Rosalind Williams, “Infrastructure as Lived Experience”
Keynote Lecture, Landscape Infrastructure Conference.
As the opening presentation for the Landscape Infrastructure Symposium, Williams’ lecture explores the socio-technological turn of civil engineering vis-à-vis the complexity of contemporary urban life at the dawn of the 21st century. Drawing from her extensive research on the ebbs and flows of the technological landscape, the lecture traces the rise of transatlantic urbanization in the 19th and 20th century, to shed light on the confluence of engineered infrastructures and complex natural systems, across various media, narratives and environments, both on land and off shore.
Rosalind Williams is the Dibner Professor of the History of Science and Technology at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). From 1995 to 2000, she served as MIT’s first Dean of Students and Undergraduate Education. In 2011, Williams received an honorary doctorate from the Technical University of Eindhoven in the Netherlands where she has been appointed as Distinguished Visiting Professor for the next four years.
As a cultural historian of technology, Rosalind Williams has studied the origins and effects from the evolution of large, constructed systems and the acceleration of technology for human life in a predominantly self-constructed world. She first examined this question in studying the emergence of ‘consumer culture’ in late 19th century France in Dream Worlds (MIT Press, 1982), and later on, in the creation of underworlds, both imagined and actual, as models of a ‘technological environment’ in Notes on the Underground (MIT Press, 1990). In a 2008 issue of Cabinet Magazine, Williams recently discussed the second edition of her book on the underworld, revealing the influence of “Lewis Mumford’s 1934 cultural history of the machine age, Technics & Civilization, in which he discusses the importance of the mine. . . as manufactured environment”.
In her third book, Retooling: A Historian confronts Technological Change (2002), Williams further examined the reflexive effects of technology in the culture of engineering at MIT as the Institute confronts the effects of an ‘information age’ of which it has been such a prime generator. In The Cultural Crisis of Engineering in the Information Age, urban sociologist Manuel Castells reviewed her book as “an innocent-looking masterpiece with the conviction that history makes technology. . . Rosalind Williams knows how it happens.”
Williams’ forthcoming book (with the working title of Human Empire) examines the works and lives of three well-known writers (Jules Verne, William Morris, and Robert Louis Stevenson) to illuminate an event of consciousness towards the end of the 19th century, when humans realized that they were close to mapping the entire globe and that they would henceforth dominate its fate.
Lastly, in her canonical essay, “Cultural Origins and Environmental Implications of Large Technological Systems” (Science in Context, 1993), Williams observes that “the outstanding feature of modern cultural landscapes is the dominance of pathways over settlements, . . . the pathways of modern life are also corridors of power, with power being understood in both its technological and political senses. By channeling the circulation of people, goods, and messages, they have transformed spatial relations by establishing lines of force that are privileged over the places and people left outside those lines.” Williams further argues that, “the concept of connective systems is primarily phenomenological rather than sociological. These constructions are tangible structures existing in geographical space, and their components are related primarily in physical rather than in social terms. When engineering involves the creation of such structures, it looks more like a ‘mirror twin’ of landscape architecture or of urban planning than of science.”
For further reading of Rosalind Williams’ work:
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