[SIGCIS-Members] critical infrastructures/criticality/critical studies/critical theory

David Ribes dribes at gmail.com
Wed Aug 24 11:03:18 PDT 2016

Just a few words on something that I have a lot of opinions about.

First, a generous reading. Since I often operate within the interstices of
computer and information engineering worlds, a note on the work that the
word 'critical' does in those spaces. Many of the key venues  such as CSCW
or CHI are dominated by what I would call 'boosters.' That is,
technological enthusiasts that will publish their studies on the latest
killer app, platform, or computational capacity, with unbridled enthusiasm
about what their futures will bring.

In those circles, the word 'critical' means something along the lines of
considering negative or ambivalent consequences: who is benefiting and who
is losing out, what are the forgotten conflicts, who is doing the practical
work (think: the gig workers of Uber, the laborers of Mechanical Turk).
Since publishing such papers amongst the leading&majority boosters in such
fields is an uphill battle,  'critical' has served as a kind of rallying

Good, right?

But it also has unfortunate consequences. Sometimes playing much the role
that JD Fleming has noted, where essentially critical often just means
'good' i.e., 'is this a critical scholar' means 'do we like their work?'.
More dangerously, as being critical has become a marker, it seems to have
been tied to a demonstration of smashing (think, idols in Nietzsche): the
need to show inequalities, their reproduction, and thereafter avidly
condemn, sometimes out of the blue, often without doing the hard work of
showing exactly how that is happening. In the worst case there is indignant
anger that accompanies any failure to make these moves.

In my tradition of infrastructure studies, as Thomas Haigh noted, the
concerns of critical theory have always been deeply embedded. Put very
briefly, while infrastructure is "enabling" (faster, cheaper, easier,
possible) it  also simultaneously: renders some people or things
systemically invisible, benefits some more than others (often
systematically), has the tendency to render murky or invisible the
underpinnings that make action possible etc etc. Those two arguments are
almost invariably coupled in the work of people like Bowker, Star, Jackson,
me, etc.

But that sentiment has also been coupled with something along the lines of
Latour's 'matters of concern': following 80s and 90s STS studies showing
that facts and technologies are not autonomous, inevitable or all powerful,
we tend to think of facts and technologies as delicate, hard achievements,
and difficult to circulate. And so, 'criticism' is done with great care,
recognizing, for example, that climate change and its infrastructures, are
fragile and sometimes tied to things we care about. Even if not executed
flawlessly (never the case), we don't smash, we carefully position the
enabling relative to the disabling... And so, yes, I almost never use the
word critical, but its a deep part of my thinking ...


David Ribes
Associate Professor
Department of Human Centered Design and Engineering (HCDE)
University of Washington

David Ribes
Associate Professor
Department of Human Centered Design and Engineering (HCDE)
University of Washington

On Wed, Aug 24, 2016 at 9:54 AM, JD Fleming <jfleming at sfu.ca> wrote:

> The gate of semantics: Lasciate ogni speranza, voi ch'entrate!
> It seems to me that we long since passed the point with "critical" where
> it stopped meaning very much. The point of no return may have been when
> Frankfurt-school Critical Theory--which was supposed to designate a
> specific kind of pragmatic socialist socio-economic analysis--got taken
> over, but then mostly forogotten, by literary theorists. They then started
> using, and still use, this phrase just to mean "theory of criticism" or
> "theory done by critics"--"theory," of course, being its own vague stone in
> a whole other vat of soup.
> In literary departments (lemme tell ya), it is an article of faith that if
> you put "critical" in front of anything, you then generate a "studies"
> which (a) gains its validity from the anything in the question, but (b)
> lends the literary academic power over the latter--the real-world or
> "foundationalist" activity which is supposed to have to *listen* to the
> special insight that the literary perspective, supposedly, lends.
> Basically, this becomes a game played within literary academia itself. No
> engineer, I dare say, will ever need to give a dam (sorry about that) for
> critical infrastructure studies. No university administrator will ever
> explain its benefits to funding agencies or industry. But literary journals
> will like it; tenures will be achieved by it; talks will be invited on it;
> usw.
> JD Fleming
> ------------------------------
> *From: *"Sharon Traweek" <traweek at history.ucla.edu>
> *To: *members at lists.sigcis.org
> *Sent: *Tuesday, 23 August, 2016 16:55:45
> *Subject: *[SIGCIS-Members] critical infrastructures/criticality/critical
> studies/critical theory
> Just a reminder: we are using a set of words with different meanings
> developed by different kinds of experts in different sub/fields, some of
> whom do not know the other meanings, nor why they developed. At least since
> the 1930s there also have been multiple kinds of territorial 'boundary
> maintenance' around/within some of those terms by those aware of the
> various terms and their histories. Some of the multiple meanings, their
> histories, and their affiliated communities of expertise intersect in some
> infrastructure studies.
> Here are a few of the distinctions, as drawn by our colleagues writing
> essays for wikipedia:
> Criticality    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Criticality
> Criticality index <https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Criticality_index>
> Criticality matrix <https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Criticality_matrix>
> Critical theory https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Critical_theory
> "... As a term, *critical theory* has two meanings. with different
> origins and histories: the first originated in sociology
> <https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sociology> and political philosophy
> <https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Political_philosophy>, while the second
> originated in literary studies
> <https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Literary_studies> and literary theory
> <https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Literary_theory>. ... While they can be
> considered completely independent intellectual pursuits, increasingly
> scholars are interested in the areas of critique where the two overlap.
> ..." https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Critical_theory
> Note too the differences between/within modernist, postmodern, and current
> critical theory https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Critical_theory#Postmodern_
> critical_theory
> See also these links, among others, listed as "subfields" at
> https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Critical_theory
>    - Critical ethnography
>    <https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Critical_ethnography>
>    - Critical legal studies
>    <https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Critical_legal_studies>
>    - Critical management studies
>    <https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Critical_management_studies>
>    - Critical pedagogy <https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Critical_pedagogy>
>    - Critical philosophy
>    <https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Critical_philosophy>
>    - Critical psychiatry
>    <https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Critical_psychiatry>
>    - Critical psychology
>    <https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Critical_psychology>
>    - Critical race theory
>    <https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Critical_race_theory>
>    - Cultural studies <https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cultural_studies>
> ------------------------------
> *From:* Members [members-bounces at lists.sigcis.org] on behalf of Alberts,
> Gerard [G.Alberts at uva.nl]
> *Sent:* Tuesday, August 23, 2016 3:27 PM
> *To:* Thomas Haigh; 'Lori Emerson'
> *Cc:* members at lists.sigcis.org
> *Subject:* Re: [SIGCIS-Members] Call for Ideas!
> Eh, but Tom, aren't getting off on a tangent here?
> I agree with Brian that "critical" in this context is an adjective to
> infrastructures, not to the study of it -even if we do not have to exclude
> to possibility of a critical theory of infrastructures. Infrastructures
> were deemed critical by those who observed that the breakdown of such
> infrastructures would bring the whole of society to a standstill. I would
> think, the high voltage power networks were the key example. Whether the
> expression "critical infrastructure"  was brought into the debate by
> military strategists, political scientists, anthropologists or by those
> building the networks, I do not know. Interesting historical question. Of
> equal interest is when and by whom IT-infrastructures were considered so
> crucially important, that they were called "critical". Gerard
> ________________________________________
> From: Members [members-bounces at lists.sigcis.org] on behalf of Brian
> Randell [brian.randell at newcastle.ac.uk]
> Sent: Tuesday, August 23, 2016 3:22 PM
> To: Thomas Haigh
> Cc: members at lists.sigcis.org
> Subject: Re: [SIGCIS-Members] Call for Ideas!
> Hi Tom:
> In the research communities I inhabit the meaning that would be attached
> to “critical infrastructure studies” is “studies of critical
> infrastructure”  not “critical studies of infrastructure”.
> Further, “critical infrastructure” typically concerns "critical national
> infrastructure”, such as the electricity grid - see
> http://www.cpni.gov.uk/about/cni/ or on your side of the Atlantic -
> https://www.dhs.gov/what-critical-infrastructure
> As regards the word “infrastructure”, here is a summary explanation that I
> and my computer science colleagues have used:
> •Infrastructure is by definition reusable by different
> individuals/organizations for different purposes on different occasions.
> •Not all of these uses are known to, or even the concern of, the
> designer(s) of the infrastructure who must create something which will
> respond to and support uses that have not yet been conceived.
> •Infrastructures need to be capacity engineered - so that the amount of
> resource can be changed to meet current and expected demand.
> •Over-deployment endangers the supplier,  under-deployment frustrates the
> user.
> •One organization’s system often becomes another organization’s
> infrastructure.
> Cheers
> Brian
> ------------------------------
> From: Members [members-bounces at lists.sigcis.org] on behalf of Thomas
> Haigh [thomas.haigh at gmail.com]
> Sent: Tuesday, August 23, 2016 2:42 PM
> To: 'Lori Emerson'
> Cc: members at lists.sigcis.org
> Subject: Re: [SIGCIS-Members] Call for Ideas!
>    I don’t think critical adds a whole lot to “infrastructure studies.” It
> has some usefulness in formulations like “critical management studies” (a
> thing in Northern Europe but no so much in the US) as management
> scholarship is usually uncritical in every sense of the word. So “critical”
> demarcates a scholarly community deliberately taking a unorthodox
> approaches to challenge the assumptions of the field.
> http://www.criticalmanagement.org/content/about-cms
>    But science studies, STS, media studies, etc. manage to embrace a
> variety of socially and culturally informed perspectives without their
> practitioners needing to add the “critical” in front of them. Adding
> “critical” might be seen as a challenge to those currently embracing
> “infrastructure studies” as a scholarly identity. There’s also the question
> of whether “critical” means critical as in “critical thinking” or as in
> “critical theory,” and while critical theory certainly has a place among
> other approaches in the study of infrastructure not everyone would feel
> comfortable with the suggestion that it should be elevated over approaches
> grounded in STS, history, sociology, anthropology, etc.
> Best wishes,
> Tom
> _____________________________________________
> From: Members [mailto:members-bounces at lists.sigcis.org] On Behalf Of Lori
> Emerson
> Sent: Tuesday, August 23, 2016 1:39 PM
> To: Paul N. Edwards <pne at umich.edu>
> Cc: Dag Spicer <dspicer at computerhistory.org>; members at lists.sigcis.org
> Subject: Re: [SIGCIS-Members] Call for Ideas!
> Dear all, I just wanted to thank you for sending in these great resources
> for infrastructure studies - I came across the term "critical
> infrastructure studies" a couple months ago and got quite excited about how
> it seemed more expansive and more useful for describing my projects on labs
> and the pre-history of the internet than either "media archaeology" or just
> "media studies." But now I wonder what the extra "critical" denotes since
> there's a somewhat well established field already of I.S.? Any thoughts?
> yours, Lori
> _______________________________________________
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> --
> James Dougal Fleming
> Associate Professor
> Department of English
> Simon Fraser University
> 778-782-4713
> Burnaby -- British Columbia -- Canada.
> *"And what is your destiny, if I may ask?"*
>                         -- Ibsen,* The Wild Duck*
> _______________________________________________
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