N for structure

I’ve been obsessing about infrastructure lately, with help from Stephen Lewis, whose experience and scholarship on the matter exceeds mine. The Etymology of Infrastructure and the Infrastructure of the Internet is his latest post on the matter. An excerpt:

Within the concept of urban studies and the contemporary home ownership and loan flim-flam, defaults, and financial disaster in the US, I am looking at the tension between two historical approaches, i.e. housing as infrastructure and housing as commodity. As an analogue, I am also looking at the paradigmatic abandonment of socially financed public transport to privately-owned automobiles.

My own observation — that infrastructure is far more adaptable, plastic, replaceable, substitutable and repurposeable than the word itself implies — is substantiated by the relatively new, changing and variously understood meaning of the word itself:

Infrastructure indeed entered the English language as a loan word from French in which it had been a railroad engineering term. A 1927 edition of the Oxford indeed mentioned the word in the context of “… the tunnels, bridges, culverts, and ‘infrastructure work’ of the French railroads.” After World War II, “infrastructure” reemerged as in-house jargon within NATO, this time referring to fixed installations necessary for the operations of armed forces and to capital investments considered necessary to secure the security of Europe.

It is especially interesting to me that the Net is clearly a form of infrastructure, yet has no physical properties of its own. As a utility it could hardly be more useful (that is, be a utility in the literal sense), yet it is not a utility in the manner of a water or gas service. And while today most of us enjoy the Net thanks to phone and cable companies, the Net is not a breed of telephony or television. Quite the opposite, in fact. Telephony and television are today forms of data that happen to be carried over the Net’s protocols. One no longer requires phone wiring to get phone service, or coaxial cable to get television. But because phone and cable companies bill us for the Net, we think of it as a ‘service’ of those companies. In fact it’s a pile of protocols. Are protocols themselves infrastructure? Seems so.

The fact at hand is that on the whole neither Infrastructure nor the Net are well understood. In fact, they are poorly understood, even though they are widely used.

Do we want the Net to be regulated as if it were something physical? I suggest that we want the Net to be understood first, on its own terms. And to do that, I also suggest we visit anew the nature of infrastructure itself.

Bonus pix.


  1. Andrew Pass’s avatar

    Great post!!

    Unfortunately, I think that too many people have difficulty understanding abstract concepts. This includes policymakers. This makes it very difficult to understand the difference between the World Wide Web and the Internet. If you don’t understand something it becomes quite difficult to regulate it.

    Wait a second, we live in the United States. This type of thing happens all the time.


  2. Stephen Lewis’s avatar


    Re: Infrastructure and the Net … Infrastructure need not be physical. An idea that I’ve been playing with (see the text I sent you yesterday) is that while the Net serves as infrastructure it also rests on infrastructure, much of it banally corporeal. A quote from what I wrote:

    “… the internet has emerged as the primary infrastructure of the aggregation, dispersal, and utilization of knowledge; of scientific, commercial and social interaction; and of the management of technology, processes, and systems essential to the resources and security on which our futures depend… The speed and ease with which the internet rose and achieved ubiquity was very much a function of the ad hoc nature of the infrastructure that carries it. In part, the infrastructure of the internet is immaterial, a set of mutually accepted protocols and agreements. For the rest, however, the infrastructure of the internet is purely physical and tangential — a decentralized aggregation of an infinite number of computers interconnected through cables and fibers originally emplaced for other purposes and accessible through the marketing interfaces and billing systems of companies and institutions with their prime interests and focuses in other areas.”

    Looking forward to discussing this further,


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