On the road outside of Lewis Science Library, a huge crane vehicle holds aloft a steel beam, like a marionette. Below, a construction worker maneuvers the beam into position, straddling a rubber-lined pipe suspended like a bridge over the chiseled-out pit in the earth lined with brown, compacted dirt. Other workers stand by in the darkness, waiting for the beam to be fastened so they can continue their work. I spectate the scene, a voyeur captivated by the sheer power visible in front of me. These people have opened up the earth and laced it with a network of pipes whose severed shafts poked out of the sunken cavity, operating machines with the strength of hundreds of people to delicately insert a beam forged as an alloy of strong materials. I ask one of the workers what they are doing, and he tells me they are building a segment of the University’s new hot water pipe infrastructure to provide heat from a renewable geo-exchange system.

This system will replace the steam heating network that has been used for the last two decades, and which provides heat from Princeton’s natural-gas-powered cogeneration plant. Princeton aims to lay a staggering 13 miles of new, insulated hot water pipes to complement 700 geo-exchange wells currently under construction, which will provide the temperature control apparatus that the pipes will support. I was amazed that this ambitious project, a landmark commitment to sustainability, was happening right in front of my eyes, and that I didn’t realize its significance until I stopped to look.

The construction of this hot water pipe network reveals an otherwise concealed system of energy infrastructure, part of what cultural anthropologists Mike Anusas and Tim Ingold describe as “an ultimately controlling apparatus, which secretly and inconspicuously organizes and directs the course of corporatized life from beneath the realms of everyday awareness, revealing itself to our experience only in the form of our dependency upon it.” How energy moves around us, controls so much of our lives, yet we’re encouraged not to take notice of that process. As a result, our energy network insidiously encourages us to use more energy—it keeps us in the dark about the extent of our consumption.

Once completed, the geo-exchange system will become a part of this obscure and vast web of infrastructure, sinking beneath the awareness of the greater Princeton community as its pipes get buried and quite literally covered up. This loss of awareness is almost inevitable—it happened already with the steam pipe infrastructure which the geo-exchange system is set to replace, infrastructure whose existence is virtually unknown except by the occasional student who sneaks into the tunnels at night.

While under construction, though, the pipes seem impossible to ignore and the attempt at concealment appears to falter. The pipes are laid bare for everyone to see; their assembly is heard virtually everywhere through the rumbling of construction vehicles and the screeches, bangs, and earth-shaking pounds of equipment. While this construction has caused a lot of complaints (justifiably, in some cases), it has the potential to reveal our otherwise hidden entanglements with the energy infrastructure around us. This could fundamentally reshape how we perceive our campus by allowing us to see, and therefore value, all of the energetic processes that sustain, comfort, entertain, and power us.

However, at a surface level, it appears that the campus community doesn’t want this kind of reimagined perception. When I talk with people about the pipe construction around Whitman College, all I hear is negativity. One person I spoke to felt sorry for the people living in the college who had to endure the noise. Someone else described construction on campus as “dystopian,” and another said that they feel “rage” whenever they think about it. People use construction as a conversation starter, or a cheap butt of their jokes, their sense of humor hiding frustration at the disruptions to everyday life.

But I don’t think these people are actually complaining about these energetic entanglements and their newfound visibility; it didn’t seem like they understood the entanglements inherent in the construction of the hot water pipes in the first place. In a couple of my conversations about the infrastructure, people told me that they knew construction was happening at Whitman, but they didn’t know what was actually being built.

This is in contrast to other projects on campus like the construction of the art museum or the Dillon Gym addition, cases in which it’s pretty obvious what’s happening on each construction site. In these instances, the projects are slowly being built up and out. These operate within conventional design schemes: when you see a skeleton of metal girders, you understand that there’s going to be a building there. This knowledge is part of an object-oriented perceptual framework that considers objects as self-contained. For instance, we think of the Art Museum as just that: a discrete structure separate from all other buildings on campus. This isn’t unique; most of Princeton’s construction projects are just more buildings, certainly variations on the current campus structures, but still on the theme of educational facilities.

By focusing on the objects of the construction, we fail to notice their relational aspects. This impedes upon our understanding of the hot water pipe infrastructure and how it will create and sustain the energetic entanglements in which we are enmeshed. When we look at the art museum, we don’t see the network that ensures it can function: the hot water pipelines that will keep it at a comfortable temperature, the power lines that keep its lights on, the sewage pipelines which siphon away waste, the water pipes that fill the taps and water fountains. And when that network is being rebuilt, as it is with the hot water pipes, we don’t see it either.

Princeton adds to our inability to see these energy entanglements through making “invisible” some of its hot water pipeline construction sites. Construction projects like the ones mentioned above boast banners around their sites with concept images of the finished products, or big bullet points showing what will be built and when. No such bold indications exist at hot water pipe construction sites at Frist Campus Center and on Washington Road. The lack of signage at Frist and Washington suggests that students don’t have anything in particular to look forward to when the pipes get finished: the finished product isn’t displayed or even hinted at, because there will be no visible finished product at all.

Moreover, there is only mesh fencing to obscure the construction, and traffic barriers and cones to signal that the site is off limits. Princeton sends a message here: us students should stay away, and we shouldn’t fret or think too much about the project because other people have it under control. Even though a couple of Princeton websites do cover the geo-exchange pipes, the on-the-ground signal we receive is to ignore the project until it’s no longer noticeable. These factors create a barrier that prevents students from noticing their energetic entanglements.

The construction of geo-exchange pipes could be an opportunity to bring forth our entangled relationship with energy. But at some of its construction sites, Princeton flattens and anonymizes the project, thereby contributing to a re-invisibilization. It is through a lack of communication around geo-exchange pipes, rather than their construction, that contributes to complaints.

This lack of understanding harms our ability to transition to a climate-safe future because it prevents a greater understanding of our relationship to, and reliance on, energy. If people only think about sustainable projects like pipe construction negatively—in part because of our entrenched perceptual framework oriented around discrete objects—they are less likely to accept the disruption necessary to reimagine our infrastructure for the net-zero energy transition to come. And, if the builders of that infrastructure conceal it as before, then our relationship to energy will remain one of unbridled and careless consumption.

Watching the worker straddle his pipe, pushing the steel girder back and forth, I find that I’m not frustrated that this construction site blocks off Washington road, hindering my path to class. Instead, I feel inspired: I’m watching the future of sustainable infrastructure be created before my eyes, a future that doesn’t need to be hidden—if we deem it worthy to be seen. This energy transition is one of inconvenience, sure. But it’s also one of promise and possibility.