In 1937, Lewis Mumford asked, what is a city? Mumford noted that cities have been handicapped because there is a poor understanding of the “social functions of the city”, functions that make a city what it is. “The city is a related collection of primary groups and purposive associations: the first, like family and neighborhood, are common to all communities, while the second are especially characteristic of city life”. For Mumford, the city is a group of neighborhoods formed for economic organization housed in permanent structures in a limited area through a corporate or public regulation: “… a geographic plexus, an economic organization, an institutional process, a theater of social action and an aesthetic symbol of collective unity”. Because the city, according to Mumford, is primarily about the facilitation of social life, he demanded that industries and its markets, its lines of communication and traffic, must be subservient to social needs. Mumford viewed the polluted overcrowded cities, dominated by the motorcar and the factory, of his era the result of not controlling and ensuring that machines served human interests. Thus he called for limitations on size, density and area of the city. In Mumford’s view human needs and demands make the city what it is and therefore these “social” needs must be considered first; technology and machines must be relegated to second-class citizens and serve the needs of humans. For Mumford it is man vs. machine and we must ensure that man is the winner.

Although not commenting on cities, Bruno Latour outlines a different view of the social in his guide to Actor-Network-Theory (ANT) and therefore of the city. Both Latour and Mumford agree that the city is a collection of groups and associations but what these groups and association are made up of differs. For Mumford, the social is family and neighbourhood organized for economic modes of organization. Latour, disrupts Mumford’s stable notion of the social through his ANT approach. Latour understands the social as a type of connection between things that are not themselves social. Latour notes, “The sense of belonging has entered a crisis. But to register the feeling of this crisis and to follow these new connections, another notion of social has to be devised. It has to be much wider than what is usually called by that name, yet strictly limited to the tracing of new associations and to designing of their assemblages. This is the reason why I am going to define the social not as a special domain, a specific realm, or a particular sort of thing, but only as a very peculiar movement of re-association and reassembling” (p.7).

ANT has three tests:

  1. Non-humans have to be actors and not simply the hapless bearers of symbolic projection;
  2. If the social remains stable and is used to explain a state of affairs, it is not ANT.
  3. Check whether a study aims at reassembling the social or still insist on dispersion and deconstruction.

For ANT what is a city? In every case you have to “follow the actors themselves”, so a city is its specific arrangement, is this a satisfactory answer? For ANT the city is not a collection of “men”, families or neighbourhoods but a collection of intricate relationships with a variety of non-humans and humans. For ANT, unlike Mumford, no stable category of what a city is can be produced, in each instance a city is the end result of the tracing what can be tied together. ANT does not provide a strong account for what a city is but prefers a question such as how does a city work.


  • Is ANT able to provide an answer to the question, what is a city?; if not do we need to change the question or ANT?
  • Could ANT result in us thinking about meaningless details of the city and stop us from making machines and technologies serve human needs?


Latour, Bruno. 2005. Reassembling the Social: An Introduction to Actor-network-theory . Oxford; New York: Oxford University Press. (Part 1)

Mumford, Lewis. 1937. “What is a City?”. Architectural Record.

Mosul Dam

Mosul Dam

The Mosul dam has generated quite a bit of interest of late. The news that the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) had captured the “most dangerous dam in the world”, suitably  formerly known as the Saddam Dam, was widely reported in the media.  Nour Malas produced an excellent report on the Mosul Dam and cited that the “potential for a 65-foot wave to engulf the northern city of Mosul, and even flood the central capital Baghdad” was part of the decision of the US to intervene in Iraq. Following US air strikes, the Mosul Dam was forced from the hands of ISIS and the Dam is now – we are led to believe, “safely” – in the hands of the Peshmerga.

Dams are often deemed to be an important part of many cities arrangements generating the necessary electricity and water supply. But dams can also be a threat, as the Mosul Dam illustrates. I have long been fascinated by dams as reworkings of landscapes and sociotechnical worlds, the entanglements of human-nonhuman actors and as pieces of urbanism far removed from the city. The idea that the Mosul Dam was “the most dangerous dam in the world” I found particularly intriguing, the idea that the dam under the control of ISIS was met with apocalyptic scenarios was specifically of interest.

So, I looked for the 2006 report by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (USACE) that called, according to Malas and numerous other journalists, the Mosul Dam “the most dangerous dam in the world”. And I searched and I searched. It was conceivable that the report was not in the public domain despite the fact that the US government and USACE have put a cache of documents on the Mosul Dam online. But then I found US Embassy comments on the document Relief and Reconstruction Funded Work at Mosul Dam, Mosul, Iraq  that notes: “ITAO [The Iraq Transition Assistance Office] is not aware of the September report that declares Mosul to be the most dangerous dam in the world” and also warned that such a claim is “inflammatory and almost certainly disprovable”. Indeed, I had no idea how dangerous and frequent Dam failures are – the Mosul dam has significant competition.

