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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.


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


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 »

Libraries vs. the Internet: Researching the Peloponnesian War, the British Library’s “Turning the Pages” Project, and a Brilliantly Aesthetic Weblog

Posted by Stephen Lewis on August 26, 2007

This past June, I posted an entry (Library Access, the Limits of the Web, and the Shelling of Sarajevo) weighing in against the misconception that the Internet is equal to or will render obsolete the world’s great libraries. Soon after, I came across this recent paper: The Peloponnesian War and the Future of Reference, Cataloging, and Scholarship in Research Libraries (2007) by Thomas Mann, Ph.D (author of The Oxford Guide to Library Research, 3rd edition, Oxford University Press, 2005).

Mann’s paper — prepared for AFSCME 2910, the Library of Congress Professional Guild — is a compelling 40-page examination of the roles of libraries, librarians, and cataloging, and of the place and present limits of the Internet. Beginning with the device of a student’s attempt to research the Peloponnesian War, Mann reflects on the nature of research, knowledge, and scholarly discourse vs. “quick fix” searches for isolated facts. His consideration of the visceral and associative nature of delving into open stack collections inspires one to set out in search of the nearest library. Vis-a-vis the Internet, one of Mann’s main points of concern is:

“The inadequacy of the open Internet alone for scholarly research – its inability to provide overviews of “the whole elephant”—i.e., not showing all relevant parts, not distinguishing important from tangential, not showing interconnections or relationships, not adequately allowing recognition of what cannot be specified.”

In all, Mann’s paper is an enticing challenge to all of us to return to libraries, to expand our knowledge, and to taste and enter the worlds of research, scholarship and discourse, whether as participants or occasional observers. Internet partisans sometimes prefer aphorisms and “getting it” to longer, well-reasoned arguments but anyone interested in seeing the internet fulfill its potential in the hosting, association, and democratization of knowledge would do well to at least skim the paper.

Turning the Pages

One of the best projects I have encountered on the Web to digitize, examine, and make accessible treasured books and manuscripts is the British Library’s Turning the Pages site. Turning the Pages includes magnificently reproduced rare books — their pages made “turnable” via Shockwave — with English-language transcriptions of their texts and, in some cases audio files of readings of the texts in their original languages. Still, the project presents the texts in isolation and without links or references to facilitate research or place them within the contexts of collections, background material, relevant scholarship, etc. — one of the pitfalls that Mann refers to in his monograph.

A Brilliantly Aesthetic Weblog

I first found Mann’s paper on Libraries and the Internet on wood s lot, a prodigious weblog of impeccably selected — and equally impeccably associated — photographs, paintings, and literary quotes. I truly recommend it … and thank its author for his occasional links to Hak Pak Sak!

Posted in Digitization, Internet, Libraries, Literature | 1 Comment »

Brilliant, Fallible Titans: Günther Grass meets Norman Mailer

Posted by Stephen Lewis on July 23, 2007

Anyone who is interested in literature, philosophy, personal responsibility, courage, cowardice, risk taking, men and women, sex, parents and children, violence, aging, serendiipity, the 20th century, totalitarianism, mass communications, food, the responsibilities and failures of societies and governments, Hitler, Stalin, two world wars, hatred and mass murders, post-war Paris, Bush and Iraq, humor, and the sweat, rewards, pains, and deceptions of being an artist — or in anything else for that matter — might want to listen to the recorded version of back-to-back interviews with, and a subsequent discussion between, two of the greatest writers and most monumentally outspoken, courageous, moral, and fallible men of the 20th and nascent 21st centuries: Günther Grass and Norman Mailer.

The interviews and discussion, held in June at the New York Public Library, are given poignancy by Grass’s recent fumbling admission about having been less-than-forthcoming over the years about his three months in the Waffen SS and by Mailer’s announcement that the interview may have been his final appearance in public. (Mailer claims to be hampered by failing hearing and eyesight but his erudition, wisdom, and speech are more profound and compelling than ever). The only jarring notes: The interviewer’s rather out-of-place-at-the-New-York-Public-Library Scottish accent and somewhat pale performance as interlocuter.

To listen to the event go to this page on the website of the NYPL and click on the appropriate links to parts one and two. For recordings of other NYPL events, click here.

Posted in History, Identity, Libraries, Literature, Philosophy | 1 Comment »

Library Access, the Limits of the Web, and the Shelling of Sarajevo

Posted by Stephen Lewis on June 19, 2007

The Moorish-Revival style facade of the fire-gutted former National and University Library building, Sarajevo, Bosnia and Herzegovina

In a June 1 commentary, Doc Searls objected to the high annual user-fees ($500 and up) that American universities such as Stanford and Harvard charge outsiders to use their libraries. Doc cautioned: “The (inter)net is a bigger library than all … university libraries put together, and it’s not exclusive. This is a fact of life (or death) for libraries and those of us who continue to care deeply about them.”

