Document Actions

Erik Born

In Praise of Infrastructure (27.06.2017)

“Infrastructure,” as comedian John Oliver points out, “is not sexy.” Only when infrastructures malfunction, when a bridge collapses, when a nuclear reactor melts down, or when a denial-of-service attack shuts down half the Internet, do these crucial everyday services receive any public attention.

The emerging field of “infrastructure studies” seeks to remedy this blind spot. At the nexus of urban planning, public policy, media studies, and the history of technology, the study of infrastructure addresses problems of scale, draws attention to the materiality of technology, and shifts the locus of critique from the nodes in a network to the connections between them. While recent studies have tended to focus on contemporary concerns, the field itself arguably has deeper roots in the venerable sciences of Verkehrswissenschaften, which studied the movements of people, goods, and messages in tandem.

After providing a comparative overview of these academic fields, the focus of this lecture will be on representations of infrastructure in modern German literature, especially the lyric genre. In contrast to the current inconspicuousness of infrastructure in the public sphere, the celebration of infrastructure in German modernity took the form of songs in praise of actual inventions, comic blame of impossible ones, and, above all, affirmations of the newly ascendant class of engineers. At the same time, the celebration of infrastructure may have amounted to little more than “700 intellectuals pray[ing] to an oil tanker,” as Bertolt Brecht cynically put it.

Ultimately, the aim of this lecture, in historicizing both infrastructure studies and the fascination with infrastructure, is to address a larger question: To what extent is cultural studies itself a form of infrastructure, an often inconspicuous but always vital means of connecting, and, even more importantly, maintaining the connections between different concerns?

Main Research Interests

  • The emergence of wireless technologies around 1900
  • Relations between old media and new media
  • The history of mysticism, interface design, and digital textbooks

Publications (selected)

  • Co-editor of Neighbors and Neighborhoods: Living Together in the German-Speaking World. United Kingdom: Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2012.
  • Author of articles on early avant-garde films and medieval media theory.


To watch the video please login here.