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Theorising the breakdown of digital infrastructures 
Laura Anna Kocksch (Aalborg University Copenhagen)
Matt Spencer (University of Warwick)
Mette Simonsen Abildgaard (Aalborg University)
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Format :
Traditional Open Panel

Short Abstract:

While STS has developed concepts and methods to follow the slow and rapid decay of physical infrastructures, the perpetual breakdown of digital systems (cyber hacks, cable cuts, outages, etc.) has so far received little attention. This panel invites scholarship addressing this gap.

Long Abstract:

STS has generated theoretically rich accounts of infrastructural breakdown (Star & Ruhleder 1994), and of processes of digitisation (Woolgar 2002). Today, these inquiries intersect in important ways: Digital infrastructures did not sink into the background; ruptures emerge both slowly and suddenly, while “normal” operation entails incessant practices of working around, updating, patching, repairing, reconfiguring and phasing out systems, protocols and standards, not to mention preparing and rehearsing breakdowns amidst the ever-changing contingencies of our socio-technical lives.

This panel examines the challenges of theorising the perpetual breakdown of digital infrastructure. Contributions might address:

How can digital failure be made visible, evaluated and acted upon?

What are the ethics and aesthetics of digital infrastructure repair and maintenance?

What account of digitality is mobilised in discourse and practice associated with breakdown and insecurity?

How are theories of systems and control deployed in discourses of reliability, security and resilience, and what scope is there to develop them in new directions?

How can STS contribute to the development of new forms of resilient, albeit fragile digital infrastructures?

In relation to such questions, we invite to develop empirical cases and conceptualization of how to understand digital infrastructures in a state of “ruins” (Tsing 2015). Breakdowns in digital infrastructures may no longer follow logics of renewal and fixing but involve concurrent logics of living with fragility and the possibility of ending.

Woolgar, S. (Ed.). (2002). Virtual society?: technology, cyberbole, reality. Oxford University Press, USA.

Star, S. L., & Ruhleder, K. (1994). Steps towards an ecology of infrastructure: complex problems in design and access for large-scale collaborative systems. In Proceedings of the 1994 ACM conference on Computer supported cooperative work (pp. 253-264).

Tsing, A. L. (2015). The mushroom at the end of the world: On the possibility of life in capitalist ruins. Princeton University Press.