- Documenting Aftermath: Information Infrastructures in the Wake of Disasters by Megan Finn
A disaster is a disruption of the expected order of events, and that disruption is mediated by information technology. What we most need to know—but what the disruption often obscures from us—are the names of the injured and dead, the sites of greatest danger, and the commands of government officials working to restore safety. In her valuable new volume Documenting Aftermath, Megan Finn develops a set of earthquake history case studies through which to explore the crucial dimensions of "information infrastructures."
The theoretical apparatus of the book revolves around two crucial concepts. First are the "information orders": "institutions, technologies, and practices that might characterize how societies produce and share documents" (p. 3). These information orders provide the social and material context for the possibilities of knowing any given event (a disaster in this case). Flowing from this first and more general concept is a sharper historical analytic, the "information infrastructure": both material and relational, this infrastructure is comprised of the "ongoing processes involved in the production and circulation of documents" (p. 6). Finn is especially attentive to the public dimensions of information infrastructures and the ways they frame the political struggles of a particular time and place. She takes as a given the social construction of information and technology in her theorization, looking constantly for places where the intended function of a technological system, from the telegraph to a disaster action plan, is modified according to the identities of users and the material facts on the ground. In the end, we must see the information order as a "site of contention over which accounts of an event are treated authoritatively" (p. 151).
With her analytical project defined, Finn looks across time to see how these "public information infrastructures" behave in different disasters. She wants to "consider how the public information infrastructure after each earthquake did or did not recover" (p. 157). In this, Finn is writing in [End Page 704] the historiographic tradition established by crucial works like Carl Smith's Urban Disorder and the Shape of Belief (1995) and Christine Meisner Rosen's The Limits of Power (2003), and updated by recent works like Joanna Dyl's Seismic City (2017). From a disaster studies perspective, this temporal gallivanting is essential. It shows how disasters in different times and places consistently defy the emergency-managerial imperatives like clear lines of authority and communication. Finn argues that in the earthquake cases she surveys, "the dominant institutions tended to stay dominant in times of disaster, as people came up with interesting work-arounds to enable the continuity of public information infrastructures. The technologies and practices that people use regularly are also the technologies and practices that they lean on in times of disaster" (p. 158). Disasters, then, don't represent extrahistorical breaks from an imagined normal life in which a new world is constructed out of the rubble.
One fascinating continuity across time is the perception of time lag in the making and dispensation of postdisaster information. In the case of the 1868 Hayward Fault Earthquake, and again after the 1906 San Francisco Earthquake, this problem showed up in the challenge of establishing an authoritative account of damage due to the disruption of telegraphic service. Newspapers scrambled to publish special editions, but damage to the telegraph network slowed reporting. For individuals, telegraphic offices served as sites of information-seeking, but they failed to deliver messages with the rapidity customers expected—many thousands of messages were finally carried via the postal service. Finn describes with narrative skill and in close detail the public outcry when it was learned that "telegrams were not delivered by the wires but instead were physically transported across the country by boat and train" (p. 61). This failure of infrastructure revealed in both 1868 and certainly by 1906 just how accustomed Americans were to near-instantaneous information connectivity—its deprivation and the anxiety caused by the lack of information about loved ones provoked a second disaster after the...