Urban Vulnerability and Network Failure:
Constructions and Experiences  of Emergencies, Crises and Collapse

CALL FOR ABSTRACTS (PLEASE CIRCULATE)

An ESRC-Sponsored International Seminar
jointly hosted by SURF, University of Salford and GURU, University of
Newcastle
Manchester, United Kingdom, 29-30 April 2004

Rationale

In these times of  'globalisation' cities are being  powerfully shaped by
their relationships with socio-technical networks and infrastructures.
These organise, and mediate, the distribution of people, goods, services,
information,  wastes, capital, and energy  between multiple scales within
and between urban regions. The contemporary urban process, and contemporary
social power, thus, more than ever, involve complex 'cyborg' liaisons and
multiple, distanciated connections. These straddle many scales and link
bodies, places, and institutions continuously with more or less distant
elsewheres. By making possible a  myriad of mobilities such infrastructures
remake the spaces and times of urban life in the process.

On the one hand, the everyday life and ideology of the modern city  is
dependent on the seamless and continuous functioning, together, of a vast
array of functioning technical systems(although, for vast numbers of
urbanites in the global South, the reality is often of little connectivity
and worse reliability). On the other hand, large swathes of contemporary
corporate, state, and military  power centres on  the construction,
maintenance, legitimation and protection of vast arrays of extended
technological systems. Strung out across the world, and configured
carefully to support the 'glocal' geographies of power and connectivity of
contemporary capitalism, these network spaces - fibre optic networks,
airport and airline spaces, Just-in-Time logistics systems, E-commerce and
transactional flows,  transnational energy systems, and so on -- are
critical strategic supports to neoliberal globalisation.  Linking up, and
mediating, key spaces and divisions of labour reliably, quickly and
seamlessly, the physical, energy, water and informational infrastructures
that sustain contemporary capitalism are perhaps the most critical
strategic  supports of contemporary global capitalism.

A widening range of iconic infrastructure collapses serve as opportunities
to learn about the cultural, political, social and material dimensions of
the importance of infrastructural connection in contemporary urban, and
geopolitical, life.  Since the early 1990s, to name but a few, iconic
collapsese and failures have included the  Montreal ice storm, the Auckland
power blackout,  the gas attack on the Tokyo underground, the Sydney
drought, the California energy crisis, the Chicago heat wave, the failure
of Hong Kong airport's freight system, the September 11th attacks, and the
'Lovebug' virus. The infrastructural devastation of countless urban wars
also needs to be considered here.

As seamless and 24 hour flows and connections become ever-more critical for
capitalist urbanism, however, so massive political, discursive and material
resources are being devoted to try and reduce the  supposed
vulnerabilities that these systems exhibit  to collapse, malfunctioning, or
attack. This is especially so when the September 11th and Anthrax attacks,
in particular, demonstrated that mobility systems, themselves, can be
appropriated as 'terrorist' weapons. 'Resilience', and 'critical
infrastructure protection', are  ubiquitous buzz words in these times of
politically constructed moral panic, continuous states of emergency,  and
the ongoing Bush-led 'war on terror'. Huge resources and efforts are now
being devoted by States, infrastructure corporations, the military, urban
infrastructure agencies, and corporate capital to reducing the  supposed
vulnerability of telecommunications, transport, logistics, transaction,
electricity, and utilities systems to technical failure, sabotage, natural
disasters or the failures caused by the reduced built in back-up that often
comes with liberalised markets. The glaring fragility, and low reliability,
of many computer-mediated communications and infrastructure systems is a
particular focus of concern here. Examples include government programmes to
protect critical infrastructure, commercial services for network back up,
and military (and terrorist groups') interest in the disrupting of
adversaries'  infrastructure networks. Civil defence programmes designed to
increase cities' resilience to attack and targeting, and so on, are also
reaching unprecedented levels.

As Tim Luke has observed, networked connections and collapses also form a
critical focus of cultural politics. Narratives and discourses of failed
flow and connection stalk many underground and dystopian scenes and genres
of culture. Contemporary urban culture is full of accounts  which reveal a
fascination with such moments of  what he calls 'decyborganisation'. This
is because they reveal, however fleetingly, the utter reliance of  modern
urban life on distanciated flow and interaction. The cultural narratives
and representations that surround the failure and collapse of networked
infrastructures are a key aspect of their social importance.

