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The Story of Whose India?

05-Jan-09

I just finished watching the first episode of The Story of India on PBS. To see the Aryan invasion theory rehashed so completely is quite shocking on public television. Who is this so-called historian Michael Wood and hasn’t he read Romila Thapar? The show would be infuriating if he weren’t so culturally confused. Check the bit with him drinking the Aryan alpha brew of soma (actually mahua) in a Peshawar bazaar.

Who Sank my Mothership?

09-Dec-08

Experts, journalists, and film-makers are seeing motherships everywhere.

In an interview today on Here and Now with Bob Baer, former CIA analyst for the Middle East, he just let drop the terrifying scenario of a jihadi mothership docking in Baltimore Harbor and launching commando attacks from a swarm of dinghies, in imitation of the attacks in Mumbai two weeks ago. Not surprisingly, the film Syriana was adapted from Baer’s intelligence memoirs.

In the weeks before the 26/11 attacks on Mumbai, a Saudi oil tanker was hijacked off the Horn of Africa. In a direct action against Somali pirates menacing the high seas, on 19 November the Indian Navy sunk what was called a “pirate mothership” in the Gulf of Aden, in one of the world’s busiest shipping lanes off the Horn of Africa. This seemed to many Indians a swift and effective strike in the subcontinent’s own maritime near-abroad, the western Indian Ocean. Defence analysts and terrorism experts hailed the emergent regional hegemon taking the fight to the pirate brigands in aid the international community, with the INS Tabar swooping down on and sinking their mothership.

This proud assertion of regional sub-imperialism by India was interrupted when it later emerged that the alleged mothership sunk by the Indian Navy in the Gulf of Aden was actually a Thai fishing trawler occupied by Somali pirates. The Navy claimed it nonetheless had the pirate commanders in their sights and fired legitimately. Tell that to the Thai fishermen who lost their boat, or other coastal fishing communities such as in Kutch whose livelihood depends on the natural ecologies which cross maritime jurisdictions, and who are routinely harrased and imprisoned by the Indian and Pakistani coast guards and navies.

The Laskar-e-Toiba commandos who attacked Mumbai arrived by speed boats and dinghies on the city’s unregulated coastline in a hijacked fishing boat named Kuber, registered in the Gujarati port city of Porbander. The families and friends of the fishermen on the Kuber, when the boat failed to return home the night it was attacked by the commandos at sea, first assumed that it had been detained by the Pakistani authorities. However a body was found floating in a fishing channel, dumped overboard after the commandos changed from their boat which brought them to Gujarat from Pakistan’s main port city, Karachi.

For more than a hundred years, Western military experts have grappled with the murky geography of insurgent networks in the mountainous and rugged terrain of the border regions of Pakistan and Afghanistan. Much like the frontier and tribal agencies along the old Durand Line, the maritime frontier of the western Indian Ocean is simply impossible to police. The British Indian Empire had an overwhelming interest in regulating human and commercial traffic in the western Indian Ocean for most of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Few remember that Aden was directly administered by the Government of Bombay as a protectorate for a hundred years, as it was strategically located at the mouth of the Red Sea, the gateway to the pilgrimage port of Mecca and the Suez Canal.

Throughout the western Indian Ocean coastline from its formal bases in Aden to Bombay, the British assumed various roles in the development and governance of the vast maritime frontier in the Indian Ocean. As regional naval hegemon and guarantor of the security of coastal sultans and emirates such as in Bushire, Basra, Kuwait and Musqat, its commercial agents and native informants commanded political power (in this view, the British have occupied Basra on and off for more than 300 years). As its military and naval interests controlled regional traffic, it enacted traditional duties of protector of pilgrims for thousands of Hajis arrriving Mecca by boat (and increasingly by British steamships) from India or Southeast Asia. The British were thus forced to act in novel scenarios as public health inspector, to control and quarantine the decades-long global plague outbreak which spread from China and India to Europe, Latin America and Europe.

Historians have compared the relations of “informal empire” between British India and these coastal states of the western Indian Ocean as similar to the indirect rule exercised in the colonial princely states. While Bombay and Aden were directly administered as colonial cities in British India, the network of coastal port cities in their vast hinterland from Gujarat to Yemen functioned as an informal sphere of influence for Indian, Arab and Persian merchants and traders who prospered by accepting British naval protection and commercial dominance in international trade in the Indian Ocean (which, in the memorable phrase, became a British pool).

