Critical Infrastructures Studies (CIstudies.org) is the site of an international community of scholars from many fields who are exploring how looking at the world through the concept of infrastructure—of things and systems made, built, shaped, crafted, interwoven, old, new, lived, loved, hated, sustained, or resisted—can make a difference.
How does thinking from the point of view of infrastructure help us ask new questions about the way we live in the world that thinking through the concepts of “text,” “culture,” or “media” (some of the main paradigms of intellectual history in the last century) cannot?
What are the intersections between science-engineering, social science, humanistic, and artistic understandings of infrastructure?
What is “critical” about infrastructure and the way we look at it? And how do infrastructures — including the most critical in the sense of “mission critical” or “can’t fail” (just one branch of critical infrastructure studies) — gaze back critically at us, our institutions, and our socio-technical systems? What do we look like from the point of view of infrastructure?
Moreover, to acknowledge a world far more expansive than just humans and their things, what is the place of all the other organisms and things in the natural, but increasingly built, environment — all the trickster coyote creatures, big and small, scampering in the contact zone between cities and wilderness?
Over the past few decades, “infrastructure studies” has arisen in the humanities and social sciences to address such issues. Important earlier approaches include “Large Technical Systems” analysis (influenced by the historian Thomas Hughes’s 1983 Networks of Power: Electrification in Western Society, 1880-1930) and ethnographic/information-science methods (influenced by Susan Leigh Star, Geoffrey Bowker, and their circle [e.g., Star and Ruhleder, and Edwards, et al.]). These approaches have been joined by new approaches, including:
- Digital-humanities infrastructure theory
e. g., Tara McPherson’s 2012 “U.S. Operating Systems at Mid-century: The Intertwining of Race and UNIX” (revised, extended version), Sheila Anderson’s 2013 “What Are Research Infrastructures?” and James Smithies’s chapter “Towards a Systems Analysis of the Humanities” in his forthcoming The Digital Humanities and the Digital Modern;
- “Media infrastructures” theory
e. g, Kate Marshall’s 2013 Corridor: Media Architectures in American Fiction; Tung-Hui Hu’s 2015 A Prehistory of the Cloud, Shannon Mattern’s essays on media and space in the Places journal; and Lisa Parks and Nicole Starosielski’s 2015 edited collection, Signal Traffic: Critical Studies of Media Infrastructures;
- Feminist infrastructure theory
e. g, Deb Verhoeven’s 2016 “As Luck Would Have It: Serendipity and Solace in Digital Research Infrastructure”.
- Theory of “repair, care, and maintenance” (vs. “innovation and disruption”)
e. g., Steven Jackson’s 2013 “Rethinking Repair”and Andrew Russell and Lee Vinsel’s 2016 “Hail the Maintainers”.
New and variant approaches are arising (see the CI Bibliography). CIstudies.org is organizing researchers, projects, and activities from around the world to evolve critical infrastructure studies.