Hak Pak Sak

Stephen Lewis on Infrastructure, Identity, Communication, and Change

Archive for the ‘Infrastructure’ Category

146 Martyrs, Pharaoh, Respecting Labor, and Two-Thirds of a Century of New York City Social Democracy

Posted by Stephen Lewis on March 28, 2010

This past Thursday marked the 99th anniversary of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire, a now near-forgotten incident that galvanized labor, sparked American trade unionism, and animated the social-democratic, collectivist ethos that characterized New York City and was the backbone of its greatness from the early-twentieth century through to Republican Washington’s fiscal war against New York in the 1970’s and the ascendancy of the financial sector  in  the 1980’s.

Fire!

On Saturday afternoon, March 25, 1911, a fire raged through the overcrowded premises of the Triangle Shirtwaist Company, a sweatshop producing women’s blouses located on the upper floors of the then newly-built Asch Building, just off fashionable Washington Square in lower Manhattan.  Workers trapped in the blaze were unable to flee.  Exit doors had been sealed by the company’s owners to prevent workers from taking unauthorized breaks.  Ladders on the trucks of the City’s fire department proved too short to reach the factory’s windows.  Passersby stared with horror as workers jumped to escape the flames or were pushed to their deaths by fellow-workers desperately pressing forward in search of air. All told, 146 people perished, almost all of them young immigrant women, the majority Eastern European Jews and most of the rest Italian Catholics.  The outcry, demonstrations, and strikes that followed led to labor reforms, unionization, and the remaking of New York into a place of (comparative) respite and opportunity for working people.  By mid-century, New York was America’s only social democratic city, boasting an infrastructure that included free libraries, museums, water supply, hospital care, and universities, ample green space, adequate welfare benefits, affordable public transport, and a massive supply of publicly subsidized housing (up to the 1950s, New York City accounted for more than 80% of the US’s total public and union-sponsored housing stock).

“No Better Than Pharaoh”

Today, the Asch Building houses part of the science faculty of New York University.  Few of NYU’s 40,000 mostly well-heeled students are likely to have ever heard of the Triangle Fire and fewer still are likely to care.  Sadly, most of the descendants of the worlds from which the victims of the fire came are no better.  The McCarthy era, upward mobility, suburbanization, renewed religious obscurantism, and the Republican years led many American Jews to forget their origins and the martyrdom of those who paved their ways to more comfortable lives. Parallel experiences seduced many Italian-Americans into misanthropic and authoritarian political conservatism.

This year, the anniversary of the Triangle Fire occurred only days prior to the start of Jewish festival of Pesakh (Passover), a springtime holiday of renewal and of recollection of escape from “slavery unto Pharaoh in Egypt.”  Passover and the Triangle Fire coincide in meaning as well as in dates.  One of the watchwords of Passover — “once we were slaves but now we are freemen” —  underscores an obligation to identify with all those who are enslaved and oppressed.  The Triangle Fire, and the opportunities its aftermath brought to all of us who descend from the immigrant workers of a century past, obligates us to respect everyone who toils and never hold ourselves above those who work with us, for us, or on our behalf.  In the words of a recent web-posting  by the young Rabbi of the Stanton Street Shul, one of the few synagogues remaining of the more than seven hundred that once dotted the former Jewish neighborhoods of New York’s Lower East Side: ” … we should be ever vigilant to remember the human sacrifices of every worker. For once we take other people’s labor for granted, we in turn become no better than Pharaoh.”

Links and Haymarket

For more on the Triangle Fire — including archival photographs and documents — click herehere, and here.  For a link to a Facebook group dedicated to commemorating the Fire and its victims, click here. For those of you who see social conscience and egalitarianism is an inconvenience spread by (secular) Jews alone, click here and here to rediscover Chicago’s Haymarket Affair and the activitism and harsh repression of German-American and Czech- and Slovak-American anarchists, craftsmen, and intellectuals less than a generation prior to the Triangle Fire.  In the age of Sarah Palin and “Tea Party” rabble, conservatives in America’s heartland are pathetically ignorant of the radicalism and ideals of their forebears.

Posted in Change, Cities, History, Identity, Infrastructure, Jewish History, New York, Politics, Work | 3 Comments »

“Oh-My-God … Quack, Quack … Oh-My-God”: My Barber’s Wisdom, the American Penchant for Blasphemy, and a Nation Without Infrastructure

Posted by Stephen Lewis on January 29, 2010

Much of whatever wisdom I have, like much of  the world”s, comes from the observations of taxi drivers and barbers.  Just like the disfigured First World War veteran barfly in the opening and closing scenes of Edmund Goulding’s 1932 film masterpiece “Grand Hotel,”  taxi drivers and barbers see streams of people come and go and  little if anything surprises them.

My Barber’s Wisdom

The barber I visit  when in Istanbul speaks even less English than I speak Turkish, but he is a keen observer and knows how to score political points across linguistic lines.  His shop is in one of the commercial galleries that line the one-time carriage-ways of  late-Ottoman-era mansions and the grand inner passageways of turn-of-the-twentieth-century commercial structures along Istanbul’s most popular  promenade, Istiklal Caddesi.  The shop itself has been in business for decades, but my barber and his brother took it over only five years ago, thus bringing them to the pinnacle of popular Istiklal from their tightly-packed, religiously-conservative, working-class  neighborhood only a mile northward and downhill towards the Golden Horn — the very part of the city  from which Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the country’s present Prime Minister and driving force behind Turkey’s Islamic AK Party,  hails and the  type of constituency that comprises the backbone of his support.

During my biweekly visits for a haircut and shave, my barber always chooses the most advantageous time to turn the conversation to politics.  “And, so, what do you think of our  Tayyip?”  he asks, always at the exact moment that he quickly and firmly draws his straight razor upward against the grain of the two-week stubble on my neck.  My response is dictated more by context than truth-function:  “One  excellent  prime minister,” I always reply with uncharacteristic speed and momentary fluency in Turkish, “… one very excellent prime minister, indeed.”

The television that blares in the barbershop has brought  both the English language and the words of leaders other than Tayyip — Barack Obama among them — into the lives and speech of my barber and his family.  A few weeks ago, my barber made a slight change the cut of my hair, razoring away some sparse, lonely hairs, hold-outs from the former expanse of my once lush hairline.  “Well, do you like it?”  he asked.  As I contemplated my newly high forehead, my barber’s eight-year-old son, visiting the shop on a day off from school, expressed his judgment before I could form a verdict of my own.  “Number One!,” he shouted in self-consciously American-accented English, “Number One … ‘Yes We  Can’, ‘Yes We Can’, ‘Yes We Can!’.”

