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Reading 'On the Grid'
October 5, 2010 - 9:00pm

Are you an infrastructure junkie? Do you love server rooms, old steam tunnels, and campus power plants? Are you curious about how your campus network actually works?

If so, I'm confident you will love: "On the Grid: A Plot of Land, An Average Neighborhood, and the Systems that Make Our World Work" by Scott Huler.

Huler's subject is not campus infrastructure, although that is a book I wish someone would write. Rather, Huler sets out to investigate all the services that power his home. His approach is to start at the wire, pipe, tube, drain, or road at his home, and trace its path back to its source. We visit water treatment plants, recycling facilities, waste transfer stations, nuclear power plants, and cable TV headends.

We learn how the infrastructure that provides drinking water and waste water first came to be developed, how it is changed over time, and how it is maintained today. Huler introduces us to the engineers and planners who determine the layout of intersections, and the linesmen who make sure our electricity and telecommunications equipment comes back online after a storm.

Huler's purpose is not only to teach us about the infrastructure that has become so ubiquitous that we barely notice it anymore, but to make the point that we are completely dependent on this infrastructure for our daily lives. How long could we survive without fresh water, power, phone service, and sewage disposal? Yet, we most often fail to either notice or understand the infrastructure that we depend on, and as a result have failed to adequately fund its upkeep and maintenance. Collapsing bridges and inadequate water supplies harm all of us, but we only tend to pay attention after the bridge has collapsed or the water has stopped flowing.

On the Grid is an important book for our students to read, as life is increasingly lived digitally, conceptually and disconnected from physical things. We obsess about our iPad, but don't really think about the electrical system that charges its battery. We may not be creating enough engineers, I'm actually sure of it, but at least we can better understand and appreciate the world they have created for us.

What are you reading?


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