Accepted Paper:

The pneumatic underground: memos from the retrofuture  


Anna Harris (Maastricht University)

Paper short abstract:

Pneumatic tubes, which transport matter in capsules by vacuum, tunnel their way through science fiction as well as networked institutions of the past, present and future. This paper examines the materials and practices of this infrastructure, especially the creative adjustments which make them work.

Paper long abstract:

Pneumatic tubes: George Jetson used them to get to work, Antoine Doinel to send a love letter, and the Ministry of Truth to deliver history needing rewriting. These hidden labyrinths of pipes which transport matter by vacuum not only exist in the dreams of cartoonists, filmmakers and science fiction writers, but also engineers of the technological past, present and future. Once traversing the undergrounds of cities for postal delivery or depositing orders on the stock exchange, pneumatic tube networks are nowadays ever increasingly built into the walls, ceilings and basements of hospitals, banks and supermarkets. For despite digitisation, objects still need to be moved from one place to another. Counter intuitively, unlike many technologies of the past, pneumatic tube infrastructures have both changed very little over time and are being used in more contexts than ever before. With this paper I take session participants on a short subterranean tour of the intertwined past, present and future of pneumatic tubes. I examine the materials of this sociotechnical system; plastic capsules, brass buttons and air through which things pass. I look at bodily practices entailed in the manufacture, architectural design, everyday use and repair of the technology, including the adjustments which go to making it work. In Stoic philosophy, pneuma is "breath of life", the active and creative presence in matter. A study of pneuma-tic systems leads to bigger questions of how to consider the "pneumatic qualities" of infrastructures, the creativity that breathes life into the material world we live in.

Panel P028
Infrastructure and imagination: Anthropocene landscapes, urban deep-ecology, cybernetic dreams and future-archaeologies