(Roughly) Daily

Posts Tagged ‘infrastructure

“We shape our infrastructure; thereafter it shapes us”*…

Long-time readers of (R)D will know of your correspondent’s regard for Deb Chachra and her thoughtful pieces on infrastructure (see, e.g., here and here). On the occasion of the publication of her (terrific) new book, How Infrastructure Works: Transforming our Shared Systems for a Changing World, another (R)D regular, Hillary Predko of Scope of Work, talks with Deb…

Deb Chachra is a material scientist and engineering professor at Olin College who writes extensively about infrastructural systems. Astute readers may have noticed that she is one of the thinkers most frequently cited in SOW: I recently referenced her work, as did TW earlier this year. Deb also joined as a guest writer in 2017. Her thoughtful writing forefronts the interplay between technical and social factors, calling infrastructure the way we take care of each other at a planetary scale.

I have loved following Deb’s work over the years, and her new book, How Infrastructure Works: Transforming our Shared Systems for a Changing World is a fascinating and nuanced extension of the same ideas. In compelling prose, the book traverses the history of the infrastructure systems we live with today and considers the new pressures posed by climate change. Another SOW favorite thinker, Robin Sloan, says, “Deb Chachra is the perfect guide not just to how infrastructure works but also how it feels. This book is just like the power plants it describes: a precise machine, a fountain of energy.”

In a world saturated with news of climate doom, How Infrastructure Works lays out a hopeful vision of a future – and one that is grounded in the technical realities of the world. Deb Chachra dreams in systems, and we are all invited to step into that dream. I recently sat down with Deb to talk about her book, and her perspective on the world and work…

An interview with Deb Chachra (@debcha), author of How Infrastructure Works: “An Ode to Living on The Grid,” from @the_prepared.

* Dax Bamania (a riff on a quote about tools often mis-attributed to Marshall McLuhan)


As we study structure, we might spare a thought for a man whose innovation added tremendous value to a ubiquitous 19th century infrastructure, George Pullman; he died on this date in 1897. An enginner and industrialist, he revolutionized rail travel when he designed and manufactured the Pullman sleeping car (and industrial relations, when he founded a company town in Chicago for the workers who manufactured it).

Pullman’s first sleeper


“Infrastructure is much more important than architecture”*…

.. much, much more important, as Debbie Chachra explains in a piece featured once before in (R)D. It’s excerpted here again, with special emphasis on our power grid…

We use exogenous energy every day to exceed the limits of what our bodies can do. Artificial light compensates for our species’ poor night vision and gives us control over how we spend our time, releasing us from the constraints of sunrise and sunset. So valuable is artificial light that it’s a reliable correlate of wealth and economic development: researchers use the growing brightness of regions over time, as quantified from satellite images taken at night, as a proxy measure—more resources, more light. The southern half of the Korean Peninsula and the ocean surrounding it is ablaze with light; while North Korea has just faint threads of light leading out from Pyongyang, a result of decades of imposed scarcity.

Energy in the form of mechanical work also replaces our body’s labour, from the domestic scale—all the technologies for textiles, for example, from spinning and weaving to sewing and laundry—to scales that are nearly impossible for human bodies alone, like building skyscrapers and bridges. And we use mechanical energy to move our bodies and ferry goods around: transportation. Exogenous energy also makes our living environments more comfortable; for a long time, this was mostly limited to heating, but in the twentieth century, the technologies of refrigeration and air conditioning became widespread. The newest uses of energy are telecommunications technologies—from Morse code to TikTok, they turn electrons into bits of information, facilitating human connections on a global scale.

In fact, this ability to access more energy than our bodies themselves can provide is—all but literally—baked into being a human. All cultures eat cooked food (and no animals cook their food). While it’s not required to survive, strictly speaking, heating food breaks it down, making the nutrients more bioavailable; in essence, the food becomes more nutritious. Learning to cook our food is thought to have been an important contributor to the development of our calorie-dense brains and all that followed, helping to free humans from the ongoing labour of foraging and eating that occupies most animals. But the near-necessity of cooking food then requires a different labour: for most women on most of the planet, obtaining fuel for cooking remains their primary daily occupation.

