The first edition of inter·mission, discussing issues of infrastructure and urbanism. Download PDF.
Note from the Editors
The word infrastructure emerged in the late 19th century to describe the systems of roads and canals being built in an industrializing Europe. While forms of infrastructure existed in ancient civilizations long before then, rapid urbanization of the Western world brought about the need for larger, more capable, centralized distribution and organizational networks.
Today, infrastructures as we usually understand them—water, roads, or electricity—are often described as a category of “public works.” Along with hospitals, schools, and parks, they are a responsibility of the government, a public service. But in a world where schools are increasingly private or charter, and parks and public spaces are privately held and controlled, we ask the question: has infrastructure ever really been public? The Manhattan Company began the first “public” water project in New York in 1799, with the sole purpose of acquiring capital to enter the banking industry. That “bank” was fully operational just a year later. Today that bank is named JPMorgan Chase and Company.
New York is not an isolated case. Seventy-three million Americans are serviced by private water companies, operating over 2,000 facilities. Private water is a nearly $100 billion industry. The government does not provide public utilities. Instead, the government grants contracts and manages coercive monopolies; they are a financial intermediary. Our needs are not being met by the government, because private companies are creating our needs, and capitalizing on them.
Infrastructures are not neutral—they have never been neutral. The influences of economics and culture manifest themselves in the built environment, whether those interests are individual or communal. In this issue of inter·mission, we explore the methods through which infrastructures adapt to, grow with, and inform life today.
The Infrastructure of Our Time
Prineville, Oregon — There’s a low, constant hum, a whir in the air, the sound of thousands of tiny fans, cooling off the servers that hold our profile pictures from middle school, birthday wishes from Grandma, and the number of times Sharon has poked you. Large, 160-acre warehouses, large enough to contain half of the NFL’s Sunday football games at once, plop down, one after the other in rural Oregon — these are the data centers of Facebook, Google, and Apple. Thousands of miles of cable, millions of tiny blinking lights, the heartbeat of our modern society, this is the infrastructure of our time.
With all this talk of “the cloud,” it’s easy to forget that the 6 drunk text messages you sent last night, that you’re “really, really sorry for,” are physical. Hundreds of thousands of miles of cable string across our planet, transferring money, sending love letters, and beaming videos of Pewdiepie. Ninety-nine percent of international data is transmitted by wires at the bottom of the ocean. Contrary to the infrastructure of roads and train tracks, the digital highways of now are privately laid, owned, and maintained. Access is not an inherent right, and whether or not net neutrality dies, the dissemination of modern information has always been controlled privately. The town square — that now takes the form of a scrolling blue light in the palm of our hands — is privately held and controlled, with unknown barriers of entry. When we open our phones and go for a drive down this Digital Boulevard, we implicitly pass and pay tolls to the booths that line these highways—with every glance at an ad, cookie accepted, and click we make, Facebook stores a part of us.
As we continue down this Boulevard, along the steel and petroleum jelly wrapped fibres, we end up in Prineville, somewhere in the vast array of Facebook’s server trays, each 19-inches wide.1 Facebook, Apple, and Google site their data centers here in the hills of Oregon at the confluence of cheap hydropower, tax incentives, and a moderate, dry climate. While Facebook boasts their Prineville data center as both the functional and symbolic center of their company philosophy on sharing, the design seems to confuse banality with secrecy. Obscuring these 300,000 square feet boxes into the landscape of central Oregon makes the myth of the cloud live on. This is not the Hoover Dam Bypass or the Golden Gate Bridge, this is a state of the art, climate-controlled, corrugated steel, shed. These are spaces we simultaneously occupy, but can never enter. Yet, these rows and rows of blinking LEDs are our modern canals, our new bridges to the world. The infrastructure of our time is everywhere and nowhere.
