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Steampunk Infrastructure, 21st Century Uses

The elements of steampunk are alive and well, serving as new conduits and interfaces in major cities.

Over a hundred years ago, pneumatic tubes criss-crossed below the surface of most major cities, including London, Paris, New York, Berlin, and Philadelphia, to name a few. At rates of 30 km/hour, they shot messages across the city as a part of the Pneumatic Post. In London, some pneumatic systems offered literal, physical packet switching: moving levers on the delivery canister told the canister where it needed to turn and branch off to reach its destination.

The pneumatic tube is an obvious analogue for data transfer and email. But for today’s cities, it has a new use: it offers conduits for urban data infrastructure. While many tube systems were abandoned or dismantled, others now have new lives, feeding fiber-optic cable and other critical telecommunications infrastructure through the old tubeways.

Today, many forgotten infrastructural technologies like high-pressure water mains, subterranean sewers, and postal chutes take on new roles in the urban technological infrastructure. This session will challenge notions of reuse, showing the contemporary use of old technology. It will show attendees how aspects of cities were once constructed, revealing the ways that these old infrastructures show new uses.

Photo of Molly Steenson

Molly Steenson

Carnegie Mellon University

Molly Wright Steenson is a design and architectural researcher who studies interactivity, responsiveness, and mobility in architecture and is pursuing a PhD in architecture at Princeton University. Molly cut her teeth on social technology in 1992 and on the web in 1994. As a design researcher, her projects have included a study with Microsoft Research India on mobile phone sharing and for another major technology client, on how social networking technologies will change people’s friendships in China and the UK. Molly was Associate Professor of Connected Communities at the Interaction Design Institute Ivrea in Italy and also was a co-founder of the groundbreaking women’s webzine, Maxi, in the 1990s. She blogs at Active Social Plastic and continues to work on design strategy for mobile, web, and urban-scale projects.

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