Accepted Paper:

The Self-Extending Internet? Wireless Infrastructures and Systems of Practice  


Janine Morley (Lancaster University)

Paper short abstract:

To understand the mechanisms by which the internet is growing this paper examines the ongoing development of Wi-Fi. It argues that, as part of the internet infrastructure, the roles of wireless connectivity flex and stabilise in relation to evolving systems of practice in which they are embedded.

Paper long abstract:

Changes in how the internet is organised and used impact other infrastructures, not least where and when electricity is used. Overall, the internet is consuming an increasing share of global electricity, as greater volumes of data are processed, stored and transported. This paper explores the basis of this growth and asks if increasing data-intensity reflects positive feedback mechanisms of the kind observed of other infrastructures (e.g. Urry, 2004). Are increasingly energy-intensive modes of reproduction becoming obdurate and irreversible?

The paper focuses on wireless infrastructures, specifically Wi-Fi, as significant to the extension of internet connectivity. In some senses, the emergence of Wi-Fi can be understood as a process of technological innovation which has transformed the incumbent socio-technical regime (Geels, 2002). However, the development of Wi-Fi is ongoing, as further extensions are made (trains, hospitals, appliances, speeds), as new wireless internet services and uses emerge, and as relationships with other infrastructures change.

An alternative is to conceptualise Wi-Fi as an 'infrastructure-in-use' (Shove, 2016) that both changes and stabilises in relation to a range of practices. To differentiate flux and obduracy of infrastructural arrangements, I develop an account which draws on ecological metaphors, as used elsewhere, to describe relationships: between things, practices, practices and things, systems and infrastructures. In combination, I ask whether ecological succession of the 'systems of practice' (Watson, 2012) in which wireless infrastructures are embedded is a fruitful concept for understanding patterns of co-emergence and path dependency.

Panel T006
Infrastructures in practice and in flux