The Poorly-Stocked Web

My own take is that while the web might theoretically have the potential of providing more shelf space than all libraries combined, in reality it is quite far from being as well stocked. Indeed, only a small portion of the world’s knowledge is available online. The danger is that as people come to believe that the web is the be-all and end-all source of information, the less they will consult or be willing to pay for the off-line materials that continue to comprise the bulk of the world’s knowledge, intellectual achievement, and cultural heritage. The outcome: the active base of knowledge used by students, experts, and ordinary people will shrink as a limited volume of information, mostly culled from older secondary sources, is recycled and recombined over and again online, leading to an intellectual dark-age of sorts. In this scenario, Wikipedia entries will continue to grow uncontrolled and unverified while specialized books, scholarly journals and the world’s treasure troves of still-barely-explored primary sources will gather dust. Present-day librarians, experts in the mining of information and the guidance of researchers, will disappear. Scholarly discourse will slow to a crawl while the rest of us leave our misconceptions unquestioned and the gaps in our knowledge unfilled.

The challenge is either – or both – to get more books, periodicals, and original source materials online or to prompt people to return to libraries while at the same time ensuring that libraries remain (or become) accessible. Both tasks are dauntingly expensive and, in the end, must be paid for, whether through taxes, grants, memberships, donations, or market-level or publicly-subsidized fees. What the exact cost models could or will be is part of a larger conversation on the infrastructure of the internet that Doc and I have kicked-off privately and will at some point bring online. It is also part of ongoing conversations on future models for the publishing industry and intellectual property laws.

Digitization of the contents of libraries, by the way, is a highly complex affair, especially when dealing with older books and with original, fragile archival materials. The goal is to reproduce such materials in a non-destructive manner, at a sufficiently high quality, and in a manner that is searchable. Indeed, the ability to search within and across documents is one of the ultimate benefits of digitalization and one of main promises of interconnected on-line libraries.

A War Against Archives

Just about the time when Doc was preparing his June 1 posting I was standing in front of the former National and University Library in Sarajevo, in Bosnia and Herzegovina. The building – constructed in the last quarter of the nineteenth century soon after the transfer of control of Bosnia from the Ottoman Empire to the Austro-Hungarian Empire– originally served as Sarajevo’s town hall. The edifice is an archetypical example of so-called Moorish Revival architecture, a style that may have been propogated as a non-Ottoman but still (stereotypically-) oriental “national” style for the Austro-Hungarian Empire’s newly-annexed Muslim-populated Balkan territories. (More on Moorish Revival architecture and contrived national identities and national styles on my alter-ego weblog Bubkes.Org later this summer).

In August of 1992, during the Bosnian Serb siege of Sarajevo, the National Library building was set ablaze. This resulted in the loss of more than two million books, periodicals, and archival documents. The attempted destruction of the library was part of a concerted attempt to wipe out the historical memory and cultural heritage of Muslim Bosnia, a correlate of the attempt to delegitimize the presence of, and ultimately physically eliminate, its inhabitants. Fortunately, many of the library’s rare manuscripts had been smuggled out of the library building and hidden elsewhere in Sarajevo in anticipation of the attack.

The internet has a long way to go as a home for irreplaceable historical archives and documents. Such primary sources form the basis for original research and for refreshing our understanding in many fields. The rarity and fragility of archival documents makes them worthy of digitization and web-based archiving and distribution. At the moment, archival materials are under-represented among the corpus of information in cyberspace. This causes them to slip out the ken of popular recognition as well as beyond the reach of specialists without the resources to travel to and work where they are stored. In the case of Sarajevo, a valuable part of the cultural heritage of the Balkans might have been saved in virtual form had the potentials of digitation and the web been available and utilized at the time. More recently, the Bush administration’s ill-considered war and occupation in Iraq was based on pathetically inadequate research and a total misunderstanding of the country, its history, and the peoples that comprise it. Indeed, much of the history of Iraq and its antecedents – as of much of the Mid-East, North Africa, and the Balkans – stills lays buried amongst the millions of pre-1923 Ottoman documents stored in the Turkish national archives in Istanbul and Ankara. This is all the more reason to ensure that, whatever the cost model, more of the world’s printed and written heritage is brought online and that until then we continue to turn to libraries and keep in mind that there are “far more things in heaven and earth” than are now contained on the internet.

(Digital Photo © Stephen Lewis, 2007)

Posted in Architecture, Commentary, Digitization, History, Identity, Infrastructure, Libraries | 8 Comments »