Distraction Free Reading

Infrastructure after disasters

On October 21, 1868, at approximately eight o’clock in the morning, a major earthquake on the Hayward Fault near Oakland, California shook the Bay Area. The earthquake caused a great deal of damage in the small towns near the earthquake epicenter, as well as on “made ground” in San Francisco. Outside of the affected area, citizens worried about what had happened. People looked for the latest news at telegraph offices, though some telegraph lines were damaged or inundated. When inquirers reached the telegraph offices, however, they were sometimes met with rumors and misinformation.  Some telegrams said, incorrectly, that San Francisco was destroyed and sixty bodies were recovered.[i] Similar news exaggerating the damage in San Francisco spread all across the state. So, while the telegraph promised that people would have more immediate access to events in faraway places, the existence of a telegraphic infrastructure did not guarantee that these assessments had any correspondence to truth. People also reveal how they believe infrastructure should work when public information infrastructures are used intensely, overwhelmed, or broken. The silent structuring work of infrastructures—so integral to modernity—becomes easier to “see” after disasters.

In my new book, Documenting Aftermath, I analyze how the “information order” in a number of different historical moments shaped experiences of disaster. I borrow the concept of “information order” from C. A. Bayly to describe the institutions, infrastructures, and practices that shape how information is produced and circulated. The book examines how information orders function in post-earthquake contexts. In a disaster situation, the information order is both intensely important and being actively tested. Earthquakes and other traumatic events interfere with everyday information practices, providing new vantage points for examination. In these moments, many of the institutions, infrastructuresThe book cover for "Documenting Aftermath," red text on a old black and white background image of people on a hill overlooking a city with many fires., and practices that comprise information orders are simultaneously injured and desperately needed – right then and there. So what happens when parts of the information order are injured or even destroyed? How information orders and disasters co-construct possibilities for knowledge after a catastrophe – producing what I call event epistemologies — has consequences for many, especially survivors, aid organizations, and researchers.

The narrative about the impact of the earthquake in San Francisco as it unfolded via telegraph and newspaper on the other side of the Sierra Nevada mountain range in Virginia City, Nevada serves as an example of the multiple ways in which infrastructure produced and spread rumor. The local newspaper reported, “At first the story ran that at least one-half of the city of San Francisco had been swallowed up, and Oakland and other towns almost demolished.”[ii] In the immediate aftermath, people looked to the telegraph office for the latest news. But they soon learned that they were not getting their news from San Francisco. All the news was coming from an operator in Oakland whose office was a wreck and he had “cut the wires” outside town.[iii] The Oakland Daily News later disputed the story of the Oakland operator.[iv]  The Daily Alta California lamented the impact of the first telegrams sent, blaming a “mischievous person” and the telegraphers for “exaggerating every notable occurrence.”[v] The working telegraph might have been a conduit for mischief, but the broken telegraph was cause for panic– the skeletal version of events was left to be filled in by the reader’s imagination. Thus, a community whose telegraphic connection with San Francisco was severely damaged was left to interpret the earthquake damage itself. As the public information infrastructure was damaged, rumor and misinformation gained traction.

When some communities in the East Bay tried to contact San Francisco, they found that telegraph communication had been cut off. Faced with a nonworking telegraph and desperate to hear from San Francisco, Oaklanders tried to work around broken parts of the telegraphic network by sending messages from Oakland to San Francisco via Sacramento:

Many inquiries were made at the telegraph office … [about] the effects of the earthquake there, but for some reason the telegraph communication was not complete with that city [San Francisco]. … Even at a late period of the day the telegraphic communication between Oakland and San Francisco was by way of Sacramento. About nine o’clock intelligence was received that several lives had been lost, and that the destruction of property was very great in our sister city.[vi]

While people in Oakland waited for the telegraph line with San Francisco to be fixed, boats crossing the bay between the two cities brought newspapers from several San Francisco newspaper companies – some of which both sensationalized the damage, while others soothed worried Oaklanders.[vii] For organizations involved in producing public information infrastructures, these moments after a disaster were opportunities to be centrally important to anyone affected by the earthquake by printing stories at the instant when people were hungriest for news. The circulation of news in 1868 was facilitated by imbricated sociomaterial practices: newspapers printed telegrams, telegraph operators sent over the wires what they read in newspapers, and people traveled on foot, by horse, and via boat with newspapers, letters, and telegrams. All these means of circulating news are critical to understanding how public information infrastructures circulated knowledge and produced ignorance after the earthquake.

Public information infrastructures both embody politics and produce a kind of politics. Some scholars take this a step further: as complex sociotechnical assemblages, infrastructures are ideological vessels that confer meaning on the societies that produce them; functioning infrastructures are symbols that a society is modern and progressive. But, as scholars in history, STS, anthropology, and geography have noted, infrastructures are not only symbolic of modernity; they are crucial for ordering and stabilizing it. And in some sense, this is why it is so fascinating to study post-disaster information orders: When public information infrastructures break, it occasions not only a dearth of information about what has happened but also a public’s angst about its status as a modern society. As my book illustrates, public information infrastructure has an especially intense symbolic value after an earthquake. Its breakage is not merely an inconvenience; broken public information infrastructure is a source for interpreting a disaster and the modern character of a society. Given infrastructure’s importance to maintaining modernity, new forms of governance and institutional arrangements have arisen specifically to protect infrastructure from disaster. As I argue in Documenting Aftermath, these new institutional arrangements also included new state plans for producing authoritative public information postdisaster intended to counter-act the rumors that spread via the telegraph.


[i] Unable to get in touch with San Francisco, the San Jose Daily Patriot got a message from Santa Clara with this startling bit of news about sixty bodies. San Jose Daily Patriot, October 21, 1868.

[ii] “The Great Earthquake,” Daily Alta California, October 23, 1868, quoting the Territorial Enterprise , October 22, 1868.

[iii] Ibid.

[iv] Oakland Daily News , October 24, 1868.

[v] Editorial Notes, Daily Alta California , October 24, 1868.

[vi] “The Earthquake Yesterday,” Oakland Daily Transcript, October 22, 1868.

[vii]  “The Calamity in San Francisco,” Oakland Daily Transcript, October 22, 1868.

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