June 20, 2024

I’m developing a new course right now about cities and power, and as part of that, I’ve started to think of a city as, in part, a built response to its environment. Chicago, for instance, is where it because of water—specifically, the proximity of one river system to another, allowing people and goods to be transported via water from the Great lakes to the Mississippi River. But water was also, at least at the beginning, one of the city’s biggest problems; the area was essentially a swamp, and the soft, soggy soil forced innovations like the raising of the city by ten feet and the isolated pier foundation. So, water is why the city is where it is, as well as why it looks the way it does.

All of this has me thinking a lot about infrastructure: the roads, bridges, sewers, pipes, and cables that connect the parts of a city to one another. Infrastructure is what makes the difference between a cluster of buildings and a city, and, other than crime, it’s the main thing that city governments deal with. From one angle, governments create infrastructure to accomplish policy goals; from another, infrastructure needs dictate policy to governments.

And not only at the level of the city. I recently finished reading Where the Water Goes by David Owen, a fascinating look at the use and abuse of the Colorado River. The river is a vital water source for several states— in particular, Colorado, Arizona, Nevada, and California— and a tremendous amount of federal and state money, time, and energy has been poured into moving the water from where it is to where people want to use it. The Hoover Dam and Lake Mead, Glen Canyon Dam and Lake Powell, Parker Dam and Lake Havasu, the Colorado River Aqueduct and the All-American Canal, and Navajo Power Generating Station all exist largely to move water from the Colorado River from one place to another, over mountains, through deserts, to the fields and homes that depend on it. The demands on the water are thus tremendous, and, in fact, Owen points out that the water is vastly over-allocated: “If everyone used all the water they have a legal right to use, there would be much less than no water left” (228).

That underlines the fact that people and cities at one end of the river are very much dependent on the actions of people at the other end— not only for the obvious reason that the water flows in one direction. It’s also because the legal standard governing water use on the western United States, known as the doctrine of prior appropriation, means that the oldest claim to the water always has priority, even if the oldest claimant taking all of their share results in nobody else getting any at all. As Owen puts it, “…probably the most significant feature of the prior-appropriation system is that, during times of shortage, sacrifices are made from the bottom of the priority list up, rather than shared.” That means that the effects of water usage go upstream as well as down, and makes the connections created by the river as difficult to navigate as the river itself.

Those connections are defined in part by laws, but also by the physical infrastructure that moves the water around. For instance, the regulations that govern the use of the Colorado River make an artificial distinction between the river’s upper and lower basin, dividing what is in reality a single drainage area into two pieces. Upper Basin states have different rights and obligations than those in the Lower Basin. The reasons for this are political, and have to do with the negotiation of the Colorado River Compact, enacted in 1922. Once defined, though, the upper/lower distinction was given material reality through infrastructure, like dams and canals and pumping stations, which move water according to this division of the basin and reflect the different rights and responsibilities of states in the two zones.

The power of infrastructure to create and, in a sense, enforce connections and relationships is also at work in “Drought as Infrastructural Event” by Ashley Carse, a piece (and a site) that I stumbled across by accident a couple of weeks ago. Again, there’s a lot in the piece, but it’s partly about how the United States used infrastructure to, in essence, assert sovereignty over the area surrounding the Panama Canal, defining a “canal zone” that was under American jurisdiction though most of the 20th century. Panama does derive huge economic benefit from the canal, but it came with some significant strings attached. One of these (and this is the connection with Owen’s book) was the use of a vast amount of water for the canal. To go through the Panama Canal, ships must actually be lifted about 85 feet, to the elevation of the artificial Gatun Lake, the creation of which which made it possible to avoid actually digging the canal all the way through the isthmus. The ships are raised to the level of the lake, go across it, and are then lowered back down to sea level on the other side. The raising and lowering is accomplished with a series of three locks, which are filled with the ships in them, lifting them from one section to the next. The lake and the locks are both fed by rivers, especially the Chagres River (which was dammed to create the lake), and so the canal uses fresh water, rather the sea water— two billion gallons of fresh water per day. (An ongoing expansion of the canal should actually reduce that by allowing some of the water released from the locks to be reused).