Although my barber does not speak English as well as his son does, his ear for the language is no less refined.  On my most  recent visit to his shop,  the voices of a group of  American women enthusiastically eying goods in a third-world market blared  from a Discovery Channel documentary.  Cringing at the sound, my barber raised his voice a few octaves, adopted a nasal tone, and screeched: “Quack,quack, quack,  Oh-My-God … Oh-My-God, quack, quack, quack.”

An American Penchant

My barber’s imitation of American speech was no surprise.  Go anywhere in the world and the nasal screech of  American female (and sometimes male) voices will cut through the softer tones and relatively low murmur of local speech.  Strangely, a third of a century ago, American voices sounded quite different.  In the years since, flat Boston accents and rounded New York ones, crisp mid-western twangs, and lilting southern drawls somehow have all mutated into a uniform high-pitched, high-speed nasal buzz.  And, sometime during the same period,  “Oh-My-God” and the feigned tone of surprise with which it is blurted emerged as even more stereotypical of  the limits of American vocabularies than the overuse of the stop-word “like” and repeated interjections of  “cool” and  “awesome”.

The rise of “Oh-My-God” represents a flattening of emotions as well as of language.  Repeated screams of “Oh-My-God” — as often as not underscored by spastic body movements and flailing  arms — have become Americans’ stock responses, positive and negative, to unexpected  events from the banal, to the awe-inspiring, to the tragic.  Office gossip, sunsets, double-entendres, items on sale, moments of erotic ecstasy, deaths in the family,  unexpected appearances of rock stars, and tragedies as immense as the 2001 attack on New York’s World Trade Center and the current disaster and suffering in Haiti all elicit the same response —  “Oh-My-God,” indeed.  Could it be that the biblical prohibition against taking the name of God in vain was offered in part to yield the secular benefit of ensuring that we match our responses and emotions to the significance and worth of what conjures them forth?  And what about the deity or deities that screamers of “Oh-My-God” claim as their own?  Is it not unwise and unkind  to distract him/her/it?them from higher concerns with repeated screams for attention?

Still, “Oh-My-God,” represents but a humorous sideshow in the misuse of the divine name.  During World War I, Allied propaganda made grist of German artillery shells  stamped with the words “Gott ist mit Uns,” (God is with Us). (And, by the way, look at how far Imperial Germany’s divinely sanctioned munitions got them.) . To use another example from the same conflict, those who know theater history (New York’s “Group Theatre,” specifically) might remember the haunting scene from the Kurt Weil musical  Johnny Johnson (an absurdist take-off on Jaroslav Hasek”s satire of war Good Soldier Schweik) in which identically dressed priests simultaneously bless and invoke God’s name in English and German on behalf of the troops massed for battle on their respective sides of the front lines.  Even in the course of my my own lifetime, I remember, from the hottest days of the Cold War,  the mandatory insertion, as a talisman against the specter of nuclear attack, of the words “(one nation) under God”  into the compulsory Pledge of Allegiance to the flag of the United States once recited each morning by public school students throughout the country.

To return to the present, all US currency, paper and coin, bears the words “In God We Trust,”  an apt statement of the hiving off of human responsibility and avoidance of  intervention that could have staved off fiscal and economic calamity and prevented the dollar’s nose-dive fall against the non-divinely-protected Euro.  During American political campaigns, candidates from  “both sides of the aisle” refer to and invoke God just about as often as do the leaders of countries that America  labels “fundamentalist.”  Could it be that the mealy-mouthed piety of American politicians and the collective din of millions upon millions of needless “Oh-My-Gods” constituted a sufficient violation of “…not taking the name of God in vain” as to prompt a divinely-afflicted plague of financial disasters, mortgage defaults, and unemployment? Sound absurd? It is no less absurd than what follows …

A Nation Without Infrastructure

A recent “Op Ed” article in the New York Times by author James Wood described the patent danger of Pat Robertson’s idiotic pronouncement that the recent  earthquake in Haiti was divine retribution for its people’s history of “idolatry.” However, the article also treats the less obvious dangers of Americans’ smug pronouncements of “… there but for the grace of God go we.”   Better to leave the deity alone and to look first at tectonics and geophysics and then, as odd as it may first sound, turn to a topic I’ve posted on extensively in the past on this site  and hope to return to in the weeks to come:  Infrastructure.   Stronger earthquakes than the one in Haiti have struck locales in the “developed” world and occasioned far less destruction, carnage,and suffering.  In such cases, the infrastructure of urban and regional life could far better withstand the shock, and the infrastructures of  transportation, medical, and social service could were sufficient to handle the aftermath.  As a poor country in the shadow of a rich neighbor, Haiti is infrastructurally weak on all counts.  Where could the money come from to finally begin to boost Haiti’s economy and bring its infrastructure  up to snuff?  In a recent Facebook post, Doug Henwood of the Left Business Observer noted that the annual gross national product of Haiti is but 20% of the bonus pool of one of the major investment banks!  And to that even I, albeit with an old-fashioned Lower East Side accented growl rather than a nasal whine, am almost tempted to say:  “O-My-God!”  But, rather than “take the name in vain,” I’ll simply quote the words of an old-fashioned Harlem heavy in Gordon Parks’s original version of “Shaft” as he described his partner having been tossed out of a window by the film’s hero. “That’s some cold s*#@,” he said slowly; some very cold s*#@, indeed.

Posted in Infrastructure, Istanbul, Language, Religion | 3 Comments »

Gerrymandering the Internet, Continued

Posted by Stephen Lewis on December 17, 2008

Further to my last post, Doc Searls expands on the fragmentation of the web in Splinternet.  In World-Wide Regions, James Robertson relates the absurdities of geographic coding of DVDs.  As an additional absurdity, I quote below the well-meaning and obviously pained text of a webpage that popped up when I tried to log-on to the music service Pandora from my desk in Sofia, Bulgaria:

Dear Pandora Visitor,

We are deeply, deeply sorry to say that due to licensing constraints, we can no longer allow access to Pandora for listeners located outside of the U.S. We will continue to work diligently to realize the vision of a truly global Pandora, but for the time being we are required to restrict its use. We are very sad to have to do this, but there is no other alternative.

We believe that you are in Bulgaria (your IP address appears to be 87.126.21.115). If you believe we have made a mistake, we apologize and ask that you please contact us at pandora-support@pandora.com

If you are a paid subscriber, please contact us at pandora-support@pandora.com and we will issue a pro-rated refund to the credit card you used to sign up. If you have been using Pandora, we will keep a record of your existing stations and bookmarked artists and songs, so that when we are able to launch in your country, they will be waiting for you.

We will be notifying listeners as licensing agreements are established in individual countries. If you would like to be notified by email when Pandora is available in your country, please enter your email address below. The pace of global licensing is hard to predict, but we have the ultimate goal of being able to offer our service everywhere.

We share your disappointment and greatly appreciate your understanding.

