Bertha, the world's biggest tunneling machine, has been stuck under Seattle for over a year

Bertha's facade in happier times. Image: Washington State Department of Transport.

Meet Bertha: 

Bertha is the world's largest tunnel boring machine. She weighs 7,000 tons and, at 17.5 metres tall, is roughly the height of a three storey house. Unfortunately, she's also currently stuck in a tunnel 18m below Seattle. 

Named after Seattle's only female mayor, Bertha was built in Japan and arrived in Seattle by boat in 2013. Her job (yes, we're sticking with "her") was to burrow for two miles along the waterfront to make way for a new, four lane, double-layered road, which would replace the earthquake-damaged Alaskan Way Viaduct:

The tunneling began in July 2013, and by December 2013, Bertha had dug through 1,000 feet of the route (roughly ten per cent of the total). What happened next is up for debate: local media reported that the machine hit an unexpected metal pipe, while the Washington Department of Transport's official line is that she "heated up", which damaged seals inside the machine. 

Whatever the cause, fixing a machine the size of a house stuck underneath a major city is no easy thing. That's why, over one year on, Bertha is still there. At the moment, workers are building a giant pit so they can free the machine's front end, and lift it up to the surface for repairs. But according to Global Construction Reviewthe project has already cost the city $2bn, and state officials aren't happy.

Earlier this week, two Republican senators in the state put forward a bill to give up on the project altogether, as extracting the machine would be too difficult. Luckily for Bertha, however, Curtis King, the chair of the transport committe,e said this was not realistic, and that he would not hear the bill. As he put it:: "Now is not the time to be talking about, let’s bury it, let’s save ourselves,”

As it stands, then, the workers will continue to dig until they can hoist her front end out of the ground.

Until then, tunneling fans can visit this Bertha model at the tunnel project information centre (human is not to scale): 

 Image: Dennis Bratland at Wikimedia Commons.

This helpful clip also explains how the tunnel boring process works. Essentially, giant blades at the front tear up the earth and rocks, then the debris is carried away by a complex conveyor belt system at the back:

Not shown: Bertha choking on a bit of pipe and dying. 

This article was updated on 2/2/2015 to reflect the fact that Curtis King was not one of the bill's proposers but is chair of the Senate Transportation Committee.

Images: WSDOT.


In many ways, smart cities are really very dumb

Rio de Janeiro’s control centre. Image: Getty.

It’s not news that anything and everything is increasingly being prefaced with “smart”: phones, watches, homes, fridges, and even water (yes, smartwater exists). And it’s not unintentional either. 

Marketeers know that we, the public, are often stupid enough to believe that thanks to their technology, life is better now than it was way back in, say, the primitive Nineties. Imagine having to, like a Neanderthal, remember how to spell words without an autocorrecting algorithm, or open the fridge door to check if you’d run out of milk, or, worse still, interact with actual people.

So it’s hardly surprising that we’re now also witnessing the rise of the so-called “smart cities”; a concept which presupposes that cities that are not technologically  “smart” are dumb, which, as anyone interested in the millennia-old history of cities — from the crypto-currency grain storage algorythms of ancient Mesopotamia to the complex waste infrastructure of ancient Rome, to London’s public transport infrastructure — will know, is not true.

Deployed in these smart cities are cameras and other networked information-gathering devices, load cells and other “sensing devices” detecting passing pedestrians and vehicles, audio surveillance devices listening for gunshots – and even vending machines equipped with biometric sensors to recognise your face. This is not to mention beacon technology — tiny anonymous looking black boxes hidden in trees and on lampposts — which transmits advertising, offers and other information directly to smart phones in the vicinity. 

If that doesn’t seem sinister enough, take, for example, Rio de Janeiro, where, in 2014, the International Business Machines Corporation designed a mammoth “control centre” that integrates data from 30 agencies for the city’s police. 

Described by the Guardian as having “the functionality of a Bond villian’s techno lair”, the then local mayor, Eduardo Paes, claimed the centre was making the city safer while using technology to deploy its “special” police unit to carry out the state’s “pacification programme”. Launched in 2008, the programme, which aims to push out drug gangs from Rio’s favelas, has been criticised by Amnesty International: “in January and February 2017 in Rio de Janeiro alone, at least 182 people were killed during police operations in marginalized neighbourhoods (favelas) – a 78 per cent increase in comparison to the same period in 2016”.

Sinister or not, as smart cities grow, they create new problems. For example, as urbanist Adam Greenfield writes in Radical Technologies: The Design of Everyday Life, neither the algorithms nor their designers are subject to the ordinary processes of democratic accountability – a problem that international academics are currently attempting to tackle.  

“We need to understand that the authorship of an algorithm intended to guide the distribution of civic resources is itself an inherently political act,” writes Greenfield. “The architects of the smart city have utterly failed to reckon with the reality of power.”

The Real Smart Cities project, founded by Dr Gerald Moore, Dr Noel Fitzpatrick and Professor Bernard Stiegler, is investigating the ways in which so-called “smart city” technologies present a threat to democracy and citizenship, and how digital tools might be used create new forms of community participation.

Fitzpatrick is critical of current discourses around smart cities, which he says “tend to be technical fixes, where technology is presented as a means to solve the problems of the city.” The philosophy underpinning the project is “that technologies function as forms of pharmacology”, he adds, meaning that they can be both positive and negative. “The addictive negative effects are being felt at an individual and collective level.” 

An example of this lies in the way that many of these smart cities replace human workers with disembodied voices — “Alexa we need more toilet roll” — like those used to control the Amazon Echo listening device — the high priestess of smart home. These disembodied voices travel at the speed of light to cavernous, so-called “fulfilment centres”, where an invisible workforce are called into action by our buy-it-now, one-click impulse commands; moving robotically down seemingly endless aisles of algorithmically organised products arranged according to purchase preferences the like of which we never knew we had — someone who buys a crime novel might be more likely to go on and buy cat food, a wireless router, a teapot and a screwdriver. 

Oh to be the archeologists of the future who while digging through mounds of silicon dust happen upon these vast repositories of disembodies voices. That the digital is inherently material and the binary of virtual/real does not hold — there is no cyberspace, just space. Space that is being increasingly populated by technologies that want to watch you, listen to you, get to know you and sense your presence.

One project looking to solve some of the problems of smart cities is that of the development of a “clinic of contribution” within Pleine Commune in greater Paris (an area where one in three live in poverty).This attempts to deal with issues of communication between parents and children where the widespread use of smartphones as parental devices from infancy is having effects on the attention of young children and on the communicative abilities between parents and children. 

This in turn forms part of a wider project in the area that Stiegler describes as “installing a true urban intelligence”, which moves beyond what he sees as the bankrupt idea of smart cities. The aim is to create a “contributory income” in the area that responds to the loss of salaried jobs due to automation and the growth and spread of digitisation. 

The idea being that an income could be paid to residents, on the condition that they perform a service to society. This, if you are unemployed, living in poverty and urban deprivation, sounds like quite a simple and smart idea to try and solve some of the dumb effcts of the digital technology that's implemented in cities under the ideology of being “smart”.