The vulnerabilities of urban metabolisms to forced demodernization

First, the mediation of contemporary urban societies by vast arrays of technological, computerized systems of flow means that small disruptions and disablement can have enormous, cascading, effects (Zimmerman 2001; Little 2002). As societies urbanize and modernize, so their populations become ever-more dependent on complex, distanciated systems for the sustenance of the political ecological arrangements necessary to sustain life (water, waste, food, medicine, goods, commodities, energy, communications, transport, and so on). With pervasive, but uneven, computerization, software systems increasingly provide the functionalities that enable these multiple, networked systems to operate. This tends to accentuate the vulnerability of such "big" socio-technical systems, because the code can be easily manipulated from afar (Thrift and French 2000).

Disruptions to this palimpsest of everyday technics fleetingly reveal the critical importance of infrastructural systems which, when they function normally, tend to be ignored (or, in sociological parlance, "blackboxed") by their users. "The normally invisible quality of working infrastructure becomes visible when it breaks: the server is down, the bridge washes out, there is a power blackout" (Star 1999:382).

Thus, when infrastructure networks "work best, they are noticed least of all" (Perry 1995:2). Catastrophic failures, then, serve to fleetingly reveal the utter reliance of contemporary urban life on networked infrastructures. This is especially so where the entire economic system in advanced industrial societies is being been reconstructed around highly fragile networks of computers and information technology devices working on "just in time" principles of fluid and continuous synchronization across space (see Rochlin 1997).

The pervasive importance of twenty-four-hour systems of electrically powered computer networks, in supporting all other infrastructures, makes electrical power cuts and outages particularly fearful. The explosive recent growth of electronic commerce, consumption, and distribution and production systems—infrastructures that are mediated at every level by electrically powered computer and telecommunications—means that these days we are all, in a sense, "hostages to electricity" (Leslie 1999:175).

As Tim Luke has argued, "some small groups of human beings maybe still can live pre-machinically, like the Kung of the Kalahari, Haitian fishermen on Hispanola, Mongol herdsmen in Siberia, or even the House Amish of Pennsylvania" (2004:109). However, Luke (2004:109) argues that:

Many more human beings live highly cyborganized lives, totally dependent upon the Denature of machinic ensembles with their elaborate extra-terrestrial ecologies of megatechnical economics. This is as true for the Rwandans in the refugee camps of Zaire as it is for the Manhattanites in the luxury coops of New York City. Without the agriculture machine, the housing machine, the oil machine, the electrical machine, the media machine, or the fashion machine, almost all cyborganized human beings cannot survive or thrive, because these concretions of machinic ensembles generate their basic environment.

All of which means that, more than ever, the collapse of functioning infrastructure grids now brings panic and fears of the breakdown of the functioning urban social order. "Fear of the dislocation of urban services on a massive scale", writes Martin Pawley, is now "endemic in the populations of all great cities" (1997:162).

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