By Qinhong Xu and Lena Hommes | Water Resources Management Group, Wageningen University
Infrastructure concerns all of us, we are surrounded by it and rely on it daily. It is also an important topic in the diverse riversides studied by the Riverhood and River Commons projects. Therefore, on Thursday June 2, PhD students and project staff met to further dive into this topic and ‘open the black box of infrastructure’.
One of the central points that came out of the readings (Pfaffenberger, 1988; Dajani and Mason, 2018) was the importance to understand technology and infrastructure as intrinsically shaped by social relations. These social relations are often disguised by artefacts’ visibility and materiality, and associated claims about artefacts being ‘just artefacts’ (Pfaffenberger calls this the “fetishization of objects”).
However, we need to consider technological artefacts as the materialization of power relations, morality and ideas about how society should be and behave – what is good, what is bad. Discussed examples for that were the famous bridges of Long Island (which were constructed so low that busses – that were commonly used by lower income groups – could not pass and thus could not access the area); and benches in urban environments that are designed in such a way that people will sit down but homeless persons won’t have the possibility to sleep there.
Beyond the morals and power relations, we also discussed how technology and infrastructure often carry powerful meaning beyond their technical function only. For example, infrastructure projects and the inaugurations thereof are instrumentalized by politicians to gain votes and to show that they are doing ‘a great job’ to the benefit of the people. Of course, this can be highly problematic, leading to conflictive projects that might gain political votes but might, at the same time, have detrimental effects for people and the environment. This makes it even more central to critically deconstruct technologies and infrastructures, their meaning, uses, sustaining discourses and political relations that give shape to them. Last but not least, we also debated about how technology is material and stable, but at the same time dynamic: it is being contested, redefined, and adapted.
This discussion session was only the start of conversations and critical reflections about infrastructure: how infrastructure shapes hydrosocial territories, what environmentally and socially just infrastructure would look like, and how the new water justice movements studied by the Riverhood and River Commons projects engage with riverine infrastructures.
Pfaffenberger, B. (1988). Fetishised Objects and Humanised Nature: Towards an Anthropology of Technology. Man, 23(2), 236–252.
Dajani, M. & Mason, M. (2018). Counter-infrastructure as resistance in the hydrosocial territory of the occupied Golan Heights. In: Menga, F. & Swyngedouw, E. (eds) Water, Technology and the Nation-State. Routledge