These port cities harboured ships flying flags of convenience and carrying all kinds of local regional trade from the sultanates of Yemen and Muscat, across the mouth of the Persian Gulf to the Makran Coast and the Gulfs of Kutch and Cambay in India. Today little remains of what what colonial port authorities referred to as the “coasting trade”, except for fishing. However, fisherfolk are increasingly threatened by international trawlers which have fish on an industrial scale for export, destroying what remains of the livelihood base of coastal fishing communities.

Syriana (warning, spoiler!) culminates with a pair of young Pakistani boys driving a high-speed dinghy with a warhead strapped on it at high speed into a massive tanker, just as the ribbon is cut on a new coastal refinery built by a Western oil company in a fictionalized Gulf emirate. The boys, migrant workers in a labor camp, are easily recruited to the attack, in which they will also perish. The mothership here, an oil tanker, is not the source, but the target, of the suicide attack. Visions of motherships notwithstanding, most pirates and terrorists, it seems, prefer to travel in speed-boats and dinghies.

Friends (Almost) Lost

04-Dec-08

The attacks on Mumbai have stirred memories of friends lost, and almost lost, to terrorism in South Asia. I will never forget the morning in 2002 that I strolled down to my paper-wala’s newstand in Dadar and saw the horrific photo of Danny Pearl in a track suit with a gun to his head, on the front page of Mid-Day. I had just met Danny at a party a few days before he left for Karachi, where he was later kidnapped and killed. He and his wife Marianne were a beautiful couple and the toast of Mumbai’s journo scene — and the Wall Street Journal bureau in Mumbai remains the best foreign press outlet in the city. Marianne, a film-maker by training, worked with students at Wilson College produce a film on Bombay’s historical Irani cafes called Aur Iraani Chai in 2001-2002 in the Neighbourhood Project. You can see the short film made with her inspiration and guidance on YouTube. Their apartment in Malabar Hill was the scene of many wonderful evenings where Danny would play his violin and Marianne would dance into the night with journalists, writers and hangers-on of Bombay’s dotcom boom years.

Several years later, I was in Mumbai on 11 July 2006 — exactly one year before I got married — when a series of bombs went off at rush hour in the packed trains of the Western Railway. I was, in fact, waiting for a train at Dadar Station, travelling in the other direction, to Victoria Terminus (site of the recent attacks by gunmen). I learned weeks later that A.G. Bapat, engineer and manager of the National Textile Corporation in Mumbai, was killed on one of the bombed trains travelling to his home in the suburb of Kandivali. Mr Bapat was a friendly public sector official in the bankrupt NTC, the government company formed by the takeover of half of Mumbai’s failing inner-city textile mills in the seventies. NTC was one of the city’s biggest land-holders, and behind their mammoth compound walls and factory gates lie the crumbling treasures of Mumbai’s 19th century industrial architecture. I spent a year from 2002-2003 photographing several of these mills with the help of Mr Bapat, who was eager to support a proposal we developed for an Industrial Museum in one of the closed mills. This never materialized, and many of Mumbai’s grandest Victorian mills have been torn down in the past three years. See the photo albums in the collection Mills of Mumbai and the individual albums for Tata Mills, India United Mills no.1, Kohinoor Mills no.1-2, and the most remarkable, Elphinstone Mills, which was sold and demolished two years ago. Thanks again, Bapat Saheb, for all your help.

Another friend and colleague whom I surely thought lost in a 2005 attack in Bangalore was the brilliant scientist and entrepreneur Dr Vijay Chandru. Chandru, as he is known to everyone, was one of the inventors of the Simputer, a visionary open source hand-held computer for agrarian and rural uses in India. He now manages Strand Genomics. His wife Uma and I worked together at the Srishti School in Bangalore, where I was a part-time consultant. Chandru was sprayed with automatic gunfire at close range in a daylight attack on the auditorium where he was attending a conference, across the street from the leafy canteen at the Indian Institute of Science, where I had lunch as I stayed nearby. Much like my beloved Cafe Leopold, the Iraani cafe in Mumbai which was attacked by gunmen last week, the canteen and auditorium was open to the street. Chandru’s arms and torso were hit hard by an AK-47 shot from this street. I was not in Bangalore then, but learned on the news he had somehow survived the attack. Miraculously, less than a year later, I sat across the table from him in the Stata Center here at MIT, where he spent an hour describing his surgery and recovery at Mass General Hospital, where he has come to be treated by a renowned surgeon, Jesse Jupiter. He had already regained control of his arms and was walking, and was working at MIT LIDS.

