Thinking Infrastructures: Volume 62

Cover of Thinking Infrastructures

Table of contents

(21 chapters)

Prelims

Pages i-xvii
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Part I Valuing

Abstract

Much has been made of economizing. Yet, social scientists have paid little attention to the moment of economic failure, the moments that precede it, and the calculative infrastructures and related processes through which both failing and failure are made operable. This chapter examines the shift from the economizing of the market economy, which took place across much of the nineteenth century, to the economizing and marketizing of the social sphere, which is still ongoing. The authors consider a specific case of the economizing of failure, namely the repeated attempts over more than a decade to create a failure regime for National Health Service (NHS) hospitals. These attempts commenced with the Health and Social Care Act 2003, which drew explicitly on the Insolvency Act 1986. This promised a “failure regime” for NHS Foundation Trusts modeled on the corporate sector. Shortly after the financial crash, and in the middle of one of the biggest scandals to face NHS hospitals, these proposals were abandoned in favor of a regime based initially on the notion of “de-authorization.” The notion of de-authorization was then itself abandoned, in favor of the notion of “unsustainable provider,” most recently also called the Trust Special Administrators regime. The authors suggest that these repeated attempts to devise a failure regime for NHS hospitals have lessons that go beyond the domain of health care, and that they highlight important issues concerning the role that “exit” models and associated calculative infrastructures may play in the economizing and regulating of public services and the social sphere more broadly.

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Abstract

This study sets out to shed light on those infrastructures underlying the ubiquitous, yet contested nature of governing by numbers. Investigating the 30-year long emergence of Germany’s “external quality assurance system” for hospitals, the authors show how methods for quantifying quality align with broader institutional and ideational shifts to form a calculative infrastructure for governance. Our study focuses on three phases of infrastructural development wherein methods for calculating quality, institutions for coordinating data and reform ideals converge with one another. The authors argue that the succession of these phases represents a gradual layering process, whereby old ways of enacting quality governance are not replaced, but augmented by new sets of calculative practices, institutions and ideas. Thinking about infrastructures as multi-layered complexes allows us to explore how they construct possibilities for control, remain stable over time and transform the fields in which they are embedded. Rather than governance being enacted according to a singular goal or value, we see an infrastructure that is flexible enough to support multiple modalities of control, including selective intervention, quality-based competition and automatized budgeting. Infrastructural change, instead of revolving around crises in measurement, is shaped by incubation periods – times of relative calm when political actors, medical practitioners, mathematicians, and many others explore and reflect past experiences, rather than follow erratic reforms fads. Finally, analysing infrastructures as multi-layered constructs underlines how they produce multiple images of care quality, which not only shift existing power relations, but also change the ways we understand and make sense of public services.

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Abstract

Whereas many researchers have examined the way in which health institutions have been transformed through funding modalities, and particularly through prospective payment systems (PPS), few have investigated the architecture of these systems, that is, costs and cost variance. Focusing on the study of costs and on the production of hospital rates, this chapter shows that the French PPS, called “rate per activity” made possible what we call a policy of variance. For health policymakers, the aim was to make the different accounting figures between hospitals, and between ways of practising healthcare, visible, in order to reduce these variances. This policy was attended by uncertainty in the processes of quantification, which led to metrological controversies. As a consequence of the issues around the way of calculating costs, some accounts and calculations were redone. In this chapter, we consider the case of metrological controversy over the remuneration of costs for cystic fibrosis patients’ hospital stays, and over the action of a patient organization that criticized the costs calculated officially. It leads to the analysis of the way calculative infrastructures, as cost accounting and rates, are challenged, and how some actors try to stabilize them.

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Abstract

This study explores how thinking infrastructures can orchestrate collective sensemaking in unstable and socially contested environments, such as large-scale humanitarian crises. In particular, drawing from recent interest in the role of artifacts and infrastructures in sensemaking processes, the study examines the evaluative underpinnings of prospective sensemaking as groups attempt to develop novel understandings about a desired but ambiguous set of future conditions. To explore these theoretical concerns, a detailed case study of the unfolding challenges of managing a large-scale humanitarian crisis response was conducted. This study offers two contributions. Firstly, it develops a theorization of the process through which performance evaluation systems can serve as thinking infrastructures in the collaborative development of new understandings in unstable environments. Secondly, this study sheds light on the practices that support prospective sensemaking through specific features of thinking infrastructures, and unpacks how prospective and retrospective forms of sensemaking may interact in such processes.

