Invisible Superprojects

[Erie Canal in Lockport, New York]

[Erie Canal in Lockport, New York]

Where are the super-projects?  This is the question Louis Uchitelle asks in his recent article “Entering the Superproject Void” (New York Times).  In retracing the continuum of America’s greatest hits in large scaled public works (from the Erie Canal to the Hoover Dam, from the transcontinental network of the Interstate Highway System to the mega-regionally focused efforts of the Tennessee Valley Authority) it’s surprising to learn that there are no super-sized public works projects on the go (or foreseen in the immediate future).  Of course there are visions, National High Speed Rail for one, but the commitment (read financing) is hardly there. There’s no doubt that causal relationships between superproject spending and economic growth are difficult to understand.  Nevertheless Uchitelle reminds us that ‘the strongest periods of economic growth in America have generally coincided with big outlays for new public works and the transformations they bring once completed’. Has something changed in terms of the optimism that has accompanied these projects in the past?  Have they been discredited with respect to their economic impact?    There’s a lot to unpack in this regard and we’re looking forward to cooking up some posts in the future tackling some of the related issues.  For now, we’re wondering if the emergence of distributed projects and strategies may be hiding the ‘superness’ of superprojects thus making this class of project less easily identifiable. What if there is a new breed of superprojects on the horizon?  The Invisible Superproject. Uchitelle does mention an Obama driven project that approaches the super-sized – Electronic Health Care Records.   While the domain of such a project, a mostly invisible system that will primarily be accessed by individuals via LCD screens, is not as immediately impressive as some of the engineering marvels typically associated with superprojects, this project is nonetheless remarkable.  This ambitious plan will accomplish two usually disparate effects of improving the quality and reducing costs. There must be other invisible superprojects out there or, at least, on their way.  Interestingly, the infrastructure or backbone for this breed of project – the Internet, is in itself minimally visible. This visibility has recently been documented by Randall Mesdon in a photographic essay, “Netscapes: Tracing the Journey of a Single Bit” for Wired Magazine.  In this work, Mesdon’s images, paired with text by Andrew Blum, begin to document the marks on our environment that index the presence and operational logic of the Internet.  The image below shows a major Internet landmark (note the man-hole cover on the lower left) marking one side of the cross-Atlantic submarine cable connection.

Halifax, Canada. Photograph by Randall Mesdon

[Halifax, Canada. Photograph by Randall Mesdon]

Not all of the images along the bit’s journey are as subtle.  The scale of the landmark varies from an imposing building on Hudson Street in Manhattan to tiny utility huts dotting long-haul data pipes.  Check out the entire series here. Maybe we should call them the 'almost-invisible' superprojects?


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