LJ Archive


On Infrastructure, Geology and Other Temporary Things

Doc Searls

Issue #225, January 2013

Linux is lasting. This can help inform our understanding of other things we depend on.

Infrastructure, like geology, is temporary. Both work on a LIFO basis. Dunes built by surf and wind are the first landforms to go when the weather gets wild—likewise human constructions, such as beach houses and boardwalks. As I write this, on Halloween 2012, the dunes and boardwalks of the Jersey Shore, where I spent my summers as a kid, have been torn apart and deposited inland by Superstorm (née Hurricane) Sandy, which came ashore two nights ago. A broken gas line feeds a fire that already has burned ten houses in Mantoloking. Nearly every clear summer day, from 1949 to 1961, when I was age 2 to 14, we'd go to Mantoloking Beach. That's where I learned to swim and ride the surf. Since then, Mantoloking has become an upscale enclave. From what I can tell, all the houses that just burned were put up since I knew the place. Last in, first out.

Infrastructure is the geology we make and re-make for ourselves. Across eastern Massachusetts, where I am now, bike paths have replaced railroads that replaced the tow paths of canals that replaced paths of animals and other natives through the woods. Construction is the world's oldest and biggest business. Much of that work is re-construction. There is no urge more human, Stewart Brand once said, than the urge to alter a permanent structure. Using natural and manufactured materials, we build and re-build, constantly. On the island of Majorca, which is one big piece of marine limestone, it is said that every building block has been lifted by a thousand hands a thousand times. A single block holding up an olive terrace also may have served time in pavement, a lookout tower and the wall of a house. How that works also is a good model for code. A few years ago, on a Linux Journal Geek Cruise (I still miss those), I asked Andrew Morton if hackers would still be improving the Linux kernel 200 years from now. He said yes. To me, that makes Linux a form of infrastructure. Something of its nature is geological. That is, its purposes transcend the temporary, and even the specific. It's made for wide usability more than for any specific use. “I don't know what happens outside the kernel, and I don't much care”, Linus says (www.linuxjournal.com/article/6427). “What happens inside the kernel I care about.”

Given the nature of human attention, it's amazing that infrastructure gets made at all. Even for hackers, attention tends to be partial and provisional, and always subject to rot. The sentences we hear verbatim are forgotten within seconds, leaving only meaning behind—and partial meaning at that. Each cycle of human life runs about a century at best. If we're lucky, we might get 60 productive years. Within those years, one's lasting effects are so rare that others treasure them. My own favorite treasure is the George Washington Bridge, which my father helped build, as a cable rigger (www.flickr.com/photos/docsearls/3503894401). He's long gone, but his work is not. Yet, it too shall pass. The purpose of the bridge—to carry traffic in and out of New York—surely will outlive all of us, but it is unlikely to outlast the geology in which it is anchored. On the New York side, the rock is Manhattan Schist (www.washington-heights.us/history/archives/000457.html), formed in the Cambrian, about a half-billion years ago. On the New Jersey side, it's the Palisades (en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Palisades_(Hudson_River)): cliffs that began as an intrusive sill at the end of the Triassic, a little more than 200 million years ago. That's when Pangea began to break up. If you want to see the adjacent geologies of that time, visit the Atlas Mountains of Morocco.

On the stellar scale, the rock flanking the Hudson is young. The solar system is 4.65 billion years old; the universe about 2.8 times older than that. Conveniently, the first half-dozen billion years of matter's existence were enough time to populate most of the periodic table. This required compressing light elements into stars and exploding those stars, over and over, scattering the building materials of new stars and planets in all directions. Most heavy elements involved in Earth's creation sank early to the core. The ones found in Earth's crust—gold, titanium and tungsten, for example—were deposited by meteorites (www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2009/10/091018141608.htm) after the surface hardened. Surely much of it came during the same Heavy Bombardment (en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Late_Heavy_Bombardment) that put a face on the moon, during a 300-million-year span, starting 4.1 billion years ago. More than 90% of the iron mined so far on Earth was deposited as ferrous sludge on ocean floors a little more than two billion years ago, when life began to bloom and metabolize out the iron then saturated in the seas. This was an event that will not be repeated. If our species' appetite for iron persists long enough, we'll re-mine it from landfills after exhausting its supply in ancient rock. Helium, the second-lightest element and one of the most common in the universe, is currently produced on Earth only by decay of a certain breed of natural gas. At the current usage rate, helium is due to run out in a few dozen years (www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2010/10/11/AR2010101104496.html). As yet, we have no other way to make it, but that doesn't stop us from using it up, just as we use up other non-renewable things, deferring the problem of resource exhaustion to future generations. We are, undeniably, a pestilential species.

