Sunday, February 2, 2014

How to Infrastructure

Chapter Summary

In the chapter “How to Infrastructure,” information specialists Susan L. Star and Geoffrey C. Bowker hope to explore the processes by which communication infrastructures, the prime example here being the internet, are formed and maintained. Though many attributes of successful infrastructures are listed in the chapter, the main thrust of the piece seems to be that the continuation of infrastructures is completely dependent on the implementation of standards. The authors also draw attention to concerns about how information infrastructures are creating divisions between users who can access the modes of communication, and those who can not. As Star and Bowker suggest, there are always political, ethical, and social choices that come into play when an information infrastructure becomes more visible (233).

While the authors are quick to point out that the common sense definition of infrastructures as “that upon which something else rides, or works, a platform” is a bit too simplistic, it offers a good launching point for their arguments. Infrastructures are everywhere, and the more successful ones share the commonalities of having stable bases upon which people can build, compatibility between systems, and an offer of support to a community of users (231).  A helpful set of  examples to think of could be local gas, electric, and sewage infrastructures. Many of these were set in place long ago, and require relatively small amounts of upkeep  to continue serving users (237). If infrastructures are frameworks that reach beyond temporal usage, the question becomes, how do our modern communications infrastructures maintain their usefulness?

With a stable base from which to build, infrastructures only thrive when they can offer standards. The authors eloquently imagine information standards as a “shared set of handshakes among the various media they pass through” (234). This means that information systems must be able to communicate with existing programs, while allowing for updates to progress towards advancements. To put it more of a practical context, the use of standards is what allows e-mails from Yahoo accounts to be read by Gmail, and what allows people to work on the same document in Microsoft Word 2003 and 2007. These standards require constant communication to ensure each infrastructure agrees with the next, and this is why Star and Bowker claim “the internet is only virtually stable.”

To complete their investigation of what makes infrastructures effective, the authors make the claim that accessibility must be accounted for. When groups of users are left out from receiving the benefits of an infrastructure, it creates gaps in progress. In using the example of how lack of internet access creates sets of people who are “information rich” and”information poor,” Star and Bowker imply that open access for all could be the next information infrastructure that needs to be put into place (239).

How is this Information being used?

This chapter is part of a 2002 book entitled Handbook of New Media , which is an exploration of how new technologies affects the social aspects of everyday life. The work is geared toward more scholarly analysis, and a search for articles that cite “How to Infrastructure” reveals that many of the discussions that point to the work of Star and Bowker continue the conversation of how cultures responds to the more expansive information infrastructure. One example is Sonia Livingstone’s article “The changing nature of audiences, from the mass audience to the interactive media user,” which explores how more personalized choices of media (ex: On Demand type programming) challenges the established infrastructure, and how consumers will interpret changes based on their preferences. While this article was mostly chosen at random, and is not a perfect example, it continues the line of thinking Star and Bowker started by examining how accessibility plays a large role in how individuals “buy in” to a new infrastructure.  


The most fascinating idea encountered in this article is that advancements in media only exist when infrastructures “allow” for such progress. The authors give examples of  how products that we may think of as revolutionary are only slight modifications of existing infrastructures. These include the rise of computers, which Star and Bowker claim was due to the changing needs of the office infrastructure, and the rise of the health care industry and increased life expectancy due to changes in the water sanitation infrastructure (233). When viewing our media as such small parts of a larger picture, it makes one realize the impermanence of the “next great technological breakthrough.” But because of the argument set forth in this chapter, there also comes a realization that any good infrastructure will allow for and absorb this change, as it progress towards something new.


Susan Leigh Star and Geoffrey C. Bowker, "How to infrastructure," in Leah Lievrouw et al., es., Handbook of New Media (London: Sage Publications, 2006), pp. 230-245. 

Sonia Livingstone, "The changing nature of audiences : from the mass audience to the interactive media user." In: Valdivia, A., (ed.) Companion to media studies. Blackwell companions in cultural studies (6). (Blackwell Publishing, Oxford, UK, 2003) pp. 337-359. 

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