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Part II Tracing

Abstract

The notion, technologies and organizational elaboration of traceability have become more prominent and more systematic in recent years in many different fields, notably food. This chapter argues that traceability has many faces: it is a programmatic value embedded in norms and regulations; it is a frontier of technology development such as blockchain, and it is a continuous processual and political dynamic of organizational connectedness, leading also to resistance. These different aspects make up “traceability infrastructures,” which embody a number of tensions and dynamics. Three such dynamics are explored in this chapter: the tension between organizational entities and meta-entities, problems of agency and the distribution of responsibility, and dialectics of connectivity and disconnectivity. These three dynamics generate three testable propositions, which define a prolegomena for a new subject of “traceability studies.” Overall, traceability is argued to be an ongoing process of connecting discrete agencies – a process of “chainmaking” – and is formative of more or less stable forms of distributed agency and responsibility.

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Abstract

The authors analyse the development and implementation of the standard for the Legal Entity Identifier as a case of creating information-based assets through the establishment of an infrastructure that certifies the accuracy and validity of identity data. The authors term this process capitalization by certification. The findings describe a process whereby an identification infrastructure – including a non-replicable methodology for assessing data quality – is established that contributes to making the developer and controller of that methodology, an irreplaceable intermediary for users of the infrastructure; this in spite of the need for an associated reference data infrastructure to be open and widely accessible to all participants for the infrastructure to be successful. The findings indicate that in the process, assets are created on the basis of openly accessible data through certifying of a desired set of qualities to be achieved by adopters and the infrastructure. This, in turn, provides a starting point toward better understanding and theorizing of wider processes of data capitalization, encountered throughout the digital economy but which are also crucial to establishing information infrastructures that support cognitive action.

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Abstract

Through the example of a “regulatory ranking” – an index produced with the aim to regulate the pharmaceutical market by pushing companies in the direction of providing greater access to medicine in developing countries – this chapter focuses on indexing and ranking as infrastructural processes which inscribe global problem spaces as unfolding actionable territories for market intervention. It foregrounds the “Indexal thinking” which structures and informs regulatory rankings – their aspiration to align the interests of different stakeholders and to entice competition among the ranked companies. The authors detail the infrastructural work through which such ambitions are enacted, detailing processes of infrastructural layering/collage and patchwork through which analysts naturalize/denaturalize various contested categories in the ranking’s territory. They reflect on the consequences of such attempts at reconfiguring global topologies for the problems these governance initiatives seek to address.

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Abstract

The authors examine infrastructures of valuation by asking how the specific materializations of categories and ratings make a difference in practice. Drawing on the notion of apparatus, the authors explore how different valuation schemes entail specific inclusions and exclusions that have material consequences for the valuations that are produced. Focusing on agential realist conceptualizations of apparatus allows a shift in attention to a particular reading of performativity in which different valuation infrastructures perform different phenomena in the world. The authors focus on two specific valuation systems within hospitality – star ratings of the Automobile Association and regional rankings on TripAdvisor – and examine how these make boundaries, direct agencies of observation and condition the possibilities for action. The authors consider the conditions of possibility that are increasingly being produced through digital infrastructures and highlight the performative uncertainties that are generated as a result of their materializations in practice.

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Part III Governing Markets

Abstract

In the aftermath of the global financial crisis, transparency became a rhetorical token used to provide a solution to financial problems. This study examines how transparency materialized in the context of the European securitization industry, which was largely blamed for the credit crunch. The authors show that although transparency was broadly associated with a political call for financial system reform, in the European securitization industry it provided the basis on which to repurpose its market infrastructure. The authors introduce the concept of transparency work to show that transparency is a market achievement organized as a standardization network of heterogeneous actors aiming at establishing a new calculative infrastructure for managing credit risk. Combining insights from information infrastructure research and Economic Sociology, the authors contribute to a distributed and networked understanding of information infrastructure development.

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Abstract

This chapter explores the concept of market infrastructure, which is tentatively defined as a materially heterogeneous arrangement that silently supports and structures the consummation of market exchanges. Specifically, the authors investigate the enactment of market infrastructure in the US grocery retail sector by exploring how barcodes and related devices contributed to modify its market infrastructure during the period 1967–2010. Combining this empirical case with insights from previous research, the authors propose that market infrastructures are relational, available for use, modular, actively maintained, interdependent, commercial, emergent and political. The authors argue that this conception of market infrastructure provides a powerful tool for unveiling the complex agencements and engineering efforts that underpin seemingly superficial, individual and isolated market exchanges.

