The following is an excerpt from Keller Easterling's latest publication, Extrastatecraft: The Power of Infrastructure Space, which explores areas of infrastructure with the greatest impact on our world. Easterling is a professor at Yale School of Architecture.
The road between Nairobi and Mombasa is lined with, and virtually lit by, advertisements for the mobile phone companies that have entered the region—all promising new freedoms and economic opportunities. With their images of Masai tribesman in native dress phoning from a remote wilderness, the ads employ an essential trope of leap-frogging—the desire for a perfect collapse between technology and nature, tradition and modernity. The billboards express the enthusiasm of a world turned upside down in which not the developed but the developing world has their hands around a majority of the world’s cell phones.
Over the last 150 years, the ocean floor has been laid with thousands of miles of submarine cable of all types for telegraph, telephone, and fiber-optic infrastructure. In the nineteenth century, it took only thirty years for the British cable-laying companies to string the world with telegraph cable, and a little over a decade from the late 1980s to the late 1990s for most of the world to be connected to fiber-optic cable. Yet until recently, East Africa, one of the most populous areas of the world, had no fiber- optic submarine cable link and less than 1 percent of the world’s broadband capacity. A country like Kenya had to rely for its broadband on expensive satellite technology acquired in the 1970s that cost twenty to forty times its equivalent in the developed world. Before 2009, one Mbps (megabit per second) of bandwidth could cost as much as 7,500 US dollars per month against the world average of $200. The monthly cost of putting twenty-five agents on the phone was $17,000 a month instead of the $600–900 that it would cost in other developed countries.(1)
If telecommunications in East Africa has until recently been distinguished by deprivation, it is now often heralded for its explosive growth. In Kenya, the numbers have been skyrocketing. Between 2000 and 2008, the number of cell phone subscriptions increased over a hundredfold (from 127,404 in 2000 to 16,573,303 in 2008), and from 2008 to 2012 they nearly doubled again (30,731,745 in 2012).(2) After nearly fifteen years of planning, by the end of 2010 Kenya had gone from having no fiber-optic submarine cable to having three international cables and an expanding national fiber-optic system. The country needs broadband for mobile telephony,(3) but while many of its mobile phone users are now able to access the internet, Kenya is also still sorely lacking high-capacity premium fixed bandwidth for business and education.
Contemporary infrastructure space is the secret weapon of the most powerful people in the world precisely because it orchestrates activities that can remain unstated but are nevertheless consequential. Some of the most radical changes to the globalizing world are being written, not in the language of law and diplomacy, but in these spatial, infrastructural technologies—often because market promotions or prevailing political ideologies lubricate their movement through the world. These stories foreground content to disguise or distract from what the organization is actually doing.
Far removed from familiar legislative processes, these dynamic systems of space, information, and power generate de facto forms of polity faster than even quasi-official forms of governance can legislate them. Large-scale spatial organizations like infrastructure projects (e.g. US rail in the nineteenth century, or global submarine cable networks) have long created the need for an administrative authority comparable to that of the state, and they continue to require direction from new constellations of international, intergovernmental, and nongovernmental players. As a site of multiple, overlapping or nested forms of sovereignty, where domestic and transnational jurisdictions collide, infrastructure space becomes a medium of what might be called extrastatecraft—a portmanteau describing the often undisclosed activities outside of, in addition to, and sometimes even in partnership with statecraft.
