Some new ways to look at infrastructure

Nothing challenges our understanding of infrastructure better than a crisis, and we have a big one now in Houston. We do with every giant storm, of course. New York is still recovering from Sandy and New Orleans from Katrina. Reforms and adaptations always follow, as civilization learns from experience.

Look at aviation, for example. Houston is the 4th largest city in the U.S. and George Bush International Airport (aka IAH) is a major hub for United Airlines. For the last few days traffic there has been sphinctered down to emergency flights alone. You can see how this looks on FlightAware’s Miserymap:

Go there and click on the blue play button to see how flight cancellations have played over time, and how the flood in Houston has affected Dallas as well. Click on the airport’s donut to see what routes are most affected. Frequent fliers like myself rely on tools like this

made possible by a collection of digital technologies working over the Internet.

The airport itself is on Houston’s north side, and not flooded. Its main problem instead has been people. Countless workers have been unable to come in because they’re trapped in the flood, busy helping neighbors or barely starting to deal with lives of their own and others that have been inconvenienced, ruined or in sudden need of large repair.

Aviation just one of modern civilization’s infrastructures. Roads are another. Early in the flood, when cars were first stranded on roads, Google Maps, which gets its traffic information from cell phones, showed grids of solid red lines on the city’s flooded streets. Now those same streets are blank, because the cell phones have departed and the cars aren’t moving.

The cell phone system itself, however, has been one of the stars in the Houston drama. Harvey shows progress on emergency communications since Katrina, says a Wired headline from yesterday. Only 4% of the areas cells were knocked out.

Right now the flood waters are at their record heights, or even rising. Learnings about extant infrastructures have already commenced, and will accumulate as the city drains and dries. It should help to have a deeper understanding of what infrastructure really is, and what it’s doing where it is, than we have so far.

I say that because infrastructure is still new as a concept. As a word, infrastructure has only been in common use since the 1960s:

In The Etymology of Infrastructure and the Infrastructure of the InternetStephen Lewis writes,

Infrastructure indeed entered the English language as a loan word from French in which it had been a railroad engineering term.  A 1927 edition of the Oxford indeed mentioned the word in the context of “… the tunnels, bridges, culverts, and ‘infrastructure work’ of the French railroads.”  After World War II, “infrastructure” reemerged as in-house jargon within NATO, this time referring to fixed installations necessary for the operations of armed forces and to capital investments considered necessary to secure the security of Europe…

Within my own memory the use of the word “infrastructure” had spilled into the contexts of urban management and regions national development and into the private sector… used to refer to those massive capital investments (water, subways, roads, bridges, tunnels, schools, hospitals, etc.) necessary to city’s economy and the lives of its inhabitants and businesses enterprises but too massive and too critical to be conceived, implemented, and run at a profit or to be trusted to the private sector…

In recent years, in the United States at least, infrastructure is a word widely used but an aspect of economic life and social cohesion known more by its collapse and abandonment and raffling off to the private sector than by its implementation, well-functioning, and expansion.

As Steve also mentions in that piece, he and I are among the relatively small number of people (at least compared to those occupying the familiar academic disciplines) who have paid close attention to the topic for some time.

The top dog in this pack (at least for me) is Brett Frischmann, the Villanova Law professor whose book Infrastructure: The Social Value of Shared Resources (Oxford, 2013) anchors the small and still young canon of work on the topic. Writes Brett,

Infrastructure resources entail long term commitments with deep consequences for the public. Infrastructures are a prerequisite for economic and social development. Infrastructures shape complex systems of human activity, including economic, cultural, and political systems. That is, infrastructures affect the behaviour of individuals, firms, households, and other organizations by providing and shaping the available opportunities of these actors to participate in these systems and to interact with each other.

The emphasis is mine, because I am curious about how shaping works. Specifically, How does infrastructure shape all those things—and each of us as well?

Here is a good example of people being shaped, in this case by mobile phones:

I shot that photo on my own phone in a New York subway a few months ago. As you see, everybody in that car is fully preoccupied with their personal rectangle. These people are not the same as they were ten or even five years ago. Nor are the “firms, households and other organizations” in which they participate. Nor is the subway itself, now that all four major mobile phone carriers cover every station in the city. At good speeds too:

We don’t know if Marshall McLuhan said “we shape our tools and then our tools shape us,” but it was clearly one of his core teachings (In fact the line comes from Father John Culkin, SJ, a Professor of Communication at Fordham and a colleague of McLuhan’s. Whether or not Culkin got it from McLuhan we’ll never know.) As aphorisms go, it’s a close relative to the subtitle of McLuhan’s magnum opus, Understanding Media: the Extensions of Man (Berkeley, 1964, 1994, 2003). The two are compressed into his most quoted line, “the medium is the message,” which says that every medium changes us while also extending us.

In The Medium is the Massage: an Inventory of Effects (Gingko, 1967, 2001), McLuhan explains it this way: “All media work us over completely. They are so pervasive… that they leave no part of us untouched unaffected, unaltered… Any understanding of social and cultural change is impossible without a knowledge of the way media work as environments.”

Specifically, “All media are extensions of some human faculty—psychic or physical. The wheel is an extension of the foot.The book is an extension of the eye. Clothing, an extension of the skin. Electric curcuitry, an extension of the central nervous system. Media, by altering the environment, evoke in us unique ratios of sense perceptins. The extension of any once sense alters the way we think and act—the way we perceive the world. When these things change, men change.”