“Care at Scale”

How is that we in the U.S. have more-or-less abundant power? Brian Potter explains the evolution of our electric grid…

Abundant electricity is a defining feature of the modern era.  At the turn of the 20th century electrical power was a rare, expensive luxury: in 1900 electricity provided less than 5% of industrial power in the US, and as late as 1907 was in only 8% of US homes. Today, however, 89.6% of the world’s population has access to electricity (97.3% if you just consider urban areas), and Wikipedia’s “list of countries by electrification rate” has 123 countries sharing the top spot at 100% electrification.

Electrical service is considered critical in a way that’s different from most other services. Even a brief interruption in electrical power is considered a serious problem in industrialized countries where power outage durations are typically measured in minutes per year. To put this in perspective, the average yearly outage time in the US is around 475 minutes per year, which is considered especially unreliable despite representing ~99.9% uptime. By comparison, Germany averaged just 12.7 minutes of power outages per year in 2021—a remarkable 99.998% uptime.

Electricity’s transition from a luxury good to the foundation of modern life happened quickly. By 1930, electricity was available in nearly 70% of US homes, and supplied almost 80% of industrial mechanical power. By 1950, the US was tied together by an enormous network of high-voltage transmission lines…

The Birth of the Grid” (and Part Two) from @_brianpotter.

Keep an eye out for @debcha‘s forthcoming book, How Infrastructure Works.

* Rem Koolhaas


As we think systemically, we might recall that it was on this date in 1752 that Benjamin Franklin and his son tested the relationship between electricity and lightning by flying a kite in a thunder storm.  Franklin was attempting a (safer) variation on a set of French investigations about which he’d read.  The French had connected lightning rods to a Leyden jar, but one of their experiments electrocuted the investigator.  Franklin– who was, of course, no fool– used a kite; the increased height/distance from the strike reduces the risk of electrocution.  (But it doesn’t eliminate it: Franklin’s experiment is now illegal in many states.)

In fact (other) French experiments had successfully demonstrated the electrical properties of lightning a month before, but word had not yet reached Philadelphia.

The Treasury’s Bureau of Engraving and Printing created this vignette (c. 1860), which was used on the $10 National Bank Note from the 1860s to 1890s


Written by (Roughly) Daily

June 10, 2023 at 1:00 am

“The only thing useful banks have invented in 20 years is the ATM”*…

ATM’s have been around in the U.S. since 1969; there were, as of 2018, 470,135 of them in operation, from which $5.1 Billion was withdrawn. The market for the machines and the technology that connects them was $20 Billion in 2020, projected to grow to $30 Billion in 2028. They were originally– and are still primarily used for cash disbursement; but over the years they’ve added a number of other functions: account deposits, bill payment, even lottery and movie ticket purchase– there are over 10 Billion ATM transactions in the U.S. alone. As cash plays a less central role in transactions, the the number of machines and transactions has slightly declined. Still they are a major factor in today’s financial infrastructure– and that few of us really understand. Patrick McKenzie is here to help– and to remind us that their history has lessons that are broader…

The first automated teller machines, which debuted in the late 1960s, were, as the name suggests, strictly cost-saving devices for bank branches. Branches exist as sales offices but have incidental cash-management functions. The denser depositors are around a branch, the more transactions happen during peak windows like e.g. the morning commute and lunchtime. The more transactions you need to support in a window, the more tellers you need to employ. Tellers are both surprisingly inexpensive relative to the degree of trust placed in them but surprisingly costly relative to occupations like e.g. cashiers which look outwardly similar. Banks have long wanted to control the costs of the teller base.

The original thesis behind the ATM was that you could move the most routine teller transactions, like cash withdrawals and balance inquiries, to a machine, and then reserve the teller for higher-complexity routine transactions like cashing checks. The machines gradually gained more features as they achieved ubiquity.

