Sorting Things Out

Sorting Things Out

Classification and Its Consequences

Geoffrey C. Bowker, Susan Leigh Star

A definition of infrastructure

  • Embeddedness. Infrastructure is sunk into, inside of, other structures, social arrangements, and technologies,
  • Transparency. Infrastructure is transparent to use in the sense that it does not have to be reinvented each time or assembled for each task, but invisibly supports those tasks.
  • Reach or scope. This may be either spatial or temporal—infrastructure has reach beyond a single event or one-site practice;
  • Learned as part of membership. The taken-for-grantedness of artifacts and organizational arrangements is a sine qua non of membership in a community of practice (Lave and Wenger 1991, Star 1996). Strangers and outsiders encounter infrastructure as a target object to be learned about. New participants acquire a naturalized familiarity with its objects as they become members.
  • Links with conventions of practice. Infrastructure both shapes and is shaped by the conventions of a community of practice; for example, the ways that cycles of day-night work are affected by and affect electrical power rates and needs. Generations of typists have learned the QWERTY keyboard; its limitations are inherited by the computer keyboard and thence by the design of today’s computer furniture (Becker 1982).
  • Embodiment of standards. Modified by scope and often by conflicting conventions, infrastructure takes on transparency by plugging into other infrastructures and tools in a standardized fashion.
  • Built on an installed base. Infrastructure does not grow de novo; it wrestles with the inertia of the installed base and inherits strengths and limitations from that base. Optical fibers run along old railroad lines, new systems are designed for backward compatibility; and failing to account for these constraints may be fatal or distorting to new development processes (Monteiro and Hanseth 1996).
  • Becomes visible upon breakdown. The normally invisible quality of working infrastructure becomes visible when it breaks: the server is down, the bridge washes out, there is a power blackout. Even when there are backup mechanisms or procedures, their existence further highlights the now visible infrastructure.
  • Is fixed in modular increments, not all at once or globally. Because infrastructure is big, layered, and complex, and because it means different things locally, it is never changed from above. Changes take time and negotiation, and adjustment with other aspects of the systems involved.

Source: Star and Rohleder 1996.

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