People - 09.11.2017 - 00:00 

How technology makes up the worlds we inhabit

The power of technology is in the control and enabling of society and nature. People creatively deal with technology, yet from within their unique living environments. Today, the presence of technology is a permanent feature of our worlds that we inhabit and it is impossible to imagine the organisation of society without it anymore. In his doctorate, Tim Lehmann demonstrates that the activity of a particular technology in social practice must be imagined in the assembling of infrastructural rhizomes. These infrastructures cannot be controlled 100 percent and enable the multiplicity of a society that must be considered in engineering.

9 November 2017. On behalf of a Swiss company, Tim Lehmann tested innovative water technologies in a Nairobi slum. The hidden water infrastructure in the former colonial city, today dreaming of digital utopias – because of its booming IT start-up scene the city is called "Silicon Savannah" of Africa –  fascinated him, as large quantities of water are disappearing and trickling away in Nairobi. So in his dissertation "Leaky matters: organising water infrastructure in Nairobi", he addressed the organisation of infrastructural living environments from a technological and cultural perspective. To do so, he spent eight months there, to find out how the water experts and consumers in Nairobi address the leakage of water. So he was constantly searching for water.

Water – essential for life, income and also investment

"Water is disappearing in Nairobi. But the water is not lost, somewhere it is surfacing again and again." But the different people involved deal with the water leakage in different ways, in their different living environments. "The manager of the city waterworks wonders how the water pressure can be balanced out," says Tim Lehmann. "For the local plumbers the water leakage is a more or less illegal, yet important source of income, for the citizens a tap running dry, for the ground water extra water trickling into the ground, and the world bank economist wonders how his investment in the water infrastructure can remain profitable."

Overcoming differences with creativity

With the help of the reality reproducing measurements and visualisations of engineers, Tim Lehmann follows the water in Nairobi. "When the tap runs dry there is a difference from the reality planned by the engineers: 'Making water accessible to every household in a rapidly growing city'." This difference, the "leaky matters", has been overcome by the citizens of Nairobi with creativity, including thanks to additional pipes, which were missed in the measurements and visualisations of the engineers. "The engineers consider Nairobi's infrastructure according to the standards of technology developed in England in the 19th Century," says Tim Lehmann. "But they forget to consider the local history of the technology. One political regulation chases the next. Meanwhile the technology does what it wants." This is how differences have arisen, which the water works cannot compensate for even with an increase in central control. "The aim of the water authority must now be to tackle the problem from the bottom, to accept and to learn that the citizens are a significant part of this complicated interaction between technology and society. The predominantly male engineers can no longer be the sole problem solvers."

No 100 percent control

Tim Lehmann has found the water in Nairobi. With the discovery of the various "leaky matters" he hopes that the people are becoming aware that old and new technologies, from rusting steel pipes to GPS-based software applications, can never be controlled 100 percent in social practice. "Because technology will not behave in exactly the same way in every location. The local community and the way it handles technology, learned throughout history, must also be incorporated into the engineering sciences. But even then it is to be expected that unplanned actions, 'leaky matters', will happen."

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