In common usage, the keyword infrastructure and its non-English variants (infraestructura, infrastruktura, infrastruktur, imprastraktura, infrastruttura) refer to the vast, complex, and changing systems that support modern societies and economies. The Oxford English Dictionary’s (2015) deﬁnition begins broadly – “a collective term for the subordinate parts of an undertaking; substructure, foundation” – and then becomes speciﬁc, referring to “the permanent installations forming a basis for military operations, as airﬁelds, naval bases, training establishments, etc.” The deﬁnition points to two important dimensions of the word. First, it is a collective term: a singular noun that, like system and network, denotes a plurality of integrated parts. Second, those collective parts are understood to support some higher-order project. As the preﬁx infra – meaning beneath, below, or within – suggests, infrastructure diverges from system and network by suggesting relationships of depth or hierarchy. Here, we see the legacy of the word’s origins in nineteenth-century French civil engineering. When it was adopted in English in the early twentieth century, infrastructure referred primarily to the organizational work required before railroad tracks could be laid: either establishing a roadbed of substrate material (literally beneath the tracks) or other work functionally prior to laying tracks like building bridges, embankments, and tunnels. In the post-war era, the word was adopted in new projects of spatial integration, particularly supranational military coordination and international development. By the late twentieth century, the word was in common use. In this chapter, I examine the changing use of the word infrastructure in
English, particularly as it relates to international development theory and practice. This is no easy task because the word development is also complex. Nevertheless, its etymology and conceptual role in concerted programs of social, economic, and technological change has been explored elsewhere (Cooper 2010; Rist 2014). There is, to my knowledge, no analogous study of the infrastructure concept that is thorough and recent (cf. Batt 1984). The scope of this chapter prohibits a comprehensive study. Thus, my more modest goal is to provide a broad historical overview and analysis of the word’s changing usage. By tracking this keyword, we will see connections, overlaps, and divergences among ﬁelds like engineering, military coordination,
economics, logistics, and social theory that reshaped the human condition in the twentieth century and reverberate in the present. Historian Rosalind Williams (2012) has described infrastructure as a pro-
miscuous term that has taken on new meanings shaped by the very historical phenomena it describes. Since it was adopted in English in the early twentieth century, the usage of the word infrastructure has gradually expanded and its meanings have multiplied. In the twenty-ﬁrst century, the collective noun refers to the subordinate parts of many projects, from the built systems that move water, sewage, people, and power to components assembled under the rubrics of security, information, health, ﬁnance, political mobilization, and environmental management. What should we make of infrastructure’s ascent? Infrastructure might be characterized as a plastic word (Poerksen 1995) that has been stripped of its former specialized meaning and can now ﬁt nearly any circumstance. Seen in this way, the term’s vagueness is not a weakness, but central to its utility in a wide variety of projects (Jensen and Winthereik 2013: 13). The word infrastructure has long been the subject of scorn for the same reason. “By the middle of the century,” lexicographer John Ayto writes, “it had already acquired its bad reputation as a jargon word” (2006: 67). In light of infrastructure’s widespread usage in recent decades, this undercurrent of anxiety makes its etymology even more interesting, because negative labels like “jargon” and “meaningless” fail to explain the historical conjunctures in which the word became useful and contested. We might understand the emergence of the infrastructure concept as an
event in thought (Collier and Lakoﬀ 2015: 20; Foucault 2005: 9). Its ascent indexes a form of calculative reason (Mitchell 2002) that, from specialized origins, has come to organize social expectations, everyday experiences, and public discourses about the proper relationships among economy, development, governance, and technology. Infrastructural reason informs the organization of planetary transportation, communication, and logistics networks that are modular in form and organized around managerial and technical standards (Barry 2006; Cowen 2014; Easterling 2014). It also ﬂags the modernist desire to render social and environmental heterogeneity manageable and amenable to standardized solutions.