand for Infrastructure Essential

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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.

Jones’s solution: Demand it! (after all, we once did, and worked out rather well). See his new piece “New tech only benefits the elite until the people demand more,” and start demanding!

Why NYC Subways Don’t Have Countdown Clocks

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Great, quick read — possibly useful, in form and function, for generating teachable moments and useful learning projects.

Why New York Subway Lines Are Missing Countdown Clocks: “I honestly just wanted to know why the F train didn’t have clocks. I never expected it to be so complicated.”

*This is similar, in some ways, to previous posts on NYC and natural gas infrastructure.

Re-Using Nuclear Sites

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Logging and nudist colonies

It is an admittedly odd juxtaposition, but these two ideas landed on my desk this week. 

First, in an example of public participation in inquiry,Chornobyl’s urban explorers find evidence of logging inside exclusion zone” — logging glow sticks in the “zone of alienation” (thanks dmf). A group of “stockers” roams the zone of alienation and monitor it, and they have found some interesting things in their somewhat odd form of tourism. “The first time we saw forests and the second time it wasn’t there,” says Kalmykov. Chernobyl is having a birthday.

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Unintended Consequences Go Hog Wild

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If you find yourself teaching unintended consequences, consider this case “Radioactive wild boars rampaging around Fukushima nuclear site.” The animal population, which was previously hunted as a delicacy, has expanded dramatically (likely on account of nobody wanting to eat the radioactive meat); the hogs have pillaged the environment local to the Fukushima nuclear site, eating all manner of contaminated fruits and vegetables.

Infrastructure Game Changers?

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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.”

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New Essay: Hail the Maintainers

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“Hail the maintainers” — a must read.

Innovation is overrated. “Capitalism excels at innovation but is failing at maintenance, and for most lives it is maintenance that matters more.”

* Image from original post: Workers at the Blue Plains Waste Water Treatment Plant, Washington DC.Robert Madden/National Geographic Creative

Uncommon Walking Tour of Bristol

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In a fascinating post about walking, Will Self offers an uncommon walking tour of Bristol. According to Self, “walking was the way to break free from the shackles of 21st-century capitalism.” Walking tours, sometimes also called pedway tours, are growing in popularity; pedways are pedestrian walkways and they can be both above ground and below; they are sometimes discussed as a form of ungoverned or unplanned civil engineering.

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.”

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Squirrels, Sharks, and Eagles, oh my!

While teaching STS, I was recently talking to my students about what constitutes an “internet attack.” The students arrived with clear examples in mind (and in hand, which was part of the assignment). The answers were primarily in the form of human-based hacking projects, and, as most of you know, they are abound. Giving the timing of the assignment, most of the cases had something to do with hacks against the US, hacks against power production facilities, and financial institutions.

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However, one student brought this: Sharks, replete with jokes about Sharknado as evidence of the prowess of the shark. Seeing as how a previous lesson was about ANT, with an emphasis on non-human agents as not-to-be-ignored agents in understanding social order, broadly speaking, this was a sign that at least one student “really got it.”

Another student brought in this: an eagle hitting a drone, hard.

Not a few days pass, and the blog’s oldest friend, dmf, sends me to a great website, half-serious, half-satire, CyberSquirrel1. The site is a terrific description of how our critical infrastructure is seemingly the most danger from other nation-states; however, the empirical materials do not seem to suss-out such an explanation; in fact, squirrels and other non-humans are responsible for more “attacks” than anyone else.

Makes for a great lesson if you want to find a fresh new way to bring infrastructure and the agentic role of nonhumans into the classroom in a way that is, to my mind, far better to the early discussions that Latour made about stop signs or door hinges.

Co-opting Participation Infrastructure?

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Kenny Cuppers has a cool set of papers on the rise of shared “cultural centers” in major Postwar European cities. His is the first substantive chapter in a not-yet published book, which seems tailor-made for his research line, and which acts as a kind of companion piece for his published article “The Cultural Center: Architecture as Cultural Policy in Postwar Europe.”

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Infrastructural Lives, Reviewed

Add this one to your reading list: Steve Graham and Colin McFarlane have edited a book, which has just come out, Infrastructural Lives

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.

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IO: Infrastructure Observatory

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Infrastructure Observatory (IO) is a “community devoted to exploring and celebrating the infrastructural landscape.”

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.

