infrastructure, the lives of things, and stimulus

Obviously, technological optimism is common in network culture. It’s only natural: we experience technological improvements everyday. A decade ago I spent $1,500 on my first digital camera. Yesterday I gave my six-year-old daughter a digital camera for her birthday. It was smaller and handily outperformed that original camera for less than 1/15th of the cost. Last year the iPhone 3G came out. Now I’ve stopped plotting out the route to an unknown destination before I get on my way. During the last year I finally got rid of my last desktop machine in favor of a laptop which I set to automatically backup my hard drive over the wireless network whenever I am at home. Of course I’m a bit of a geek by inclination and profession, but if you’re reading this blog I’m sure you’re familiar with this rapid pace of change firsthand. 

So it’s normal to extend our technological optimism beyond the home, to the city for example. But there’s another aspect of network culture that balances out technological optimism: non-human systems have drives of their own. A relatively new branch of sociology, actor-network theory (ANT) tries to make sense of this. Here’s a quote from Ole Hanseth and Eric Montiero’s book Understanding Information Infrastructure that sums up the main point:

The term "actor network", the A and N in ANT, is not very illuminating. It is hardly obvious what the term implies. The idea, however, is fairly simple. When going about doing your business — driving your car or writing a document using a word-processor — there are a lot of things that influence how you do it. For instance, when driving a car, you are influenced by traffic regulations, prior driving experience and the car’s manoeuvring abilities, the use of a word-processor is influenced by earlier experience using it, the functionality of the word-processor and so forth. All of these factors are related or connected to how you act. You do not go about doing your business in a total vacuum but rather under the influence of a wide range of surrounding factors. The act you are carrying out and all of these influencing factors should be considered together. This is exactly what the term actor network accomplishes. An actor network, then, is the act linked together with all of its influencing factors (which again are linked), producing a network.

We all know how frustrating technology can be when by design or by accident it prevents us from doing what we wanted to. You lose your iTunes library on your drive and you can’t copy it back off your iPod or re-download it from the store, a faulty fuel sensor puts your car in limp-home mode, your remote control can’t talk to your DVD player and so on. 

By design The Infrastructural City is intended for a general audience—it’s not unacademic, but I also didn’t want to weigh it down too much with theory—and none of my authors were sociologists so I didn’t ask anyone to address ANT. But, one of the book’s chief lessons—even the main lesson—is that infrastructures themselves are actors. The Los Angeles River is not natural anymore, it’s something else entirely. We are traffic, but because we aren’t going to change our behavior, adding more lanes to freeways isn’t going to work.

Understanding human and non-human systems puts The Infrastructural City in a lineage starting with Anton Wagner’s 1935 Los Angeles: Werden, Leben and Gestalt der Zweimillionenstadt in Sudenkalifornien and extending through Banham’s 1971 Los Angeles: The Architecture of Four Ecologies. 36 years elapsed between the first two books and another 37 years passed before our book came out. For both Wagner and Banham, cities were ecologies. Wagner, sponsored by the Nazi government, saw these quite literally: the Anglo-Saxon settlers in Southern California were shaped by the landscape. If Wagner’s sponsorship and eugenic thesis are repulsive, his idea of understanding both the setting and the settlers together was ground-breaking. Building on Wagner, Banham saw the city as composed of discrete landscapes—ecologies—populated by specific clusters of individuals who gave rise to specific kinds of buildings. 

Inexorably, the man-made has become more important. But acts of human volition—building a work of quality architecture, say, or even spearheading an infrastructural initiative—are fading in favor of complex systems, actors that we have shaped but that have evolved "lives" of their own.     

These resulting "actors" have wills that can get in our way at the least opportune time. As a general rule, the more complex the system, the stronger its will. I’ll give away a further clue that I hid in our book: where possible I tried to show the traces of other infrastructural ecologies in the photographs I illustrated the essays with. Can you find the frankenpine in the opening spread of the essay on the L. A. River? As these "ecologies" or as David Fletcher calls them in his essay on the River, "freakologies" interact and network together, they become much harder to control.     

