Comparing hard and soft infrastructure

It turns out that hard infrastructure is softer than the name suggests. This is good, since I want to make the case that both LInux and the Net are forms of infrastructure no less legitimate than water, electricity, roads, sewers and waste collection.

Understanding Infrastructure was my first posting on this subject. This is my second. More will come.

So far I've arranged my findings in the forms of photo essays. Here's one on sidewalk signage in Cambridge. Here's one of Boston on the day of its huge annual Boston Marathon. And here's one on the Minuteman Bikeway that runs from Cambridge to Lexington.

Here are my main provisional conclusions, so far:

  1. Infrastructure is natural. That is, we try to make it as additional to nature as possible. It sometimes improves on nature, but more often serves as an adjuct to it, altering it in some way, always for practical purposes.
  2. Infrastructure is patchy. In computing terms, we patch and debug it all the time. Even terminology changes. CATV becomes COMS becomes BROADBAND, all on a series of manhole covers. Sidewalks of brick are torn up and laid down again, over and over. Asphalt streets are patchworks of exposed and buried culverts, piping and conduit.
  3. Branding is interesting, but eventually anachronistic.Organizations (government bodies, companies) providing infrastructure sign their work, and the signatures — in raised or inset letters on storm grates, manhole covers, fire alarms and service boxes — can last decades or centuries. At a certain point this credit-taking ceases to be promotional and begins becoming archival, historical. Steel service covers and various emblems bear the signatures of Edison Electric Illuminating, the Bell System, Cambridge Electric Lighting, McClure (a dead fiber company), MetroMedia (another dead fiber company), Simpson Brothers (a cement company laying sidewalk), and countless other names once considered permanent.
  4. Re-usability matters. Pipes and poles made for one thing get used and re-used for other things. Poles that first carried electricity later came to carry phone, cable TV, and fiber optic cabling to carry phone, TV and internet service.
  5. Ease of servicability matters. Streets are marked everywhere with red (electric), yellow (gas), green (non-potable water), orange (communications), blue (potable water) and white (planned construction) graffiti. That these are all ugly is of little concern.
  6. Infrastructure is vernacular. It's local, and the expertise behind it is local.

Sound familiar?

I believe it's no coincidence that we "build" code, that we have "architects" and "designers". The similarities between infrastructural software and public infrastructure are many. I'll keep exploring them. Expect a book eventually. Meanwhile, enjoy the pictures (and their captions, which comprise the essays). And share your thoughts below.

Meanwhile, start reading what Craig Burton is saying on his blog: here, here, and here, so far.


Doc Searls is Senior Editor of Linux Journal


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