Saturday, October 22, 2005

Mobile Infrastructure: Sustainable Disaster Relief or Post-Precarity Luxury Goods?

At Beyond the Beyond, Bruce Sterling recommends picking up one of Skybuilt Power's new Mobile Power Stations along with a laptop to maintain essential post-disaster connectivity.

As Skybuilt says in their marketing material: "A Power Station and Much More. The MPS, ... comes in its own standard, off-the shelf, steel freight container (typically 20' x 8' x 8'). It is easily shipped by land, sea or air, worldwide. Low power units can be moved and set up and running in hours, not days or weeks. The container can be heated and cooled for climate-controlled and lighted storage, office, medical clinic, border patrol facility, telecom, operations centers, or other secure, self-powered space in any environment from the desert to the artic." The language in the Skybuilt website is an eerie hybrid of references: Green Power, Homeland Security, Nation Building and Preemptive War, Shipping Containers ... it captures the anxiety and banality that accompanies the simultaneous extensiveness and fragility of contemporary global infrastructure. One pictures a midlevel FEMA functionary, sitting in this windowless steel box with the air conditioner humming, dropped down in rural Louisiana, filing TPS reports ... For more post apocalyptic bureaucracy, see the weblog of the Interdictor, an ex-Special Forces security specialist who kept the lights and the servers on at a New Orleans web hosting company through the aftermath of hurricane Katrina. His New Filing Technique is Unstoppable. It's no surprise that Skybuilt's newest investor is the CIA, via it's venture capital arm In-Q-Tel.

The discussion atWorldChanging points out that, with the addition of water filtration and a satellite phone, the MPS is a completely self sufficient community center for refugees. Sterling predicts these will make great retirement houses on new, greenhouse-effect era coastline: "... nowadays, you don't have to go to the ocean; you can just sit still where you are and the ocean will come up and get you."

The perfect computer to complement this piece of mobile infrastructure would, of course, be MIT's $100 Laptop for the developing world. The screen flips all the way around to become a tablet, the shoulder strap doubles as the power cord, it runs Linux and automagically forms it's own wifi mesh network if you've got friends nearby, and if you're away from your Mobile Power Station, the battery can be recharged with a hand crank. These are cooler than any ten video ipods, and MIT must have gotten so many inquiries already that there's a big notice on the main page: "Please note that the $100 laptops—not yet in production—will not be available for sale. The laptops will only be distributed to schools directly through large government initiatives." But it won't be long before these start showing up on eBay, and they'll probably cost more than $100.

There are few status symbols as powerful as this ability to stay plugged in and mobile: Off the Grid but on On the Net. In their book, Splintering Urbanism, Stephen Graham and Simon Marvin write about the collapse of the Democratic ideals behind neutral, open, infrastructure access. Contemporary infrastructure is strictly stratified, as those without cars in New Orleans learned. As infrastructure becomes more mobile, this stratification is reinforced, Federal Governments can't afford to keep the power on and the National Guard is away fighting to keep energy prices down, but your website will still be live if your hosting company can maintian a deisel fuel supply chain and hire Navy Seals to defend the servers from the looters.

Shoutout to Abstract Dynamics for the "Bottom Up" series, inspiring a lot of the thought behind this post.

1 comment:

sevensixfive said...

The more I think about this, the more I think we're seeing the end of public infrastructure, and the beginning of the rise of autonomy and the accompanying precarity that goes along with it. Every disaster victim for themselves. No guaruntees, and no benefits.