Systems Gone Wild

Systems Gone Wild: Infrastructure After Modernity
by Kazys Varnelis

For a time, it seemed that US President Barack Obama’s first move was going to be to take a page from the WPA and invest heavily in the nation’s infrastructure. Played up heavily in the media, investment in infrastructure was to inject massive amounts of capital in the economy and create jobs while simultaneously investing in the nation’s future.

But when the House Appropriations Committee introduced its version of the Obama administration’s American Recovery and Reinvestment Plan of 2009 - a document that reflects the Obama administration’s intents - infrastructure was downplayed, receiving only a fraction of the proposed $800+ billion. That figure is less than what was proposed for digitizing health care records.

The document paints a gloomy picture. Included is the equivalent of less than one year’s worth of funding for the Federal Highway Administration (a drop in the bucket, along with $2 billion of some $50 billion needed to modernize existing transit systems), $1.1 billion to improve intercity rail(the Northeast Corridor alone needs over $10 billion of improvements) and $3 billion out of $41 billion for airport infrastructure (the backlogs listed are all from the House document). Instead of a vigorously rebuilt infrastructural future, we are just treading water.1

So what happened? To understand our present predicament - and Obama’s strategic retreat from infrastructure - we need to go back, before even the WPA, for a brief history of infrastructure.

Cities grew tremendously in the hundred years between 1860 and 1960, and infrastructure was the foundation for that growth. Trains, streetcar lines, streets and highways allowed inhabitants to rush around with relative ease. As infrastructure filled past capacity and congestion became bad, the public had faith that the experts would solve the problems by constructing new infrastructure - always more capacious and more technologically advanced.

Infrastructure was idealized by modernist architects. Take Vers une Architecture, for example, in which Corbusier extolled the societal transformations that would take place if only the people were to listen to the architect and the engineer. It was, after all, a matter of architecture or revolution. For modernists, a plan and the capacity of a clear idea would bring order to the chaos of the metropolis. In implementing the plan, modern architecture relied on infrastructure above all else.

A city’s modernity became nearly equivalent to its infrastructure, as evident in Haussmann’s reconstruction of Paris, the ultra-real technological landscapes of Tony Garnier’s Cite Industrielle, or the wild, electric fantasies of Antonio Sant’Elia’s Citta Nuova. Modern architecture would be nothing but pastiche without engineering to support it - merely new clothes for an old body. The engineer, Le Corbusier concluded, 'puts us in accord with natural law.' Only after the engineer laid down a foundation could the architect start to create beauty through form.

Infrastructure captured the popular imagination as well, particularly in America. There, it was the means by which Americans tamed the frontier, harnessing untamable nature to transform it into paradise for man. Infrastructure was America’s first modernism: Americans accepted modernism in their bridges and dams before they accepted it in buildings. With the massive burst of infrastructure building under Roosevelt’s New Deal, Americans came to believe that functionalism and technology would lead them to economic prosperity. This reconstructive power of infrastructure is what Obama suggested he might replay with his plan when it was first announced. No doubt many architects warmed to the idea of a reinvigoration of modern ideals, just as the profession seemed to have taken a fatal blow from the economic collapse.

But in the end, Obama didn’t turn to infrastructure. By its own admission, his plan underfunds critical infrastructure greatly. It may yet be that Obama sees this only as a temporary stimulus, and will fund infrastructure in its turn through the creation of a National Infrastructure Bank (this stimulus plan was explicitly dedicated to helping 'shovel-ready' projects and these have largely been funded already). But perhaps there are deeper reasons.

Between 2004 and 2008, I led a team of researchers investigating changing conditions of infrastructure in Los Angeles, producing The Infrastructural City: Networked Ecologies in Los Angeles as a result. Los Angeles, for us, was a case study. A particularly interesting city, but one that proved the rule regarding infrastructure rather than the exception.2 Our conclusions were, first and foremost, that a WPA-style infrastructural push is impossible today.

Infrastructure has changed radically. Whether the Los Angeles freeways, the New York subway, the London Tube, the motorways outside Dublin, or airports just about anywhere, much of our infrastructure exists in a state of perpetual overload. It is under massive stress from the pressures we place on it: overburdened, aged, little loved. This is not only true for transportation. The news is filled with failing infrastructural systems: electrical grids overload during peak season, petroleum refineries break down, floodwater control systems overflow in heavy storms, wastewater plants spill sewage, aqueducts mysteriously leak.

Curiously, infrastructure is a new word. The Oxford English Dictionary identifies its first use in 1927. The word only achieves real currency in the 1980s after the publication of a scathing public policy assessment entitled America in Ruins: The Decaying Infrastructure, which raised many of the issues raised here. To understand the technical systems that support a society - roads, bridges, water supply, wastewater, flood management, telecommunications, gas and electric lines - as one category, it was first necessary to see it fail.

The current dismal state of the country’s infrastructure is in part because of decades of neoliberal policies encouraging tax cuts instead over investment in capital projects. This is also partially because infrastructure tends to conform to an S-curve during its growth. As money is invested in infrastructure, its efficiency leaps ahead radically, but at a certain point returns begin to diminish. Thus, while investment initially delivers handsome benefits, as the S-curve flattens, returns-per-dollar invested lessen greatly. Obama may well have realized this: infrastructure needs to be rebuilt to remain functional, but pouring massive funding into existing infrastructure is unlikely to restart the economy or even fix all of its problems.

