Libraries, Archives, Technology, Impending Doom
It can be an immensely frustrating experience to turn on your computer only to find that your Internet connection is not working. Granted, this is probably not a life-threatening occurrence. But imagine turning on your faucet only to find that your water had been shut-off; now that would be a life-threatening occurrence. And it is something far from hypothetical for many residents of Detroit whose water has already been turned off or whose water will likely be shutoff in the coming days and weeks.
Economic forces have brutalized the citizens of Detroit; and today, the city stands as a stark example of the way in which the so-called “recovery” has hardly been felt by many of those who were the hardest hit. Recently the city has started an aggressive campaign of water shut offs against residents, which overwhelmingly targets low-income communities. Regardless of what may be presented as the legitimizing reason for these shutoffs it is worth emphasizing that access to water is a human right. As in the fact that the United Nations officially recognizes there to be a “human right to water and sanitation” (Resolution 64/292).
Though Detroit may be a city at the front line of economic evisceration it is also a city at the front line of the fight back. While there may be renewed attention to Detroiters engaging in direct action to counter this clear violation of human rights, the city has long been a site of creative organizing, activism and resistance. The city’s residents are holding fast and there are ways for those not in the city to provide them with support; as long as these shutoffs continue so to will the resistance. When something essential for survival, such as water, is at stake remaining idle is hardly an option.
The most important aspect of the situation to bear in mind is that those being impacted by these shutoffs are not abstract entities (like municipalities or neighborhoods) but real people. Keeping that in focus maintains the essential ethical dimension of this matter, to restate: there is a human right to water, in Detroit there are people for whom this basic human right is being threatened and/or violated. The human facet of this case is imperative to foreground; however, while keeping that in mind it is can be useful to consider Detroit’s water situation in terms of a question of technological systems and infrastructure.
In contemporary industrialized societies there is no shortage of talk about technology – be it disruptive technology, innovative technology, exciting technology, green technology, obsolete technology, and the list goes on. As people become ever more reliant upon complex technological systems it becomes increasingly evident to some that many of these new systems are essential to life in a given society, and thus a campaign is waged to treat such technological systems as part of the infrastructure. The current agitation and action around the issue of Net Neutrality is an example of this push for treating highly technological systems as an aspect of the societal infrastructure – which should therefore be held and stewarded under public control. Part of the claim of such moves – if rarely put in exactly these terms – is that as these are essential for modern living, they should be put on a similar footing as the systems that are genuinely necessary for human survival.
Water and sewage systems are an example of technological systems that meet basic human needs. After all, people need water to survive. To consider the history of human civilization and the growth of cities is to see the challenge that access to water has represented throughout human history – a major city (or a minor one) cannot develop if it cannot ensure its residents access to water. Thus, what water and sewage systems represent is not simply a method for delivering resources, but a way in which technological developments can genuinely serve the basic needs of a community. These are not technologies that primarily treat people as consumers, but instead treat human beings as human beings with essential needs that can be efficiently met through the development and expansion of technological infrastructure. These are systems that demonstrate real technological solutions to serious societal problems. This is not to say that these systems are flawless, but to recognize that these systems are designed around the satisfaction of needs.
Yet the growth of large-scale technological systems almost inevitably results in a level of reliance upon these systems – though the reliance upon the system that brings water is orders of magnitude different from reliance upon a smart-phone. What is starkly evident in the case of Detroit is that with a relatively simple flip from “on” to “off” these technologies go from serving a community of real people to being used as weapons against that very community. This is not to attempt a farcical point about the supposed “neutrality” of technology – for a water and sewage system (insofar as they are constructed to meet and satisfy a genuine human need) is not “neutral” but a manifestation of a technology designed to achieve an ethical end (delivering water). What becomes evident in the case of Detroit is the way in which even a good technological system (good as in “the good life”) can be turned into a way of enforcing obedience to a larger economic framework (in which water becomes one amongst many “goods” to be bought and sold).
Human beings require water to survive, and humans have been rather ingenious in devising methods to ensure a flow of this essential resource. Alas, human beings have also been ingenious at poisoning the water and at turning water dissemination into a centralized structure that deprives people of the resource even as it coldly assures that it could provide for all. It is not enough to have a technological system that can meet a human need unless this system is inextricably bound with an emphasis that what matters is the satisfaction of the need (which should not be turned into a market value). If water is to be considered a human right (reminder: the UN does consider water a human right) it follows that the democratic maintenance and operation of the systems that supply this resource must also function based on a trajectory that emphasizes human rights. Or, to rephrase, to claim that water is a human right is also to claim that access to the technological infrastructure that purifies, supplies, and disposes of water is likewise a human right. It is when these factors are separated (the water from the infrastructure) that the muddle emerges about unpaid bills.
The mechanized systems of modernity are often pointed to as examples of an advanced society, and yet the development of these systems does not mean that they are aligned with the satisfaction of human needs. Detroit is an argument not simply about the human right to water, but about the human right to the technology that makes this resource available. There is a compelling need to shift the conversation in such a way that emphasizes that the technological infrastructure upon which people depend must be administrated from a standpoint that emphasizes human needs – and this must cover all levels of technological infrastructure. Before we engage too excitedly about discussions of high tech infrastructure we should remember that there is still much work to be done in providing access to lower tech (and more essential) infrastructure. After all, how valuable is Net Neutrality if you no longer have access to water or electricity? Unless we can ensure that our technological systems serve us as human beings, we will wind up in servitude to them – whether the flow is of information or of water.
Though water may appear to be the symbol of the struggle in Detroit, this is not simply about the liquid but about the control of the flow and about who gets to control that flow. It may seem a distant concern but streams connect to rivers which connect to lakes and other waterways and one of these surely runs through your life.
The struggle over water in Detroit today will be our struggle tomorrow or the day after tomorrow unless we recognize this as an assault upon the technological infrastructure upon which we are truly dependent.
We are all downstream from Detroit.
[to learn more, and to get involved, check out the Detroit Water Brigade]
[Image Note – the picture at the head of this article is “Drop-Impact” by Roger McLassus]