The new power players of extrastatecraft are all present in Kenya—nations, kingdoms, global consultancies, and an array of international organizations and multinational enterprises. Broadband is now written into the policies of national governments and into the development goals of businesses as well as international organizations like the World Bank and the UN. The World Bank declares mobile telephony to be “the world’s largest distribution platform.”(4) A swarm of telecoms from all over the world compete for market share in underserved Africa. The expansion of new infrastructure capacities into densely populated, developing countries has also sponsored new business models and techniques of governance. Entrepreneurs identify multipliers and borrow crowd-sourcing techniques to penetrate the market with a flurry of new apps. Kenya is now being characterized as a potential leader in developing information and communication technologies—a “silicon savannah” for the entire continent of Africa.(5)
Kenya is a good place from which to consider the spatial variables of broadband infrastructure. Plenty of analysts on the ground are trying to predict the effects of broadband on what they call “Development 2.0.” Such analysis is undertaken in the languages of business, technology, informatics, and econometrics, but there is as yet little study of the interdependencies between broadband infrastructure and space. Urbanists frequently analyze the urban values and morphologies associated with physical infrastructures such as rail, highway, power and water utilities, yet the discipline is equally under-rehearsed in an analysis of the spatial dispositions attending broadband infrastructure.
The advent of satellite during the 1960s and ‘70s coincided with the emergence of many developing countries, and was seen as a means of leap-frogging the infrastructure monopolies and hierarchies of developed countries with an airborne network.(6) Yet some of these futuristic projections of a fully modernized world coexisting with an undisturbed pastoral landscape foundered at the so called “last mile”—the position of fixed utilities like electricity that were necessary auxiliaries of the satellite signal. The device receiving the signals had to be plugged in, and where the auxiliary networks were inadequate, new networks for transportation, electricity, and broadband were bundled together and delivered to enclaves—self-contained office parks or zones that could attract foreign investment.
Broadband capacity from the new fiber-optic cable is distributed in a three-part organization. Buried in the ground and extending from the landfall of the submarine cable, the terrestrial cable assumes a linear topology that physically territorializes like a railroad or highway. In Kenya, the fiber favors a well-worn path between Nairobi and Mombasa, but it will also contact remote villages. As it evolves, it is not clear whether the fiber will strengthen existing cities, generate zone-like enclaves, or encourage new approaches to development in rural areas. Relying on the same cable for bandwidth, mobile telephony forms a second atomized topology of microwave towers and handsets. While again promising a ubiquitous airborne medium, this time the device that receives the signals is battery powered and somewhat less reliant on last-mile contingencies. The service providers who sell and transfer broadband between these overlapping organizations add a third layer of organization—a cluster of switches or points of access. In the same way that any utility can harbor local monopolies, a bottleneck can develop anywhere within these linear, atomized, and clustered topologies.
Just as mobile telephony is an information network, infrastructure space itself is a carrier of information, and it reciprocally shapes the resilience and robustness of all the broadband networks. The road between Mombasa and Nairobi—two lanes for most of its length and poorly maintained—is a reminder that despite the ubiquity of the cell phone, major improvements are needed in the auxiliary infrastructure. Along the same road, a billboard cites the country’s 40 percent unemployment rate. While mobile telephony is a development engine, reducing unemployment will heavily rely on universities and businesses with fixed high-capacity broadband in urban organizations. These urban organizations are important switches in the network.
For all the new digital softwares in play in Kenya, the outmoded zone is the only spatial software presently on offer, even as some of the new capacities of broadband begin to render it obsolete. The cell phone, like the new elevator, is a powerful multiplier that can be placed in a meaningful interplay with all of the other active forms in the broadband network to alter the design of the city, village, road, school, and market. Designing new interdependencies between all of these spatial and technical variables could maximize access to the information carried in telecommunication networks as well as the information carried in the space of the city. Just as Kenya and other populous countries are offering the world new business models, they might also offer an advanced lesson in broadband urbanism.
Still, there is a disconnect between the stories and promises associated with the technology and what the urban space is actually doing. As Kenya has become an investment field for global telecoms, the state must also convene a ballooning number of other non- state actors—intergovernmental institutions, consultancies, and nongovernmental institutions. All are hovering, advising, funding, researching, investing, and potentially controlling the urban space—offering expertise as well as outmoded forms that may foreclose on the real innovations to broadband urbanism. While Kenya is uniquely poised to make those innovations, in its version of extrastatecraft the difficulty lies in looking beyond default theories and forms to leverage the best results.
Excerpt reprinted with the kind permission of Verso Books.