Sandy Studies: Innovation in time of disaster

Lee Vinsel | 4 December 2012 | 2 responses

On October 29th, 2012, when the surge came, drowning Hoboken, New Jersey’s electrical substation and immersing the city in darkness, I turned off my laptop and stumbled into my nearly pitch-black room. Yet, although Hurricane Sandy wrenched me out of the comfort of my futon, it only grounded me more securely as someone working in science and technology studies (STS). Indeed, I soon began to record my experiences at the team history blog, American Science, which I joined last spring.

Over the coming days, we residents had to make do without access to the information and communications technologies that we unquestioningly rely upon. We had to learn anew—or so it felt—how to see and know. Word-of-mouth news became central to our lives, as did the hand-scrawled whiteboard at city hall, which gave us frequent updates about recovery and relief efforts.

In Hoboken, charging stations began appearing the first night after the storm, particularly up and down 11th Street, which never lost power. Someone ran an extension cord from his or her building to a power strip on the sidewalk below. People then came to charge their cellphones and other devices, using their reawakened tools to assure their loved ones that everything was OK. A day later, I counted nearly fifty charging stations around town.

Similar set-ups emerged all over Manhattan and in public places like libraries in suburban New Jersey. The old STS theme of emulation and invention held true (1). The mass media emphasized the role of charity and solidarity during disaster, and it is absolutely true that communal virtues came shining through in this time of need. Yet, these accounts missed the technologically inventive paths that people took to fulfill such virtues in our—temporarily malfunctioning—technologically-advanced society.

In the United States, few technological systems do more to enable liberalism in the classical sense that the electricity grid. While power systems provide the streetlights that strongly shape our cities at night, they also deliver electricity directly to our private residences. We buy and use our own computers, our own kitchen appliances, our own television sets. This system allows us to create our own private worlds. Yet, the storm wiped away this form of luxury for many people—temporarily making us dependent on communal resources and social intelligence.

For many years, STS scholars have studied “sociotechnical systems,” networks mixing human actors and technologies. Thomas Hughes examined them in his history of electrical power, and John Law drew attention to the need to simultaneously manage machines, people, and natural phenomena with his notion of “heterogeneous engineering” (2). Yet, Hughes and Law described such systems under ideal conditions. The question remains, how do people relate to systems under stress? Wiebe Bijker recently investigated how scientists in India develop systems for nanotechnology research that are much cheaper than systems in rich Western nations. This form of tinkering and making do with limited resources is known in India as jugaad (the idea is akin to the French notion of “bricolage”). During disasters, nearly everyone must practice a bit of jugaad because the systems we depend upon are temporarily not functional. It is important to remember that this is how many people live all the time. A friend from Nigeria reminded me, “In Lagos, we constantly live under Sandy conditions.” Yet, even in Western industrialized nations, technologies must be altered in times of need, and our systems must be “hacked” for life to carry on. Seen in this way, the charging stations were not simply acts of charity but alterations in the norms underpinning our technological systems and ways of life.

We are grateful that we have federal programs, like the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), in place to assist victims during disasters. It is important for STS scholars to understand how these authorities function and how they can improve. But it is equally essential that we come to know how ordinary people cope with disasters on the ground, including by improvising modest technological solutions. We have to see how people work on the fly, through the lens of what we may call “Sandy Studies.” In the coming months and years, STS scholars will have opportunities to go deeper than the popular narratives about Sandy that surround us. It will mean examining and calling into question proposals for infrastructural change and technological overhauls. Sandy partially uncovered many problems in the built world around us. It is now time for us to examine the social joints that held these exposed pieces together, and to strengthen these along with technology’s material components.


  1. Hindle, Brooke. 1981. Emulation and Invention. New York: New York University Press.
  2. Hughes, Thomas. 1983. Networks of Power: Electrification in Western Society, 1880–1930. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press; Law, John. 1987. “Technology and Heterogeneous Engineering: The Case of Portuguese Expansion,” The Social Construction of Technological Systems: New Directions in the Sociology and History of Technology. Cambridge: MIT Press. 105–128.

Keywords: networks, heterogeneous engineering, disaster studies

Suggested Further Reading:

  • Erikson, Kai T. 1976. Everything In Its Path. New York: Simon and Schuster.
  • Wynne, Brian. 1988. “Unruly Technology.” Social Studies of Science 18(1):147-167.
  • Jasanoff, Sheila, ed. 1994. Learning from Disaster. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press.


» 2 responses to “Sandy Studies: Innovation in time of disaster”:

  1. Thanks for these thoughts, Lee. Another dimension that is worth STS scholars equal time is the degree to which societies get to decide the social relations they live under, versus having them embedded in technical artefacts. When a complex system like the greater NYC area collapses, we can choose chaos or charity in the process of creating our sociotechnical hacks. It seems this time it was mostly charity (cf Katrina).

    I think the Western ideal of a perfectly functional system is as idealistic as a perfectly pure soul. We can never have either (and who gets to decide what ‘perfect’ is, anyway?). It’s valuable, then, to think about the way different societies are more or less capable of coping with different levels of sociotechnical stress, and how their definitions of stress vary. This ties in closely to the literature on the social construction of risk.

    • sjasanoff says:

      Sam – I think your idea of looking at parallels (symmetries?) between the social construction of risk and the deconstruction of sociotechnical systems in cases of disaster is very productive. It’s as if a disaster “reverse engineers” the system, revealing faulty assumptions, which is where past disaster studies like Vaughan, Wynne, Jasanoff mostly went. Lee seems to be suggesting that one can use the post-disaster scenario to study the sorts of assumptions and connections that bind people together in a community but are invisible when the technology functions well. In other words, a society that looks only liberal and individualistic on the surface may reveal its communitarian underpinnings when disaster strikes. I’m not quite sure what to do with this at the moment, but it does at least suggest that what technology makes invisible is not only power but also “good” values, such as beneficence.

Leave a Reply

1. Comments are moderated. Inappropriate or unproductive comments may be edited or deleted. All comments from first-time commentators will require review by an administrator before showing up.

2. All commenters must be logged in. You can either create an account with STS.Next.20, or you can use Facebook, OpenID, or any of the other supported services to log yourself in. We will never use any information acquired through the log-in process for anything other than logging you into the site.

3. Real names are encouraged. We believe in comment accountability. We do understand, however, that you may not want comments here showing up in Google searches for your name. If you use the format of Firstname Lastname as your user name, our software will display it as Firstname L. for all users who are not logged in (including search engine bots).

4. Gravatars are supported. This means that if you'd like to control the image that appears next to your comment, you should register your e-mail address (the same one use your for comments) with If you do not have an image with them, an auto-generated image will show up instead.