Extrastatecraft: The Power of Infrastructure Space 23.01.15

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Keller Easterling's provocative study of infrastructure, the operating system governing everyday life, impresses Jay Owens

Infrastructure has been lurking under the surface of urban thinking for the last decade. Geoff Manaugh's BLDGBLOG brought topics such as power generation or transit systems to a wider design audience; more recently, urban explorer Bradley Garrett created interest in the hidden world of sewerage and transit tunnels below the city streets in his book Explore Everything (2013). Keller Easterling's Extrastatecraft likewise seeks to cross over from academic to wider discussion but in quite a different style: infrastructure not as urban playground but as the architecture of contemporary global power.

Extrastatecraft is a study of "infrastructure space", which Easterling, a professor of architecture at Yale, defines as "the rules governing the space of everyday life" – mostly mundane, repeatable spaces such as car parks and hotels, cash machines, suburbs, business parks, satellite communications and electronic devices. Easterling sees urbanism as lying not in buildings so much as in the information layer of the city that determines how people, objects, buildings (and information itself) are organised and circulated. Urban space is delocalised into a "formula" that "replicates Shenzhen or Dubai anywhere in the world with a drumbeat of generic skyscrapers".

The art of building this infrastructural space is of course "extra-state": it still involves state planning and law, but is directed by "new constellations of international, intergovernmental and non-governmental players". In infrastructure space, companies can be as big as governments.

Easterling tells the story of the 19th-century railway companies such as Brassey or Peto & Bretts in the UK, or the US Pennsylvania Railroad, that each commanded a workforce of 100,000 or more labourers. With a workforce bigger than any government body – and balance sheets an appreciable fraction of total government expenditures and revenue – the railroad companies were world powers in themselves, and acted as the crucible for modern large-scale administrative practices as they coordinated one of the biggest projects the world had ever seen.

The metaphors Easterling has chosen are deliberately contemporary – infrastructure is the "operating system" of the world; liberation lies in "hacking" these "urban software" forms for more productive feedback loops. Extrastatecraft insists on practices, protocols and action – it is more concerned with the effects of the network than its structure.

Easterling builds her argument on three case studies: export-zone urbanism and economic enclaves, from Hong Kong to Astana in Kazakhstan; broadband development in Kenya; and global standards such as ISO 9000 quality management. The latter may sound some way distant from urbanism or infrastructure, but Easterling persuasively argues for international quality standards as the "currency" of global trade and development, rooted in the rise of management consultancy over the 20th century.

Quality management also illustrates Easterling's thesis of "extrastatecraft" as a craft, something that operates not solely through material pipes and cables or even statutes, but rather through the careful creation of shared habits, understandings and interests. These she addresses in two more contemplative chapters, "Disposition" and "Stories", which provide a socio-cultural scaffold to explain the human side of how infrastructure operates.

The book concludes with the question of whether this fluid global mode of operation can be a site of resistance. Her answer is not only that extrastatecraft should be resisted; more that in its ability to flow around bureaucracy, it suggests forms of action that activists themselves may benefit from using: "gossip, rumor, gift-giving, compliance, mimicry, comedy, remote control, meaningless, misdirection, hacking or entrepreneurialism". The reader is left perhaps more hopeful than certain that this will be enough to counter such vast global systems.



Jay Owens


Extrastatecraft: The Power
of Infrastructure Space
by Keller Easterling
Verso, £18.99

quotes story

The metaphors Easterling has chosen are deliberately contemporary – infrastructure is the "operating system" of the world; liberation lies in "hacking" these "urban software" forms for more productive feedback loops

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