Another thesis of the book is that many of these systems are invisible and an actor doesn’t have to be visible or formed to have a will of its own. Social structures can also be actors. This is most evident today in the glaring absence of infrastructure from the economic stimulus plan. 

There are a lot of false hopes out there about the plan and I’ve been doing what I can to get the truth out, especially since the LA Times review of our book that got the story about the plan so sadly, painfully wrong. For the real story, take a look at this piece from the Boston Globe: Only 5 percent of $819b plan would go toward infrastructure.

A graphic displays the stark reality.

I quote the Globe: 

The chairman of the transportation panel’s subcommittee on highways and transit, Peter DeFazio of Oregon, became so angry about the reduction in transportation spending that he recently accused Obama’s top economic adviser, Lawrence Summers, of arguing against such funds because he "hates infrastructure."

The Globe piece observes that the Obama administration hints at future funding for infrastructure, but thus far there it has given fans of infrastructure precious little reason to believe in it.

Instead of agreeing with Peter DeFazio and pinning the blame on one nefarious individual, I’d like to suggest an actor-network-theory reason for the failure.

Political systems have a life of their own. Obama’s administration has to fulfill immediate goals like passing the bill and making it seem like the average American is getting relief. Complex infrastructure projects take decades to build, unless you are in China and after last week we know very well what cutting corners will do. For political reasons Obama doesn’t have decades to wait, so even though he gives the impression of being a strong-willed, inspirational individual who wants to up-end the political machine, he is going for the quick fix.

In other words, we’ve created political ecologies that are going to stand in the way of moves to fund infrastructure.

What to do, then? This is the subject for future posts, but I’ll suggest two things. We need to face up to address the underlying political structures that prevent infrastructural spending, no matter that it is impossible to condense these into a sound bite and we need to use advanced technologies to invent new kinds of infrastructures, augmenting existing conditions. Ubiquitous computing is already here, Mike Kuniavsky suggests. How can we use it to overcome the rising problems of life in the city? 

Obviously, technological optimism is common in network culture. It’s only natural: we experience technological improvements everyday. A decade ago I spent $1,500 on my first digital camera. Yesterday I gave my six-year-old daughter a digital camera for her birthday. It was smaller and handily outperformed that original camera for less than 1/15th of the cost. Last year the iPhone 3G came out. Now I’ve stopped plotting out the route to an unknown destination before I get on my way. During the last year I finally got rid of my last desktop machine in favor of a laptop which I set to automatically backup my hard drive over the wireless network whenever I am at home. Of course I’m a bit of a geek by inclination and profession, but if you’re reading this blog I’m sure you’re familiar with this rapid pace of change firsthand. 

So it’s normal to extend our technological optimism beyond the home, to the city for example. But there’s another aspect of network culture that balances out technological optimism: non-human systems have drives of their own. A relatively new branch of sociology, actor-network theory (ANT) tries to make sense of this. Here’s a quote from Ole Hanseth and Eric Montiero’s book Understanding Information Infrastructure that sums up the main point:

The term "actor network", the A and N in ANT, is not very illuminating. It is hardly obvious what the term implies. The idea, however, is fairly simple. When going about doing your business — driving your car or writing a document using a word-processor — there are a lot of things that influence how you do it. For instance, when driving a car, you are influenced by traffic regulations, prior driving experience and the car’s manoeuvring abilities, the use of a word-processor is influenced by earlier experience using it, the functionality of the word-processor and so forth. All of these factors are related or connected to how you act. You do not go about doing your business in a total vacuum but rather under the influence of a wide range of surrounding factors. The act you are carrying out and all of these influencing factors should be considered together. This is exactly what the term actor network accomplishes. An actor network, then, is the act linked together with all of its influencing factors (which again are linked), producing a network.

We all know how frustrating technology can be when by design or by accident it prevents us from doing what we wanted to. You lose your iTunes library on your drive and you can’t copy it back off your iPod or re-download it from the store, a faulty fuel sensor puts your car in limp-home mode, your remote control can’t talk to your DVD player and so on. 