Pankaj Sekhsaria: Guest Blogger

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Pankaj Sekhsaria (doctoral candidate from Maastricht University Science and Technology Studies) will join us for the next month on the blog. You might recall mention of research on jugaad, but Pankaj’s work is so much more than that. If you review the academia.edu page, then you’ll see a substantial amount more about jugaad, including an engaging and well-read newspaper piece about the topic,  along with a piece in Current Science, India’s leading science journal, and there is also a chapter is an edited volume that is worth the read. Pankaj is also author of The Last Wave, a novel that is engrossing — I’m learning — and that was well-received on the topic of deforestation and, I think, finding meaning in a world ravened by capitalism’s insufferable appetite.

This is truly a joy to welcome Pankaj to the blog. Please join me in welcoming our guest.

Infrastructure Toolbox

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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): 

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Louisiana Needs a Mud-Hose

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Cajun culture on the bayou in southern Louisiana is being eroded as the bayou beneath them erodes, by some estimates, a football field of land lost per day (BBC reports).

Costal restoration projects are planned long-term, over the next 50 or so years, with some palpable success. The BBC link above links Gulf oil exploration to the quickening of erosion, especially based on land mistreatment without recovery efforts. This Huffington post piece, “Oil and Cultural Genocide,” is a little less equivocal.

According to the BBC piece, another culprit is to be identified in the erosion of Cajun culture and that is the Mississippi River, in particular, the way that the mouth of the mighty Mississippi has been channelled and controlled as it flows into the Gulf. Previously, the logic goes, the Mississippi used to act like a giant land-making mud-hose spraying silt across the Bayou thereby rejuvenating the land; however, as the river became more controlled, this rejuvenating process slowed considerably, and in its place these massive land moving operations — featured in the costal restoration projects — took their place.

*The image above is from a great website about Isle de Jean Charles: http://www.isledejeancharles.com/environment

Jugaad, Siqizai, Bricolage

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New article about jugaad, which we’ve discussed here a bit, by Pankaj Sekhsaria (a graduate student at Maastricht’s Department of Technology and Society) is available on academia.edu (note: if you click the link, you’ll find the paper starts on page 21 of the larger PDF file — the paper is short and to the point).

Infrastructure Discourse: Poorly Regulated and Explicitly Not Sexy?

John Oliver comments on infrastructure in the news. He comments on how poorly regulated infrastructure is in the US (the low grades America receives on its infrastructure report card) and hints that one of the reasons that we are so inattentive to infrastructure is its explicit “not sexiness.” Catastrophe is apparently one of the only reasons to be attentive to infrastructure …

Pacification of Rio’s Favelas

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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

Simone on Infrastructure in Postcolonial Urban Environments

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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.”

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Jugaad and the Workaround

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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

“Infrastructural Lives: Urban Infrastructure in Context”

Line one of the foreword by Arjun Appadurai reads: “This timely book is sure to become a definitive work on the now growing literature on urban infrastructure” (xii).

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And Appadurai is not overstepping or overstating by saying as much. “Infrastructural Lives: Urban Infrastructure in Context” is edited by Stephen Graham and Colin McFarlane, both themselves big players in the academic discussion or urban infrastructure. McFarlane has a great blog, “cityfragment” that the book was recently showcased on. Some of the book’s materials are available on google-books here.

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

3:1 — Post-Apocalypse — Post 3 of 3

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This week, we discussed the possibility of a post-apocalypse world. Post-apocalyptic fiction, and its relationship to ideology, is where I want to take my post, and, in particular, the notion that post-apocalypse seems more plausible — and far more entertaining — than any other route to post-capitalism. While I had obviously seen reams and reams of this sort of thinking everywhere from great old comics to graphic novels (and older books like “After London” and even older books like “The Last Man”) to loads of cinematic fiction these days like the Walking Dead, Z Nation, and so on, I was probably first struck squarely with the link to capitalism by good old Slavoj Žižek in “The Pervert’s Guide to Ideology” (at least, I think so, and I am thinking about the scene with Rowdy Roddy Piper and the film “They Live” wherein Piper is a nameless grifter and drifter named “Nada” who comes into possession of a pair of glasses that allow him to see through capitalistic advertisement straight down to the level of discourse … and what a painful act it is to engage this reality).

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 last using 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 …).

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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.

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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.

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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.