Interestingly, teller employment is actually up substantially since the introduction of ATMs. Secular demand for retail banking grew with the economy and the larger number of branches has compensated for reduced numbers of tellers per branch. See Bessen 2016

ATMs are a fascinating example of a pattern we see a lot in finance: an internal operations improvement which was built into a business which eventually begat an infrastructure layer that may be a much bigger business. And for all their ubiquity, almost no one, even people professionally involved in finance, understand how they work…

See also: “Automated Teller Machines” (source of the image above)

The plumbing of finance: “The infrastructure behind ATMs,” from @patio11.

* Paul Volcker (2009)


As we insert our cards, we might send carefully-denominated birthday greetings to Kaushik Basu; he was born on this date in 1952. An economist, he served as  Chief Economist of the World Bank from 2012 to 2016. Having taught at MIT, Harvard University, the Institute for Advanced Study at Princeton, and the London School of Economics, he is currently a professor at Cornell. From 2009 to 2012, during the United Progressive Alliance‘s second term, Basu served as the Chief Economic Adviser to the Government of India. His recent work has been on collective moral responsibilities and the role that individuals play in fulfilling them. In 2021, he was awarded the Alexander von Humboldt Foundation Research Award.


Written by (Roughly) Daily

January 9, 2023 at 1:00 am

“How dare you try to hog all the continent!”*…

The ceremony for the driving of the “Last Spike” at Promontory Summit, Utah, May 10, 1869 (source)

Historian Richard White on the greed, ineptitude, and economic cost behind the transcontinental railroads of the 19th century, and what that says about the development of infrastructure today…

Politicians love a good historical analogy. That’s why Joe Biden has compared his infrastructure law to the construction of the interstate highway system and the transcontinental railroad. The president, of course, means such comparisons in a flattering light. For those who have studied these revolutionary policy choices, however, the consequences are not so unblemished.

Ten years ago, historian Richard White catalogued the greed and ineptitude of railroad executives and the policymakers who blindly enabled their schemes. In Railroaded: The Transcontinentals and the Making of Modern America, he explored the history of corporations that have gone down in American myth as corrupt but ultimately productive and necessary.

White argues that the transcontinental railroad companies were not necessary for stitching the young country together; they were simply an example of “dumb growth” that hurt more than it helped. Sped along by state subsidy and paid-for politicians, these corporations built in places where there were no markets. They never made money. The entire enterprise was a vast Ponzi scheme, and its periodic turmoil threw the nation into repeated economic crisis. Their selfish flailing scourged wildlife, oppressed Native Americans, and spread new settlements to areas where they could not be sustained (and after long suffering were not).

Instead of an all-powerful “octopus” engulfing the country, he saw the railroad men as a collection of myopic and unintelligent executives who could not have survived year to year without government subsidy. Instead of a monstrous kraken, he suggested a better analogy would be “a group of fat men in an Octopus suit fighting over the controls” of a train going off the rails…

Governing (@GOVERNING) talks with White about lessons for today’s infrastructure programs: “Breaking the Myth About America’s ‘Great’ Railroad Expansion.”

See also: “Years of Delays, Billions in Overruns: The Dismal History of Big Infrastructure” “These days, the bigger the company, the less you can figure out what it does.”

* Collis Huntington (lead investor in the Central Pacific Railroad) to “Doc” Durant (V.P., and operating head of the Union Pacific Railroad) in 1862


As we learn from our mistakes, we might recall that it was on this date in 1845 that President James K. Polk, citing “Manifest Destiny” in a State of the Union message, proposed that the United States should aggressively expand into the West.

It was the 22nd anniversary of President James Monroe‘s declaration of the New World as a sphere of influence off-limits to intervention by Old World (colonial) powers, and suggesting that any such incursion would be deemed an act of aggression against the U.S. From 1850, this policy has been known as “the Monroe Doctrine.”

