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Stephen Lewis on Infrastructure, Identity, Communication, and Change

Infrastructural Links: Linux Journal, R.Crumb, NPR, Insightful Weblogs, and Good Old-Fashioned NYC Rage

Posted by Stephen Lewis on April 27, 2008

Thanks again to Doc Searls for his kind mention of me in his recent piece on infrastructure in Linux Journal. Doc and I are now working together on a number of think-tank and private sector consultancy related projects concerning the concept and history of infrastructure and the place, future, and issues surrounding internet and telecommunications as the infrastructural core of social, intellectual. and economic exchange.

Worldwide View, Regional Imperial Webs

As our think-tank debates take shape, one of my tasks is to lend an historical perspective and an international view. As important as the controversies surrourding the arbitrary limiting of web content by California’s cable internet provider Comcast and the Republican-colored, privilege-oriented policies of the FCC (the US Federal Communications Commission) may seem to US-based internet observers, scores of other issues preoccupy the rest of the world. The stakes of interference with internet content and access are far more severe in countries on the edge of political and civil crisis ala Turkey (see this previous posting), Afghanistan, and Pakistan while plain old access to communications and information at whatever speed remains the main issue throughout the third world. In Eastern Europe, the wild-westm laissez-faire post-communist social and regulatory environment in many countries prior to EU-accession made it easy for individuals and small companies to string cable over trees and lampposts directly from high-speed access points to one’s office or living room, thus skirting around bandwidth limitations ala Comcast. In Russia and China, moves to register domain names using local scripts are on their way to fragmenting the worldwide web into three or more mutually exclusive linguistic-and political-empire webs. In the EU, a rational regulatory environment and a century-long social democratic-rooted public willingness to pay for the infrastructure that benefits society at large keeps seems to keep US-style crises at bay. (Note: Over the last decade, Europe has quietly sailed past America in almost all things telecom- and web-access- related — not least, witness the low key impact the seemingly innovative iPhone has made outside in the EU market).

R. Crumb, NPR, and Weblog Links

During a long Istanbul-Boston Skype kick-off meeting with Doc yesterday, I mentioned a link that has graced my alter-ego weblog site Bubkes.Org since its inception. The link is to legendary cartoonist R. Crumb’s 12-panel cartoon A Short History of America. Crumb’s twelve drawings document and clarify the concept, development ( or, better said, random accretion), and outcome of what passes for infrastructure in the USA.*

Great minds think alike, it seems. I lifted the R. Crumb link from the insightful, rightfully enraged, and excellently researched weblog Clusterfucknation. At Clusterfucknation, Jim Kunstler has been writing for years on America’s automobile-highway-suburb dependency, the politics and consequences of an oil-and-gas-based world, and a host of other transportation and infrastructural issues. Kunstler’s political insights and passions are also spot-on and searing (e.g. see Kunstler’s recent take on the democratic primary campaign Slip of the Tongue).

NPR’s ( the US’s independent non-commercial, listener- and grant-supported public radio system’s) On the Media program over the last months has featured a number of guests at the center of debates on web access and governance. These include Harvard’s and Oxford’s Jonathon Zittrain, Columbia’s Tim Wu, and San Francisco’s free-high-speed-access activist Brewster Kahle (click here for MP3s and/or transcripts of interviews all three and of other relevant actors as well). Despite the years I have been working in and around the worlds of telecommunications and the internet, I must confess that all these names are new ones to me. I am especially impressed by the introduction to Tim Wu’s and Jack Goldsmith’s book Who Controls the Internet? Illusions of a Borderless World (excerpt available via Amazon.Com) which begins with the conundrum of the French legal action against Yahoo some years for facilitating violations of French laws against rascism and antisemitism. I look forward to reading Wu and Goldsmith, and Zittrain, in full.