Our summer home was about ten miles inland from Mantoloking, in Brick Township, on the edge of the Pine Barrens (en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pine_Barrens_(New_Jersey)). My parents had an acre and a half there, which they bought in 1948 for $150. Pop and Uncle Archie, his brother-in-law, cut a driveway to a clearing and brought in a small old shack on a flat-bed truck, which they deposited on a shallow foundation of cinder blocks. They named it The Wanigan, a native term for a portable abode. They drove a well by hand, pounding lengths of galvanized steel pipe down into the ground. Their driver was a capped iron pipe half filled with lead, weighing about 80 pounds. They fit this over the top of the well pipe, then lifted and dropped it, over and over again. After they got water flowing with a hand pump, they built a kitchen around the pump and then a one-hole privy in the back. A few years later Pop added a bedroom, dug a septic tank and built a small indoor bathroom. Electricity arrived early on, but telephony never did. Grandma and other relatives bought adjacent properties, and put up their own little houses. I still remember every foot of the paths between them. For my sister and me, plus countless cousins, it was paradise. The forest floor was a thick mass of blueberries, huckleberries and wintergreen, under a canopy of scrub oak and pitch pine. Clearings and paths were established by deer and other woodland creatures. We went barefoot all summer, running from one secret place to another, grazing on berries like sheep on grass, and riding our bikes to the country store to buy candy and comic books, which we read and re-read on our bunk beds. Bedtime came when the whip-poor-will called (en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Eastern_Whip-poor-will), and we fell asleep to a hubbub of crickets and tree frogs.

The LIFO geology under The Wanigan was sand deposited in the Pliocene, when the whole coast was under water. The sand was easy to dig up, which we often did, to make castles, forts and other structures. Our hands and feet would always turn black when we did. Pop told us this was because countless wildfires destroyed the forest over and over, turning the sand gray with ash. Later, when I looked more deeply into the matter, I found he was right. In fact, the whole forest ecosystem was adapted to fire. Also, apparently, to suburban sprawl, since the Wanigan, Grandma's place and nearly everything around it is now a strip mall.

The main influence on my life in those days was my cousin Ron, who was five years older than me and much more hip to what mattered in the world, such as girls, cars and rock & roll. I was too shy and geeky to recruit a girlfriend and wasn't old enough to drive, but I could sublimate my yearnings through music. My main source for that was WMCA, then New York's main Top 40 station. I loved to gawk at WMCA's transmitter when we passed it on the New Jersey Turnpike, on our way down to The Shore (pronounced “Da Shaw”). I saw WMCA's three-tower rig as the well from which all cool music came.

It was from this that I became obsessed with the mysteries of wireless. Why did some AM stations have one tower while others had more? Why did AM signals fade under bridges wile FM ones didn't? What made signals at the bottom end of the AM band travel farther along the ground than those at the top end? What made the ionosphere reflective of AM and shortwave signals but not of FM and TV signals? Why did TV work best with a roof antenna while AM radio didn't?

At age 12, I got a ham radio license and began to build electronic stuff, sometimes on advice from engineers I met at the transmitters of New York's AM stations, nearly all of which stood, like WMCA's, in stinky swamps along the Hackensack and Passaic Rivers. I'd ride my bike down there from our house in Maywood, knocking on doors of transmitter buildings, and then asking questions of the engineers while they took readings off meters, threw big scary switches and whacked vegetation away from the bases of towers. At night I'd “DX”—listening to far-away stations—on my Hammarlund HQ-129X ham receiver, which did a great job picking up AM signals, mostly through my 40-meter dipole antenna, which hung like a clothesline between my bedroom and a tree in our backyard. By the time we moved away from Maywood, I had logged about 800 stations, or about 10% of all the stations transmitting in the US at that time. Later, as an adult in North Carolina, I did the same with FM signals, which occasionally refract at a low angle, like a mirage above a hot road, off the same ionospheric layer that reflects AM signals, bringing in clear signals from 800 to 1,000 miles away. The thrill of this was less in signal fishing than in gaining an empirical understanding of how things work.

It was because of that understanding that I blogged this two days ago, while Sandy was headed ashore (blogs.law.harvard.edu/doc/2012/10/29/riding-out-the-storm):

Given the direction of the storm, and the concentrating effects of the coastlines toward their convergence points, I would be very surprised if this doesn't put some or all of the following under at least some water:

  • All three major airports: JFK, La Guardia and Newark.