Bombay is Still Burning

28-Nov-08

The attacks on Mumbai are unbelievably gruesome and at this point hard to comprehend. I am not there right now, and am writing from faraway. I was quickly able to (recursively) account for all my friends and family with a single message “are you safe?” sent to all my loved ones in Mumbai. Everyone is. Thank you, all, for asking.

The nature of this attack is globally unprecedented. This is not even like 9/11 — it has lasted three days,11/26-11/28, and is still not over. The first news I heard on Wednesday afternoon, was of gunmen opening fire with automatic weapons and throwing grenades in Victoria Terminus at rush hour. This immediately reminded me The last time something like this happened was July 11 2006, or 7/11, when I was on the railway platform in rush hour at Dadar, and the overhead electric lines suddenly popped and the station went dark. After learning of bomb blasts up the line at Matunga Road, I walked home amidsty an enormous jam of vehicles, as all the train commuters emerged onto the streets. It was only when I came home that I learned what had happened. Bombs had gone off all over the line, killing and injuring hundreds of train commuters.

The signature of 7/11 and terrorism in Mumbai were their attacks on the city’s vital arteries, its train and bus network, where most Mumbaikars spend hours everyday together.The nature of the targets is very different from previous terrorism such as 7/11 or the bus bombs, or at least the news coverage here would have us believe. While its sister station in India, Channel 7-IBN, is leading in their coverage in Mumbai, CNN here has focussed largely on the shootout and hostage situations Taj and Oberoi hotels. The dramatic photos of the Taj Hotel dome draped in smoke and flames on today’s New York Times front page has already become the signature image of the Mumbai attacks.

There are other ways in which these attacks are remarkable, and different. The attackers apparently arrived by sea, landing in the very heart of the Indian Navy’s Western Naval Command in Colaba, in the Sassoon Docks, where a busy traffic of fishing boats, country craft, and small vessels land everyday from Bombay Harbour. There’s been a lot of news recently about piracy in the Indian Ocean near the Gulf of Aden, where the Indian Navy allegedly sunk a pirate “mother ship” last week. In signs of the hyperbolic tendencies of Indian journalists, there were reports yesterday of a terrorist “mother ship” detained off Gujarat, a Pakistani merchant vessel.

While images of mother ships in the high seas of the western Indian Ocean might be an exaggeration, there is no doubt that strategically, an arc of coastal states from Aden to Muscat, Dubai and Karachi are key nodes in a region where Bombay has been the largest coastal city. The Taj and Oberoi hotels are perched at the very southern tip of Mumbai’s Island City. And while these hotels — and Nariman House — are located in one of Mumbai’s most posh central business districts, at their feet and edges cling crowded colonies of fisherfolk and slum-dwellers who regularly venture out to the seas. These attacks were a brazen assault on some of the key symbols of the financial, military and commercial architecture of Mumbai, and its role as a regional and global capital. But anyone who has walked the streets of Colaba or Cuffe Parade can tell you that this regional command and control centre has feet of clay

Here in the US, the attack has coincided with the Thanksgiving holidays, when many families are at home glued to their many plasmas, tubes, and flat screens. The coverage here is banal at best, parachute correspondents or terrorism experts who know little about India, using the famous backdrop of the Taj Mahal hotel — now exploding, now on fire, now duck they’re shooting. For once I wish I could watch Rajdeep Sardesai shouting his way through the crowds, or even my buddy Sreenivasan Jain on NDTV. While I am not in Mumbai today, all Mumbaikars are part of a real-time news space that is following events as they unfold. Some of the more amazing moments so far have been the top cops shot as they let down their guard outside Metro Cinema, NSG commandos landing by chopper at Nariman House and storming their way in. Stay safe friends, and pray it is all over very soon.

EndNote sues Zotero

26-Nov-08

The most dramatic thing I almost missed due to my back problem at the start of this semester was EndNote suing Zotero. Well, actually, it was Thomson Scientific suing George Mason University (GMU), home of the Center for History and New Media — for whom I worked as an evangelist and project associate from 2007-2008 with Zotero. It’s been more than two months now since the assembled forces of darkness attacked Zotero, a free add-on for Mozilla Firefox to capture and manage citations, produce bibliographies, and navigate the research web.

While the web has dramatically transformed our access, the primary currency of academic knowledge production remains citations to other works. Prolific footnotes and generous bibliographies are the bread crumbs through which we can account for our own thoughts as researchers. In many ways, the web betrays its academic origins through the same logic of citation, which was buit into the basic structure of the web through its logic of links between pages and sites. Unlike EndNote, a fat desktop application, Zotero works inside the browser as an aid for storing, mixing and sharing citations to books, journals, web pages and media for reference, much like index cards, comments scrawled in margins, and lists and notes worked for an earlier generation researchers (and plenty of people today).