Former colleague, close friend, and frequent sounding-board Naomi Yoder-Harris recently pointed me to the weblog of NYC-based web and tech specialist Hank Williams (in no way to be confused with the eponymous legendary country singer). Naomi had seen Williams interviewed by Brian Lehrer on the cable station of the City University of New York. Williams casts light on the negative commercial effects for freelancers and small entrepreneurs of too much venture capital and too many free services on the internet.**

New York, Rage, Social Democracy, and Infrastructure

Williams’s words give me an opportunity to link together Doc and my nascent conversations on infrastructure with the piece I recently wrote on Rev. Wright and the Hyperbole of Rage. As a born-and-raised New Yorker, I recognize in Williams’s piece on venture capital a distinctly New York state of mind. New Yorkers have their work-roots in small struggling niche companies and the lumpen-bourgeoisie, in versatile skilled and unskilled labor, and in the pre-financial and pre-information economy of craft, ingenuity, sweat, and heavy lifting. We know how easy it is to be drowned, crushed, or exploited by the big guys and know how to fight against this. We know the power of and need for collective action. We also have a demonstrated willingness to pay for the physical and social infrastructure that enables us to do what we do and to live as we want. Such willingness to spend is equally grounded in knowing that social and economic infrastructure is worth the investment and in a distinctly non-Calvinist flare for grand gestures and extravagance.*** (California “libertarians” take note: WE and PAYING are two of the operative words behind infrastructure).

In his Linux Journal piece, Doc reprinted a quote I had taken from the introduction to Joshua Freeman’s brilliant book Working Class New York. Freeman shows how the specialized and agglomeration-dependent nature of crafts, manufacturing, and transshipment in 19th- and early-to-mid-20th-century New York, together with the shared experience and collectivist nature of a the City’s largely-immigrant workforce, led to New York’s development of a voluntary- and governmental-sponsored infrastructure atypical of the rest of America and at the fore of the European social democratic mold. Up to the 1970s, New York boasted a unique infrastructure of low-cost public transportation, free water supply, free public hospitals, free public schools, free libraries, and free universities; public, confessional and union social welfare institutions; and public housing and union-sponsored cooperative housing found nowhere else in the US. The denouement of collective New York, due in part to the conjunction of the emergence of the so-called financial economy with the fiscal crises of the 1970s and the vengeance of Republicans in power in Washington at the time is also treated in Freeman’s book.

One of the drivers of New York’s collective ethos and energies and of New Yorkers willingness to press for, build, and pay for infrastructure is the very rage of the sort that animated Obama’s former pastor’s now-infamous “God Damn America” pun and the Yiddish folksong “Grine Kuzine.” The rage that bubbled over during events such as the now-forgotten kosher meat riots of 1902 and following the senseless deaths of scores of female garment workers at the infamous Triangle Shirtwaist factory fire in 1911 accelerated the formation of labor unions and confession-based, charitable, and governmental institutions and infrastructure that made New York an egalitarian and socially mobile city with the collective intellect, excellence, and creativity that was to play an out-sized role in America and the world in the 20th and early 21st centuries.

More to follow…


* For anyone who does not know who R. Crumb was (is), I offer to this quote from Crumb’s magnificent 1960s cartoon hero, the white-robed, white-bearded guru Mr. Natural. When asked by a conservatively dressed elderly woman the meaning of the phrase “do-wha-diddee,” Mr. Natural replied: “Lady, if you don’t know by now, don’t mess with it!”)

** For all of Williams insight I am puzzled by his site’s name. Why do American tech types overuse and render banal the word “suck”? We New Yorkers traditionally used this word in an non-delicately outspoken sexual way and in the lyrical macho aggressiveness of “sounding” and “the dozens.” How dispiriting silly to hear the word applied to ennui, the internet, and gadgetry.

*** In the discussion following a recent meeting in New York in honor of the 10th anniversary of the conception of the business best-seller Cluetrain Manifesto (see the final paragraphs of this post) I suggested that people who are obsessed with free and unwilling to support public radio, small companies (see Williams’s arguments above), big infrastructure, etc., should attend more Roma (Gypsy) weddings and Turkish night clubs and join in showering musicians and dancers with cascades of banknotes — a non-transaction tribute to the excellence of the performers as well as a statement of ones own grandiosity. Grandiosity also played a role in the development of infrastructure throughout history. To restrict the subject to New York alone, the building projects of Tammany Hall put accented regal monumentality over utility. Self-congratulatory futuristic monumentality was inherent in the works of Robert Moses, the public works czar who shaped the parks, neighborhoods, bridges, highways, and suburban sprawl of 20th century New York.


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