  • The New York Container Terminal.

  • The tower bases of New York's AM radio stations. Most of them transmit from the New Jersey Meadows, because AM transmission works best on the most conductive ground, which is salt water. On AM, the whole tower radiates. That's why a station with its base under water won't stay on the air. At risk: WMCA/570, WSNR/620, WOR/710, WNYC-AM/820, WINS/1010, WEPN/1050, WBBR/1130, WLIB/1190, WADO/1280 and several others farther up the band. WFAN/660 and WCBS/880 share a tower on High Island in Long Island Sound by City Island, and I think are far enough above sea level. WMCA and WNYC share a three-tower rig standing in water next to Belleville Pike by the New Jersey Turnpike and will be the first at risk.

I got most of that right. Two of the three airports took water, and WMCA, WNYC, WINS, WLIB and some number of other stations went off the air when the tide surge rose over their transmission equipment and tower bases. The main reason I called them right is that I've been studying infrastructure in various ways ever since Ron turned me on to rock & roll. It also has occurred to me gradually, during the decade and a half I've been writing here, that my interest in Linux and infrastructure are of a single piece with my interest in geography, aerial photography and fault lines where the converging forces of business, hackery and policy meet. In the parlance of geologists, much of what happens amidst all of it is “not well understood”.

According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the word infrastructure first appeared in the early 1900s (oxforddictionaries.com/definition/english/infrastructure). According to Google's Ngram Viewer (books.google.com/ngrams/graph?content=infrastructure&year_start=1800&year_end=2000&corpus=15&smoothing=3↦share=), which graphs usage of words in books across time, infrastructure did not hockey-stick until the 1960s. Relatively speaking, academic work on infrastructure is sparse. There are few university departments devoted to infrastructure. (The University of Melbourne's Department of Infrastructure Engineering is one: www.ie.unimelb.edu.au). It's more of a topic in many fields than a field of study itself. I have come to believe this is a problem. If we'd had a better understanding of infrastructure, we might have suffered fewer losses from Katrina, Sandy and other natural disasters. We might also have a better understanding of why it's nuts to build on barrier dunes, fault lines and places nature likes to burn every few dozen years—unless the inevitability of loss is a conscious part of our deal with nature. Likewise, I believe we'd have a better understanding of human inventions with vast positive externalities, such as those produced by Linux and the Internet, if we also understood their leverage as the same as that provided by infrastructure.

Without that understanding, it's hard to make full sense of modern oddities, such as Google's giant data centers. A few days ago, as I write this, Google took the wraps off of what had been, until then, largely a secret matter. Now it's bragging on the giant, nameless buildings that together comprise, Google says, “where the Internet lives”. Google does its best to pretty up these places with gorgeous photos and copy like, “Steam rises above the cooling towers in The Dalles data center in Oregon. These plumes of water vapor create a quiet mist at dusk.” Still, they look like prisons (www.google.com/about/datacenters/gallery/#/places)—or data-fired power plants, which is basically what they are.

Think about it. These places are no less central to what civilization does today than are power plants and container ports. Yet there is little if any regulatory oversight of them, outside concerns over power use and environmental impact. Nor could there be. Knowledge of what the Internet is, and how it works, is minimal to most of those who use it, and worse than absent in legislative and regulatory circles, both of which have long since been captured by Hollywood and the phone and cable companies. Because of this, the Net is slowly turning into a “service” through which Hollywood and the carriers can bill us in fine detail for “content” and data usage. And, because of this, we risk diminishing or losing the most productive generator of positive economic externalities the world has ever known. Google is both at war and allied with these forces, and that war is being played out inside these data centers. I believe we'd understand all of this a lot better if we also had a better understanding of what infrastructure is, and what it does.

Sometime soon I'll re-start work on The Giant Zero: my book about infrastructure and the Internet, and how the two overlap. The title comes from a description of the Net as “a hollow sphere in which every point is visible to every other point across an empty space in the middle—a vacuum where the virtual distances are zero”. That insight is Craig Burton's, and he provided it in an interview I did for a Linux Journal piece in the mid-1990s. Learnings from Linux will be at the core of The Giant Zero. Anybody interested in helping build the prose base for that work, please get in touch. I can't, and won't, build it alone.

Doc Searls is Senior Editor of Linux Journal. He is also a fellow with the Berkman Center for Internet and Society at Harvard University and the Center for Information Technology and Society at UC Santa Barbara.

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