American Progress (1872) by John Gast is an allegorical representation of the modernization of the new west. (source)

“Do for the future what you’re grateful the past did for you. (Or what you wish the past had done for you.)”*…

A love letter to infrastructure…

The Nobel Prize–winning developmental economist Amartya Sen describes income and wealth as desirable “because, typically, they are admirable general-purpose means for having more freedom to lead the kind of lives we have reason to value. The usefulness of wealth lies in the things that it allows us to do—the substantive freedoms it helps us to achieve.” This is also a fairly good description of infrastructural systems: they’re a general-purpose means of freeing up time, energy, and attention. On a day-to-day basis, my personal freedom doesn’t come from money per se—it mostly comes from having a home where these systems are built into the walls, which became abundantly clear during the coronavirus pandemic. Stable housing and a salary that covered my utility bills meant that, with the exception of food and taking out the trash, all of my basic needs were met without my ever even having to go outside. It’s worth noting that this is an important reason why guaranteed housing for everyone is important—not just because of privacy, security, and a legible address, but also because our homes are nodes on these infrastructural networks. They are our locus of access to clean water and sewage, electricity, and telecommunications.

But the real difference between money and infrastructural systems as general-purpose providers of freedom is that money is individual and our infrastructural systems are, by their nature, collective. If municipal water systems mean that we are enduringly connected to each other through the landscape where our bodies are, our other systems ratchet this up by orders of magnitude. Behind the wheel of a car, we are a cyborg: our human body controls a powered exoskeleton that lets us move further and faster than we ever could without it. But this freedom depends on roads and supply chains for fuels, to say nothing of traffic laws and safety regulations. In researcher Paul Graham Raven’s memorable formulation, infrastructural systems make us all into collective cyborgs. Alone in my apartment, when I reach out my hand to flip a switch or turn on a tap, I am a continent-spanning colossus, tapping into vast systems that span thousands of miles to bring energy, atoms, and information to my household. But I’m only the slenderest tranche of these collective systems, constituting the whole with all the other members of our federated infrastructural cyborg bodies.

The philosopher John Rawls once offered up a thought experiment, building on the classic question: How best should society be ordered? His key addition was the concept of a “veil of ignorance”: not just that you would live in the society you designed, but that you wouldn’t know ahead of time what role you would have within it. So, while you might want to live in a world where you are an absolute ruler whose every whim is fulfilled by fawning minions, the veil of ignorance means that there is no guarantee you wouldn’t be one of the minions—in fact, given the numerical odds, it’s a lot more likely. Positing a veil of ignorance is a powerful tool to consider more equitable societies.

Seen from this perspective, shared infrastructural systems provide for the basic needs of—and therefore grant agency to—members of a community in a way that would satisfy Rawls. Universal provision of water, sewage, electricity, access to transportation networks that allow for personal mobility, and broadband internet access creates a society where everyone—rich or poor, regardless of what you look like or believe—has access to at least a baseline level of agency and opportunity.

But here’s the kicker: it’s not a thought experiment. We’ve all passed through Rawls’s veil of ignorance. None of us chooses the circumstances of our birth. This is immediate and inarguable if you’re the child of immigrants. If one of the most salient facts of my life is that I was born in Canada, it’s also obvious that I had nothing to do with it. But it’s equally true for the American who proudly traces their family back to ancestors who came over on the Mayflower, or the English family whose landholdings are listed in the Domesday Book. Had I been born in India, my infrastructural birthright would have been far less robust as an underpinning for the life of agency and opportunity that I am fortunate to live, which stems in large part from the sheer blind luck (from my perspective) of being born in Canada.

Our infrastructural systems are the technological basis of the modern world, the basis for a level of global wealth and personal agency that would have been unthinkable only a few centuries ago. But those of us who have been fortunate enough to live as part of a collective cyborg have gained our personal agency at an enormous moral cost. And now anthropogenic climate change is teaching us that there are no others, no elsewhere.