These data centers are what the industry has termed “mission critical facilities” because of the potential business fallout that could occur if the facility went down or service was interrupted. In other words, the mission is to make money, and the potential to lose money makes this situation inherently critical. The building systems are redundant; they use multiple paths of power, cooling, and ventilation. These buildings and their systems require such a specific set of knowledge there are only about 4 or 5 architects responsible for designing all of them—in the world. Tomorrow’s roads and canals, sewers and bridges, tomorrow’s infrastructure is being designed inside a vacuum, by the same 5 people. Surely this isn’t the way we pictured the future.2
These data centers have created new, well paying jobs. Unemployment in Prineville went down to 4.4% last year, the lowest it’s been since the 60s, and the town’s population continues to increase. However, the power of tech’s gentrification machine doesn’t seem to be constricted to the Bay Area. In typical neoliberal fashion, the higher paying jobs have brought with them rising housing prices, and people are finding it hard to afford to live there. Where does someone getting priced out of rural America go? Facebook doesn’t care, the infrastructure they’ve created today is only concerned with where we live digitally—the statuses, the photos, the data, that is our modern life.
Each photo we post is obliterated into thousands of fragments, each fragment finding a temporary home on a different server, often in different buildings. If an entire tower went down in Prineville, all of those photos of grandma blowing out her candles at her 85th last year, they’d be fine. These centers aren’t designed, they are logical, calculated, maximized for efficiency. Maybe the way these bytes live on their servers is what we’ve always wanted—complete decentralization, communal, shared living, no two servers identical, all playing a part in a larger effort to give refuge to our data, our lives.
The sun has set in Prineville, as we drift to sleep, our anonymous, digital souls blink on, bits and bytes flying along cables 10,000 feet below the surface of the ocean. These cables are where wars3 will start, people will fall in love, and the answers to our future will be debated—it’s time to have a say in their development.
1 This dimension has become the new golden rectangle, the measurement by which this new infrastructure is built on. So much so, in fact, that Facebook’s European data centers are imperial in plan, and metric in section.
2 Little did we know that has been the case for decades—infrastructure has never been democratic.
3 Via Tweet from our Commander in Chief, of course.
In Conversation with Christine Mondor
What is your reaction to Keller Easterling’s work related to “Medium Design” and the relationships between unexploited systems of power?
Christine Mondor: What Easterling describes as Medium Design aligns with our studio’s focus this semester, where we examine the interdependencies of networks enabled by infrastructure. We only produce declarations, solutions, and master plans when we focus on the substance of spatial production and not its underlying structural relationships. Medium Design alters the relationships between objects, rather than just the objects themselves, and changes the way we describe and proliferate those relationships. Designers must query both the physical artifacts of spatial production as well as the underlying relationships that organize form and space. Structures of control are created by the movement of power, ideas, and resources that are enabled by infrastructure. We must understand relational behavior at all scales—global, regional, as well as organizational and personal.
Could you elaborate on your understanding of infrastructure as it relates to design?
CM: Infrastructure is, by its very nature, relational. It exists independently as an artifact but is always defined by that which it enables, which is what makes it so difficult to conceive. Infrastructure requires us to design the invisible as well as the visible. It differs from other design in that first, our designs are contingent on the flows of energy, time, resources, or influence, and require us to think in scenarios instead of solutions. We acknowledge design’s lack of control but strive to understand its potential to influence and the latent power of those who interact with our design. Second, our designs are indeterminants and we structure relationships that will create continually-evolving future conditions. Like a plant with an indeterminate structure, there are ways that it is likely to grow, but we cannot know exactly how it will evolve. Third, our design is networked and we have to jump scales from settings to systems and back again. Paul Edwards wonderfully describes how each of the macro, meso, and micro scales contributes to the success of infrastructure. There are design opportunities at each scale. We need to design the setting with an awareness of the power and forces of the global system, but likewise, we need to insert ourselves in the design of the systems that birth those settings.
Do you think the role of architects should be geared more towards infrastructure and the so-called “invisible forces” that Keller Easterling speaks about?