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This chapter explores the ways in which a large-scale accounting system, known as Marijuana Enforcement Tracking Reporting and Compliance, contributes to the construction and organization of a new market for recreational cannabis in the US state of Colorado. Mobilizing the theoretical lenses provided by the literature on market devices, on the one hand, and infrastructure, on the other hand, the authors identify and unpack a changing relationship between accounting and state control through which accounting and markets unfold. The authors describe this movement in terms of a distinction between knowing devices and thinking infrastructures. In the former, the authors show that regulators and other authorities perform the market by making it legible for the purpose of intervention, taxation and control. In the latter, thinking infrastructures, an ecology of interacting devices is made and remade by a variety of intermediaries, disclosing the boundaries and possibilities of the market, and constituting both opportunities for innovation and domination through “protocol.”

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Abstract

The chapter analyses the role of smart grid technology in the German energy transition. Information technologies promise to help integrate volatile renewable energies (wind and solar power) into the grid. Yet, the promise of intelligent infrastructures does not only extend to technological infrastructures, but also to market infrastructures. Smart grid technologies underpin and foster the design of a “smart” electricity market, where dispersed energy prosumers can adapt, in real time, to fluctuating price signals that register changes in electricity generation. This could neutralize fluctuations resulting from the increased share of renewables. To critically “think” the promise of smart infrastructure, it is not enough to just focus on digital devices. Rather, it becomes necessary to scrutinize economic assumptions about the “intelligence” of markets and the technopolitics of electricity market design. This chapter will first show the historical trajectory of the technopolitical promise of renewable energy as not only a more sustainable, but also a more democratic alternative to fossil and nuclear power, by looking at the affinities between market liberal and ecological critiques of centralized fossil and nuclear based energy systems. It will then elucidate the co-construction of smart grids and smart markets in the governmental plans for an “electricity market 2.0.” Finally, the chapter will show how smart grid and smart metering technology fosters new forms of economic agency like the domo oeconomicus. Such an economic formatting of smart grid technology, however, forecloses other ecologically prudent and politically progressive ways of constructing and engaging with intelligent infrastructures.

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Abstract

While digital platforms tend to be unproblematically presented as the infrastructure of the sharing economy – as matchmakers of supply and demand – the authors argue that constituting the boundaries of infrastructures is political and performative, that is, it is implicated in ontological politics, with consequences for the distribution of responsibilities (Latour, 2003; Mol, 1999, 2013; Woolgar & Lezaun, 2013). Drawing on an empirical case study of Uber, including an analysis of court cases, the authors investigate the material-discursive production of digital platforms and their participation in the reconfiguring of the world (Barad, 2007), and examine how the (in)visibility of the digital infrastructure is mobilized (Larkin, 2013) to this effect. The authors argue that the representation of Uber as a “digital platform,” as “just the technological infrastructure” connecting car drivers with clients, is a political act that attempts to redefine social responsibilities, while obscuring important dimensions of the algorithmic infrastructure that regulates this socioeconomic practice. The authors also show how some of these (in)visibilities become exposed in court, and some of the boundaries reshaped, with implications for the constitution of objects, subjects and their responsibilities. Thus, while thinking infrastructures do play a role in regulating and shaping practice through algorithms, it could be otherwise. Thinking infrastructures relationally decentre digital platforms and encourage us to study them as part of ongoing and contested entanglements in practice.

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Part IV Infrastructuring Society

Abstract

Social media stage online patterns of social interaction that differ remarkably from ordinary forms of acting, talking and relating. To unravel these differences, we review the literature on micro-sociology and social psychology and derive a shorthand version of socially-embedded forms of interaction. We use that version as a yardstick for reconstructing and assessing the patterns of sociality social media promote. Our analysis shows that social media platforms stage highly stylized forms of social interaction such as liking, following, tagging, etc. that essentially serve the purpose of generating a calculable and machine-readable data footprint out of user platform participation. This online stylization of social interaction and the data it procures are, however, only the first steps of what we call the infrastructuring of social media. Social media use the data footprint that results from the stylization of social interaction to derive larger (and commercially relevant) social entities such as audiences, networks and groups that are constantly fed back to individuals and groups of users as personalized recommendations of one form or another. Social media infrastructure sociality as they provide the backstage operations and technological facilities out of which new habits and modes of social relatedness emerge and diffuse across the social fabric.

