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Reviewed by:
  • Inverse Infrastructures: Disrupting Networks from Below ed. by Tineke M. Egyedi and Donna C. Mehos
  • Ashley Carse (bio)
Inverse Infrastructures: Disrupting Networks from Below. Edited by Tineke M. Egyedi and Donna C. Mehos. Cheltenham and Northampton, MA: Edward Elgar, 2012. Pp. xvi+ 319. $150.

What do infrastructures want? The editors of this volume argue that an emerging class of inverse infrastructures want to be free. In the introduction, Tineke Egyedi, Donna Mehos, and Wim Vree identify a mismatch between, on the one hand, a new “mode” of infrastructural development (emergent, user-driven, self-organizing, decentralized, bottom-up) that occupies an “increasing share in the infrastructure landscape” (p. 1) and, on the other hand, what they consider to be an outmoded theoretical and governmental [End Page 570] status quo that is overly focused on designed, centralized, top-down infrastructures.

Thus, the book operates at two levels. First, as a scholarly work, its contributors seek to theorize a “new reality of infrastructure systems and services” (p. xii). Here the book engages most deeply with the large technical systems (LTS) literature in the history of technology and science and technology studies (STS), particularly the work of Thomas Hughes (Networks of Power, 1983). Second, as a policy intervention, the editors and contributors call for new approaches to governing infrastructures. The primary intellectual and policy foil is Hughes. Beginning with the claim that Hughesian LTSs are the “dominant paradigm of contemporary infrastructure design” (p. 1), the editors argue that this paradigm no longer explains how infrastructures work in a changed governmental and historical context.

The central thesis is compelling. As the editors point out, social and historical studies of technology have often overemphasized the importance of system builders (inventors, engineers, managers) in infrastructure development, thereby marginalizing the significant contributions of other actors, particularly users. Indeed, by analytically privileging design, centralization, and hierarchical control, many overlooked what STS scholars Geoffrey Bowker, Paul Edwards, and Susan Leigh Star have taught us to recognize: infrastructures are relational entities that meld the formal and informal, as well as the human and non-human, crosscutting scales and formatting social life in subtle yet profound ways.

Inverse Infrastructures includes an introduction by the editors and Vree, two theoretical chapters, nine case studies, and a conclusion. Most of the contributors, who come from a range of fields, are associated with Delft University of Technology in the Netherlands. The case studies focus primarily on Europe, though a few look to the Global South. Together, the chapters on TV and radio systems, citizen-driven waste collection, wiki self-organization, wind energy development, community Wi-Fi, decentralized water supply, rural telecommunications, syngas infrastructure, and e-government flesh out, complicate, and even challenge the book’s theses laid out in the introduction. The chapters vary widely in terms of type of infrastructure discussed, disciplinary and theoretical orientation, spatiotemporal scale, and writing style; readers’ interest may also vary accordingly.

As an anthropologist, I found myself most drawn to the chapters that ex-plored inverse infrastructures at a human scale, examining intimate social relations to reveal how and why various user communities choose to participate (or not) in building infrastructures from the “bottom up.” For example, Stefan Verhaegh and Ellen van Oost perceptively analyze the often unrecognized maintenance practices of keeping a community Wi-Fi network working, explaining that lay volunteers are motivated by “warm” relations of reciprocity, while technically skilled volunteers approach their contributions as identity projects. [End Page 571]

The intellectual project at the core of Inverse Infrastructures is timely. Critical studies of infrastructure are ascendant in STS, anthropology, geography, planning, architecture, history, and elsewhere. Because many scholars are asking questions like those posed in the book, I was surprised that the editors and contributors (with a few exceptions) did not engage this multidisciplinary turn more deeply. For example, readers familiar with STS infrastructure studies may expect that the book’s title is an homage to Geoffrey Bowker and Susan Leigh Star’s pioneering work. For them, “infrastructural inversion” describes an approach to the study of infrastructure—an archaeology of the often invisible values, politics, and moralities embedded therein—and reflects an explicit ethical agenda: revealing how infrastructures give rise to winners and losers...