The Individual In the Infrastructure

I submitted a paper to this conference back in 2005.

The conference call and details are below, for reference as most of the information on the conference are no longer online.

(I dug this information out from this mailing list archive :;7446326d.0305)

Subject: FW: Call for Papers – Urban Vulnerability and Network Failure
Date: Sun, 25 May 2003 13:51:02 +0100

Urban Vulnerability and Network Failure:
Constructions and Experiences of Emergencies, Crises and Collapse


An ESRC-Sponsored International Seminar jointly hosted by SURF, University of Salford and GURU, University of Newcastle Manchester, United Kingdom, 29-30 April 2004


In these times of ‘globalisation’ cities are being powerfully shaped
by their relationships with socio-technical networks and infrastructures.
These organise, and mediate, the distribution of people, goods,
services, information, wastes, capital, and energy between multiple scales
within and between urban regions. The contemporary urban process, and
contemporary social power, thus, more than ever, involve complex ‘cyborg’ liaisons and multiple, distanciated connections. These straddle many scales and link bodies, places, and institutions continuously with more or less distant
elsewheres. By making possible a myriad of mobilities such infrastructures
remake the spaces and times of urban life in the process.

On the one hand, the everyday life and ideology of the modern city is
dependent on the seamless and continuous functioning, together, of a
vast array of functioning technical systems(although, for vast numbers of
urbanites in the global South, the reality is often of little
connectivity and worse reliability). On the other hand, large swathes of contemporary corporate, state, and military power centres on the construction,
maintenance, legitimation and protection of vast arrays of extended
technological systems. Strung out across the world, and configured
carefully to support the ‘glocal’ geographies of power and connectivity
of contemporary capitalism, these network spaces – fibre optic networks,
airport and airline spaces, Just-in-Time logistics systems, E-commerce
and transactional flows, transnational energy systems, and so on — are
critical strategic supports to neoliberal globalisation. Linking up,
and mediating, key spaces and divisions of labour reliably, quickly and
seamlessly, the physical, energy, water and informational infrastructures
that sustain contemporary capitalism are perhaps the most critical
strategic supports of contemporary global capitalism.

A widening range of iconic infrastructure collapses serve as
opportunities to learn about the cultural, political, social and material dimensions of the importance of infrastructural connection in contemporary urban, and geopolitical, life. Since the early 1990s, to name but a few, iconic
collapsese and failures have included the Montreal ice storm, the
Auckland power blackout, the gas attack on the Tokyo underground, the Sydney
drought, the California energy crisis, the Chicago heat wave, the
failure of Hong Kong airport’s freight system, the September 11th attacks, and
the ‘Lovebug’ virus. The infrastructural devastation of countless urban wars
also needs to be considered here.

As seamless and 24 hour flows and connections become ever-more critical
for capitalist urbanism, however, so massive political, discursive and
material resources are being devoted to try and reduce the supposed
vulnerabilities that these systems exhibit to collapse, malfunctioning,
or attack. This is especially so when the September 11th and Anthrax
attacks, in particular, demonstrated that mobility systems, themselves, can be
appropriated as ‘terrorist’ weapons. ‘Resilience’, and ‘critical
infrastructure protection’, are ubiquitous buzz words in these times of
politically constructed moral panic, continuous states of emergency,
and the ongoing Bush-led ‘war on terror’. Huge resources and efforts are now
being devoted by States, infrastructure corporations, the military,
urban infrastructure agencies, and corporate capital to reducing the supposed
vulnerability of telecommunications, transport, logistics, transaction,
electricity, and utilities systems to technical failure, sabotage,
natural disasters or the failures caused by the reduced built in back-up that
often comes with liberalised markets. The glaring fragility, and low
reliability, of many computer-mediated communications and infrastructure systems is a particular focus of concern here. Examples include government programmes
to protect critical infrastructure, commercial services for network back
up, and military (and terrorist groups’) interest in the disrupting of
adversaries’ infrastructure networks. Civil defence programmes designed
to increase cities’ resilience to attack and targeting, and so on, are also
reaching unprecedented levels.

