Saturday, March 4, 2017

infrastructures and networks

I am very pleased to share the news of the recent publication of a wonderful collection of essays on infrastructure, of which I am part of, with an essay on pneumatic tubes.

The book is called Historicizing Infrastructure and is edited by Andreas Marklund and Mogens Ruediger. Andreas and Mogens organised the history of infrastructure conference at the Post and Tele Museum in Copenhagen that I wrote about in July and then October 2014. The presentations were so interesting they felt they had to compile a book.

Here is a short description of the contents of what they produced:
How does one handle a concept like ‘infrastructure’, which seems, simultaneously, so vague and yet heavily technical? In this international research volume, nine historians and cultural researchers from different academic institutions delve into the historical dimensions of infrastructural development. The interplay of infrastructures with society and its dominant political ideas and cultural beliefs is at the core of the analyses. A wide range of topics and historical contexts are covered by the book, from nineteenth-century railroads and territorial identities, and the sonic features of pneumatic tube systems, to privacy and security issues in relation to modern telecommunications, and the materiality of satellite television at the end of the Cold War.
I am so happy to be sharing the pages with these fascinating contributions and contributors! And Andreas and Mogens made working on this such a pleasure. My chapter is called "Sounds like infrastructure: Examining the materiality of pneumatic tube systems through their sonic traces". Here is my abstract for the chapter:
In the last few decades infrastructures have become increasingly visible in the social sciences, following a much longer engagement by historians. Recent anthropological work on infrastructure often adopts a practice-orientated approach, which focuses on the ways in which they are shaped through entangled material and social relations. In this paper I argue that such an approach can be strengthened by attention to the sensory and imaginative dimensions of infrastructure, which helps to articulate the vibrancy and fragility of such sociomaterial assemblages. I do so in order to suggest new methodological directions for the history of infrastructure. In order to illustrate my argument I use the case study of an infrastructure which once existed through large technical systems under city streets, and now is constructed on much smaller scales in buildings such as hospitals; pneumatic tube systems. Pneumatic tube systems highlight the durability of infrastructures over time. They are used nowadays to move materials which cannot be uploaded, scanned or printed; materials which come with traces of the personal, whether this is a piece of human tissue or trash. Following the practices of pneumatic tube systems ethnographically highlights the multisensory nature of infrastructures, which refuse to stay buried and quiet. Focusing particularly on sound, I look at examples of how sounds and listening practices signal infrastructures working smoothly as well as moments of breakdown and blockage. Working with infrastructures entails sonic skills, which becomes part of professional practice. I suggest that as well as making infrastructures more visible in our historical and anthropological engagements, we should also make them more audible. Often we tend to attribute sensory qualities to nature rather than technologies. Attending to the sensory dimensions of infrastructure however helps to understand more about their temporality and affects, which forwards our understanding of the role of infrastructural technologies in the modernization of society. In making this methodological plea, I suggest that sensory methods have as much relevance for historical studies as for the social sciences where they are more commonly used, and that both anthropology and history can learn from working closely alongside each other in their studies of the infrastructural arrangements of social life.
I would highly encourage you to buy the book, but if you are not able to but want to read the chapter, write to me and I can send you a copy of my piece.

Wednesday, January 11, 2017


While fascinating technologies such as Hyperface, Adam Harvey's countersurveillance project, are making recent news, another project from the Chaos Community Congress from a previous year may also be of interest to Rohrpost-Nerds.

The 303C in 2013 saw the installation of the Seidenstrasse, the congress pneumatic tube system. Inspired by the OCTO installation at the 2013 transmediale festival, which I wrote about here, the Seidenstrasse was installed in the main congress building, using 2 kilometers of tubing. In the lead up to the event, participants were instructed as follows:
Without YOUR capsules Seidenstrasse cannot work – bring one, two, many! Lighting is mandatory, since it makes debugging much easier in case a capsule gets stuck. The possibilities range from capsules made from plastic bottles (cheap and simple) to 3D printed or encrypted capsules. Old vacuum cleaners, leaf blowers and the like are also welcome – please remember to build some kind of noise isolation if you bring a device for blowing or vacuuming ...

For the whole thing to be fun, creative hacker solutions and wild love of experimentation are needed. Some hackerspaces, including Chaos inKL. in Kaiserslautern, Raumfahrtagentur in Berlin, or the protolab in Kleinmachnow are already hacking and making. There are still a lot of unsolved problems left though, waiting for a smart hack: For example solutions for crossing fire emergency doors, which can not be blocked by pipes. The capsules could at these places e.g. fly through the air and be vacuumed in again, or be transported by human or robotic messengers.

Installations for (semi) automatic capsule routing would be rad, or installation details for the switching nodes, or solutions for hanging the pipes at the ceiling, or concepts for Onion Routing, Hidden Servides and so on. Also still missing are capsule counters for network traffic analysis (for the SOC report on day 4).

For this we hope for broad participation by the Chaos family and hacker spaces. You have always wanted a pneumatic post system between the rooms of your space, right? :-)
If anyone who reads this post was at the congress and even sent off a capsule, I would love to hear what it was like!

You can read more about the Silk Road experiment on the Chaos Computer Club website here.

Thanks very much to Thomas for telling me about Hyperface, and Stefan for sending me the links for the Seidenstrasse.

Stefan also sent me a link to a German blogpost by Leitmedium about the Rohrpost exhibit in the communications museum in Berlin, which German speakers and readers may be interested in. You can read it here.

Image used under the Creative Commons licence from Robert Anders' Flikr photostream.

Wednesday, January 4, 2017

messages at sea

Happy 2017! As we look to the year ahead, a message from the past, from my pre-Christmas inbox, thanks to Patryk. This time he takes me to 1960, to the classic war film Sink the Bismark! Central to the action and the quest to sink that ship, prominently positioned in the headquarters of the British Admiralty, is a large as life Lamson tube system.
Messages come and go, arriving in the background as characters plot and strategise. Apparently the tubes play an important role in catching the Bismark. I am only halfway through the movie so far, so I am yet to find out how, but you can see for yourself here:

Thanks again Patryk for another piece of fantastic pneumatic post!