Infrastructure challenges seen through long-standing “at sea” analogies

I’m working through Han Blumenberg’s essay on shipwreck analogies developed largely in early Greek and Roman times (Shipwreck with Spectator: Paradigm for a metaphor of existence,

The following has been triggered by one of his review points, i.e., “earthquakes are compared with the swaying of a ship at sea”.

I’ve cobbled together Blumenberg’s various examples of the metaphor in a thought experiment: Assume the ship is a large infrastructure in the Pacific Northwest, where the magnitude 9.0 or greater Cascadia earthquake is to be experienced:

1. One set of analogies is the ship at sea under familiar conditions to its crew and officers. Blumenberg makes the point that this is not a normal state of affairs. First, being on terra firma was the preferred condition by humans. Second, being at sea mean a quite different set of day-to-day activities. Being at sea was, in my terms, hugely risky and in different ways, when compared to staying and living on land. The care and maintenance of the ship at sea was nothing like the care and maintenance of plows and plow-animals on land for farming.


  • Routine repair and maintenance in large infrastructures are different in kind and degree from, e.g., the maintenance and repair of farm equipment, at least for those who think of “farming” in distinctly non-infrastructural terms (e.g., Wendell Berry).
  • Since realistically the counterfactuals for infrastructures cannot be the presettlement template or a settlement template without infrastructures, the implication is that alternative infrastructures under calmer conditions (e.g., micro-grids at smaller scales) still involve their own adventures and risks.
  • Even though return to port for repairs remains an option in this set of analogies, Montaigne, among others, reminds that “There are thousands who are wrecked in port.”

2. Another very famous analogy is having to rebuild the ship while at sea, without recourse to going back to port for repairs. This is interesting because the rebuilding, according to authors reviewed by Blumenberg, requires you to improvise with what’s at hand, which includes debris from earlier shipwrecks at sea.


  • The non-routine repair of infrastructures means the inevitable “improvisations” should include details of how parts from other (earlier) systems that no longer work are cannibalized for that improvisation.
  • Retrofitting a bridge has been described to us by interviewees in two ways so far. In one view, it looks more like dry-docking the ship back at port and significantly upgrading a key part (this is the component view). In the other view, retrofitting the bridge takes place while the road infrastructure as a whole is still in operation (the system view). But acting as if you can dry-dock the ship back at port is not an option in this analogy.
  • Either way, this retrofitting is NOT all about building in resilience for the shipwreck ahead. Rather retrofitting is part and parcel of non-routine repair, given a shipwreck is always possible. That is, conditions are already highly volatile for both component and system when the retrofitting takes place.
  • (And anyway, if you find yourself in the middle of the Atlantic in high storms with no option to return to port, you want the better protection of a large ship designed for mid-Atlantic conditions, even if from time to time the crew and officers don’t make the right decisions.)

3. A different set of at-sea analogies revolves around the shipwreck happening right now. This is where Blumenberg really gets interesting. Early observers clearly distinguished between the spectator on the shore watching the shipwreck unfolding and those on the ship experiencing the shipwreck as it happens.


  • The obvious implication is the uncomfortable one of Roe on the shore in California looking on the shipwreck-in-making that is M9 versus interviewees who in real time don’t have that distance.
  • More subtly the shipwreck I think I see in the distance may not be the shipwreck that is underway for those experiencing it.
  • So what? The point is that the differences are not reconcilable into one consolidated view about infrastructure failure and immediate response.
  • More subtly, it suggests that Roe may be wrongly thinking he is on terra firma rather than with others on (another) ship under the same conditions.

4. A last set of analogies revolve around the survivor, having abandoned ship, clinging to a plank and/or tossed up on the shore. In Blumenberg’s review and coming full circle, if survivors are tossed up onto shore after the shipwreck, that terra need not be as firma as thought by these stranded spectators (think: Lord of the Flies).


  • Two-week readiness programs (i.e., you have two weeks of supplies on hand to survive the earthquake) is hopefully one such plank. On the other hand, a raft or its analogue keeping a group afloat (after abandoning ship or the ship abandoning them) would be better (i.e., a neighborhood generator to be used by households on the block).
  • Conceptually, the shift in the unit of analysis from ship-as-infrastructure to survivors-as-individuals is major. Efforts to initially restore critical services, even if temporarily during immediate response (e.g., through placement of mobile telecommunication towers), becomes a very major link between the individual as unit of analysis and the infrastructure as a returned unit of analysis.

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