On his previous, precrash voyages Simon had ferried dozens of architects, designers, journalists, and futurists on the Dymaxion—all the hip infrastructure tourists, ready to pay him thousands so they could see it all firsthand, so they could ooh and aah at the Apollo-project levels of human engineering, so they could be wooed by this moonshot built to fill shopping malls.
– Infinite Detail, Tim Maughan
This is the first I’ve come across the phrase “infrastructure tourists” but I know immediately who it refers to. There’s a constellation of people I follow closely online, scholars of infrastructure and the built environment. To name a few:
- Tim Maly started the Dredge Research Collaborative and wrote a field guide to surveillance infrastructure.
- Tim Hwang wrote a field guide to shipping containers.
- Alexis Madrigal did an 8-part podcast on shipping containers.
- Ingrid Burrington wrote a field guide to the New York’s internet infrastructure
- Geoff Manaugh has done too much here to list, but some of my favorites are his book A Burglar’s Guide to the City and this piece on aerial surveillance in LA.
- Studio X is one of the institutional centers in this ecosystem and would be a good starting place to look for others.
I don’t think these folks would consider themselves “tourists”. They do field research. On the other hand, I spent a weekend touring touring dredge-related sites around the SF Bay ecosystem, hearing talks from experts, even visiting a dredging museum. “Infrastructure tourist” fits.
But the word tourist rankles a bit. Tourists are gauche. They don’t understand the true value and interest inherent in what they’re seeing. They take grainy photos of the Mona Lisa, ooh and ahh at all the wrong things.
Maughan jabs me here: a precisely placed barb which punctures my self-importance. I thought of myself as having these niche interests: who would want to visit dredge sites? But “tourist” reminds me that this combination of spectacle and knowledge has a precise name and that I am not the first to care about infrastructure: the Hoover Dam is one of the nation’s most popular attractions.