WTMC 2011 Summer School
Values and Infrastructures at Play
Introduction to the workshop
Infrastructure is multiform and ubiquitous. We live in environments that are laced with infrastructures: roads, trains, power grids and power plants, sewers, mobile phone networks, wifi hotspots, or water pipes. Infrastructures weave our world together. They materially integrate societies, while at the same time they may come to symbolise nationhood and even modernity. The British empire was materialised in steam train networks and telegraph lines. The conquest of the American West was similarly solidified in train tracks, telegraph roads and later electrification.
In everyday use, infrastructures often pass unperceived (or unnoticed). We casually rely on the presence of electricity or running water, roads, telephone and the internet. We do not seem to want to see infrastructures: electricity wires are often hidden from view, pipes are behind walls or under floors, and highways or trains need to be kept out of sight and sound behind screens or in tunnels. Communication networks are increasingly wireless and invisible. Railways and roads are repaired at night, so we can use them without worry during the day.
The invisibility of infrastructures is easily justified based on practical concerns such as the wish to reduce traffic congestion, but this also leaves out of sight how infrastructures produce certain integrations and exclusions. This resonates with the founding myth of science that it is carried out in an eternal present, and which requires that the affordances and exclusions of archives and databases are left out of accounts of scientific practice. Infrastructures such as archives are therefore both sequential as well as enforcing, as they tell scientists what they can and cannot say and users what they can and cannot do. Infrastructures hence become important sites for locating and challenging the values they produce.
Infrastructures become painfully visible when they are lacking or break down. The reliance on infrastructures becomes clear during disruptions, ranging from minor irritation over failing hotel or conference wifi, via the nuisance of blocked drains, to the spectacular gridlock of urban traffic, or malfunctioning nuclear power plants. These disruptions offer unexpected insights into the operation of infrastructures, though they do raise questions about whether insights from failure can easily be translated to insights about infrastructures in routine operation (a debate that resonates with the question of whether studying scientific controversies provides relevant insights for more regular scientific practices).
Fortunately, there are more playful ways of articulating the values enacted by infrastructures. Exploring values and infrastructures during this Summer School will therefore not consist of merely reading about disasters or sabotaging infrastructures. We will rather be challenging, exploring, thinking about, and even building (alternative) infrastructures. The notion of ‘infrastructure’ therefore leads us to many fascinating places, from trains and highways, to accountability practices for development aid, medical ICT and the cyberworld, the drawing board of STS theory, and into scientific practices. We will let power grids and data networks string together social, philosophical and historical approaches to technology, including some hot political issues. This workshop builds around the ‘T’ of WTMC, but also reaches out to the science and modern culture streams. We will link technological developments to cultural and historical processes, such as in the role of infrastructure in the construction of nationhood and as harbinger of modernity, and to recent issues in the research system.
Our anchor teacher this year is Geoffrey C. Bowker, professor of Cyberscholarship at the University of Pittsburgh and author of many important works on infrastructure and values, including Memory Practices in the Sciences (2005, MIT Press). Other speakers include Nelly Oudshoorn (U Twente), Johan Schot (U Eindhoven) and Brit Ross Winthereik (ITU, Copenhagen).
Programme of the summer school (http://www.wtmc.net/wiki/index.php?title=docrep&id=164)