This water use hasn’t generally been seen as a major problem, since Panama is one of the wettest countries in the world, and the lake is usually refilled during the annual rainy season. A recent dry year, though, led some to question the assumptions under which the canal operates. Carse is arguing is that the canal is an example of the role that infrastructure plays in ostensibly “natural” events, like a drought, which is in fact not a meteorological event alone, but the result of a combination of weather, climate, and infrastructure. There was, clearly, a late rainy season in Panama, caused mainly by El Nino, but the reason this threatened to become a drought has as much to do with the way that water in Panama was being used, and the claims made upon it. The design of the canal creates a need for that two billion gallons per day, beyond what people might use to drink or bathe or flush their toilets. So, if drought is having less water than what is needed, it will be defined in part by how much is expected, and that in turns depends, in part, on infrastructural design.

Given the centrality of the canal to Panama’s economy— something like 14% of the country’s GDP comes directly from the canal— keeping it running is necessarily going to be a priority. Add to that the fact that about 5% of global oceangoing cargo goes through the canal, and there’s a real sense in which, even in a time of shortage, shutting down the canal to save water is simply not an option. Once built, and precisely because it is successful, the canal becomes an imperative, or a condition within which decisions must be made.

By the same token, infrastructure, by virtue of the same characteristics that make it indispensable in creating links across territories and jurisdictions, can push back against its integration and, so to speak, assert its own interests. In “Inside LAX’s New Anti-Terrorism Intelligence Unit”, Geoff Manaugh describes the creation of an independent intelligence gathering operation at Los Angeles International airport. This move is driven by a sense that neither national intelligence agencies like the FBI nor local police are able to sufficiently integrate information about threats to the airport as such, despite the fact that a large airport is a prime target— and LAX is larger than most.

LAX is a city within a city. At more than five square miles, it is only slightly smaller than Beverly Hills. More than 50,000 badged employees report to work there each day, many with direct access to the airfield—and thus to the vulnerable aircraft waiting upon it. More than 100,000 passenger vehicles use the airport’s roads and parking lots every day, and, in 2015 alone, LAX hosted 75 million passengers in combined departures and arrivals.

LAX is also policed like a city. The airport has its own SWAT team—known as the Emergency Services Unit—and employs roughly 500 sworn police officers, double the number of cops in the well-off city of Pasadena and more than the total number of state police in all of Rhode Island.

In other words, because the various other security agencies lack the resources and the specific competence to protect the airport, the airport must protect itself. The infrastructure, as such, faces distinct threats, and so must (it is argued) develop its own mechanisms to protect against those threats.

So, there’s a tension between the integrative force of infrastructure and the fact that, once the links it creates become sufficiently important, the infrastructure moves beyond the competence of the existing security apparatus. This is especially true if the function of a piece of infrastructure is to provide a point of transition from one jurisdiction to another. It’s not unlike the power of large multinational corporations to go “venue shopping,” choosing the regulations and tax laws they prefer. The difference, though, is that infrastructure is generally owned and managed at least party by states, and, unlike a big corporation, is not supposed to have goals or purposes separate from those of the state that manages it, as corporations do. To put that another way, we expect there to be tension and conflict between corporations that want to make money and states that want to regulate how they do it, but we don’t expect the same kind of tension with infrastructure, because that is part of the state. That assumption is complicated when infrastructure or its management is contracted to private companies, but what I’m talking about could happen even in cases where that does not occur. Simply because the links and nodes created by infrastructure become so vital for so many different interests, in so many different places, they become in effect an independent interest in themselves. LAX is a kind of island in the city of Los Angles, in the city but outside of it at the same time, which means that the thing that links the city to other parts of the country and the world is, itself, partly removed from the city’s jurisdiction, practically if not legally.

In a sense, the major problem with the Colorado River is that this has not happened; the river has, so to speak, no means of defending itself. against the competing claims that are collectively unsustainable. This might be because, while it obviously creates links between the various states and cities that depend on it in the sense that what one does affects all the others, the river doesn’t really link those various constituencies to one another in any other sense. (It would be a different matter if it were used for transport, as the rivers around Chicago were). It’s not a path or a route from one of them to the others, but a link between each of them and the ultimate source of the water. In other words, the fact that the river connects LA to Denver is, for the purposes of both cities, at best incidental and at worst an obstacle. Neither would mind if the other were somehow disconnected from the river and all claims upon it. Think of two people pulling on a wishbone: neither is interested in sustaining the link the bone forms between them; both just want the larger piece, and neither cares that the bone will snap in the process of deciding who gets it. But in the case of a road or a bridge or an airport or a canal intended for transporting cargo, the link is the point; if it ceases to connect two or more sites effectively, it no longer serves its purpose.