Perversely, as the S-curve flattens, many forms of infrastructure enter into a phase in which social engineering becomes as important as physical engineering. Take, for example, Interstate Highway 405 on the west side of Los Angeles. The 405 grinds to a halt every afternoon with regularity as commuters make their way up and down the coastal communities to their homes. Adding another lane to the 405 would cost a staggering billion dollars per mile. Within seven or eight years (no doubt a shorter time than it would take to construct the lane), that lane would fill and the highway would be as congested as before. Traffic planners now understand that congestion itself modifies social behavior. Individuals have a limited tolerance for their commutes, usually forty minutes to an hour each way. If congestion makes their commute grow past their comfort point, they will find ways to modify it, going at odd hours, finding a new job, or finding a new home. Conversely, without congestion, commuters will find no reason to make such plans and will live and work as they wish, rapidly filling the roads.

Problems with infrastructure go beyond the S-curve; they also extend to our idea of individual rights. To be sure, the massive infrastructure projects of the 1960s and 1970s - most notably, highways - devastated communities and brought down property values. Since then, homeowners have become greatly concerned about infrastructural developments. Mainly, they think that while they are necessary, they can be anywhere as long as they are 'Not in My Back Yard'.

Already prior to the economic crisis, homeowners would defend their homes like medieval barons defending their castles, becoming skilled practitioners in mobilizing together to question, forestall, and generally prevent the construction of new infrastructural systems. To think that individuals will somehow overcome NIMBYism when home values are more under threat than ever is ludicrous.3

NIMBYism also has a subtler, equally dangerous cousin in bureaucratic stalemate. Communities have created legal frameworks of byzantine complexity and these can greatly interfere with new infrastructural projects, both traditional and more recent. Poor mobile phone coverage today is less likely to be the fault of telephone carriers seeking to cut costs than the product of communities finding means to prevent construction of new towers. Similarly, fiber-to-the-home rollouts have been slowed by the difficulty of obtaining rights-of-way from a patchwork of governments.

What tactics can we look for then, if the strategies of big infrastructure have failed us? Master plans are bankrupt. Of course here and there a pet light rail project will be built and maybe even a high-speed train - assuming it doesn’t become another slow high-speed train like the Acela - but as the economic stimulus plan suggests, these are unlikely to be funded. We’ll give Obama credit for figuring out that big infrastructural projects can’t be built today.

So what, then, is an appropriate infrastructural strategy for the new President to adopt?

Just as Robert Venturi and Denise Scott Brown flipped the valence on sprawl and signage in their classic Learning from Las Vegas to lay the groundwork for postmodern architecture, we need to flip the valence on hacking: the serious game of taking advantage of secret exploits in systems or turning to 'social engineering', convincing other people to do what you want by appealing to their own self-interest.

One option would be to provide open APIs (a computer programming term for Application Programming Interfaces). APIs function as abstractions, allowing programs to ask other programs to do things for them. As Senator, Obama was involved in a law that led to the construction of a government website,, that tracks what the government spends money on, and that site has open APIs so that the data it delivers can be accessed by anyone.4 Opening up the APIs for existing and new infrastructures would allow developers to build on this data, making current forms of infrastructure more efficient, or at least easier to use.

Here is a concrete example of how this might work: during the past year, I have found myself looking at traffic in the New York City metro area in a much more canny way, simply because of the capacity for Google Maps on my iPhone 3G to deliver relatively up-to-date information about traffic speeds. Google Maps still has a long way to go to make the system usable: not all routes are covered, the data is too coarse and real-time routing is often tricky.

Still, instead of suggesting that we add lanes to highways, the government might find a lower-cost solution in simply making more sensor data publicly available to citizens. Thus far, unfortunately, agencies seem to think that the act of making such information available is somewhere between aiding and abetting terrorism and a distraction from their job. Passing a law to ensure that every government agency makes data available should be a priority, and funds should be made available to do so. Even forms of data as basic as subway train schedules are hard to get hold of, often requiring either Google’s muscle or a lawyer and a Freedom of Information Act request.

This sort of thinking could be applied to electric power as well. Peak electricity demands are exceedingly costly for power companies and a major factor in grid breakdowns. Large commercial customers such as factories and oil refineries already know when electric power is more expensive and have the ability to plan around that. Why shouldn’t consumers be encouraged to respond to power fluctuations dynamically?

Coming up with new forms of 'human hacking' or social engineering is a key to rethinking infrastructure. Simple, relatively inexpensive measures might involve subsidizing fiber to Main Street to encourage the growth of offices in downtowns of suburbs and small towns (often lying half-empty while peripheral areas boom), or adding Wi-Fi to all forms of public transit to encourage commuters to get out of their cars and into existing buses and trains.

These quick thoughts point toward the necessity of rethinking infrastructure as hacker-ready in an age of systems gone wild.


1 House Appropriations Committee, “Summary: American Recovery and Reinvestment,”
2 Kazys Varnelis, ed. The Infrastructural City: Networked Ecologies in Los Angeles (Barcelona: ACTAR,2008).
3 See, for example, William B. Fulton, The Reluctant Metropolis: The Politics of Urban Growth in Los Angeles (Point Arena, CA: Solano Press Books, 1997).
4 Douglas McGray, “iGov. How Geeks Are Opening Up Government On the Web,” The Atlantic Monthly, January/February 2009,





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