Information infrastructure and resilience in American disaster plans

Megan Finn

Information School, University of Washington, USA

In our contemporary era of “preparedness,” disaster planning is one technique in attempting to ready society for a disaster (Lakoff 2007). American disaster response plans simultaneously imagine and even prescribe actions, functioning as future-making but not future-determining documents. But disaster response plans must be backwards-facing as well: looking to make the post-disaster future while preserving the functionality of the past. This paper examines how national disaster response plans in the United States imagine preserving public information infrastructures — networked resources which enable the public circulation of information —  by making them resilient.

In modern American disaster planning, it is not just hazards which are a source of vulnerability, but the very enabling-ness of information technologies which are are problematic (Collier and Lakoff 2015; Collier and Lakoff 2008). Information infrastructure itself is reconfigured as a site of risk because of I) our dependence on it and II) the potential that it breaks. When public information infrastructures are reimagined as sites of risk, then they also then must become resilient. Here I draw on historical examples of what might get called “resilient” public information infrastructure after earthquakes in Northern California and analyze the implications of reframing them as sites of risk to be managed through resilience.

Resilience has positive connotations, but critics of resilience note that it ignores the power relations involved producing uncertainty as well as the inequitable distribution of responsibility for sustaining resilience to those who do not have control over infrastructure (MacKinnon and Derickson 2013; Sims 2011; Walter and Cooper 2011; Welsh 2014). In the United States, resilience is foundational to the missions explained in disaster response plan.  Yet, the authority to control information infrastructures does not always lie in the hands of the state because many public information infrastructures are owned privately. I explore the techniques for attempting to ensure resilient public information infrastructure articulated in national disaster response plans.

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1. Kim Fortun
2. Jennifer Henderson