Sincerely,

Tim Westergren
Founder

Readers not familiar with the word “gerrymander,” its etymology, history, and effects might find it worthwhile to click here.  How we chart geopolitical boundaries shapes legal jurisdictions, national identities, and the very “non-rationalized” emplacement of infrastructure.  It also interprets how we interpret the significance political mandates (see this past post on the mapping of the recent US presidential election).  New and old forms of gerrymandering, apparently, affect how we use and envision the internet, are served by it, and structure and control its services and infrastructure.

Posted in Identity, Infrastructure, Internet, Media, Music, National Identity | Leave a Comment »

Apple’s iTunes, NPR, Barriers to Giving, and the “Appliancing” of National Boundaries

Posted by Stephen Lewis on December 10, 2008

A central element of the ethos and significance – or at least the rhetoric – of the Internet Age is the transcendence of the arbitrary geographic and political boundaries we have inherited from the past and the liberation of the exchange of information, the conduct of commerce, and the formation of communities from the constraints of physical locations and boundaries.  Consider the following case to the contrary …

“This American Life”

I am – or rather was – a regular listener to Ira Glass’s wonderful eclectic radio program This American Life, broadcast over non-commercial, listener-donation-supported National Public Radio (NPR) in the USA and available courtesy of NPR worldwide over the internet.  The ubiquity of the internet had given me the luxury of listening to the program “on demand” during my long periods of work and residency abroad –  that is, if and when I can find an internet connection with sufficient bandwidth to stream the show.  To ensure enjoying This American Life without being tethered to my computer, whenever I stumbled upon suitable signals I took to downloading current and back episodes as podcasts via iTunes for later on my iPod and Blackberry.

Paid Podcasts

A few weeks ago, this system “crashed,” so to speak, and fatally at that.  While downloading podcasts to my computer in preparation for a long flight from New York to Istanbul and a few internet-less weeks thereafter, I discovered that I could gain access only the most recent episode of This American Life.  Podcasts of past episodes were only available for sale from Apple’s iTunes store at a price of $0.99.  This sounded very reasonable. By paying $0.99 for each one-hour-long weekly episode, I could  both obtain the programs and conveniently make regular donations to its support – an excellent alternative to the disruption of writing out a check or calling in a credit card number donating during National Public Radio’s seasonal on-the-air and over-the-internet fund raising drives.

Reinforcing Artificial Boundaries

Excellent, or so it seemed, until I read the fine print.  As it does with its iPhone, Apple “appliances” its services to geopolitical strictures inherited from the pre-Internet age and to a jingoistic concept of national identity quite contrary to the expansive spirit of This American Life and to the “worldwide” as in Worldwide Web.  Podcasts of This American Life are available for purchase and download via iTunes only from IP addresses within the boundaries of the United States.  Also, even within the US, Apple does not accept for payment credit cards issued by overseas banks.  Last, even when listeners from within the US attempts a purchase a credit card issued by a US bank, Apple will not sell them podcasts if their iTunes Stores accounts were originally registered from abroad.

By jigsawing its services to fit national boundaries, Apple fragments the efficacy and global scope of the internet and denies NPR broader listenership, international impact, and potential revenues.  By outsourcing  exclusive sales of podcasts of the This American Life to Apple’s iTunes Store, NPR denies the benefits and insights of listenership and the pleasure of contributing to the support of Public Radio to Americans living and working abroad, not to mention citizens of all other countries.

The Internet and Its Infrastructure

Those who participate with me off-line in the examination of the future of  infrastructure and the Internet will recognize in the above case a familiar conundrum.  The Internet — in its role as prime infrastructure for the formation of community and conveyance of the information, entertainment, knowledge and transactions — is intangible and without physical location.  However, the infrastructure that supports it is quite physical, an ad hoc non-purpose-built amalgam of fiber, copper, and wireless  strung together, enabled, and animated by protocols.  By resting on a “borrowed” infrastructure, the Internet has inherited the “gatekeepers” that own and control, charge for, and regulate these legacy elements – telecom operators and service providers, cable TV companies, governmental authorities, etc.).  Such organizations still carve up the world according to geopolitical entities and borders defined between the late-eighteenth century and the mid-twentieth and gerrymander services and access accordingly.  Apparently, so does Apple.  Apple’s method of “appliancing” country-by-country reinforces anachronistic borders and undermines the potential of the internet to transcend past divisions.

Apple and AK

Last month, a chance glace at Freedom Against Censorship Thailand led me to this report from the Christian Science Monitor re: Turkey’s current blockage of YouTube and Blogger, a reprise of its blockage of WordPress a year ago.  The present affair stems in part from a YouTube video posted by Greek football fans cast aspersions on the sexuality of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, the iconic father of the modern Turkish state. Turkish law forbids the insulting of Turkishness and of the Republic, its founders, and symbols. Last year’s ban on all weblogs containing the name “wordpress” in their URL’s derived from a order issued by the local court of a religious neighborhood in Istanbul in response to a law suit filed by a Turkish “creationist” who claimed to have been libelled by an entry in a weblog hosted by WordPress.Com – an Internet Age case of “killing the messenger.”  The AK Party is Turkey’s ruling political party; the question of whether and how its incumbency prompts or facilitates such bans is a matter for discussion in another context.  For the moment, let’s leave it at saying that the heading to the present paragraph is a matter  of alliteration.  As to Apple, its geopolitical-entity-based approach to distribution of and access to podcast material is similar to Turkey’s operation of a “Great Firewall” congruent with its national boundaries and in accordance with its whims.  Opinions to the contrary?

Afterthoughts:

1. No More Newsprint, No More Disk(c)s

The Christian Science Monitor is America’s first venerable mainstream newspaper to end its print edition and become an exclusively online publication.  For details on the Monitor’s shedding of  its corporeality click here.  Not long after the Monitor gave up newsprint, Atlantic Records reported that for the first time its sales of music in mp3 format surpassed its sale of Compact Disc recording.  Music is by its very nature ephemeral and incorporeal and, in the scheme of things, the mere 100 or so years over which music has been distributed in the physical embodiments of phonograph cylinders and records, tape and CDs has been but a curious aberration.  A sad farewell to album cover art and liner notes, thus … and to slyly shaped invitations for guests to come over to look at one’s record collection.

2. Google and “The Great Game”

The Emergence of Google as the world’s prime search engine and the proprietary of Gmail, YouTube, and Blogger has given the “Company that Does No Evil” unparalleled knowledge of what is on the Web as well the ability to control how to find it. It also has given Google an unparalleled knowledge of who uses the web and how.  This has turned Google, a private company with no accountability to any constituency, into a negotiating partner of national governments whose laws or policies do not  reflect or respect the ethical stance claimed in Google’s own slogan.  Thus, Google now functions on a diplomatic level with the ability and clout to forge country-by-country compromises affecting internet activity and the free flow of information and opinion, Turkey’s YouTube and Blogger ban not least among them.  Click here for a journalistic portrait of Google’s emergence as a party to “The Great Game” of diplomacy via the New York Times Sunday Magazine.