For millennia, these systems have been built out assuming a steady, predictable landscape, allowing us to design long-lived networks where century-old aqueducts underlay new college campuses. But this predictability is becoming a thing of the past. More heat in the atmosphere means warmer weather and shifting climates, with attendant droughts, wildfires, and more frequent and severe hurricanes. But it also increases uncertainty: as the effects of greenhouse gases compound, we may reach tipping points, trigger positive feedback loops, and face other unprecedented changes to climates. Engineers can’t design systems to withstand hundred-year storms when the last century provides little guide to the weather of the next. No matter where in the world you reside, this is the future we will all have to live in. The only question that remains is what kind of world we want to build there.

Our shared infrastructural systems are the most profound and effective means that we’ve created to both relieve the day-to-day burdens of meeting our bodies’ needs and to allow us to go beyond their physiological limits. To face anthropogenic climate change is to become a civilization that can respond to this shifting, unpredictable new world while maintaining these systems: if you benefit from them today, then any future in which they are compromised is recognizably a dystopia. But that “dystopia” is where most of the world already lives. To face anthropogenic climate change ethically is to do so in a way that minimizes human suffering.

Mitigation—limiting the amount of warming, primarily through decarbonizing our energy sources—is one element of this transition. But the true promise of renewable energy is not that it doesn’t contribute to climate change. It’s that renewable energy is ubiquitous and abundant—if every human used energy at the same rate as North Americans, it would still only be a tiny percentage of the solar energy that reaches the Earth. Transforming our energy systems, and the infrastructural systems that they power, so that they become sustainable and resilient might be the most powerful lever that we have to not just survive this transition but to create a world where everyone can thrive. And given the planetwide interconnectedness of infrastructural systems, except in the shortest of short terms, they will be maintained equitably or not at all.

Ursula Franklin wrote, “Central to any new technology is the concept of justice.” We can commit to developing the technologies and building out new infrastructural systems that are flexible and sustainable, but we have the same urgency and unparalleled opportunity to transform our ultrastructure, the social systems that surround and shape them. Every human being has a body with similar needs, embedded in the material world at a specific place in the landscape. This requires a different relationship with each other, one in which we acknowledge and act on how we are connected to each other through our bodies in the landscapes where we find ourselves. We need to have a conception of infrastructural citizenship that includes a responsibility to look after each other, in perpetuity. And with that, we can begin to transform our technological systems into systems of compassion, care, and resource-sharing at all scales, from the individual level, through the level of cities and nations, all the way up to the global.

Our social relationships with each other—our culture, our learning, our art, our shared jokes and shared sorrow, raising our children, attending to our elderly, and together dreaming of our future—these are the essence of what it means to be human. We thrive as individuals and communities by caring for others, and being taken care of in turn. Collective infrastructural systems that are resilient, sustainable, and globally equitable provide the means for us to care for each other at scale. They are a commitment to our shared humanity.

Bodies, agency, and infrastructure: “Care At Scale,” from Debbie Chachra (@debcha), via the indispensable Exponential View (@ExponentialView). Eminently worth reading in full.

See also: “Infrastructure is much more important than architecture“; and resonantly, “Kim Stanley Robinson: a climate plan for a world in flames.”

* Danny Hillis’ “Golden Rule of Time,” as quoted by Stewart Brand in Whole Earth Discipline


As we build foundations, we might recall that it was on this date in 1904 that the first balloon used for meteorologic research in the U.S. was released near St. Louis, Missouri. The balloon carried instruments that measured barometric pressure, temperature, and humidity, that returned to Earth when the balloon burst.

The first weather balloon was launched in France in 1892. Prior to using balloons, the U.S. used kites tethered by piano wire– the downsides being the limited distance kites could ascend (less than 2 miles), the inability to use them if the wind was too light or too strong, and potential for the kites to break away.

Since this first launch, millions of weather balloons have been launched by the National Weather Service and its predecessor organizations.


Written by (Roughly) Daily

September 15, 2021 at 1:00 am