The Infrastructure Tourist
Tim Hwang wants to show you how the world works.
Tim Hwang’s day job — one of them — is as a research fellow at the think tank Data & Society, where he’s delving into matters like “moral crumple zones” (imagine your driverless car deliberately reverting to a manual one when it detects a crash is about to occur, transferring both legal liability and emotional blame to you). With a group of friends Hwang created the Awesome Foundation for the arts and sciences, a global network of giving circles (ten people, for example, contribute $100 each and give a grant of $1,000 to a project). Fueled by his interest in automated attorneys, he attended law school at the University of California, Berkeley, passing the bar in 2013. (Later, during a brief stint working for a firm, he wrote software to handle many of his basic tasks, a step toward replacing lawyers with code.) He published a Kickstarter-funded book on shipping-container typologies, recently hosted a conference celebrating Victor Gruen, the inventor of the shopping mall, and is planning another event to mark the anniversary of the banner ad.
None of which explains why Hwang and I are about to make our way into the 1.6 miles of recently completed tunnel that will soon be San Francisco’s Central Subway. In 2019, light rail will connect the southern end of the city to the northern and serve 65,000 riders daily. For a city that will grow by about 10,000 people this year, a public-transportation project of this scale couldn’t come at a more critical time. We meet our guide, John Funghi, director of the Central Subway Program, at the project’s headquarters and then walk four blocks wearing hard hats, protective glasses, and Day-Glo vests to Fourth and Brannan streets, where a construction worker pulls back a chain-link fence and drags over a rickety wood staircase for us to climb down. Hwang is here under the auspices of his latest project, the Bay Area Infrastructure Observatory.
A few years ago, a friend was telling Hwang about a childhood field trip to a nuclear power plant and expressed surprise that he hadn’t had a similar school outing. Why, Hwang wondered, had he been deprived of this adventure? Others might have let the question go. Hwang, though, was determined to right this wrong. A call to the Diablo Canyon Power Plant in San Luis Obispo — his local branch, as it were — failed to produce an invitation. So he invented an official-sounding body, the Bay Area Infrastructure Observatory, to establish the image of credibility. He went so far as to design a logo, build a website, and give himself the title of deputy director to suggest, he told me, “that there are several levels of management within the organization.” He contacted the plant again, a visit was arranged, and, like construction-site-loving toddlers or train-spotting Brits, he was hooked on infrastructure tourism.
Having descended below ground level, we’re looking at two giant circular openings — the mouths of the subway’s two tunnels. The temperature is hot outside, but down here it’s cool, the air still and stale. I don’t feel claustrophobic, but as we start walking north toward Chinatown, my equilibrium is off; track has not been laid, so we’re walking along a smooth, slippery curve. As we proceed in near silence, closed off from the Friday pre-rush-hour chaos above us, we’re both hit with the realization that we’re among the few who will ever see the tunnel in this condition, and, of course, that’s a huge part of the appeal of the expedition. For Hwang, infrastructure is a vehicle for learning about the secret mechanisms that make the world work. “It’s a way of exploring things that people don’t really think about and are sometimes actively hidden,” Hwang says. “To learn about that feels a little transgressive.”
Hwang, who is 29, comes off as an introvert, but he’s keen to transform his fascinations into group projects. In the three years of the Observatory’s existence, he has organized visits to the new Bay Bridge span, a macro-cell site that AT&T runs on top of a building in San Francisco, an abandoned train station in West Oakland, and a shopping mall in San Leandro, among others, the size of the tour group growing with each outing. “We’ve faked our way into a real entity,” Hwang says, beaming proudly as we awkwardly traverse the edges of the tunnel to avoid a 100-yard-long puddle, adding that chapters have recently formed in London, New York, and Boston.
The Observatory now has about 500 members, and Hwang has some theories about the lure of the organization’s epic nerdery. “A lot of members work in tech, either on the web or on software,” he says. “As a result, they work on things that don’t last very long. Their approach is, ‘We just hacked it, and we pushed it out live,’ or ‘We just released it, and we can work out bugs later.’ A lot of infrastructure is built for 100 years. You can’t have bugs. If you do, the building will fall down. You can’t iterate it. It’s a practice that exists outside of the members’ day-to-day experience.”
As we walk almost all of the tunnel’s 8,500 feet, made up of 1,750 reinforced concrete rings — each one numbered and bolted into place — it’s clear there is no margin for error. “This is tabula rasa infrastructure,” Hwang says. “They build this totally uniform, kind-of-surreal-to-walk-through tunnel, and then they’re going to build a station and punch a hole through it! We only see infrastructure in use. It’s interesting to see the preoperational infrastructure before it has all the holes carved in it.” After two hours, we emerge like mole rats from the tunnel, throats a little scratchy, our eyes unused to the bright autumn sun.
Every four years, the American Society of Civil Engineers hands out a report card on the state of the country’s infrastructure. Its most recent grade was a D+. You can’t build a bridge with enthusiasm, but the Observatory’s level of engagement can’t hurt. The day after Hwang and I toured the tunnel, he had another infrastructure adventure lined up. With a group of 40 Observatory members, he took a three-hour visit to the Silicon Valley Advanced Water Purification Center in San Jose. “I think when you learn about infrastructure,” Hwang says, “you end up with this visceral response: Why isn’t it better? Why isn’t it different? People were surprised to learn how much work needs to be done. In some small way, we’re helping out with the D+ because people may feel better about investing in improving it.”