Tag Archives: infrastructure

Infrastructural choreography of STS scholars

Living infrastructures in cities and beyond

The notion of infrastructure became popular in STS literature in the 2000s and in the 2010s (fig. 1). Its popularity might be explained by its relevance to many urban and non-urban systems and networks, at the same it usually demands focusing on particular empirical case-study.


Fig. 1. Frequency of keyword “infrastructure” in comparison with other keywords in STS literature. Source: Own elaboration based on Scopus Database and Science Scape tools by the Medialab, Science Po. URL: http://tools.medialab.sciences-po.fr/sciencescape/


Infrastructure addresses big urban and technological projects like power networks (T. Hughes), as well as situational interactions between people and things (S. Star, G. Bowker). Infrastructure simultaneously covers the fields of urban studies showing the importance of the processes of privatization, neoliberalization and hybridization of city spaces (S. Graham, M. Gandy, S. Collier), informational technology studies addressing issues of scale, connectedness, categorization, and accessibility of information (G. Bowker, S. Star), mobility studies that tackle with the questions of flows, frictions, connectivity, and also the everyday experience of spaces and places, and many others (J. Urry, P. Adey). This kind of multiplicity of the notion of infrastructure makes it fresh and heuristically useful (?) for thinking the contemporary city and beyond.

Dancing with the Western infrastructural ideal

With all these thoughts in mind, a group of scholars from Volgograd and Saint Petersburg (Russia) with the support of Volgograd State University and European University at Saint Petersburg organized the international conference “Living Infrastructures: Beyond Global North and Global South”, which took place in Volgograd on April 27-28, 2017. The topic itself was devised during a previous workshop in Volgograd when several scholars questioned the position of urban infrastructures in Russia with regard to the Western infrastructural ideal. Based on the ideas of scholars from the so-called “second wave” of infrastructural studies, who criticized the normativity and the Western-centrism of infrastructure concepts in the articles and books of the STS cannon, we sought to articulate the specificity of Russian cases, as well as to emphasize the diversity of infrastructures all over the world. The idea was not only to de-colonize infrastructural studies extending them to Russian cases, but to show the delicate relations between people and the everyday things they are engaged with. “Living infrastructures” became thus a metaphor to remind scholars that infrastructures are dynamic and surprising, simultaneously resilient and fragile. They are ecologically mutually dependent on other life forms. They are not invulnerable or “eternal beings”, as social scientists of Durkheimian denomination thought of societies. They confront risks to their continued existence and have sometimes their own life.

The logo of the conference – the “dancing bridge” in Volgograd – might be seen as the symbol of the living infrastructures idea (fig. 2).


Fig. 2. The Volgograd “dancing bridge”. Source: the design logo created by the Volgograd team for the conference.


Volgograd’s “dancing bridge” was under construction for 13 years and it connects the central part of the city, very busy and intense one, with the natural outskirts of Volgograd floodplain, establishing a fast connection between different parts of regions at the cost of harming the subtle ecology of the floodplain. Notably, after the construction, the bridge began to “dance”, that is, oscillate because of wind conditions that created a lot of authority concerns and people’s rumors (look at the bridge here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WEQrt_w7gN4). It became an important tourist attraction of Volgograd, although some days after the dancing, with the help of Swiss and German engineers (sic!), the oscillation was stabilized. In this way, the common infrastructural urban object became important part of Volgograd hybrid ecology, its urban narratives and global technological connections.

Organizing and blogging!

Preparing the conference, the organizers decided to “build” a temporary digital infrastructure to liven up an interest in the forthcoming event. The idea was to create a special blog on the WordPress platform, where different topics around the infrastructures could be exposed (https://livinginfrastructures.wordpress.com/about/). The team posted little essays on bicycle mobility, kids smart technological infrastructure, innovation infrastructure, anthropology of infrastructures, the influence of mega-events on urban infrastructures, childbirth infrastructures in Russian central and peripheral regions, and also on the topic of how the urban infrastructure elicit affects and emotions from the citizens. All these essays were disseminated in social media and helped to attract the attention of different scholars and activists to the conference issues. The blog platform attracted hundreds of website visitors.

The infrastucturation of the world

The conference gathered scholars across Russia, India, Bulgaria, Germany, Sweden, and the UK. It was the first STS-oriented conference focused on the topic of infrastructure in Russia ever. The conference was opened with a keynote on “Infrastructuring Mobile Utopia: Global Challenges, Global Responses” by Prof. Monika Büscher (Centre for Mobilities Research,​ Lancaster University) (fig 3). She analyzed cases of material infrastructural breakdown and digital humanitarianism when people converged online to restructure absent governmental. The presentation raised a range of important issues of mobile utopia and dystopia in equipped smart cities, digital and immaterial infrastructure, reflexive resilience in the context of sharing data and the precarity, and creativity in the process of infrastructurization. Three modes were suggested to develop the argument of reflexive resilience – archaeology, ontology, and architecture, in order to contribute to the discussion on relational infrastructure and posthuman relational ethics.