3:1 — Post-Apocalypse: A Memoir — Post 2 of 3

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By C. lectularius

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

3:1 — Post-Apocalypse — Post 0 of 3

This week the 3:1 takes a darker turn, but one that is not without some whimsy. We continue on our posts on the “post” with a darker theme: Post-Apocalypse. We take this on with a sense of fun—at least this is the hope. This is born from a pressing need to engage on all levels with the losses that the Anthropocene will hand us. How do social scientists reflect upon these cascades of losses? What can we do to both grieve and fight back against capitalist extraction and evangelical forms of being that lack care for the world and its natural systems?

I begin with a DeLillo-esque story of academic life in the Department of Extinction Studies.

Elizabeth Johnson joins us this week for our romp into the end times. Elizabeth is a Research Fellow of Science, Technology and Culture with the Department of Geography at the University of Exeter. She is interested in how life and its study are increasingly becoming re-valued as part of the innovation economy and growing efforts in ecological securitization.

Nicholas Rowland has generously offered to post on Friday with another playful rendition of a serious topic.

3:1 — Post-Crisis (and back again) — 3 of 3

The notion of “post-crisis” that I opened-up this week with was meant to be a hard press against the post-crisis that I have often heard in discussions about “post-crisis economic planning” — that is, “after a crisis and now things are better” (which likely makes the likes of Naomi Klein retch, as Stef notes in her post). The notion that we are in a semi-permanent state of crisis raised to me the obvious question: does “crisis” really capture anything out of the ordinary? (and so have we exhausted the utility of such a concept?) Continue reading

Infrastructure and Enchantment

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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.

Ship Breaking in Bangladesh

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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 Atlantic here.

Infrastructure Makes Prime Time Slot

Infrastructure Makes Prime Time Slot

This Sunday, Nov. 23, CBS’ 60 Minutes will feature an interview with American Society of Civil Engineers Past President Andrew W. Herrmann, P.E. SECB, F.ASCE discussing our nation’s infrastructure deficit while flying via helicopter over Pittsburgh.

The interview is part of a larger piece on the Highway Trust Fund hurtling once again toward insolvency. Tune in or set your DVR to 60 Minutes, which airs at 7:30 p.m. ET7 p.m. PT, to see ASCE tell the story behind our nation’s bridges.

Below are additional details of the segment.

AMERICA’S INFRASTRUCTURE IS “ON LIFE SUPPORT,” SAYS FORMER TRANSPORTATION SECRETARY RAY LAHOOD.  NEARLY 70,000 BRIDGES IN THE UNITED STATES NEED TO BE REPLACED OR SIGNIFICANTLY REPAIRED – “60 MINUTES” SUNDAY
November 21, 2014
Federal Highway Trust Fund  – Which Funds Road and Bridge Repair – is Nearly Broke

Ray LaHood, the former U.S. transportation secretary, tells 60 MINUTES  many of the roads and bridges we drive on every day are “on life support.” What’s more, nearly 70,000 bridges in the U.S. are deemed structurally deficient.   “I don’t want to say they’re unsafe. But they’re dangerous,” says Ray LaHood, the secretary of transportation during President Obama’s first term.  “Our infrastructure’s on life supports right now. That’s what we’re on,” says LaHood, now co-chair of Building America Future, a bipartisan coalition of current and former elected officials seeking to increase spending on infrastructure. LaHood  speaks to Steve Kroft for a

60 MINUTES report on the state of America’s crumbling infrastructure.  It will be broadcast Sunday, Nov. 23 (7:30-8:30 PM, ET/7:00-8:00 PM, PT) on the CBS Television Network. Watch an excerpt.

60 MINUTES cameras capture the rust and the cracked concrete on bridges across the country, especially in Pennsylvania, where the problem is most acute according to the American Society of Civil Engineers.  LaHood says that the broken roads and bridges need to be fixed now, but the Federal Highway Trust Fund, the pot of money states rely on for new construction and maintenance of roads and bridges is just as broken.  The Highway Trust Fund is financed by the federal gas tax – about 18 cents per gallon – and it hasn’t been raised in 20 years.

“It’s falling apart because we haven’t made the investments. We haven’t got the money,” says LaHood.  “The last time we raised the gas tax, which is how we built the interstate system, was 1993.”  LaHood goes on to say “Politicians in Washington don’t have the political courage to say, ‘This is what we have to do.’ That’s what it takes…They don’t want to raise the taxes. They don’t really have a vision of America the way that other Congresses have had a vision of America,” he tells Kroft.