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Abstract

The digital and material traceability of our interactions in organizations are nowadays the subject of very advanced analyses through tools known as social media analytics (SMA). As thinking (infrastructure), SMA tools constitute objects to think of our digitally mediated interactions with. It produces a substratum (a new meaning) that would not exist otherwise, and enacts different types of reasoning that hypothetically influence community managers’ or members’ sensemaking of digitally mediated interactions. This chapter proposes to look behind the curtain of charts and graphs, in order to highlight the performativity of the interactions between the different machines and the traces of our digitally mediated interactions. Drawing on a detailed analysis of the fabric of SMA, this chapter highlights the explanatory power of a communication perspective on types of reasoning enacted by thinking infrastructures. First, considering the SMA tool as an editorial enunciation allows us to see it as a process implying several beings (e.g. machines, humans and logs) that are not without consequences. Second, we show that these beings have different modalities of interactions with each other, and that these modalities of interactions influence the materiality of the digital traces of past interactions. Third, throughout the process, we demonstrate the fragility and variability of their materiality. Finally, faced with the rise of a technological deterministic discourse, which tends to portray the exploitation of our digital traces as an objective way of representing the collaborative practices that make up the organization, our research aims, on the contrary, to demonstrate their relativity.

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Abstract

This chapter advances an articulation of the contemporary knowledge worker as an infrastructural bricoleur. The practical and pragmatic intelligence of the contemporary knowledge worker, particularly those involved in project-based work, reflects an ability to build adaptable practices and routines, and to develop a set of working arrangements that is creative and event-laden. Like Ciborra’s octopi, workers augment infrastructures by drawing on certain forms of oblique, twisted, flexible, circular, polymorphic and ambiguous thinking until an accommodation can be found. These workers understand the non-linearity of work and working, and are artful in their pursuits around, through and beyond infrastructural givens. Modern knowledge work, then, when looked at through the lens of infrastructure and bricolage, is less a story of failure to understand, a limitation in training or the shortcomings of a system, but instead is more a mirror of the contemporary realities of today’s knowledge work drift as reflected in individuals’ sociotechnical practices.

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Over the past three decades, new off-grid electrification infrastructures – as micro-grids and other solar solutions – have moved from innovative initiatives, conducted by NGOs and private stakeholders, to a credible model promoted by international organizations for electrification of rural areas in developing countries. Multiple conditions support their spread: major technological advances in the field of renewable energies (panels, batteries), intensive Chinese industrial production allowing lower prices, institutional reforms in Africa including these solutions in major national electrification programmes, and, finally, an opening to the private sector as a supposed guarantee of the projects’ viability. However, while the development of this market calls for significant investments, a vast set of calculations and a strong “micro-capitalist” doctrine, all involved in their design, experts admit that a large proportion of projects hardly survive or even fail.

This chapter investigates these failures by exploring the ecology of such infrastructures, designed for “the poor.” It discusses “thinking infrastructures” in terms of longevity by focusing on economic failures risks. The authors argue that the ecology of the infrastructure integrates various economic conversions and exchanges chains expected to participate in the infrastructure’s functioning. By following energy access solutions for rural Africa in sub-regions of Senegal and Madagascar, from their political and technical design to their ordinary life, the authors examine the tensions and contradictions embedded within the scripts of balance supposed to guarantee their success.

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Abstract

Many components of infrastructure are technological: pipes, asphalt, routers, buildings and other artifacts. Others are social: organizations, standards, laws, budgets or political arrangements. Finally, some components are individual human beings who contribute to infrastructure development and maintenance, or simply make use of it in their daily lives. Relationships among these elements often shift. One typical trajectory reduces the role of individual action (choices, skills and behavior) by replacing it with social mechanisms such as organizations, laws and standards, and/or technological elements such as sensors and software. Another trajectory, equally possible and sometimes desirable, moves in the other direction, replacing technological mechanisms with social ones and/or with individual choice and action. While both trajectories create “automatic” systems, in the second case the automaticity is embodied in people and/or organizational routines. All infrastructures require users to learn and adopt these behavioral regularities. Once rendered fully habitual or incorporated into widely diffused organizational routines, such regularities can be regarded as components of infrastructure. They play a key role in the phenomenon of invisibility or transparency in well-functioning infrastructures.

This chapter explores examples from several different nations that show how infrastructures depend on habits, norms and routines, and how the persistence of automaticity in social systems and individuals creates its own forms of path dependence and structural inertia. My title plays on Anthony Giddens’s notion of “structuration” to evoke the mutually constructive character of agency and structure.

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Index

Pages 367-381
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Cover of Thinking Infrastructures
DOI
10.1108/S0733-558X201962
Publication date
2019-08-07
Book series
Research in the Sociology of Organizations
Editors
Series copyright holder
Emerald Publishing Limited
ISBN
978-1-78769-558-0
eISBN
978-1-78769-557-3
Book series ISSN
0733-558X