Thomson’s main complaint that Zotero “reverse-engineered” EndNote’s proprietary .ens format in a beta version, and are therefore in breach of their site license for EndNote. They are claiming damages of ten million dollars for the allegedly unauthorized distribution of this bit of EndNote inside Zotero. The Citizen Media Law Project run by Sam at the Berkman has the best single page on the EndNote Zotero suit, from their legal threats database, with a round-up of the key news items and blog posts on the lawsuit. See in particular Thomson Reuter’s original complaint filed in the Virginia State Court, the response by George Mason University in defense of interoperability.

This blog post summarizes and satirizes the legal claims, and this one analyzes the license violation in light of earlier state rulings. They are seeking damages from Zotero on the basis of a violation of GMU’s user license, and not on the basis of copyright, and the claim is peculiar. Those familiar with sharing citation styles knows that there is not much that needs reverse-engineering. Until very recently, we lacked even a basic markup language for sharing bibliographic data on the web. Then there was CSL, a creation of geographer and frustrated EndNote user Bruce D’Arcus whose simple scheme rapidly proliferated hundreds of citation styles in a matter of a few months, and which became Zotero’s native format for expressing citation styles. This was not reverse engineering, but rather open source development, where one person’s scratch can relieve thousands of itches.

GMU is a public institution supported by the Commonwealth of Virginia, and EndNote’s vendor, Thomson Scientific, is owned by Reuters. With such big names about to go to court the stakes are quite high for all casual and professional users of the web for any kind of systematic research. As an alumni of the Zotero team and doctoral student at MIT, it was gratifying to have friends in the free software community respond to the lawsuit. Mako was an early supporter (see the talk on Zotero he gave in my place at Wikimania). MacKenzie Smith at MIT Libraries summarizes the issues and gives an endorsement of Zotero in her blog post and her podcast. Also see legal expert Danny Weitzner‘s blog post, where he describes the suit as a legal strategy by a large software firm to restrict data interoperability on the web.

With a little help from these friends, as well as Eben Moglen and the Software Freedom Law Center now representing GMU pro-bono in the state court, the outcome will be interesting. Free software and open standards are quickly kicking the stools out from underneath the mess of clunky and expensive proprietary tools which made up the researcher’s basic software stack, though we have a long way to go. With integrated tools like Zotero, Firefox, and OpenOffice, the circle has already been completed between the research web and the writer’s desktop.

Stirring the Pot in Kashmir

22-Nov-08

Ahmed Rashid is stirring the pot in his interview on NPR All Things Considered yesterday.

While there is no doubt that Kashmir is in flames, the theory of “strategic depth”, explaining Pakistani involvement in Afghanistan and Kashmir through Islamist proxies such as the Taliban and Kashmiri jihad as a quest for balance against Indian dominance isn’t convincing. Pakistani foreign and military policies are not simply a negative corollary of India’s, and the notion that Pakistan is trying to compete with India for influence inside Afghanistan doesn’t explain India’s complete lack of involvement in NATO or the security situation in Afghanistan.

Rashid’s implicit plea for international involvement, just months after Kashmir has returned to perhaps its worst state in fifteen years, seems somewhat clever given his oustanding scholarship and perspective on South Asia (his Taliban remains the single most valuable book on the rise of the students). Following the cack-handed repsonse of the Indian Government to the Amarnath land dispute making a pitch for US mediation in resolving the territorial dispute between India and Pakistan couldn’t be more poorly times. As for the rumours that Obama may send Bill Clinton as special envoy, he did broker an end to the Kargil War. Whatever Indian nationalists may say, the logical outcome of becoming a nuclear state was an acceptance of international mediation when things get out of hand between India and Pakistan.

What of the Simla Agreement and the famous Indian rejection of third-party mediation? It hit the dustbin of history sometime in the late nineties when Clinton had Nawaz Sharif pull back from nuclear war with India, and Strobe Talbott and Jaswant Singh had their famous strolls in the Mughal Gardens to bring India to the high table of the great powers. After the Indo-US civil nuclear deal, not only does India get to keep its bombs, it can be assured of a pro-US tilt in any mediation, which will most likely strictly behind the scenes, protestations from the Indian Foreign Office notwithstanding.