Myths, deaths, and dams seem to be good bedfellows. And on further searching into dams it appears one of the startling aspects is not necessarily their urban arrangements but their financial. Jacques Leslie, author of Deep Water: The Epic Struggle over Dams, Displaced People and the Environment, had a interesting op-ed in the New York Times that highlighted the many undelivered promises of dams but also their crucial role in the creation of debt:

DAMS typically consume large chunks of developing countries’ financial resources, as dam planners underestimate the impact of inflation and currency depreciation. Many of the funds that support large dams arrive as loans to the host countries, and must eventually be paid off in hard currency. But most dam revenue comes from electricity sales in local currencies. When local currencies fall against the dollar, as often happens, the burden of those loans grows.

One reason this dynamic has been overlooked is that earlier studies evaluated dams’ economic performance by considering whether international lenders like the World Bank recovered their loans — and in most cases, they did. But the economic impact on host countries was often debilitating. Dam projects are so huge that beginning in the 1980s, dam overruns became major components of debt crises in Turkey, Brazil, Mexico and the former Yugoslavia.

This history is particularly important for the Arab world as it has been the site of extensive dam building. As Timothy Mitchell points out in The Rule of Experts the Aswan Low dam completed in 1902 inaugurated a new scale of twentieth-century engineering and I think it is right to view the Aswan dam as the first of the large scale dams that would include the High Dam of Aswan built in the 1960s. Mitchell notes that the Aswan dam resulted not just in a concentration in engineering but also the concentration of capital and true to being a dam “The dam cost twice the original budget.” Of course it was not the British – who occupied Egypt at the time and decided to construct the dam – who paid the heavy price for the dam but the Egyptian government.

Mitchell claims that the complex forms of calculation required by dam construction and to justify the expenditure resulted in a new field of cost-benefit analysis, a field that dams themselves have appeared unable to benefit from. And despite their dubious benefits and massive cost dams continue to be built. According to Leslie, there are 45,000 large dams worldwide in 140 countries at a cost of $2 trillion, many financed by the World Bank. So on top of a dams ability to generate generate electricity and produce a water supply, as well as flood entire cities through sabotage or failure, and their role in transforming entire ecologies, we should not forget the ability of dams to generate debt.


Update: A great article on Archinet on the Mosul Dam and “water wars”.

9781781685877_Extrastatecraft-max_221-81b9c5b6ce1b5845f8cf37382ff88f51Verso kindly sent me an advance review copy of Keller Easterling’s new book Extrastatecraft (ESC): The Power of Infrastructure Space. This book nicely intersects with many of my own research interests and with my course urban arrangements – I will report back once I have read through it. For now, I wanted to highlight the website that accompanies the book and nicely outlines the project:

ESC researches global infrastructure as a medium of polity. Some of the most radical changes to the globalising world are being written, not in the language of law and diplomacy, but rather in the language of infrastructure. Even building enclosures, typically considered to be geometrical formal objects, have become infrastructural—mobile, monetized technologies moving around the world as repeatable phenomena. Infrastructure is then not the urban substructure, but the urban structure itself—the very parameters of global urbanism.

The website has some detailed information on some of the chapters of the book, such as free zones, that is well worth exploring. From my initial look the website goes beyond the book’s content and has fascinating information including on Eurovision and the shift by European countries from competing on the battleground to technology.

Television was symbolic of a country’s technological development, and each country was busy developing its own broadcasting protocols. The most important parameter was the size of image defined by the number of lines per second broadcasted over a continuous analogue signal. Protocols in use ranged from the 405-line standard used by the BBC in the UK, developed by the EMI Research Team, to the 819-line standard used in France, developed by René Barthélemy. Although a third one, the 625-line standard, became de facto standard and the only one used for colour transmission, France continued to use its 819-line standard until 1984 when the last transmitter was closed down. This coincided with the presidency of François Mitterrand, who implemented the 819-line broadcast standard in 1948. France stuck to the 819-line standard so long not only because it was more advanced, but also to protect the national market. Supranational broadcasting was a difficult and complex technical issue, firstly because of converting between varying numbers of lines per second and frame rates used by different countries, and secondly there was little incentive for these countries to synchronise protocols due to the limited number of programmes one could broadcast in a broader region.