Posted in Censorship, Commentary, Content, Infrastructure, Internet, Media, Music, Podcasting, Politics | 2 Comments »

Infrastructural Convergence: Broadband over Power Lines

Posted by Stephen Lewis on November 13, 2008

From the Wall Street Journal (http://online.wsj.com/article/SB122644998675019183.html):

International Business Machines Corp. said it has been hired to work with rural electricity cooperatives to provide high-speed Internet service over power lines.

The project is a sign that using the electricity grid for communication — a technology utilities have long been interested in — has finally matured.

IBM said it signed a contract with closely held International Broadband Electric Communications Inc., Huntsville, Ala., to manage the installation of broadband systems at 13 cooperatives in seven states. The initial contract is for $9.6 million, but an IBM official said the company anticipates getting more business from some of the nation’s 900 other rural electricity cooperatives. IBM said it is also working with electric utilities overseas.

The system works by using standard power lines to carry a radio-frequency signal in the magnetic field that surrounds the wires. The signal is continuously amplified by low-priced repeater boxes clamped to the lines. When an electricity customer signs up for broadband services, the supplier mails out a special modem that is plugged into the wall outlet where the computer is plugged in. Pricing starts at $29.95 a month, International Broadband says.

Electricity providers have for some time seen the Web communications potential in their wires, but, until recently, the necessary signal-transmission devices have been too slow for high-speed connections and too expensive to compete with existing telephone wires. More recently, the technology has improved, but big utilities couldn’t see a way to compete with established cable and telecom carriers in urban and suburban areas.

But rural areas, which account for most of the 30 million U.S. homes that don’t have broadband access, provide an opportunity. Internet providers have avoided these locales because the population is too sparse for cable or phone companies to lay fiber or coaxial cable profitably, and hills and trees disrupt wireless networks.

Posted in Infrastructure, Internet | Leave a Comment »

In Praise of Pocket Cameras and “Making the Iron Sing”

Posted by Stephen Lewis on October 31, 2008

gatewaysofiamedium

A few days ago, I resumed posting to my alter-ego photographic and (art/urban) historical weblog, Bubkes.Org.  The title of the latest entry: In Praise of Pocket Cameras and “Making the Iron Sing.” Taking a photograph of a wrought-iron gate in Sofia, Bulgaria (above) as its point of departure, the new post considers the merits of a classic film-based pocket camera, the origins of the decorative iron work that was once characteristic of Balkan cities, and the changing circumstances of Balkan Roma (Gypsies).

Additional photograph-based postings treating small cameras, transformation of cities, and the urban experiences of Roma will follow on Bubkes.Org.  I hope to accompany them with parallel postings here on HakPakSak.  Indeed, In Praise of Pocket Cameras and “Making the Iron Sing” touches on matters of the sort treated within the present “pages.”  Consideration of contemporary small-camera digital photography raises issues as to whether companies’ marketing or users’ actual wants and needs are the drivers behind product design, manufacture, and distribution.  It aslo raises issues as to how technology and taste interact.  Examination of the history and circumstance of Roma in Balkan cities casts light on the interplay of infrastructural shifts and transformations of identity within the urban context.  (Much) more to follow, thus.

Posted in Architecture, Bulgaria, Change, Cities, Economy, History, Identity, Infrastructure, Markets, National Identity, Photography, Uncategorized | Leave a Comment »

The End of Exurbia and Soros on Investing in Infrastructure

Posted by Stephen Lewis on October 15, 2008

In the US, as elsewhere, the mortgage and housing market collapse, skyrocketing motor fuel prices, overloaded highways, and the absence of adequate public transportation are serious enough by themselves. The compounded effects of their interaction, however, are just as serious and even more complex. One result is the threatened demise of exurbia, i.e. of residential communities located far from the cities and towns that provide employment to their residents and that were built on the economic premises of cheap land, cheap credit and cheap motor fuel. With fuel motor fuel prices in the US now reaching the levels that the rest of the world had learned to live with and plan around, residents can no longer afford to live in exurbia and, with housing prices low, they cannot afford to sell their homes and move elsewhere either. An introduction to this paradox is provided by Driven to Despair, part of Blueprint America, a series of programs on the US Public Broadcasting System treating issues facing the country’s flawed and neglected infrastructure.

Last week, investor and philanthropist George Soros was a guest on Bill Moyers Journal, also on the US Public Broadcasting system. Soros spoke out about the end of what he calls “Market Fundamentalism” and how an economy based on speculation and disinvestment rather than production and complicated inadequate regulation and government intervention led to the present financial crisis. “Market Fundamentalism” is a wonderful term. Blind faith in the corrective efficacy of markets is indeed on the same level as religious fundamentalism, in its irrationality, inhumanity, and surrender of individual and group responsibility. I’d add that belief in “markets” and the “invisible hand” is no less absurd than belief in dialect materialism. It is also a sign of people who never read Adam Smith thoroughly. Most important, especially for those who follow the “infrastructure” thread on this site, Soros suggested that our economy could be kick-started and sustained by investment in combatting global warming and in renewing infrastructure. Readers of this site will find this a familiar theme.

Posted in Economy, Infrastructure, Media | Leave a Comment »

Infrastructure of Work and Society: Five Failed American Axioms

Posted by Stephen Lewis on October 9, 2008

Both sides in the US presidential campaign and debates — albeit one side far more than the other — use language and cling to axioms that obscure reality, make “change” unlikely, and keep America out of sync with the rest of the world. Five examples follow:

1. “American workers are the best in the world”

Nonsense. Americans may be decent sprinters but Western Europeans win the race. Good health care, regular vacations, job security, employee participation in management, lower stress, and no necessity to work two or three jobs to pay the kids’ educations makes Western European workers the world’s most productive. The growth of Asian economies speaks volumes about the quality of Asian workers just as does America’s outsourcing of its most exacting tasks to them. The diligence of Central and South American workers now bolsters America’s productivity through immigration. Turkish workers spend their lives laboring at highly segmented tasks. Even Eastern European workers are on their way to surpassing Americans. In alcohol-sodden Bulgaria, for example, workers tend to be “jacks of all trades and masters of none,” the upside of which is the ability to improvise and to more-or-less fix and keep running all things in their environment regardless of scarcities or systemic collapse.

2. “The Middle Class”

Both presidential candidates talks of helping the “middle class” but neither say a word about helping the working class or the poor. Avoidance of the term “working-class” is part-and-parcel of America’s pathological fear of “socialism.” It also belies the harsh reality that social mobility in America has been on the downturn since the 1950s. Not speaking of the poor is either callousness, blindness, or the abandonment of the tradition of the party of FDR and LBJ (let alone the party of Debs and or even that of LaFollette).