The failure is a bipartisan one says Rep. Earle Blumenauer (D.-Ore.),  a member the House Ways and Means Committee, just one of a handful of Committee’s responsible for funding long term transportation bills. Blumenauer says he’s been asking for a hearing on funding for the Highway Trust Fund for 44 months “It has, to this point, not raised to the level of priority for the Republican leadership. Although,  in fairness, when the Democrats were in charge, we had a few hearings, but not much action.”

Obama on infrastructure and business retention

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President Obama links infrastructural improvements to business retention, specifically, that unless American start to improve the country’s infrastructure, which will require Congress to discontinue divisive austerity-politics, or else we will continue to lose businesses abroad as they pursue higher-quality infrastructure for their business needs.

Perhaps this is a pathway that will result in some of the changes that are much needed. Whether this linkage is true or not (i.e., whether infrastructural improvement is linked meaningfully to business retention) is essentially unimportant; whether it results in actual political or economic change seems to be the only operant quality of concern given that truth in politics seems at most a tertiary concern for a generation of politicians.

Appropriately, Obama gives the speech near The Governor Malcolm Wilson Tappan Zee Bridge, the crumbling cantilever bridge spanning the Hudson River at one of its widest points. 

The failures of constructivist language

This is an excerpt from a paper that we will present in Izmir, Turkey, next week as part of the European Workshops in International Studies; we are in the social theory section (big surprise) organized by Benjamin Herborth, University of Groningen, and Kai Koddenbrock, University of Duisburg-Essen.

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(left-over Nazi bell from the ’36 Summer Olympics)

On the failures of constructivist language for our purposes.

In each case, the materiality of the object contributed to its fate. There were clear economic, cultural, and logistic costs and considerations associated with our objects under study being de-constructed, re-constructed, or, for lack of a better term, un-de-constructed, or, put simply, left. Upon even modest reflection, the available constructivist vocabulary seems to fail us in these moments; primarily developed for understanding how things are to be built, we find it difficult to utilize such language for encapsulating and illuminating the processes associated with the allowable decay resistant materials and the slow unintended or unattended-to wasting-away of durable objects.

The only apparent option is to capture attempts at (re)framing — discursively, symbolically, but not practically — the (re)appropriation of monuments in official and unofficial accounts of history. People “make sense” of these ruins, so the classic constructivist interpretation goes. And as soon as they stop or do not care any more there is nothing left to say. That is exactly what Foucault bemoaned when he complained about a historiography that turns monuments into documents. One can easily see that his complaint does not only hold for historical accounts, but for social sciences looking at contemporary issues as well: if we cannot find someone who makes sense of something, then that something simply does not count. But as our cases show: that does not make these massive pieces of concrete, bronze, and iron go away; it does not even leave them untouched. Even when people do not care, forget, or even ignore: the stuff left-over by former state projects stays and shapes what can and cannot be done with it.

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(Soviet War Memorial)

As we view the cases, those Soviet War Memorials constitute a kind of classic form of international relations, one held together by international treatise and inter-governmental agreements regarding the conditions of maintenance for the sites. Based on agreements, the materiality of the sites are not to be marred. The formerly-Nazi Olympic bell constitutes another form of international relations that is de facto, meaning, the bell’s unearthing and repositioning outside the Olympic stadium is not the outcome of treaties with another nation or the result of any linger agreement from former German governments. The bell’s durable material hardly needs to be willfully maintained; however, to remove it would require a considerable quantity of will, both economic and cultural. As the international stage observes how Germany will learn to deal with its past, the irremovable bell lingers-on in public view with only modest material transformation, which recognizes without celebrating the past. How Germany relates to the material residues of past governments becomes a form of international relations.

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(perpetually graffitied Ernst Thälmann Park memorial bust)

The Thälmann bust appears to us as an example of international relations unquestionably shaped by materiality, or, put another way, as a standing example of material international relations. The costliness of its decommissioning outweighed so greatly the will and coffers of the Berlin city commission that, despite being selected for removal on the basis of historical value, the monument endures (Ladd,1997: 201). Unlike the Soviet War Memorials, the the Thälmann bust is not vigorously maintained; however, it has also not been disabled like the Berlin Olympic bell. The operant or public identity of the memorial in Ernst Thälmann Park is one of a graffitied material behemoth. Creative urban artists embellish the statue and only occasionally and without ceremony is hulk washed of the ongoing alterations that it is subjected to from the public.

