It’s cold in much of Europe this week, and it feels even colder when you can’t turn on the heat. From Turkey to France, people are finding themselves sitting in the cold due to a dispute between Ukraine and Russia over natural gas. The dispute is complicated, and involves the price Ukraine’s company Naftohaz pays Russia’s Gazprom for natural gas, the money Naftohaz is paid for gas transiting to Europe through its pipeline, the money Ukraine owes Russia and broader political issues between the two countries. In the past few days, Russia has accused Ukraine of stealing gas intended for European markets from the pipeline. On January 7th – the same day Marseilles saw heavy snow – Gazprom cut off gas to Ukraine, and to millions of customers in Europe whose gas transits through Ukraine. Some countries in eastern Europe are entirely dependent on Russia for gas, and others in Central Europe import more than 80% of their gas from Russia, so a gas shut off is a very big deal for a lot of people.
Map of affected pipelines in Europe, from Petroleum Economist magazine.
Most of us don’t think about the global infrastructure that makes our connected world work so smoothly until something fails. When it does, we reach for maps. Undersea cables snapped, meaning there’s very little connectivity to the Middle East? Better call Telegeography, a firm that studies global communications infrastructure and builds beautiful maps of undersea cables. The go-to guys for maps of gas pipelines appear to be the folks at Petroleum Economist magazine – the BBC is running a pair of maps from the magazine showing the affected pipelines and the wider grid of existing and proposed pipelines in the region.
(These maps aren’t cheap, by the way. A map series from Petroleum Economist of pipelines and oil facilities in a region costs more than $1000 USD. Telegeography’s products are similarly dear, which is more or less the only reason why I don’t have a version of their internet map hanging in my office.)
These maps gain so much attention, I think, because the failure of our infrastructure is an uncomfortable reminder of how dependent we all are on systems we generally know little about and usually don’t understand very well. The average Bulgarian doesn’t often need to think about where natural gas comes from – it comes from the gas company, up until the moment it doesn’t. It’s only when the car doesn’t work that we consult the Chilton guide; only when the gas, the bits or power isn’t flowing that we look at maps of the infrastructure we rely on for these international flows.
I’m starting to think that our understanding of globalized infrastructure is a bit like understanding of the human brain before MRIs and PET scans. Much of our early understanding of the brain came from studying patients who had suffered catastrophic brain injury and survived. A blasting accident that drove a heavy iron rod through the skull of railroad foreman Phineas Gage was a boon to physicians and scientists, as Gage survived but exhibited a personality change. The catastrophic event let scientists conclude that the front of the brain wasn’t neccesary for language or motor control, as Gage could speak and move, but might affect his reasoning and judgement, as Gage was impulsive and confrontational after the injury. (He might just have been really pissed off about the large iron rod in his head.)
Similarly, the collapse of AIG means that the average investor understands the role of credit default swaps in the infrastructure of the global financial system much better than before the fiscal catastrophe. A detailed overview of derivatives would have included some discussion of CDSs before AIG… but it took a thorough collapse for most people to understand how important and dangerous these instruments can be. Between 1997 and 2007, the New York Times mentioned “credit default swaps” 21 times in their pages; in the past year, 167 stories have mentioned the instruments. Sometimes a catastrophic failure tells us what features to emphasize in a map.
Given the interest in these sorts of maps, I’m surprised there are few atlases focused on globalization. A new atlas from Le Monde Diplomatique appears to address some aspects of globalization, notably economic inequality, but isn’t focused on the infrastructures of a connected world that fascinate me. My dream atlas would document the infrastructures of a connected world – the gas pipelines, telecommunication cables, airline and container shipping routes and power grids. But we’d need maps of flow as well – who pumps gas to whom, and how much? How does power move through the grid over the course of a day or a year? An atlas of globalization would map more than the infrastructure of our connected world – it would map the ways in which we connect and disconnect, and help get us closer to intuiting the ways we want to connect and disconnect.
This would not be an easy atlas to compile. The folks at Telegeography aren’t ruthless monopolists – it’s really hard work to obtain information about all the world’s cables, especially when companies want to keep competitive information secret. More demand for this information would likely bring the cost down… but might introduce new risks. It’s easy to understand why groups like the Department of Homeland Security would be concerned about having easily accessible maps of power grids, oil refineries, sewer systems. (Can anyone remind me – I seem to remember a PhD student who was prevented from publishing a dissertation that included complex maps of infrastructure in a US city. Does this ring bells for anyone?) As I mentioned in a post a few weeks ago, mapping flow can be even more fraught, as these maps require – on one level or another – surveillance.
Without these maps, though, understanding a connected world can be more about guesswork and intuition than scientific study. Having widely studied maps of infrastructure and flow – even if they initially make our connected world more vulnerable – would likely increase our security in the long run, forcing us to examine vulnerabilities and protect weak points, rather than relying on security through obscurity. In their absence, I would expect that the next time we pay close attention to globalized infrastructure is our next Phineas Gage event – the next misfortune that calls attention to the complex systems we otherwise succeed in ignoring.
(Many thanks to Eszter Hargittai for her feedback on ideas about mapping infrastructure, flow and intention, and for prompting me to think about the gas shutoff in this context.)
Gorgeous example of a flow map from Rocky Mountain Institute, portraying oil imports into the US from 1973 to the present.