A new volume co-edited by Assistant Professor of Anthropology Nikhil Anand convincingly demonstrates that political ideologies and decisions have long worked upon us through their material incarnations—infrastructures. Infrastructure, of course, can encompass everything from the pipes that carry water, sewage, or oil, to the wires that transport electricity into our homes. These technological systems support nearly all aspects of modern life and are the subjects of The Promise of Infrastructure, the result of a collaborative effort by Anand and his coeditors at UCLA, Akhil Gupta and Hannah Appel. The book, however, offers more than an analysis of the politics of infrastructure. Thinking about this new work, Anand points out that the themes of time and the promise of the future wind their way through the book’s collection of essays.
The collection represents the culmination of a five-day workshop at the School for Advanced Research in New Mexico that took place in November 2014. While there, Anand had the opportunity to live and think alongside nine other researchers about the theoretical possibilities in examining the commonalities and differences of infrastructures across geographies and cultures. “Infrastructure came up as a way of thinking about how we experience time and temporality in the world,” says Anand, “but we also wanted to call attention to the ways in which infrastructures are built over more than a single human lifetime.”
The invention of faster systems of transportation and communication, for example, have impacted people’s experiences of time in fairly intuitive ways. The 19th-century installation of the railroad hurtled people across distances in a matter of hours, and this had some predictable implications for how people thought about the relationship between distance and time. But The Promise of Infrastructure pushes beyond these simpler observations, as Anand puts it, noting how infrastructures like drinking water systems are not “built at one time but [are instead] brought into being and created over layers of different times.” This suggests that not only are ideals, politics, and promises of the past materialized and enacted upon people across several generations through accreted infrastructure; it also highlights how “infrastructure distributes responsibility over long periods of time,” says Anand.
“The point about politics is quite self-evident,” he explains. “Infrastructures have political effects that we anticipate, but they also have political effects that we do not anticipate.” He uses the BP oil spill, the result of an infrastructure failure and the cause of an ecological disaster, as an example. Anand says that the idea for The Promise of Infrastructure actually emerged in the days and weeks that followed the worsening crisis in the Gulf of Mexico: “I remember watching for weeks while the most powerful government on Earth, together with one of the most powerful corporations on Earth, could do nothing to stop the oil well in the Gulf from burning.” He says that the crisis helps demonstrate how infrastructures often carry out a host of unintended consequences, creating situations in which humans are no longer the only, or even primary, “authors of the story.”
The book tackles its subject through a series of thematically-linked, stand-alone essays divided into sections entitled “Time,” “Politics,” and “Promise.” In organizing the book’s third section around the theme of “Promise,” Anand and his colleagues want to call attention to the ways in which promises about the future often mobilize public and political support, interest, and hope in infrastructure projects. At the same time, Anand says that “infrastructures don’t ever just do what they promise.” In fact, they typically deliver “something else and something more.” The example that Anand uses to demonstrate this point is energy infrastructure. The promises of energy infrastructure have been to improve quality of life, to electrify and heat our homes, and to power our commutes. These are things that energy infrastructure has successfully done, but in the process, Anand notes, it has also “produced a huge amount of a pollutant—carbon dioxide—which is now impacting our climate.” A third aspect of the “promise” of infrastructure encompasses the possibilities of alleviating current social or environmental problems—“so now we’re talking about building new infrastructures to alleviate the problems of the carbon-based energy infrastructure we’ve built.”
In addition to targeting other anthropologists in the field who are interested in questions of infrastructure, Anand and his coeditors hope that the book will speak to engineers and other planners who work in infrastructure design, building, and maintenance. “I think for those engineers, this is an important book—it shows how infrastructures operate at the confluence of the technical, the political, and the social, and actually gain their power by being all of those things,” he says.