3. “Families”

Candidates speak of needs, opinions, and values of “families.” This in a country where the number of single and divorced adults rivals that of married ones and in which a good proportion of those nuclear families that are intact are dysfunctional. Since World War II, housing policies, suburbanization, and westward and southeastward migration have compromised multigenerational families (except amongst the poor and marginalized ethnic minorities), as has the Americanisation of immigrants. Eastern Europe and the “third world” have far stronger family values and structures. In fact, America may have proved itself to be a family-breaker and, through this, a compromiser of its own social infrastructure.

4. “We Honor Your Service”

Both candidates become Uriah-Heep-like in their obsequiousness when talking about the military or when speaking with present- or ex-servicemen. Obsequiousness toward the military was a hallmark of Franco’s Spain, Peron’s Argentina, and other tinpot dictatorships. It is also a matter-of-fact reality in countries such as Turkey, where, in an unusual balance of power, the military, with its proven willingness and ability to stage coups, is the guarantor of the survival of a secular state in a predominantly religious country. I would like to hear the candidates also “honor” America’s war and draft resisters for their sacrifices. A few words of “honor” and thanks for “service” to America’s lowest paid workers wouldn’t hurt either.

5. “Business is better than government”

This is the mother-of-all failed axioms, especially in the month when America’s iconic financial sector turns to the government for bailouts. During the last debate McCain trotted out this worn chestnut to denigrate Obama’s modest health-care proposals.

This brings us full circle. Universal health care is one of the features of European social infrastructure that ensures productivity by keeping health high and stress low. An important question for Americans is whether health insurance should be viewed as a luxury as it is now, a commodity as McCain proposes, or an essential aspect of social infrastructure as Obama proposes in part. The answer is not just a function of one’s morality but of one’s method of accounting. If one takes a longer and broader view, money invested in infrastructure — i.e. those physical and intangible systems and processes on which the social and economic life depend — pays off in macro terms even if initially developed or delivered at a short-term loss. The consensual nature of government and its operation beyond enterprise-level constraints of profit and loss make it the ideal provider or prime-mover when it comes to infrastructure. In fact, the provision and maintenance of infrastructure might be at the very essence of what government always has been, is, and should be.

Posted in Change, Commentary, Economy, Health Care, Infrastructure, Language, Markets, Work | Leave a Comment »

Transportation, SUV’s, Jingoism … and Chickens

Posted by Stephen Lewis on October 3, 2008

In issues of infrastructure, as in much of life, causality is often far more complex than we initially perceive.  While going through recent newspaper clippings this morning I came across this article which links the rise and fall of America’s petrol-guzzling, pollution-spewing “Sport Utility Vehicles” not to fluctuations in the prices of motor fuel but to Detroit auto makers’ decades-long successful but ultimately backfiring exploitation of a US  backlash against European tariffs on … American chickens!

Footnote: Agglomerations, Internet, and Mansions

Agglomeration was once the essence of the economies of cities.  In the internet age, agglomerations are functions of simulatneity and virtual availability more than physical proximity.  The movement of the heart of America’s house-of-cards financial sector from the floor of the New York Stock Exchange to the mansions of Greenwich, Connecticut is a sub-theme of Tom Wolfe’s Greenwich Time.

Posted in Cities, Economy, Environment, History, Infrastructure, Internet, Media, Politics | Leave a Comment »

Infrastructure and Height, Myopia and McCain

Posted by Stephen Lewis on October 2, 2008

Since the 1970s I have worked mostly in Eastern and Western Europe, regularly returning to my native New York for occasional assignments and to enjoy the pleasures and pride of being a New Yorker.

When I first showed up in Western Europe almost four decades ago, the process of post-war recovery was not yet over.  As the years passed, however, I watched Europe slowly overtake America on a number of fronts, in part by engaging in long-term investment in its infrastructure and guaranteeing the health, education, and housing of its people as well as by curbing the extremes of economic inequality.

I’ve also watched changes in Eastern Europe since the fall of communism and seen the gaps in standards and ways of life between east and west narrow, especially as former Soviet bloc nations merge into the European Union.  From a New York perspective, European upswings are mirrored in shifts in the City’s immigrant populations, for example Irish and Polish immigrant communities have declined in size in part due to recent arrivals from both countries being lured back home by comparatively more attractive work opportunities and standards of living.

America, on the other hand, seems lost in a time-warp.  In this year’s presidential speeches and debates, as for what seems time immemorial, Democrat and Republican candidates prove their patriotism by repeating over and again the well-worn claim that America is the “greatest country on earth.”   America might have been so in the immediate post- World War II years but the disinvestment in social and physical infrastructure by the Republicans since the 1980s and the rapacious corporate culling of short term profits have undermined the country — as have the effects of the inappropriateness, extravagance, and incompetence of America’s military adventures abroad post-September 11, 2001.

Inadvertently, John McCain drew attention to an objective measure of this in last Friday’s presidential debate when he pointed out that residents of communist North Korea are, on the average, several inches shorter than fellow-Koreans living in the capitalist South.  What McCain did not say, however, whether out of ignorance or cynicism, is that over the last few decades Americans have become shorter than Western Europeans, over whom they had towered less than a century before.  For what this tells us about disparities in incomes and opportunity within the US, the consequences of the dismantling of America’s “welfare state,” and the absence of adequate insurance coverage and medical treatment in the country, go to this recent posting on the Health blog of the New York Times which, in turn, offers links to longer pieces on the subject from the files of both the Times and the New Yorker.

Posted in Cities, Commentary, Economy, Health Care, Infrastructure, Politics | Leave a Comment »

“Selamat Hari Raya” Indeed!: Eid and Roshashoneh and the Infrastructure of the Internet

Posted by Stephen Lewis on September 30, 2008

In a post this morning, Doc Searls pointed to the number-four-ranking thread on Twitter being Selamat Hari Raya.  My comment on Doc’s post:

Selamat Hari Raya, indeed! If my memory serves me well: “A great good morning (dawn?),” somewhat ala have-a-nice-day, but far less banal.* It is nostalgic for me to read Malay/”Indonesian”. Lovely sentiments on a day that is both Eid and Roshashoneh. To Muslim and Jewish friends both, a sweet holiday and healthy year. To Christian friends similar wishes and the hope that they — as peoples of all religious backgrounds — will grow in their knowledge and appreciation of the “others” in their midst.

PS. Bravo for showing this small but important bit of proof that the net and web and social networking are no longer exclusively American or Western.

