Essay: Phillips

A New York Times article from September of 2016 declares ‘America’s Infrastructure is Getting Worse’. The featured charts tell a damning story. The US government invests half of what it once previously spent on infrastructure the 1950’s and 1960’s in relation to GDP. The systems are rapidly aging and as a result time for commuters in traffic has increased.1 A companion article to these charts stresses the economic imperative of renewing and rebuilding infrastructure. Projects bring in new jobs, expand the economy, and in turn fix the slipping productivity of existing systems.2 Economists are not the only voices calling for rebuilding efforts; the American Society for Civil Engineers (ASCE) graded the overall state of US infrastructure at a D+ in their most recent scorecard.3 The problem, thus, is widely held at a standstill by politicians who cannot agree to funding packages, tax increases, or adding to the GDP – all potential paths towards improving the country’s roads, water systems, broadband internet, or ports.

Popular articles that advocate for these improvements speak in a vernacular of public good, that improving these systems betters our civic experience. We will spend less time in traffic, access the Internet faster than before, and live with more reliable utility systems. Yet, left out of this conversation is how private interests have shaped and continue to influence the development of the large technological systems that connect the country. Indeed, more and more improvement efforts are funded by public-private partnerships, leaving the question of whether these systems truly benefit the ‘public good’ a speculative fiction. We need only look at the multiple failures in Flint, MI municipal water system to question whether private corporations can or should be entrusted to protect public health and safety.

Furthermore, public works project of the past did not always meet the needs of their constituencies. The Interstate Act of 1956 allocated about 25 billion dollars towards the construction of Interstate Highways and Freeways. Under this legislation, local municipalities paid 10% of the costs of building these roads with the federal government covering the other 90% (Mohl & Rose 89). This bill encouraged a nationwide scramble of civic leaders and representatives to write highway policy proposals that could qualify their districts for federal funds. These initiatives became a way to rebuild in urban areas facing traffic congestion and post-war economic malaise. Local officials saw interstate initiatives as a way to bring the affluent back into the city from the suburbs, jump starting business and economic centers left behind in the preceding years. Although the construction of the Interstate system framed itself as a comprehensive public works project, the public who actually benefited from such projects turned out to be a narrow one. As Mohl and Rose write, “The consequence of state and local route selection was that urban expressways could be used specifically to carry out local racial, housing, and residential segregation agendas” (97).4 A chasm thus formed between the modernistic visions of federal policy, the local desires of state and municipal leadership, and the people who fell in the path of roadway proposals.

I am speaking broadly to two separate but intertwined issues – How does private investment impact public understandings, obligations, and civic regimes of infrastructural systems? And how might civic, academic, scientific, political, and technical participation come to improve upon systems to prevent development that excludes or displaces. For my final paper in the History of Science (and Technology), I want to explore the ethics of public and private obligations in relation to infrastructure systems. To do this I will isolate 1-2 case studies where intersections of public and private investment in infrastructure come to interact. I am hoping to explore this in relation to recent finding of PFOA water contamination in New York and Vermont. I will compare state, corporate, and public responses to try to understand how each groups of actors frames the obligations of a functioning infrastructure. Furthermore, I hope to understand how these framings might impact the shape of infrastructural improvements, fixes, or redesigns.

Philosophy is not my native discipline – so if anyone in the class has resources that might help me out, I would appreciate recommendations.

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