As Tim Luke has observed, networked connections and collapses also form
a critical focus of cultural politics. Narratives and discourses of failed
flow and connection stalk many underground and dystopian scenes and
genres of culture. Contemporary urban culture is full of accounts which reveal
a fascination with such moments of what he calls ‘decyborganisation’.
This is because they reveal, however fleetingly, the utter reliance of
modern urban life on distanciated flow and interaction. The cultural narratives
and representations that surround the failure and collapse of networked
infrastructures are a key aspect of their social importance.

Conference Aim and Objective

The core aim of this conference is to explore the ways in which
reactions to, and experiences of, the collapse of technical and networked
infrastructures within and between cities are constructed, experienced,
imagined, represented, and contested. We seek in particular to explore
these themes under conditions of growing infrastructural stress,
re-regulation, globalisation, increasing concerns with failure, the
changing geopolitical situation surrounding the ‘war on terror’, and the
strong fascination for infrastructural collapse within contemporary
culture. By bringing together researchers representing a range of
disciplines, including geography, history, sociology, critical theory,
development studies, political economy, geopolitics, surveillance and
defence studies, the objective is to stimulate interdisciplinary
discussion and collaboration that examines the meaning of connectivity and collapse in contemporary urban life, politics, governance, and culture.

Seminar Themes

(1) Conceptualising ‘Cyborg’ Urbanisation: How can urban, social and
critical theory conceptualise the socio-technologies of connection,
resilience, mobility, and collapse in contemporary cities ?

(2) Urban Vulnerability and Network Failures: Constructions and
Experiences of Emergencies, Crises and Collapse How do different disciplines
construct concepts of urban vulnerability and network failure ? How does network
stress and failure operate materially and how is it represented
politically and culturally ? Why, how and where do technical networks
collapse? What can be learnt about the discursive, economic or material
role of technical connections in a globalised context by studying what
happens when connections fail ? How does the governance of cities,
spaces and networked infrastructure intersect in various contexts to address
(and exploit ?) perceptions of stress and risk. How are such politics shaped
by broader political economies of globalisation, mobility, flow and
re-regulation ? How are corporate and popular fears of, and vulnerabilities
to, the failure of connectivity addressed in such processes of governance ?

(3) Networked Collapses as States of Emergency : What can be learnt from
in-depth case studies of instances of network failures or collapse ?
What happens when the normalisation of flow, mobility and connection breaks
down? What social, economic, and cultural coping mechanisms and innovations
are developed to deal with the collapse ? How do political and
governance coalitions at various scales, in states, cities and network spaces,
respond to failure ? What are the longer term political, economic or cultural
consequences of network failure ? How are crises and collapse in
infrastructures, and wider processes of ‘de-cyborgisation,’ represented
in contemporary culture ?

(4) Networked Collape, Security, and Organised Violence How do various
state and non-state militaries and target and destroy adversaries’
infrastructure networks? In what ways are national, homeland and urban
‘security’ strategies, and critical infrastructure protection policies,
being reforged to address, or exploit, fears of networked collapse ?
What political economic transitions do such strategies support? What
discursive, and linguistic constructions do such political strategies
rely on ? Beyond the hype what is the real scope of ‘cyberwar’ ? What
strategies and techniques are used? How effective, or widespread, is such
‘network-based’ warfare ? How does it relate to the current geopolitical
position (dominated by a single ‘hyperpower’ pursuing a ‘war on terror’
without apparent end to further its geopolitical interests in the Middle
East and Central Asia)?

Abstract Submission

Please submit a 250 words abstract to Steve Graham and Simon Marvin before September 1st 2003.
Papers will be required for pre-circulation before the seminar that will be
hosted in central Manchester, United Kingdom in April 2004.

My paper, which was accepted was quite simple and probably naive but if you want to see it, its available here.