To add a few more words: Allow me to be possibly the only person on the entire Web to offer appropriate, albeit secularized, Muslim and Jewish holiday wishes to all in the the unlikely combination of Turkish and Yiddish.  Thus, from my heart: “Iyi Bayramlar!” and “Ah Gezunt Yohr!”  (Note: This seemingly odd linguistic mix will make sense to those familiar with the name and subject matter of my alter-ego weblog, Bubkes.Org)

To clarify my above-mentioned nostalgia, Malay and “Bahasa Indonesia” (the language of the Republic of Indonesia) are important to me for several reasons.  When I worked in Israel almost four decades ago, amongst my dearest friends were Dutch Jews with family connections to Surabaya.  During the 1970s, I worked on-and-off in Indonesia and spent months at a time in Jakarta and in rural Sumatra, as well as in Kalimantan (Borneo) and out on the Java Sea.  Most important, my dear step-daughter Floor has roots in Java, her mother having been born and raised in Surabaya.  And, not to forget, Floor’s grandmother and plethora of widowed great-aunts regularly fed me with excellent Javanese home cooking during a number of the years I lived in the The Hague.

The Infrastructure of the Internet

As I frequently mention on this site, Doc Searls and I are involved in a number of initiatives pertaining to “framing” the nature of — and influencing the future of — the infrastructure of the Internet.  As Doc regularly points out, many people confuse the Web with the Internet, the non-physical infrastructure that enables the Web.  The Internet, Doc notes, is an incorporeal aggregation of protocols and agreements and, as such, is fundamentally different from all past forms of infrastructure.  I invariably chime in that the Internet and its ability to host an emergent “giant brain” of information and processes are carried in turn by an underlying infrastructure that is indeed physical and quite traditional.  And, increasingly, this infrastructure is located outside of the US, thus raising issues of security, use, and governance that are not identical with issues faced or perceived by Americans.  For the latest addition to world’s internet/telephony infrastructure see Six Telecom Firms Finish Cable Across the Pacific in yesterday’s Wall Street Journal. (Disclaimer: My apologies if the link to this article expires after seven days.  The Wall Street Journal not only charges a substantial fee for subscriptions to its on-line edition, it is also niggardly to the extreme in its provision of permalinks.  As solid and professional as the Journal’s news content may be, its commercial policies reflect the mercenary profit-oriented and conservative stance of its editorial page.)

Footnote: Friends have let me know that my translation is too literal.  In use, Selamat Hari Raya is the traditional salutation used at Eid.

Posted in Food, Infrastructure, Internet, Language, Religion, Telecommunications | Leave a Comment »

Not a Bit Surprised: The Financial Crisis, Reading Beyond the Mainstream, Real(?) Estate, Yankee Stadium, and Impeach Palin Now

Posted by Stephen Lewis on September 28, 2008

So far, the current US financial upheavals have not effected me.  I don’t own stocks or real estate and I don’t carry debt. The collapse of the housing market, Fannie Mae and Freddy Mac, and the large insurance and banking houses didn’t even cause my blood pressure to rise.  In fact, they didn’t even come as a surprise.

Reading (and Viewing) Beyond the Mainstream

One reason might be my reading.  In my student years I read Marx.  The effort I put into Marx might have cut into my time at the front lines of the sexual revolution but it paid off by prompting me to see through myths of the efficiency and beneficence of “markets” and realize the myopic inefficiencies of enterprise-based profit motives.  Most important — to my spirit albeit not to my “net worth” — it led me to look for value in the inherent worth of things rather than in their speculative potential.

I’ve also always looked beyond the traditional press.  I cut my political-reading-teeth on the legendary I.F. Stone’s courageous belated “Weekly.”  Since the 1980s, I’ve subscribed to Doug Henwood’s Left Business Observer, a little known and erratically published broadsheet that uses economic analysis to see through, rather than justify or exploit, economic news and trends.  Today, in the Internet age, I read Jim Kunstler’s Clusterfuck Nation which  passionately and knowledgeably explores the relationships between infrastructure and economy and the prices to be paid for urban sprawl and SUV-driving suburbia.  And, in the age of diminishing attention spans, I’ve become a loyal viewer of the short videos of the Internets Celebrities, Rafi Kam and Dallas Penn, producers and presenters of “Bronx Bodega” and “Check Mate” (to view the videos click on the appropriate icons at the top of Celebrities’ site).

Real(?) Estate

Back in July I met Dallas Penn for bagels and lox in a luncheonette near Flatbush Avenue to discuss ideas relevant to the Celebrity’s planned new production “Real(?) Estate.”  The basic idea (without giving away plot or “MacGuffin”): The Celebrities would, in their usual mix of contrived innocence and spot-on insight, hit the streets (and apartment buildings) throughout the city to prod and expose the abstract and illusory nature of urban property ownership, down to the trade in air-rights.

The Internet Celebrities, by the way, are models of fiscal prudence.  Their productions are not financed by loans or “IPO”s and will not be bailed-out if they fail.  Instead, their videos are funded by plain old-fashioned cash donations from ordinary hard-working (or slothful) folks like you and me.  You can play your part by clicking here.   And do it quickly!  Had the Celebrities been able to get “Real(?) Estate” out six months ago, the mortgage crisis and subsequent financial implosion might never have taken place.

Yankee Stadium

During our discussion of the tulip-crisis-like trade in sliced-and-diced three-dimensional urban space, Dallas Penn pointed out that sports stadiums occupy volumes of space that could house thousands or tens of thousands of people or serve as immense urban parks, yet they are used for mere parts of each day for, on average, only 80-some-odd days a year.  This does not mean that stadiums should be done away with but that new stadium projects should be carefully weighed.

The Yankee Stadium project is a case in point.  Last week, Bill Moyers echoed Dallas Penn in a close-of-show editorial exposing the new stadium as a publicly-financed boondoggle benefiting the private sector — a Mae-and-Mac/AIG/WAMU meets the “national pass-time” as it were.  At tremendous public expense and little cost to its private-sector owners, the old stadium is being replaced with a new one that will have a capacity of 5,000 fewer seats but a greater number of corporate “private box” facilities.  The new stadium will occupy a larger footprint of Bronx territory than the old one did but will feed less back into the local economy of (as the Internet Celebrities underscored in “Bronx Bodega”) the poorest urban county in the United States.  Not least, the stadium project sweeps away a cultural if not physical monument — the “House that Babe Built” — the longest lasting of New York’s one-time legendary troika of baseball fields (the other two, Brooklyn’s Ebbets Field and the Polo Grounds in Manhattan, fell victim to … real estate development).

Footnote: Impeach Palin In Advance and Dallas Penn on the Presidential Debates

Bob Herbert writes about the crisis obscured by the current financial crises, i.e. the apocalyptic crisis that could ensue if Palin would ever accede to the presidency.  Herbert calls on Republicans to dump Palin from their ticket now — abortion for the good of the nation, as it were.  And, voters should think hard about what the Palin nomination tells us about the kind of administration McCain would appoint if elected.

