Tuesday, April 15, 2014

cybernetic dreams and future archeologies

In July this year I will be joining other anthropologists in Tallinn, Estonia, to imagine infrastructures of the past, present and future. I am very excited that my paper on pneumatic tubes was accepted for the panel Infrastructure and imagination: Anthropocene landscapes, urban deep-ecology, cybernetic dreams and future-archeologies, at the 13th European Association of Social Anthropologists Biennial Conference.


Juan Rojas Meyer and Roger Sansi, both in London, are organising the panel which will explore infrastructures as generative sites of ethnographic inquiry, and their potential to motivate the imagination. Topics of papers in the panel sound fascinating and include water supply in Africa and Nepal, waste treatment in Athens, the TransAdriatic Pipeline and clouds. Here is my abstract:

Pneumatic tubes: George Jetson used them to get to work, Antoine Doinel to send a love letter, and the Ministry of Truth to deliver history needing rewriting. These hidden labyrinths of pipes which transport matter by vacuum not only exist in the dreams of cartoonists, filmmakers and science fiction writers, but also engineers of the technological past, present and future. Once traversing the undergrounds of cities for postal delivery or depositing orders on the stock exchange, pneumatic tube networks are nowadays ever increasingly built into the walls, ceilings and basements of hospitals, banks and supermarkets. For despite digitisation, objects still need to be moved from one place to another. Counter intuitively, unlike many technologies of the past, pneumatic tube infrastructures have both changed very little over time and are being used in more contexts than ever before. With this paper I take session participants on a short subterranean tour of the intertwined past, present and future of pneumatic tubes. I examine the materials of this sociotechnical system; plastic capsules, brass buttons and air through which things pass. I look at bodily practices entailed in the manufacture, architectural design, everyday use and repair of the technology, including the adjustments which go to making it work. In Stoic philosophy, pneuma is "breath of life", the active and creative presence in matter. A study of pneuma-tic systems leads to bigger questions of how to consider the "pneumatic qualities" of infrastructures, the creativity that breathes life into the material world we live in.

Image of Alexander Nevsky Cathedral, Tallinn, Estonia from Wikipedia Commons.
See also: How to send Estonian vodka through the pneumatic internet, in Wired Magazine.

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