In sum, the Soviet War Memorials endure for classical reasons of international relations; the Olympic bell endures, irremovable but intentionally altered so that it no longer bears the inscription of a past government and it is incapable of expressing its material purpose to ring; though its removal was approved by a commission whose sole purpose for convening was to determine how the Berlin cityscape would be selectively altered, through its hulking materiality the Thälmann bust endures in a state of semi-permanent but allowable vandalization.

As we reflect on the monuments to a former age, we think of commentary on the repurposing of the Berlin Olympic stadium. Walter’s (2006: xiii) reflects in an extended passage from a perhaps little-read preface:

“Whereas other Nazi edifices such as the rally grounds at Nuremberg are rightly abandoned, this is a building still very much in use – even playing host to the 2006 World Cup final. Although some argue that a structure so closely associated with the Nazi period should not be used, it would seem churlish (and uneconomical) to abandon so handsome and vast a building. In 1936 it may well have been regarded as an architectural embodiment of the waxing power of the new German Reich, but in 2006, the seventieth anniversary of the Nazi’s Olympics, it stands as a symbol that Germany has the ability to come to terms with its past. Why should it not be used? What harm does it do? The shape of the Olympic Stadium does not register as a symbol of evil in the same way as the infamous entrance to Auschwitz, with its railway lines converging to pass under its all-seeing watchtower. The stadium may well not be free from guilt, but like many associated with the Nazi regime, it does not necessarily deserve the death penalty.”

The language used in the passage above to execute an old stadium produces a clear image in the mind; however, do not mistake it as a heartfelt call from the inner-circles of STS to adopt a relational materialist approach to the symmetrical depiction of humans and nonhumans. Still, there is a kernel of insight worth coaxing into germination.

Sentencing a stadium to death would not only be deemed mean-spirited and irrational by Walters, the implication is that one way to deal with international relations (even with old dead states, like the Nazi state) is through the material relations — what Barry calls “material politics” — of monumental spaces such as architect Werner March’s, on Hitler’s orders, grand Olympiastadion staged in the Reichssportfeld (which was built on the foundation of the previous Olympiastadion from the aborted 1916 Games in Berlin). By material politics, Barry conceptualizes processes by which the material world gets drawn into a dynamic relationship with politics; the material world, as it happens, is an important resource for the practical conduct of politics. In STS, Barry’s approach can be contra-positioned with the old adage that “artefacts have politics,” by which Winner (1986) means that technologies have politics as a quintessential part of their design or contextual situatedness.

Returning to our main line of discussion, Barry’s project is explicitly about dealing with a project under construction, in his case, laying a rather large oil pipeline, while our is about dealing with a project long-since constructed. Barry’s case is emergent; our cases are left-over. For us, this sometimes means intervention or decommission and other times it means preservation or transformation, either way, the state must relate to these residues of past states. While the constructivist language common to STS accounts serves Barry well, we find it wanting and search for alternatives more suitable for conceptualizing and describing decay amid durability and the state of being left behind.

It is in contemplating the impossible that one distinguishes advancing from declining societies.

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China Daily has reported that China is planning to build a high-speed rail from China to the United States.

A tunnel from the Bering Straits to Alaska under the Pacific Ocean is the proposal.

If the Channel Tunnel is a “Chunnel” (the 50.5-kilometre rail tunnel linking the United Kingdom, with Coquelles, Pas-de-Calais, near Calais in northern France, beneath the English Channel), then is this is this Ocean Tunnel … an “Oceannel” of maybe Oceaunnel”?

Brazilian infrastructure: Boom to nothing

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A disheartening reality-check for the infrastructure boom in Brazil, now reduced to rubble and rust. While we have often discussed infrastructure as a basic economic good, inferior or incomplete infrastructural development may very well have the reverse effect.

These pieces from NYT’s Nadia Sussman, an eery video, and this companion piece from NYT’s Simon Romero (Photographs by Daniel Berehulak), a combination written and visual story, paint a vivid image of a nation striving to build the massive infrastructures similar to those of other nations, but at a time of stagnant and non-existent government budgets, all of which comes on the heels of planning for the World Cup in June, just a couple months away from the time this post goes up. We wrote about the economic impact of similar Olympic stadiums and even a bit on how we might think about their copious infrastructural leftovers.