Dallas Penn voices the frustration many of us felt as Obama pulled his punches during the debate, letting McCain off the hook a number of times and compromising his own positions and personality, as well as the stances of his supporters, in a possible attempt to woo centrist and “undecided” voters.  When reading Dallas’s post, however, don’t waste time on the link to the infantile video by Sarah Silverman.  Silverman’s “Uncle Moses-ing” and suburban whine are offensive.  Contrary to Silverman’s view-from-the-suburbs, out here in Brooklyn we have many Jews (this writer included) whose politics are far, far to the LEFT of Obama’s, who do not necessarily define themselves in terms of America’s racial bifurcations, and who have never been to Florida nor even thought of owning a Cadillac (well, one that runs, anyway!).

Posted in Cities, Commentary, Economy, Infrastructure, Links, Marx, Media, Politics | 1 Comment »

The Etymology of Infrastructure and the Infrastructure of the Internet

Posted by Stephen Lewis on September 22, 2008

Last week, I received a query from Doc Searls, who was working on an article on the infrastructure of the internet for the Publius Papers, a series of short internet-related think-pieces published by the Berkman Center for Internet and Society at Harvard Law.

Doc’s question: What did I know about the etymology and history of the word: “infrastructure”?  — a simple matter on the surface but one that cuts to the heart, not only of Doc’s subject, i.e. how the internet functions and what is required to sustain it, but also to the core of how polities enable their economies and serve their citizens, a matter at the crux of the present financial disasters and economic instability in the US.

Dictionary

A quick internet search (Merriam-Webster online) brought this crisp, near-tautological definition plus tantalizing reference to the word’s relatively recent origin:

Pronunciation: \ˈin-frə-ˌstrək-chər, -(ˌ)frä-\ Function: noun. Date:1927

1: the underlying foundation or basic framework (as of a system or organization)
2: the permanent installations required for military purposes
3: the system of public works of a country, state, or region ; also : the resources (as personnel, buildings, or equipment) required for an activity
— in·fra·struc·tur·al -ˌstrək-chə-rəl, -ˌstrək-shrəl\ adjective

Americanism?

A look at my bookshelves brought more surprising results.  “Infrastructure” does not appear in my 1970s Concise Oxford Dictionary and in my Oxford Thesaurus of the same period it is listed only as a synonym for “base.”  But, “infrastructure” is listed in a run-of-the-mill American dictionary of the time (Grollier) which defines it as a “foundation” and as “… the permanent structures of a military organization, esp. those of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization.”

The absence of “infrastructure” in the Oxford and its presence in the Grollier suggest that the word had been an Americanism at the time.  But what about the tantalizing reference in Merriam Webster to the 1927 debut of the word?  A trip to the New York Public Library and some rummaging within the microfilm collection of the Library’s business division (located in the magnificent neo-Renaissance pallace-like building on 34th Street and Fifth Avenue that once housed B. Altman’s department store, a mainstay of New York’s 19th- and 20th-century retail sector) began to bring clarity.

From French Railroads to NATO and the Cold War

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.

From Socially-Financed Prerequisites to Ideological Weapon

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.  During my stint as a graduate student at the Center for New York City Affairs at the New School for Social Research during the early 1970s, “infrastructure” was 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.

Around the same time, the word had spread to the world of international development agencies where it took on a distinctly cold war ideological slant.  The best way to fight the spread of communism, it was argued, was to ensure local prosperity and economic stability (but, sadly, not the equitable distribution of wealth!) which could most quickly and effectively take place if all underlying necessities (water, power, roads, public transportation, etc.) were put in place through massive capital development projects whether financed by donations or by loans that would ensure the fealty of recipient nations for decades.

From Engineering to Abandonment

By the mid1970s, the word “infrastructure” took yet another turn, this time within the private sector.  From 1974-1982 I worked in Europe and Asia for one of the larger engineering and construction companies of the time.  At the time, in the world of oil refining, petrochemicals, and “process” plants, “infrastructure,” referred to those social or governmental capital investments — roads, sewerage, water sources, electrical power, and other “utilities” — that were necessary for manufacturing but the provision of which did not fall within the scope of a single project, the “battery limits” of an industrial facility, or the commercial “feedstocks” that were are the raw materials for industrial processes.

During the 1990’s, I worked on a number of investment attraction agencies and local projects in the Netherlands in which the provision of infrastructure was used both as a chip and bargaining point in the Dutch government’s and local authorities’ repeatably successful attempts to lure companies to locate their European operations in the country.

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.

Further Investigation

At the moment, I am involved in research in a number of aspects of what infrastructure is and what its provision entails.

With Doc Searls and Kevin Barron (Institute for Theoritcal Physics, University of California at Santa Barbara), JP Rangaswami (British Telecom) and others, I am investigating what the infrastructure of the internet now is, could/should be, and how to best implement this.

Within the concept of urban studies and the contemporary home ownership and loan flim-flam, defaults, and financial disaster in the US, I am looking at the tension between two historical approaches, i.e. housing as infrastructure and housing as commodity.  As an analogue, I am also looking at the paradigmatic abandonment of socially financed public transport to privately-owned automobiles.

Further afield but surprisingly germane, I am digging into the effects of infrastructural change on the fabric of historical cities (Istanbul specifically) and the means and institutions that enabled the former Ottoman Empire to maintain the infrastructure of cities and trade for the better part of a millennium.

More to follow on each of these subjects …

Posted in Cities, Economy, History, Infrastructure, Internet, Language, Libraries | 3 Comments »

Infrastructure and Orthography: Hawaii/Havaii, A Charlie Parker Tune, a Giant Brain and a Collection of Strands

Posted by Stephen Lewis on September 17, 2008

I’ll begin with a 1930s New York joke.  An immigrant couple from New York takes a boat cruise to Hawaii.  They argue: Is Hawaii pronounced “ha-wah-yee” or “ha-vah-yee”?  To settle their dispute, they approach the first passerby they see after docking.  “Is it “hah-way-yee” or “hah-vay-yee,” they ask.  Hah-vay-yee” the passerby tells them.  “Thank you” says the couple.  “You’re velcome!” replies the passerby.

A Charlie Parker Tune and a California town

My own take on choosing pronunciations is to use those appropriate to the language in which I am speaking rather than to the language from which a word or name originates.  Thus, while I indeed say “Par-ee” when speaking French, I say “Paris” in English and “Parijs” when speaking Dutch. This week, I’ve been caught out twice while improperly pronouncing the name of the southern California town Camarillo.  Despite my long-ago near-mastery of Spanish, a maybe because of my Anglophone literalism, I habitually make audible the double-“l” in Camarillo, thus causing offended Californians to firmly interject  “No, it is ‘Camariyo’.”

