Dirk Van Laak

Nov 26, 2023

Lifelines of Our Society

A Global History of Infrastructure

MIT Press 2023

Infrastructure is essential to defining how the public functions, yet there is little public knowledge regarding why and how it became today's strongest global force over government and individual lives. Who should build and maintain infrastructures? How are they to be protected? And why are they all in such bad shape? 

In Lifelines of Our Society: A Global History of Infrastructure (MIT Press, 2023), Dr. Dirk van Laak offers broad audiences a history of global infrastructures—focused on Western societies, over the past two hundred years—that considers all their many paradoxes. He illustrates three aspects of infrastructure: their development, their influence on nation building and colonialism, and finally, how individuals internalise infrastructure and increasingly become not only its user but regulator.

Beginning with public works, infrastructure in the nineteenth century carried the hope that it would facilitate world peace. Dr. van Laak shows how, instead, it transformed to promote consumerism's individual freedoms and our notions of work, leisure, and fulfilment. Lifelines of Our Society reveals how today's infrastructure is both a source and a reflection of concentrated power and economic growth, which takes the form of cities under permanent construction. Symbols of power, Dr. van Laak describes, come with vulnerability, and this book illustrates the dual nature of infrastructure's potential to hold nostalgia and inspire fear, to ease movement and govern ideas, and to bring independence to the nuclear family and control governments of the Global South. 

This interview was conducted by Dr. Miranda Melcher whose forthcoming book focuses on post-conflict military integration, understanding treaty negotiation and implementation in civil war contexts, with qualitative analysis of the Angolan and Mozambican civil wars.

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Miranda Melcher

Miranda Melcher (Ph.D., Defense Studies, Kings College, London) studies post-conflict military integration, understanding treaty negotiation and implementation in civil war contexts, with deep analysis of the Angolan and Mozambican civil wars.

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