Easteringly provides a fascinating account of why Eurovision has such a distinct geography:

  • Rule #1: Have a national broadcasting corporation which is a member of the EBU

  • Rule #2: Be part of the european broadcasting area

  • Rule #3: Have the capacity to broadcast the entire event live

    The combination of the first two rules opens up the competition to countries not conventionally considered “European”. The African and Asian coast of the Mediterranean are within the boundaries of European Broadcasting Areas and, as most of the countries in that region have television companies that are member of EBU (Algeria, Egypt, Israel, Jordan, Lebanon, Libya, Morocco, Tunisia), all of them are potential participants in Eurovision. Out of these eight countries, Israel is the only one that has regularly participated in the competition since 1973, winning the contest three times. Morocco was the only other country in the group to compete in 1980.

More soon!

Bruno Latour’s book Aramis or the love of technology begins by mentioning the fascinating work of the Victorian novelist Samuel Butler and his book Erewhon (so needless to say I got distracted). Latour writes:

“Samuel Butler tells the story of a stranger passing through the land of Erewhon who is thrown into prison because he owns a watch. Outraged at the verdict, he gradually discovers that draconian measures forbid the introduction of machinery. According to the inhabitants of Erewhon, a cataclysmic process of Darwinian evolution might allow a simple timepiece to give birth to monsters that would rule over humans. The inhabitants are not technologically backward; but they have voluntarily destroyed all advanced machines and have kept none but the simplest tools, the only ones compatible with the purity of their mores.”

On reading Butler’s Erewhon, I found that Latour gets the details wrong in the above quote (he is not sent to prison because he owns a watch or outraged at the verdict) but the core narrative is correct. The stranger passing through Erewhon is taken to the magistrate once he has entered the town and on searching through his belongings they find a watch in his inside pocket. The magistrate orders our traveler to the museum of the town where there are fragments of steam engines and a range of broken machinery on display: “Indeed, there were fragments of a great many of our own most advanced inventions; but they seemed all to be several hundred years old, and to be placed where they were, not for instruction but curiosity.”

On questioning the people of Erewhon about the museum the stranger notes:

“I learnt that about four hundred years previously, the state of mechanical knowledge was far beyond our own, and was advancing with prodigious rapidity, until one of the most learned professors of hypothetics wrote an extraordinary book… proving that the machines were ultimately destined to supplant the race of man, and to become instinct with a vitality as different from, and superior to, that of animals, as animal to vegetable life.”

The people of Erewhon convinced with this reasoning remove all technology “that had not been in use for more than two hundred and seventy-one years (which period was arrived at after a series of compromises)”.

Samuel Butler

Samuel Butler

This made me think about how we often condemn new technologies to the museum and resurrect old ones. The current diffusion of bike-share schemes in cities across the world is one immediate example; the bike has begun to overtake the car. But Butler’s book is a far more interesting than a call for “out with new and in with the old”. Writing in 1872 (!), Bulter sets the stage for Latour’s task of illuminating the entanglement of humans and non-humans. As Latour states “Butler’s Nowehere world is not a utopia. It is our own intellectual universe, from which we have in effect eradicated all technology. In this universe, people who are interested in the souls of machines are severely punished by being isolated in their separate world, the world of engineers, technicians and, technocrats.”

Butler is clearly very interested in the social life of machines:

If all machines were to be annihilated at one moment, so that not a knife nor lever nor rag of clothing nor anything whatsoever were left to man but his bare body alone that he was born with, and if all knowledge of mechanical laws were taken from him so that he could make no more machines, and all machine-made food destroyed so that the race of man should be left as it were naked upon a desert island, we should become extinct in six weeks. A few miserable individuals might linger, but even these in a year or two would become worse than monkeys. Man’s very soul is due to the machines; it is a machine-made thing: he thinks as he thinks, and feels as he feels, through the work that machines have wrought upon him, and their existence is quite as much a sine qua non for his, as his for theirs. This fact precludes us from proposing the complete annihilation of machinery, but surely it indicates that we should destroy as many of them as we can possibly dispense with, lest they should tyrannise over us even more completely.

Given that Latour is heavily influenced by Deleuze, it is not surprising that Deleuze also drew from Bulter’s work. Deleuze quotes Bulter in the anti-Oedipus and built on many of his ideas in Erewhon and liked the idea of seeing machines as networks (or maybe Deleuzian “rhizomes”). The stranger in Erewhon notes: “We are misled by considering any complicated machine as a single thing; in truth it is a city or society, each member of which was bred truly after its kind.” Latour takes a lot from Butler (without referencing), for instance: “A technology isn’t one single character; it’s a city, it’s a collective, it’s countless” (p.227) and “The soul of machines constitutes the social element. The body of the social element is constituted by machines” (p.213). Erewhon is clearly then an important text for thinking about our techno-social world and how urban arrangements are made up of machines.