By design The Infrastructural City is intended for a general audience—it’s not unacademic, but I also didn’t want to weigh it down too much with theory—and none of my authors were sociologists so I didn’t ask anyone to address ANT. But, one of the book’s chief lessons—even the main lesson—is that infrastructures themselves are actors. The Los Angeles River is not natural anymore, it’s something else entirely. We are traffic, but because we aren’t going to change our behavior, adding more lanes to freeways isn’t going to work.

Understanding human and non-human systems puts The Infrastructural City in a lineage starting with Anton Wagner’s 1935 Los Angeles: Werden, Leben and Gestalt der Zweimillionenstadt in Sudenkalifornien and extending through Banham’s 1971 Los Angeles: The Architecture of Four Ecologies. 36 years elapsed between the first two books and another 37 years passed before our book came out. For both Wagner and Banham, cities were ecologies. Wagner, sponsored by the Nazi government, saw these quite literally: the Anglo-Saxon settlers in Southern California were shaped by the landscape. If Wagner’s sponsorship and eugenic thesis are repulsive, his idea of understanding both the setting and the settlers together was ground-breaking. Building on Wagner, Banham saw the city as composed of discrete landscapes—ecologies—populated by specific clusters of individuals who gave rise to specific kinds of buildings. 

Inexorably, the man-made has become more important. But acts of human volition—building a work of quality architecture, say, or even spearheading an infrastructural initiative—are fading in favor of complex systems, actors that we have shaped but that have evolved "lives" of their own.     

These resulting "actors" have wills that can get in our way at the least opportune time. As a general rule, the more complex the system, the stronger its will. I’ll give away a further clue that I hid in our book: where possible I tried to show the traces of other infrastructural ecologies in the photographs I illustrated the essays with. Can you find the frankenpine in the opening spread of the essay on the L. A. River? As these "ecologies" or as David Fletcher calls them in his essay on the River, "freakologies" interact and network together, they become much harder to control.     

Another thesis of the book is that many of these systems are invisible and an actor doesn’t have to be visible or formed to have a will of its own. Social structures can also be actors. This is most evident today in the glaring absence of infrastructure from the economic stimulus plan. 

There are a lot of false hopes out there about the plan and I’ve been doing what I can to get the truth out, especially since the LA Times review of our book that got the story about the plan so sadly, painfully wrong. For the real story, take a look at this piece from the Boston Globe: Only 5 percent of $819b plan would go toward infrastructure.

A graphic displays the stark reality.

I quote the Globe: 

The chairman of the transportation panel’s subcommittee on highways and transit, Peter DeFazio of Oregon, became so angry about the reduction in transportation spending that he recently accused Obama’s top economic adviser, Lawrence Summers, of arguing against such funds because he "hates infrastructure."

The Globe piece observes that the Obama administration hints at future funding for infrastructure, but thus far there it has given fans of infrastructure precious little reason to believe in it.

Instead of agreeing with Peter DeFazio and pinning the blame on one nefarious individual, I’d like to suggest an actor-network-theory reason for the failure.

Political systems have a life of their own. Obama’s administration has to fulfill immediate goals like passing the bill and making it seem like the average American is getting relief. Complex infrastructure projects take decades to build, unless you are in China and after last week we know very well what cutting corners will do. For political reasons Obama doesn’t have decades to wait, so even though he gives the impression of being a strong-willed, inspirational individual who wants to up-end the political machine, he is going for the quick fix.

In other words, we’ve created political ecologies that are going to stand in the way of moves to fund infrastructure.

What to do, then? This is the subject for future posts, but I’ll suggest two things. We need to face up to address the underlying political structures that prevent infrastructural spending, no matter that it is impossible to condense these into a sound bite and we need to use advanced technologies to invent new kinds of infrastructures, augmenting existing conditions. Ubiquitous computing is already here, Mike Kuniavsky suggests. How can we use it to overcome the rising problems of life in the city?