I am not alone in my offending pronunciation.  Generations of jazz fans know that saxophone great Charlie Parker called the tune he wrote in memory of a stay at a California drug detox facility “Relaxin’ at Camarillo” and not “Relaxing at Camariyo”  I’ve got air check recordings of Parker and the sonorous-voiced 1940s-50s New York radio and club announcer Symphony Sid to prove it.  Also, in Caribbean Spanish as spoken here in New York, Camarillo would be pronounced “Camarijo.”

A Giant Brain and a Collection of Strands

The offended Californians mentioned above are two very pleasant and erudite colleagues: Kevin Barron, communications theorist and IT-director at the Institute of Theoretic Physics at the University of California at Santa Barbara and Arrie Bachrach, Camarillo-based veteran environmental affairs specialist and senior program manager at the enviromental consultancy firm ENSR.  Kevin is a new acquaintance.  He and I are working together — under the lead of Doc Searls of the Berkman Institute for Internet and Society at Harvard Law School and JP Rangaswami of British Telecom — to define and see to establishment an institute for the study ofthe infrastructure of connectivity, this including the infrastructure of the internet.

Kevin Barron sees the internet in part as an emergent decentralized  “giant brain” that grows in infinitismal increments and enables us to think beyond and transcend ourselves, not least in terms of the cultural differences that divide us.  Along with Kevin, I am fascinated by the concept of infinite accumulation and interrelation of knowledge and of the internet as a means for transcending the artificial distinctions goups of human beings erect between themselves and for neutralizing the potential of this for generating carnage, suffering, and material waste.  (In a future post I hope to present a summary of my research these past two years into the origins, artificiality and consequences of national identities, a sub-theme in many of my recent postings).

To fulfill its promise as a “giant brain,” however, the internet is dependant on open, gentlemen’s-agreement”-like nature of the protocols that facilitate it and on the vulnerable physicality of the dispersed servers strands of  fiber and cable that comprise its corporeal infrastructure.  The irony: from the great firewall of China to Russia’s recent cyber attack on the Republic of Georgia, the same divisive forces that the internet has the potential to transcend conspire to compromise the internet’s potential universality and to turn an open Net into closed and carefully controlled national and imperial Nets

Arrie Bachrach is presently working on a number of projects weighing the potentials of decentralized vs. centralized power production.  For the efficiencies of decentralized power to be realized, a “giant brain” must emerge to continuously guage production to need and to facilitate and fine-tune import and export of power amongst an eventual plethora of micro-scale local facilities worldwide.  Such a brain would be dependent on the internet as its infrastructure and thus in turn be dependent on the the elemental physical components that compose the substrructure of the internet.

Footnote: Life as Internet, Coincidence as Infrastructure

Although Kevin Barron and Arrie Bachrach have never met both are connected by a web of coincidences.  At the most obvious level, Arrie’s employer, ENSR, is a corporate sponsor of the Bren School of Environmental Management at the University of California at Santa Barbara.  On a more tangental level, I know Kevin through Doc Searls, who I met while I was a part-time philosophy undergraduate in Greensboro, NC four decades ago.  My friendship with Arrie dates back to earlier in the 1960s when we were both denizens of the Student Cooperative Housing in the Westwood section of Los Angeles near UCLA, a home to Black, Jewish, and Asian students in the days of “restricted” student fraternities and a poud bastion of anti-surfer-ism and premature support of the civil rights movement and opposition to the war in Vietnam as well as premature dope smoking (yes, we inhaled).  The main building of the “Coop” was a sparse Bauhaus-like glass and concrete interwar aparment building designed by the emigre architect Richard Neutra.  In the early 1990s, Doc and Joyce Searls introduced me to one of their friends, Dion Neutra, son of Richard Neutra and an architect in his own right.  In the years that followed, Dion and I managed to get together for architectural walks in New York and in the Netherlands, my one-time European base and the site of a number of works associated with Richard Neutra.

Posted in Architecture, Environment, Infrastructure, Internet, National Identity | Leave a Comment »

The Infrastructure of the Internet and the View Across the Bering Straits

Posted by Stephen Lewis on September 15, 2008

For some months this spring and summer, as part of a work-related project, I took part in an email-list “discussion” on issues pertaining to the infrastructure of the Internet.  Participants were mostly from the US with a sprinkling of others from as far away as New Zealand.

As the list took on a life of its own, I noticed a trend.  The more vocal of the US participants held forth rather than discussed and in doing so sounded oddly like the blustering right-wing American radio commentator Rush Limbaugh.  This was not only a matter of their tone and propensity toward ad homonym argument but also of their preoccupations.  Like Limbaugh, they were vituperative about America’s “regulators” and “regulations” and also seemingly blind to the achievements and problems of the rest of the world and the approaches of other countries to the issues they face.

The current economic woes in the US — e.g. the mortgage and housing market collapses, the folding of Fannie Mae and Freddy Mac, the bankruptcy of major banking/investment houses — appear to be functions of inadequate regulation and ineffectual government involvement.  The same goes for the messes that attend to the country’s power grid, transportation infrastructure, and health care and educational systems.  Imaginary “markets” as exalted by the US right-wing are no substitute for responsive and effective governance.  (For an interesting take — by no means identical to my own — on the importance of quality rather than quantity of regulation and the across-the-board failure of regulation under the Bush administration click here)

After the Second World War, the US economy comprised roughly four-fifths of the total world economy — but that was 60 years ago.  Today, the worldviews of many Americans appear stuck in post-WWII self-congratulation. Oddly, despite the phrase “world wide web,” such US-centrism seems to effect many local internet types as well.  But there is more to the internet than the US alone. An item in the Times this August (click here) pointed out that the majority of the physical infrastructure of the internet is now located outside of the US as is most of the net’s traffic.

The Russian invasion of the Republic of Georgia this summer highlighted other issues related to internet infrastructure and the fragmentation and vulnerability of the web.  That Georgia’s internet access ran through Russia made the country vulnerable to cyber-attacks and to potential isolation financially and communications-wise.  A new cable now being strung under the Black Sea will, in the future, route Georgia’s internet traffic via Bulgaria rather than Russia.  But, physical links via the Black Sea are by no means immune from compromise and Bulgaria, although now a member of NATO and of the EU, is a notoriously corrupt country with deep financial ties to Russia’s “black” economy and with absolutely no culture of adherence contractual obligations.

The US is now faced with the chilling possibility that the governor of the state of Alaska — who claims that the physical proximity of her state to Russia and the vistas of Russian as seen from Alaska across the Bering Straits give her requistite background in foreign affaris — has a fair shot at becoming the successor to the US presidency.  I hope my colleagues in future debates on the infrastructure of the internet will take a less myopic view of the rest of the world than the Alaska governor does.

Posted in Infrastructure, Internet, Media | Leave a Comment »