CM: Absolutely. We are always seeking patterns and meanings behind those patterns. In some cases, we might need to shift the pattern, or create a new one. Understanding how we influence and are influenced by those larger systems is key to us understanding and being effective in our roles as designers of buildings and spaces. As an integral part of the global reproduction of value, we need to perceive, visualize, and represent otherwise invisible relationships. We exist not just as outsiders, giving commentary at a distance, nor are we limited to being cogs in the global machine of production. It is our responsibility to be critical of the system itself, even as we help to construct it.
How do you see those modes of being effective relating to your work in the Pittsburgh City Planning Commission?
CM: Once you see something a certain way, you can never go back to seeing it another way. We must ask if an urban place is the result of the designer’s intention, or of the capital that was infused into it? Was it a result of community and sociocultural forces, or legislation and ordinances? All of these influences contribute to architecture, but are difficult to talk about without first understanding them. Architecture is never a self-referential profession; it is always deeply embedded in its context, and its context is related to these different scales. Certainly the types of conversations we’re having in City Planning—as we begin to grow and wrestle with equity or infrastructure failure and infrastructure reinvention—all need to be addressed.
How do you see the translation of these concepts into our studio projects—even into architecture? Despite discussing these influences, we often design projects around assumptions that neglect factors of policy or social equity.
CM: We need to be working in teams, where people are simultaneously creating the physical form and then questioning it, or creating the business case and then questioning it. In studio, we often only have time to focus on form and space. In the beginning of the semester, we had more conversations about social and ethical components. On this topic of transportation, we need to understand what the spatial patterns are so we can understand what the ethical issues are too. While we cannot be overly optimistic at the base level, it is a huge question at the spatial production level. It is hard to predict the implications of the models we are proposing. We are in a unique position to confront the potential dark side of designing the invisible. It is not just well-intentioned designers or civil servants who have the ability to perceive, visualize, and structure invisible relationships, but also those who would deeply benefit by the aggregation of power and who, perhaps, lack a sense of the common good — the moral and ethical matrix. This is why it is important that we teach this at the undergraduate level.
Notes on Architecture in the Age of the Electronosphere
In “The Cruelty of Numbers,” architectural theorist Sanford Kwinter describes the common classification of modernization into the “mechanical” (deterministic and rudimentary industrial processes) and the “electronic” (pseudo-systemic digital processes) as a means to obscure the restructuring of social spaces. He critiques contemporary design discourse for its wholesale embrace of the electronic masquerade, wherein technologically-rooted design attempts to imitate natural processes of metabolism in the service of capital accumulation. The commodity of this strain of design is found in its ethos of a “return to basics” of material intelligence - in a striking semantic reversal, the (pre-existing) systemic complexity within the ‘natural’ world is restored (as though it ever disappeared?) through an embrace of technology. He views this development as particularly problematic given the demonstrable potential of computational environments to covertly shape a new (electronic) subjectivity (the perfected apolitical consumer) within an “imperceptible experiential envelope” that excludes nondeterministic modes of social production.1 The French philosopher Felix Guattari characterizes this space more specifically as a “monstrous reinforcement of earlier systems of alienation.”2 The narrative of late-capitalist development post-rationalizes itself through the construction of these electronic systems and neo-empirical readings of the landscape (that conceal the sociospatial violences of the truly emergent urban political ecology in which capitalism is but a construct) in favor of a sanitized “closed city of internet sociality.”3 The notion of ‘flow’ is not considered inherent to the nature of space-time-being, but rather as novel and instrumental to a capital-centric end.
To deconstruct this argument in relation to the failings of spatial design and planning practices one can compare the differences between the mechanical/industrial paradigm of capital production, and the electronic/technological knowledge-based economy. The conceptual divide here is in fact a sociopolitical construct, one with evident repercussions manifest in the ever-growing gap between intentionality and realization of built projects. This partitioning of history not only serves to inflect technological development with novelty that entices designers with infinite morphological and performative possibility, but also to further obfuscate the tangible impact of capital accumulation and the politics that produce them as they play out in city-regions across the globe. In fact, if we understand that the uncritical adoption of technology can (and often does) play into the same modernist project of progress for the sake of capital ends, then such practices, despite their deployment of compensational rhetoric, are complicit in the production of the very conditions they claim to be dismantling. The placating nature of such superficial practice thus derails the means and distracts from the end of a socioecologically situated design praxis.
