Rosalind Williams: Notes on the Underground

In 1990, Rosalind Williams, MIT professor of history of science and technology, published a book titled Notes on the Underground: An Essay on Technology, Society, and the Imagination. The book explores both real and imaginary undergrounds, from the building of sewers and subways to archaeological digs to the writings of Jules Verne and HG Wells. This year, MIT Press has published a revised edition of Notes On The Underground. In honor of that, Cabinet magazine ran a fascinating interview with Williams about the meaning of "underground" and how it relates to science and culture. From Cabinet:

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What is your definition of the underground in the book?

In the beginning, I had a straightforward definition: it was a mine, or a pit dug into the earth, or a subway, or a tunnel. As I was writing, however, I realized that one of the most interesting aspects of the world that humans have constructed on the surface of the earth is the creation of mock or artificial underworlds in the sense of places that are meant to exclude organic life, where everything is meant to be a creation of human artifice rather than given from the larger universe. A shopping mall, for example, can serve as a model of a technological environment (a term Mumford didn't use, but that I find useful) even if it isn't literally underground.

But most of all I try to expand the concept of the underground from the earth to the sky. I end the book by comparing environmental consciousness with subterranean consciousness, pointing out that the real surface of the planet is the upper edge of the atmosphere. Our earthly home is everything below the frigid and uninhabitable realm of outer space, and so in a sense we have always lived below the surface of the planet, in a closed, finite environment.

Underworld: An Interview With Rosalind Williams (Cabinet), Notes on the Underground: An Essay on Technology, Society, and the Imagination (Amazon)