Californians and Their Earthquakes: Post-Earthquake Public Information Infrastructures

Megan Finn. Californians and Their Earthquakes: Post-Earthquake Public Information Infrastructures. Ph.D. dissertation. Advisor: AnnaLee Saxenian. University of California, Berkeley. 2012.


This dissertation analyzes Californians' information infrastructure after three Bay Area earthquakes: 1868 Hayward Fault Earthquake, 1906 San Francisco Earthquake and Fire, and 1989 Loma Prieta Earthquake. I use qualitative and historical research approaches, focusing on documents produced by state and local governments, newspapers and letters by Californians. In my analysis, I employ the construct of "information infrastructure" from the field of Science and Technology Studies to describe the complex constellation of practices, technology and institutions that underpins the public sphere. Four themes help develop the idea of public information infrastructure: continuity, reach, informational authority and multiple infrastructures. First, major disruptions such as earthquakes challenge the continuity of public information infrastructure while making infrastructure visible. For example, after the 1906 earthquake and fire, refugees had to reassemble their social geography. Friends, loved ones, employers and employees all wanted to locate each other and notify others of their well-being. While the physical information infrastructure was destroyed, the ways that people worked and organized was not. Thus, with some work-arounds, information infrastructure within San Francisco was reassembled to working order. Second, I look at one of the qualities of information infrastructure that is considered fundamental - that of the reach of infrastructure across space. In 1868, the circulation of documents to far away audiences shaped the earthquake narrative locally. Third, I examine claims to informational authority. My dissertation begins in 1868, at a time when there were not shared scientific earthquake descriptors such as magnitude, when it took weeks for a newspaper to travel from San Francisco to New York, and when there was no professionalized class of "responders" or specialized government response. The Chamber of Commerce claimed the authority to explain the earthquake. The bureaucratization of disaster response and the rise of scientific explanations for earthquakes shaped infrastructure and information practices, such that by the 1989 earthquake government officials claimed the authority to explain what had happened. The intertwining of science, the state, and infrastructure helped constitute and legitimize a new set of informational authorities, and provide a lens with which to design post-disaster information systems and policy today. Last, I argue that there is not just one information infrastructure, but multiple infrastructures supporting multiple publics. Alternate infrastructures supported Chinese people in 1906 and Spanish-speakers in 1989 when attempting to get aid or find loved ones. My research ties together how technology, media organizations, government institutions, and scientific explanations of earthquakes contribute to a sensemaking epistemology for Californians.


Last updated:

December 23, 2016