Nonetheless, Kwinter in no way uses his critique as a means to wholeheartedly discredit the technologies of the “electronosphere,” but rather calls for their utilization in matter with metabolic meaning while vigilantly maintaining a politically situated understanding of their conception and instrumentalization for ulterior purposes. Through such a practice, we can begin to see the ways in which the material world itself is embedded in exchange networks. Human intervention is inevitably part of the material ecology in which no design concept can make novel for its own self-righteous ends.
In an alternative (yet not incongruous) perspective, Guattari calls for the reappropriation of subjective production by the individual as a response to the growing pressure to submit to the cult of the electronic. He proposes a situated response by way of creatively reversing the presumed naturalism of technological development and its political undertones.4 Following from the intentionality of experience as espoused by the Situationist International, this radical subjectivity has the potential to destabilize linear narratives of technological progress in favor of a reading of the social (and perhaps material) relations of their production.
Keller Easterling externalizes such Situationist practice by constructing relations that constitute the built environment through “medium design”. Instead of tackling problems with the “same perennial (technological) tools”, she argues that infrastructures, both organizational and material, can be reconceived through the way in which they coordinate the embedded information of spatial practices across a network.5 Such a design practice does not preclude the utilization of technology in the management of increasingly insurmountable quantities of data, but like that of Kwinter, calls for the constant vigilance towards the intent. While Easterling’s design of infrastructural relations definitively challenges the hegemonic obfuscation of capital accumulation, it remains to be seen how such a conception of design practice will stand the test of time as the avant-garde falls from the fore.
The infrastructure of social relations within space, whether virtual or material, continues forward under the prevailing mode of capitalist development. The project here thus remains primarily to deconstruct the notion that technology alone can liberate us from this auto-catalyzing cycle of modernization and its impending crisis.6 Such pursuit is at its base a design of culture through intervention in the status quo. Invigorated by a conscientious adoption of technology as medium rather than object, such a design practice becomes simultaneously intellectual, social, and material - an urban discourse of its own breed that has the the radical potential to destabilize inculcated presumptions about the nature of the Problem.
1 Kwinter, Sanford, ‘The Cruelty of Numbers’, in Far From Equilibrium: Essays on Technology and Design Culture, ed. by Cynthia Davidson (New York: Actar, 2008), 97.
2 Guattari, Félix, ‘Regimes, Pathways, Subjects’, in Zone 6: Incorporation, ed. by Sanford Kwinter and Jonathan Crary (New York, NY: Zone Books, 1992), 29.
3 Ibid, 18.
4 Guattari, Félix, ‘Regimes, Pathways, Subjects’, in Zone 6: Incorporation, ed. by Sanford Kwinter and Jonathan Crary (New York, NY: Zone Books, 1992), 35.
5 Easterling, Keller, ‘Medium Design’ (Carnegie Mellon University, 2017).
6 For more on the root of cycles of modernization, see: De Landa, Manuel, ‘Lavas and Magmas’, in A Thousand Years of Nonlinear History (New York: Zone Books, 1997), pp. 25–99.
Is Our Future Autonomous?
8:12 PM, April 14, 2017 — As I stood outside of Giant Eagle with a friend and a bag of groceries, my phone alerted me to the self-driving Uber on its way. For months I had seen the sleek branded SUVs roaming the streets with their distinctive spinning LiDARs.1 When Uber launched its first fleet in 2016, the city welcomed the new technology with open arms, championing Pittsburgh as the next innovation hub.
The experience in the car was well-curated; an iPad strategically placed for selfie-taking immediately prompted us to share our ride on various social media, then impressed us with digital displays of voxels2 whizzing by. The driver was accompanied by an engineer in the passenger seat, and the two traded off fun facts between answering our many questions. We oohed and aahed at all the right places, and when the guy holding the laptop told us that driverless cars would be operational on the road in ten years, we believed him.