Fig. 3. Monica Büscher gives a lecture on the mobile infrastructures that are enacted in the time of societal crises. Source: Lyoubov Torlopova.


Ivan Tchalakov (PAST-Center, Tomsk State University / University of Plovdiv) opened the second day with his talk “Ships, Channels, Gravity Wells and Valleys: Towards Deep Space Infrastructures” (fig. 4). The examples of SpaceX and ULA were redefined through Latour’s restored symmetry as transportation for human and nature and as a conquest of the resources to become an infrastructure for the space-scape and interplanetary network. Tchalakov also discussed new private projects that might advance space industry further.


Fig. 4. Ivan Tchalakov on the division between the governmental and private space programs.


Both keynote lectures revolved around the questions of new and only anticipated infrastructures that should be delicately and intensely investigated by the STS scholars, using conceptual resources from philosophy, activism and social studies of science and technology.

The main topic of the conference was devoted to mobility infrastructures. The session “Mobilities Infrastructures: Speeding Up the Slow, Slowing Down the Fast” gathered scholars interested in changing practices of urban dwellers, the Russian subdued forms of mobility called “marshrutki”, the social infrastructures of public transport, the ambiguity of bicycle infrastructure, bike sharing systems in Russian big cities, and children “smart” mobilities. The multiplicity of the topics challenged participants to ponder upon the possibility to assemble the cases under the head of the mobility infrastructure notion. At the same time, it became very apparent that mobility is an important part of any infrastructures since it makes informational or material units pass through. How to create the infrastructure in such a way to make easier and comfortable to transit units, and at the same time to make people who use this infrastructure to feel comfortable and not alienated – it is a very important question.

The session “Urban infrastructure” drew attention to the relations between city and infrastructure. Participants demonstrated their interest in the influence of politics and policy on urban infrastructures, the access to the latter and the regime of uses. Many Russian cities represent cases of infrastructures with the centralized logic of a planned economy. Despite contemporary neoliberalism scholars’ emphasis on privatized and splintering infrastructures, we may find a lot of examples of path-dependent urban infrastructure, which follows the old and very obsolete logic of planned economy. It opens up the space for thinking about the very principles of urban infrastructure development.

In the session devoted to digital infrastructures, speakers problematized the relations between online and offline: how the space-based digital games connect to the body, perception, and the social order of city; how visualization and simulations of existing and anticipated infrastructures make work with the city space, and help to construct more comfortable and participative infrastructure. The question of representativity also penetrated the issue of media infrastructure in the game development for gamers’ imagination and anticipation of the cultural product itself.

The “Infrastructured Bodies” session tackled with the biopolitical question of a seamless connection between sociomaterial infrastructures and bodies. The speakers demonstrated how infrastructure matters when certain policies and extensive spatiality affect professional work, patients’ access and abilities and how particular enactments of diseases involve people through mobile applications and handmade infrastructures, where technology becomes secondary to knowledge exchange and accumulation.

Finally, the “Infrastructure Theories” session grasped all the previous insights into the concepts of infrastructure with all their range. Forgotten sociological classic Ferdinand Tönnies was considered to be a pioneer in logics of translation (connection of wills) and assemblage (collectives), dealing with a paradox of things as objects in relations of possession and capital. Bruno Latour’s material semiotics with the focus on operations of shifting (shifting-in, -out, -up, down) was considered an important resource for thinking of infrastructures as a type of relation and not as a set of things.

Make them live!

Monika Buscher from the Lancaster University told about how in situations of risk or accidents people start to help each other and make their own living infrastructure that are sometimes more effective than already created and established state and municipal infrastructures. The notion of living infrastructure could be also told about the conference participation as a special infrastructure when people all around the world gathered to talk about the different cases of infrastructure and by this created temporal emotional and narrative infrastructure to make infrastructure be living longer in the minds of scholars. Geoffrey Bowker and Stephen C. Slota in the brand new “Handbook of Science and Technology Studies” named their chapter “How infrastructure matter?”. We believe that the conference “Living Infrastructures Beyond Global North and Global South” in Volgograd advanced further another vital question: “How to think and talk on infrastructures as a living matter?”.


Fig. 5. The participants of the conference, who have enacted the infrastructures in the Global North and South for the two days of the conference.