“The Sociology of the Smartphone” by Adam Greenfield, is also, from a somewhat different angle, about how the infrastructures we depend upon can move beyond our control, in part precisely because of how much we depend upon them. There’s a lot in this excerpt (and presumably even more in the book it’s excerpted from), and it’s more than worth your time to read through, but I’m going to focus on the point that Greenfield makes about the infrastructure that the smartphone requires to do all of the things we now expect it to do.

Most obviously, in using them to navigate, we become reliant on access to the network to accomplish ordinary goals. In giving ourselves over to a way of knowing the world that relies completely on real-time access, we find ourselves at the mercy of something more contingent, more fallible and far more complicated than any paper map. Consider what happens when someone in motion loses their connection to the network, even briefly: lose connectivity even for the time it takes to move a few meters, and they may well find that they have been reduced to a blue dot traversing a featureless field of grey. At such moments we come face to face with a fact we generally overlook, and may even prefer to ignore: the performance of everyday life as mediated by the smartphone depends on a vast and elaborate infrastructure that is ordinarily invisible to us.

Beyond the satellites, camera cars and servers we’ve already identified, the moment-to-moment flow of our experience rests vitally on the smooth interfunctioning of all the many parts of this infrastructure—an extraordinarily heterogeneous and unstable meshwork, in which cellular base stations, undersea cables, and microwave relays are all invoked in what seem like the simplest and most straightforward tasks we perform with the device. The very first lesson of mapping on the smartphone, then, is that the handset is primarily a tangible way of engaging something much subtler and harder to discern, on which we have suddenly become reliant and over which we have virtually no meaningful control.

A defining characteristic of this infrastructure is that it is mostly invisible to us, and complex beyond most of our ability to comprehend. Most of us don’t really know how a bridge is built—certainly not well enough to design one ourselves— but the basic idea is a simple one: a platform with some kind of support structure underneath that allows us to move more easily over some obstacle. This becomes less true with, say, the telegraph or land-line telephone, but these are still more or less intelligible, in a general way: electricity is being carried through a metal cable. But the technologies that we interact with via smartphones are, first of all, wireless (at least for the end user), and involve not only more complicated technologies like satellites and, well, the internet, but also interactions between those technologies. Using maps on a phone, for instance, involves, at least, GPS satellites, a WiFi or cellular network, and a system of servers that holds and delivers the map data (which has to use information from the GPS and, probably, cellular network to figure out which parts of that data we need to see right now). Each of those parts has to be coordinated with the others to be useful; it’s obvious to us when this coordination fails, but we generally have little grasp of what is involved in making it work.

Another aspect of this new infrastructure, which Greenfield also point out, is that it is only partly public; large parts of it are owned or operated, or both, by private companies. This means that

We tend to assume that our maps are objective accounts of the environment, diagrams that simply describe what is there to be found. In truth, they’re nothing of the sort; our sense of the world is subtly conditioned by information that is presented to us for interested reasons, and yet does not disclose that interest.

You don’t have to be a conspiracy theorist to think that this has important consequences. We are increasingly dependent on infrastructure whose owners could simply decide to stop providing to us, or to change the terms on which they provide it (which in fact they do, in smaller ways, all the time). A bad business decision could drive a company out of business, leaving the cables and antennae and servers it manages out of commission, or up for grabs. Things like mergers and acquisitions transfer not just shares of stock, but control of the channels through which we now route a substantial portion of our lives.

All of this reveals, I think, the connections between infrastructure and power. Rather than merely a means of providing services, roads, bridges, cables, canals, and dams are how governments— and, increasingly, private actors— control territories and the people in them. They aren’t merely a measure of whether or how well government works; they are how it works. That’s worth thinking about as the present government of the United States <a href=”https://www.nytimes.com/2017/06/03/us/politics/trump-plans-to-shift-infrastructure-funding-to-cities-states-and-business.html?pagewanted=all”>considers a massive infrastructure plan</a> that would shift a lot of the control and management of these links to private companies.

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