Magazine article Issues in Science and Technology

The Infrastructure Challenge

Magazine article Issues in Science and Technology

The Infrastructure Challenge

Article excerpt

In "Infrastructure and Democracy" (Issues, Winter 2017), Christopher Jones and David Reinecke remind us that infrastructures have historically been inaccessible to many people in the United States, particularly those living in poor and rural communities. By tracing the development of US railroad, electrical, and Internet networks, the authors show that many infrastructures are not democratic by design, but made accessible through citizen activism and organizing. In the nineteenth century, for example, Americans demanded railroad regulation. In the twentieth century, communities self-organized to extend electricity to unserved areas. Today, as problems associated with aging infrastructure (crumbling bridges and dams) mount, the federal government is poised to pursue infrastructure spending dependent on private investment. If projects are motivated by revenue rather than the public good, it seems likely that historical problems of equity and accountability could be repeated in terms of what is built (toll roads, not water pipes) and who is served (affluent urban areas, not poor and rural communities).

By analyzing the infrastructure problems of the past, the authors provide an illuminating and much-needed perspective on the present. But as I read, I began to wonder if the ambiguity of the first word in the article's title--infrastructure--might be antithetical to more public access and accountability. When the word infrastructure was adopted in English from French in the early twentieth century, it was a specialized engineering term referring to the work required before railroad tracks could be laid: building roadbeds, bridges, embankments, and tunnels. After World War II, it was reimagined as a generic bureaucratic term, referring to projects of spatial integration, particularly supranational military coordination (NATO's 1949 Common Infrastructure Programme) and international economic development. …

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