Illegal infrastructures: Technology as other practices

If data is the new soil, and the new oil, could one ask if we are constantly experiencing new and complex ontological futures of technology? And is it possible to simultaneously redefine it? In ‘Science and Technology by Other Means: Exploring collectives, spaces and futures’, the 4S/EASST Conference held in Barcelona this year, many such concerns were central to understanding modern digital conditions we currently negotiate and maneuver through. Technoscience imagination has always been crucial to the conceptualization of particular ways of thinking about the future, and data provides an expanding terrain on which it is made operational. This review will discuss my thoughts from some discussions that reflected a part of the larger engagements that the conference enabled; discussions about big data analytics and contemporary institutional practices.

In doing this review and in trying to understand the theme of the 4S/EASST conference this year, my objective primarily is to reflect on data-driven institutional practices in the meaning making, regulation and governance of illegal bodies and of ‘potential risks’; and the implicit notions of illegality embedded into various categorizations of social groups, communities and populations. Some of the discussions relevant to these issues focused on data driven practices in regulating social bodies, realities and phenomena, and perceptions of risks and illegalities embedded in digital interventions. For example in the session ‘Data-driven cities? Digital urbanism and its proxies’ (T027), presentations focused on the meanings and ways of using big data in analyzing urban spaces and politics. In general, they focused on how data was crucial in making calculable and computable analysis in governance. Modern urban spaces are a minefield for statistical analysis of social reality and phenomena which are often understood as manageable risks for institutions. This could be argued as based on idea of producing predictions (Mackenzie, 2015). As a more interesting insight into such aspects, some presentations focused on modern policing practices. In this, the idea was that predictive analysis often understands the idea of crime and responses to it as units of measurement which influence different forms of policing and personnel behavior. This is driven by the models of analytics which help in mapping social behavioral patterns. These were also discussed as practices of securitization, and the embedded biases in which algorithmic calculations become central to this particular governance of such risks (Amoore, 2009; Ziewitz, 2016).


Fig. 1: ‚Infrastructures of control‘.
Courtesy of Dhruba j Dutta


The idea of biases could be investigated as a further analysis in understanding digital infrastructures. The technologies of policing and of biometrics based mapping, for instance, are often based on historical data, and of identifying illegality defined by preexisting human practices. These practices incorporate historical biases, and social perceptions regarding individuals or specific groups and communities, which get embedded into processes of data collection and the programming of algorithms. Since historical biases are often about sections of populations which have been categorized as illegal or as risks, this could potentially create technologies which always specifically target certain groups over other sections of the population. Hence data driven practices of identification and deterrence actually end up creating new forms of discrimination.

This was insightful for my own research interests of critically analyzing the centrality of computable big data in describing social realities. More specifically, the concerns regarding the movement of human bodies through regulated spaces of governance. Some of the presentations of the session ‘Infrastructures, subjects, politics’ (T085) looked specifically at case studies of infrastructures which seek to regulate populations and spaces. The presentations in general focused on these specific practices at the intersections between governance and the production and regulation through digital technologies. Some of the presentations were important in discussing border technologies to monitor refugee and immigrants, biometrics-based authentication systems, and the various uses of smartphones to circumvent state infrastructures of monitoring and surveillance. These discussions while illustrating state surveillance practices also raised questions as to what forms of subversion and spaces of resistance were possible outside this particular domain of state infrastructures. A particular presentation also focused on the implicit nature of private interests in monitoring other sections of the population, such as transgender, through health data infrastructures centered on the notions of gender and sexuality.

All these questions were important for understanding the spaces that we currently occupy and the possible futures that one can envision. In response to such questions, some aspects of the Keynote Plenary 2 by Isabelle Stengers was insightful when she argues that while one does exist in the ‘ruins’ of such contemporary social conditions and processes, or of sharing a common future, it also gives us an opportunity of imagining alternate possibilities. For her, imagination is possibility, and therefore one must take into account the notion of generativity – as ontological, as and of situations which produce the possible. The nature of an event is to produce new moments of possibility and interventions, and therefore indicate a way of thinking about collective spaces and futures.

For my work, the conference allowed important insights about the nature of issues that I currently engage in, specifically about big data, state practices of policing and monitoring immigrants. As a researcher working on the ideas of digital infrastructures and big data analytics in India, I feel it is imperative that there should be a possibility of resistance and agency; machine learning which allows for human cooption and coproduction of technologies. The practices of surveillance, of managing populations as risks and illegalities, given global issues around immigration and refugees, is a present that needs to reimagine its future from current events that seem to suggest otherwise. One possible way could be of thinking about building consensus around policies such as transparency, open data, open government initiatives, and digital rights in connection with biometrics based human machine interactions. The idea of technology as other means is possible only when alternative spaces can be imagined and made possible. The data driven forms of governance and interventions on spaces and human bodies is one form of a future where technology is politics by other means, through a different set of political practices in which issues and specific moments of human-machine interactions and conflict in infrastructures could be anticipated, critically analyzed and technically resolved.