Four months later, I was standing outside the same Giant Eagle with the same friend and an even heavier bag of groceries when another notification for a self-driving Uber—look out for Gerry!—popped up.
He asked if we had been in a self-driving car before, and we replied that it was our second time. He didn’t add any other information. Apparently there were no fun facts for second-time riders.
I asked, “Would it be alright if you could drop us off at two destinations?”
“Sorry, the software doesn’t allow that.”
Wait. What? “There’s no way to override, or change the destination or something?”
He shrugged. “Sorry, the software just doesn’t do that. Is your destination along the route?”
“Not really, but it’s only a few minutes away.”
“Then you can call another Uber when we drop you off.”
“So I have to get a second Uber just to get me to my actual destination?”
“Yeah, sorry, the software just doesn’t allow for changes.”
Meanwhile, Gerry was preoccupied with manually driving the car, because while we had been talking he had accidentally taken a wrong turn, and the self-driving route couldn’t recalculate that quickly. Our screen said “SELF-DRIVING MODE: OFF” the entire ride. This time, they didn’t ask us to take a selfie.
Once dropped off, I called another car and Andrea picked me up. I explained the ridiculousness of the situation to her, and she was surprised, but a little relieved.
“I guess we’ll be able to keep our jobs a little while longer,” she said.
I realized then; the same corporation that had dangled promises of easy, flexible money, and employed hundreds of thousands of drivers, was also creating the sword hanging over their heads. My second self-driving Uber experience had been the epitome of the anti-service, a disappointing transport that failed to take me to my requested destination, cost me money, wasn’t self-driving, and had two unsympathetic employees who were hardly more responsive than Bartleby.3 Maybe ten years was optimistic.
But self-driving cars are not just a concern for the techies or the Uber drivers. Autonomous vehicles have much larger implications on how our society moves from one place to another and the infrastructures that support that—both physical and digital. What does that mean for our economies, our urban (or exurban) development, and our fundamental relationships to work, home, and place? Our “need” for optimization, automation, and efficiency is being anticipated, presented back to us, and capitalized upon.
It is generally accepted by most transit and urban planning authorities that autonomous vehicles—whether that means cars, buses, trucks, trains, or something else entirely—will become the norm in the not-too-far-away future. This semester, our studio4 is addressing AVs through the lens of past transportation advancements and patterns of resource flows to grapple with what those possible implications could be. Horse distances determined the miles between county centers, railroads spread a lateral network of resources westward, and asphalt was paved over the existing dirt roads to the width of horse-drawn buggies. Interstates allowed eighteen-wheelers to deliver goods 600 miles in one day, but also enabled the new vision of the American dream of manicured suburbs and shopping malls. Planes made world travel a day’s work and the internet less than a second’s. When our transportation becomes autonomous, where will we go and how will we choose to go there?
We usually choose our mode of travel based on factors of time, money, access, and personal value. Pittsburgh will never get an automated subway system, and not everyone will own an autonomous Tesla that will drive to New York while you nap in the backseat. What might the future look like when our buses, our garbage trucks, and our mail deliveries are all automated? We will have to work through what that means for our bus drivers, our garbage collectors, and our mailmen. When we relinquish our user control for the sake of efficiency, are we just signing away our lives for convenience? It begs the question: is our future truly autonomous?
1 Light Detection and Ranging that use a pulsed laser light to measure distances.
2 Three-dimensional information, a discrete volumetric pixel.
3 In the short story Bartleby, the Scrivener by Herman Melville, the character Bartleby is employed in a Wall Street office but responds to all of his boss’ requests with the repeated phrase, “I would prefer not to.”
4 Christine Mondor’s INFRAstructure Studio, part of the Advanced Synthesis Options Studio at Carnegie Mellon School of Architecture offered to fourth- and fifth-years.