Wish I Was at WordCampEd

22-Nov-08

Due to my continuing back problems, I was unable to attend WordCampEd 2008 (though I am the brown guy with his head hunched down the extreme right of the header image on their website). I sure wish I could have been there, as THATCamp was a blast and I spent most of last year working for as an evangelist with the Center for History and New Media for Zotero. These guys are awesome, check out their podcast Digital Campus for a taste of their conversations.

If I had made it down for the camp, focussed on using WordPress for educational and academic communities,  I had hoped to talk about the experience of building and designing the SUNY Stony Brook History Department website. This was my first attempt at a multi-user blog system for an academic department, and the template was based on work by Jeremy Boggs for the GMU Art History Department. The site went live in September, and has been developing iteratively for the past one year through the inputs of historians Chris Sellers, Eric Lewis Beverley, Larry Frohman, and Nancy Tomes.

With help from Jeremy to cut my teeth on css, I built on his core design to incorporate sidebar widgets and extensively furnished author profile pages and dashboard where faculty can upload their own photos, bibliographies, and run their own mini-blogs inside one WordPress site, posting to their own home pages, front page department news, and thematic blogs for different research areas within the department. As faculty participation in the site grows, these categories and areas will be easily extended to represent the strengths of the departments’ historians in such areas as Latin America and fields such as gender and the environment.

For this site, the open source ecology came to my aid in designing a new feature for faculty profile pages, where I extensively relied on Marco Cimmino’s excellent plugin Cimy Extended User Fields to manage custom fields and tags on the member pages for the historians at Stony Brook. These pages are easily the most important for any faculty, and I wanted them each to have a blog and feed which could be used for communicating their work, sharing ideas, and as a classroom tool. I paid for the developer to create a new feature for rich text fields for their bibliographies — this feature will hopefully appear in the next version of the plugin.

WIth faculty, staff, and graduate students, well over four hundred registered members in the Stony Brook History Department, using WordPress presented significant challenges due to its individual blogger orientation. Some significant limitations remain in WordPress’s user management and security functions, which plugins such as Role Manager help to address, such as custom user groups and controlling permissions — but not resetting passwords — for each group. Some other plugins at work on the site are Sidebar Login and COinS Metadata Exposer which embeds citations for each post as microformats.

Zotero can grab these embedded citations, and with the rich textarea fields on their profiles, faculty can simply drag and drop reading lists, a class syllabus, or their own publications into their home page or blog posts and have them slurped back into Zotero for later reference. This is something which I have done with another site called Bombayology in WordPress, where every post is for a meeting of our workshop on urban history and culture in India. The citations to assigned texts are embedded with OpenURL COiNS — which Zotero does in a simple drag and drop in your browser — and also linked to password-protected PDFs of the fully digitized text of the readings for that meeting.

If only I could have been at this special WordCamp, I would have also liked to talk about the other WordPress sites which I have developed and maintained over the past several years, including the personal archive and teaching blog of social anthropologist Keith Hart, the Memory Bank; the site of urban research and design group CRIT (Collective Research Initiatives Trust); the Writing Cities network between MIT, Harvard and LSE; the Urban South Asia workshop.

I have no doubt that the expert minds and hands of Dave Lester and Jeremy Boggs have created another excellent peer-learning experience at WordCampEd. I hope I’ll be there next year.

Obama’s Desi Geek

20-Nov-08

The Obama transition team this week announced that Sonal Shah has been selected to work on technology policy for the new administration (CNet News). Shah, an investment banker and public policy professional, is prominent within the Indian-American community not only for her work in Goldman-Sachs and the Google Foundation, but as a fund-raiser and community organizer for the Vishwa Hindu Parishad of America, a well-known Hindu Right hate group in India which propagates violent pogroms and genocide against minority communities in India.

See these pieces raising alarm bells in the past few weeks in the Times of India, Hindustan Times and The Hindu.

As an Indian-American who has worked with social movements “back home” and against the organised disinformation of the Hindu Right within the diaspora, this is highly alarming, and another huge goof for Obama, whom I voted for as I bought the line that he was a fellow desi. Homeboy, this ain’t right. For a deep exploration of Shah’s many faces in her role as Obama’s Indian, read Vijay Prashad’s piece in Counterpunch. You may also want to see and sign this petition by Progressive Women of Color to give Sonal Shah’s job to someone with stronger democratic and humanitarian commitments back in the old country.