The article reads:

The growing list of troubled development projects includes a $3.4 billion network of concrete canals in the drought-plagued hinterland of northeast Brazil — which was supposed to be finished in 2010 — as well as dozens of new wind farms idled by a lack of transmission lines and unfinished luxury hotels blighting Rio de Janeiro’s skyline.

Economists surveyed by the nation’s central bank see Brazil’s economy growing just 1.63 percent this year, down from 7.5 percent in 2010, making 2014 the fourth straight year of slow growth. While an economic crisis here still seems like a remote possibility, investors have grown increasingly pessimistic. Standard & Poor’s cut Brazil’s credit rating last month, saying it expected slow growth to persist for several years.

The Trouble with Gas Pipes

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It seems that every time you turn around, especially with me living in Pennsylvania, I heard about our grand future with natural gas. USA TODAY heralds “U.S. forecasts natural gas boom through 2040” or the Economist asking about natural gas “Difference Engine: Fuel for the future?” to which the obvious answer is: “Two things are clear, though: there is a lot of natural gas out there; and it is extremely cheap. In both electricity generation and road transport, it will be a hard act to beat.” I could document more and more examples, but it is hardly necessary because my main point is not about natural gas. It is about natural gas pipes.

The New York Times has put out, in the last month or so, a number of pieces about failing gas pipe infrastructure in our nation’s major cities. The piece readers are probably the most familiar with is the March 23rd piece “Beneath Cities, a Decaying Tangle of Gas Pipes,” a terrific piece by .

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Underneath the bustling streets of New York, “6,302 miles of pipes transporting natural gas” and they are crumbling; chief concern, of course, have to do with leaks, and “Leaks, like the one that is believed to have led to the explosion that killed eight people in East Harlem this month, are startlingly common, numbering in the thousands every year, federal records show.”

Thus, as we grow more dependent on our plentiful natural gas reserves, danger will follow: “The chief culprit, according to experts, is the perilous state of New York City’s underground network, one of the oldest in the country and a glaring example of America’s crumbling infrastructure.” There is a super-cool graphic available here:

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New York, though, is replacing their pipes as quickly as any city in America, but other cities are not; “Baltimore is on track to replace its pipes in 140 years, while Philadelphia will not be done for 80 years.”

What’s interesting and alarming about these sorts of issues has to do with the wide distribution and sheer scope of the problem; leaks are bound to happen, so they are predictable; however, the location of a leak is simply unanticipatable. The solution: these companies rely on users! “Utility companies now largely rely on the noses of their customers to alert them to danger. The gas that flows through the network of pipes under the streets is naturally odorless, so a compound known as mercaptan that smells somewhat like rotten eggs is added.”

Another piece comes from the editorial page and falls under “opinion”; “Warning: Gas Leaks and Aging Pipes.

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The first comments come from ARMOND COHEN, Exec. Director, Clean Air Task Force, and mainly frames the issue as one of national security: “This is a matter of national public safety, a priority for protecting the climate and an opportunity to create jobs, and must be immediately addressed at all levels — by state utility regulators, by the Environmental Protection Agency and by other federal agencies.” The second comments are even more interesting, COURTNEY CARROLL, a resident of New York, tells the average resident what to expect if there is a leak. “One way to increase vigilance in spotting gas leaks is to look for damaged vegetation like dead trees, dead grass and dead shrubs.” I like this idea of enrolling the missing masses to monitor infrastructure; maybe we need an app for that! Seems like an obvious university project for students or something that communities, if they want access to upgraded piping, could commit to … of course, the ironies hurt: as soon as residents get new infrastructure, that is precisely when we start to “forget about it”.

The final piece “Under the Streets, a Lurking Danger” adds some balance and redirects the discussion toward government. Aging pipes have NOT yet been identified as the cause of the East Harlem gas explosions, they remind us. Also, the real battle is on the hill: “Congress can give momentum to two Senate bills sponsored by Senator Edward Markey, a Democrat of Massachusetts, which seek to hasten the replacement of old, leaking natural-gas pipelines nationwide.” Let’s see if the combination of government action and local citizen action get us through to the future with natural gas…