He also wasn’t just talking communications media. He was talking about everything we make, which in turn make us. As Eric McLuhan (Marshall’s son and collaborator) explains in Laws of Media: The New Science (Toronto, 1988), “media” meant “everything man[kind] makes and does, every procedure, every style, every artefact, every poem, song, painting, gimmick, gadget, theory—every product of human effort.”

Chief among the laws Marshall and Eric minted is the tetrad of media effects. (A tetrad is a group of four.) It says every medium, every technology, has effects that refract in four dimensions that also affect each other. Here’s a graphic representation of them:

They apply these laws heuristically, through questions:

  1. What does a medium enhance?
  2. What does it obsolesce?
  3. What does it retrieve that had been obsolesced earlier?
  4. What does it reverse or flip into when pushed to its extreme (for example, by becoming ubiquitous)?

Questions are required because there can be many different effects, and many different answers. All can change. All can be argued. All can work us over.

One workover happened right here, with this blog. In fact, feeling worked over was one of the reasons I dug back into McLuhan, who I had been ignoring for decades.

Here’s the workover…

In the heyday of blogging, back in the early ’00s, this blog’s predecessor (at had about 20,000 subscribers to its RSS feed, and readers that numbered in up to dozens of thousand per day. Now it gets dozens. On a good day, maybe hundreds. What happened?

In two words, social media. When I put that in the middle of the tetrad, four answers that jumped to mind:

In the ENHANCED corner, Social media surely makes everyone more social, in the purely convivial sense of the word. Suddenly we have hundreds or thousands of “friends” (Facebook, Swarm, Instagram), “followers” (Twitter) and “contacts” (Linkedin). Never mind that we know few of their birthdays, parents names or other stuff we used to care about. We’re social with them now.

Blogging clearly got OBSOLESCED, but—far more importantly—so did the rest of journalism. And I say this as a journalist who once made a living at the profession and now, like everybody else who once did the same, now make squat. What used to be business of journalism is now the business of “content production,” because that’s what social media and its publishing co-dependents get paid by advertising robots to produce in the world. What’s more, anybody can now participate. Look at that subway car photo above. Any one of those people, or all of them, are journalists now. They write and post in journals of various kinds on social media. Some of what they produce is news, if you want to call it that. But hell, news itself is worked over completely. (More about that in a minute.)

We’ve RETRIEVED gossip, which journalism, the academy and the legal profession had obsolesced (by saying, essentially, “we’re in charge of truth and facts”). In Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind (Harper, 2015), Yuval Noah Harari says gossip was essential for our survival as hunter-gatherers: “Social cooperation is our key for survival and reproduction. It is not enough for individual men and women to know the whereabouts of lions and bisons.. It’s much more important for them to know who in their band hates whom, who is sleeping with whom, who is honest and who is a cheat.” And now we can do that with anybody and everybody, across the vast yet spaceless nowhere we call the Internet, and to hell with the old formalisms of journalism, education and law.

And social media has also clearly REVERSED us into tribes, especially in the news we produce and consume, much of it to wage verbal war with each other. Or worse. For a view of how that works, check out The Wall Street Journal‘s Red Feed / Blue Feed site, which shows the completely opposed (and hostile) views of the world that Facebook injects into the news feeds of people its algorithms consider “very liberal” or “very conservative.”

Is social media infrastructure? I suppose so. The mobile phone network certainly is. And right now we’re glad to have it, because Houston, the fourth largest city in the U.S., is suffering perhaps the worst natural disaster in the country’s history, and the cell phone system is holding up remarkably well, so far. Countless lives are being saved by it, and it will certainly remain the most essential communication system as the city recovers and rebuilds.

Meanwhile, however, it also makes sense to refract the mobile phone through the tetrad. I did that right after I shot the photo above, in this blog post. In it I said smartphones—

  • Enhance conversation
  • Obsolesce mass media (print, radio, TV, cinema, whatever)
  • Retrieve personal agency (the ability to act with effect in the world)
  • Reverse into isolation (also into lost privacy through exposure to surveillance and exploitation)

But why listen to me when the McLuhans were on the case almost three decades earlier? This is from Gregory Sandstrom‘s “Laws of media—The four effects: A Mcluhan contribution to social epistemology” (SERCC, November 11, 2012)—

The REVERSES items might be off, the but others are right on. (Whoa: cameras!)

The problem here, however, is the tendency we have to get caught up in effects. While those are all interesting, the McLuhans want us to look below those, to causes. This is hard because effects are figures, and causes are grounds: the contexts from which figures arise. From Marshall and Eric McLuhan’s Media and Formal Cause (Neopoesis, 2011): “Novelty becomes cliché through use. And constant use creates a new hidden environment while simultaneously pushing the old invisible ground into prominence, as a new figure, learly visible for the first time. Every innovation scraps its immediate predecessor and retrieves still older figures; it causes floods of antiquites or nostalgic art forms and stimulates the search for ‘museum pieces’.”

We see this illustrated by Isabelle Adams in her paper “What Would McLuhan Say about the Smartphone? Applying McLuhan’s Tetrad to the Smartphone” (Glocality, 2106):


Laws of Media again: “The motor car retrieved the countryside, scrapped the inner core of the city, and created suburban megalopolis. Invention is the mother of necessities, old and new.”

We tend to see it the other way around, with necessity mothering invention. It should help to learn from the McLuhans that what we think we need is what we invent in order to need it.

(I have much more to say about this, but I need to hit the road. Stay tuned.)


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