Rant of an Urban Researcher

05-Jul-07

One of the most pathetic examples of the neglect of the city’s history is the Kala Ghoda area of South Mumbai. This sounds like a contradiction – in recent years Kala Ghoda has become synonymous with the heritage movement, with its museums and galleries, arts festivals and concerts, and recently restored colonial architecture. But if the conservationists had bothered to look behind their charming building facades and fancy street furniture, they would note that one of India’s most venerable and best-stocked repositories of historical documents occupies the back of the Elphinstone College building, in the Maharashtra State Archives (MSA). The MSA is a treasure-trove of government records, correspondence, maps, and all manner of big and small publications stretching back nearly four hundred years, from the Marathas, Portugese, British and postcolonial Indian governments.

The staff of the MSA are the real keepers of the city’s heritage, the Common Man who cannot afford the glossy coffee table books or steep entrance fees to the festivals and concerts celebrating Mumbai’s heritage. More knowledgeable than their better-paid counterparts in such places as London’s British Library or Delhi’s National Archives, these clerks and peons eagerly serve up the papers and files which are the historian’s raw material for narrating stories about the still mostly untold history of the city and its region. Everything from sewerage reports from Victorian Bombay, to the diaries and letters of Maratha ministers and chiefs, to early town planning schemes and maps for Bandra and Juhu may be found in the MSA. The tragedy is that once in your hands, many of these records crumble to pieces before they can be read, or have already been eroded over time by the elements.

In spite of the flourishing interest in researching and understanding the history, culture and politics of Bombay/Mumbai amongst various groups of academics and urban professionals – from anthropologists and activists to film-makers and architects – the career of the urban researcher in Mumbai is a precarious adventure.

The existing institutions charged with this task are, for the urban researcher, a veritable black hole, nowhere more so than the sprawling campus of the University of Mumbai. While Bombay University was in many ways the birthplace of the social science research in India – the old Bombay School of Economics and Sociology counted amongst its graduates the venerable G.S. Ghurye and M.N. Srinivas – it is nowhere on the map of the new urban research being conducted by NGOs setup in recent years to study and report on urban culture, design, governance and planning. And these NGOs themselves often function in dubious ways, setup by foreign academics for offshore influence peddling, or by the city’s elites to entrench their agendas with the BMC and MMRDA.

The unfortunate result of this situation is that coffee table heritage has replaced serious historical and social research. For example, a well-known work about the “cities within” glorifies the progressive role of the colonial era Bombay Improvement Trust in urban development. To the historian, this is something akin to calling the land-grabbing and corruption of the present-day Slum Rehabilitation Authority an enlightened civic governance. With the vacuum left behind by the collapse of genuine research institutions, critical and independent research in and on Mumbai must play second-fiddle to the whims and agendas of local socialities, foreign academics, and the racketeering of consultants and bureaucrats, all seeking to turn Mumbai into a “global city” through patronage of “urban research”.

Unfortunately, most of the best recent research on Mumbai is done by writers and academics based in wealthy private universities in the U.S. and U.K. One consequence of this is that these scholars are neither responsible to local institutions such as the MSA, nor does their work circulate back to those for whom it is an essential element in discussions about the past and future of Mumbai.

(Published in TimeOut Mumbai special issue on Bombayology Vol.3, Issue 24, 27 June to 9 August 2007)

Obdurate Urbanism

10-Apr-07

Anique Hommels, Unbuilding Cities: Obduracy in Urban Socio-Technical Change. Cambridge, Massachusetts: MIT Press, 2005.

While sharing a common intellectual genealogy, the contemporary disciplines of science and technology studies (STS) and urban studies have followed divergent paths of development, and flourished in largely separated academic compartments. Anique Hommels’s Unbuilding the City argues for the complementarity of the approaches of STS and urban studies in explaining the phenomenon of urban “obduracy” and strategies for “unbuilding” the city. Linking together the concepts drawn from actor-network theory and constructivist studies of socio-technical change, the book contains three case studies of postwar urban development in the Dutch cities of Utrecht, Maastricht and Amsterdam.

How can we understand urban structures as more than simple technical or physical artifacts? How can we explain the history of cities and their power relations as socio-technical ensembles? Does the urban built environment embed the tacit knowledge of its original planners and builders, such that their norms and values continue to shape the relations of city-dwellers in subsequent generations? In a well-known essay on the question “do artifacts have politics?”, Langdon Winner has cited the example of the low-lying bridges designed by planner Robert Moses in New York, whose passages were too low to permit movement by public buses between the freeways and beaches of Long Island. Moses’ bridges prevented access to these elite white spaces of recreation by inner-city black populations, thus inscribing a permanent spatial discrimination into the design of seemingly apolitical technical artifact.

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