Conference Aim and Objective

The core aim of this conference is to explore the ways in which reactions
to, and experiences of, the collapse of technical and networked
infrastructures  within and between cities are constructed, experienced,
imagined, represented, and contested. We seek in particular  to explore
these themes under conditions of  growing  infrastructural stress,
re-regulation, globalisation, increasing concerns with failure, the
changing geopolitical situation surrounding the 'war on terror', and the
strong fascination for infrastructural collapse within contemporary
culture. By bringing together researchers representing a range of
disciplines, including geography, history, sociology, critical theory,
development studies, political economy, geopolitics, surveillance and
defence studies, the objective is to stimulate interdisciplinary discussion
and collaboration that examines the meaning of connectivity and collapse in
contemporary urban life, politics, governance, and culture.

Seminar Themes

(1) Conceptualising  'Cyborg' Urbanisation: How can urban, social and
critical theory conceptualise the socio-technologies of connection,
resilience, mobility, and collapse in contemporary cities ?

(2) Urban Vulnerability and Network Failures: Constructions and Experiences
of Emergencies, Crises and Collapse.  How do different disciplines
construct concepts of urban vulnerability and network failure ? How does
network stress and failure  operate materially and how is it represented
politically and culturally ? Why, how and where do technical networks
collapse? What can be learnt about the discursive, economic or material
role of technical connections in a globalised context by studying what
happens when connections fail ?  How does the governance of cities, spaces
and networked infrastructure intersect in various contexts to address (and
exploit ?)  perceptions of stress and risk. How are such politics shaped by
broader political economies of globalisation, mobility, flow and
re-regulation ? How are corporate and popular fears of, and vulnerabilities
to, the failure of connectivity  addressed in such processes of governance
?

(3) Networked Collapses as States of Emergency : What can be learnt from
in-depth case studies of instances of network failures or collapse ?  What
happens when the normalisation of flow, mobility and connection breaks down
? What  social, economic, and cultural coping mechanisms and innovations
are developed to deal with the collapse ? How do political and governance
coalitions at various scales, in states, cities and network spaces, respond
to failure ?  What are the longer term  political, economic or cultural
consequences of network failure   ? How are crises and collapse in
infrastructures, and wider processes of 'de-cyborgisation,' represented in
contemporary culture ?

(4) Networked Collape, Security,  and Organised Violence How do various
state and non-state militaries and  target  and destroy adversaries'
infrastructure networks? In what ways are national, homeland and urban
'security' strategies, and critical infrastructure protection policies,
being reforged to address, or exploit, fears of networked collapse ? What
political economic transitions do such strategies support?  What
discursive, and linguistic constructions do such political strategies rely
on ? Beyond the hype what is the real scope of 'cyberwar' ? What strategies
and techniques are used? How effective, or widespread,  is such
'network-based' warfare ? How does it relate to the current geopolitical
position (dominated by a single 'hyperpower' pursuing a 'war on terror'
without apparent end to further its geopolitical interests in the Middle
East and Central Asia)?

Abstract Submission

Please submit a 250 words abstract to Steve Graham ([email protected])
AND Simon Marvin ([email protected]) before September 1st 2003. Papers
will be required for pre-circulation before the seminar that will be hosted
in central Manchester, United Kingdom on 29-30 April 2004. There will be a
small fee for attending the event.

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Stephen Graham    e-mail [email protected]
Professor of Urban Technology      Telephone +44(0) 191 222 6808
Global Urban Research Unit (GURU) Fax +44(0) 191 222 8811
School of Architecture, Planning and Landscape
3rd Floor, Claremont Tower
University of Newcastle upon Tyne
Newcastle upon Tyne NE1 7RU, U.K.

Global Urban Research Unit (GURU) http://www.ncl.ac.uk/guru

Surveillance and Society Web Journal
http://www.surveillance-and-society.org/
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