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This article aims to understand contemporary forms of “digital work” and how this is imagined in visionary documents related to states or cities in the context of smart urbanism. Specifically, we argue for an infrastructural perspective on smart urbanism to highlight (1) how such visionary documents organize society in specific ways and (2) how this organization is rooted in work that is imagined as being mainly informational and disembodied. Through an analysis of Singapore’s recent Smart Nation initiative, we make a case for the actual human and embodied work that constitutes visions of smart urbanism. This work comprises both the physical construction and maintenance of digital infrastructure and also the monitoring of these infrastructures and the interpretation of data on which they run. Finally, we show how an infrastructural inversion of smart urban initiatives is capable of highlighting these invisibilities of human work, specifically by drawing on the mundanity, temporality, and materiality of work that is considered being digital.
The Imagination of Singapores Smart Nation
as Digital Infrastructure:
Rendering (Digital) Work Invisible
Thijs Willems and Connor Graham
Received: 7 November 2018 / Accepted: 10 June 2019
© 2019 Ministry of Science and Technology, Taiwan
Abstract This article aims to understand contemporary forms of digital workand
how this is imagined in visionary documents related to states or cities in the context of
smart urbanism. Specically, we argue for an infrastructural perspective on smart
urbanism to highlight (1) how such visionary documents organize society in specic
ways and (2) how this organization is rooted in work that is imagined as being mainly
informational and disembodied. Through an analysis of Singapores recent Smart
Nation initiative, we make a case for the actual human and embodied work that con-
stitutes visions of smart urbanism. This work comprises both the physical construction
and maintenance of digital infrastructure and also the monitoring of these infrastruc-
tures and the interpretation of data on which they run. Finally, we show how an
infrastructural inversion of smart urban initiatives is capable of highlighting these
invisibilities of human work, specically by drawing on the mundanity, temporality,
and materiality of work that is considered being digital.
Keywords digital infrastructures, digital work, (im)material labor, smart nation,
1 Introduction
This article examines imaginations of smart urbanism that currently infringe on modes
of governance and administration in many cities and urban areas. Urban areas will
Acknowledgements We would like to thank Bernadette Gostelow and Gregory Clancey for their input on
earlier drafts of this article. We are also indebted to the valuable input and advice of two anonymous reviewers.
T. Willems
Lee Kuan Yew Centre for Innovative Cities, Singapore University of Technology and Design, Singapore
C. Graham
Tembusu College and Asia Research Institute, National University of Singapore, Singapore
East Asian Science, Technology and Society: An International Journal (2019) 13:126
DOI 10.1215/18752160-8005194
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house an expected 60 percent of the world populace by 2030,
creating challenges and
threats for many cities. While this is a global phenomenon, it is, in particular, pertinent
to the Asian context; the continent is undergoing rapid urbanization and has a majority
of the worlds megacities. It is no wonder, then, that we see many initiatives emerge all
over Asia, aiming to preempt and tackle these challenges by building a strong, digital,
and national infrastructure. Examples are the push for connectivity in Digital India,
Made in China 2025envisioning China as a leading manufacturing power using
primarily digital and smarttechnologies, and other digitalization efforts in Southeast
Asia, such as those found in Vietnam, Indonesia, or Singapore, with its Smart Nation
initiative. In this article we are interested in tracing the notion of work in these master-
plans and how a particular understanding of work is being developed as being digital
and informational rather than embodied and material. We consider work as rstly
having different forms (see Strauss et al. 1985) and as having an exchange value
when becoming labor.
Great diversity exists across cultural and geographical contexts in how digital infra-
structures are understood and implemented (see, e.g., Graham et al. 2018 on the mul-
tiplicity of Internetsin Asia). In the public domain (e.g., states and government
agencies) and the private sector (e.g., tech companies and large multinational corpo-
rations [MNCs]), smart usually means embracing digital technology as a prime driver
of change in tackling urban problems. Academic literature, however, is far less univocal
and there exists dispute in what smart means (e.g., Albino, Berardi, and Dangelico 2015)
and the benets, against the costs, being smartmight bring. For example, smart urban-
ism is seen as hegemonic discourse reinforcing the neoliberal-developmental logic of
states (see, e.g., Ho 2017) or as being technocratic and reductionist (Kong and Woods
2018). Indicative of the importance of infrastructure for smart urbanism, this literature
explores infrastructure in multiple ways, considering it as the technology, discourse, or
improvization underlying the city or state (Clancey 2012;Tan 2012;Kong and Woods
2018;Offenhuber and Schechtner 2018). Thisarticle is distinct from this literature in two
ways. First, it focuses on smart urbanism as an imagination that is entangled with
material reality. Second, rather than considering only what is present in this imagination,
it explicitly considers what is absent.
To achieve this, we unpack smart urbanism explicitly from an infrastructural and
sociotechnical perspective. We argue that it is the infrastructural nature of smart urban-
ism itself that renders embodied human work invisible. This gives us a vantage point
for identifying the different forms of work that, to different degrees, become invisible
in smartfutures as well as how these futures intersect with imaginations of the human
body and particular, normative and primarily economically productive citizens at the
expense of other populations such as transient workers or retired seniors. We achieve
this through a close analysis of the Smart Nation initiative documents themselves
and through examining a corpus of relevant academic papers, newspaper articles,
and gray literature. Our approach is warranted because smart city initiatives place
infrastructure at their heart: IT masterplans tend to promote the development of
The Worlds Cities in 2016.Data booklet. United Nations.
/publications/pdf/urbanization/the_worlds_cities_in_2016_data_booklet.pdf. Accessed on 3 February 2019.
2 T. Willems and C. Graham
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national infrastructures, many of which are digital, such as ICTs (information and
communications technologies) for ubiquitous connectivity (Mukherjee 2019), inte-
grated systems of technologies and platforms (Plantin et al. 2018), or modes of gov-
ernance by means of big data (ONeill 2016;Batty 2013) or algorithms (Bilić2016).
By drawing on Star and Ruhleders (1996) seminal work on infrastructures, we want to
go beyond the question of what infrastructure is and the relations it produces generally
in the context of smart urbanism. Instead, drawing on recent work on digital labor (e.g.,
Ross 2013;Terranova 2013;Wood et al. 2019), we question the infrastructural nature
of the digital technologies underlying smart-city initiatives as we argue these are dis-
tinct in their materiality and the relations and omissions they produce. This involves
asking how technologies come into being as specic digital infrastructure, opening up
a range of interrelated issues in the context of smart urbanism concerning imagined
labor, policy, state and industry involvement, and everyday cultural practices. We wish
to test the hypothesis that digital infrastructure is particularly productive of different
forms of unaccounted-for work, which, if not considered to be donated free, is at least
precarious: While digital technology did not give birth to the model of free labor, it has
proven to be a highly efcient enabler of non-standard work arrangements(Ross
2013: 23).
We illustrate our case through Singapores Smart Nation initiative, a recent state-
level plan to develop national infrastructure, a newly skilled workforce, and integrated
communities. When announced by Singapores prime minister, this focus on cohesion,
productivity, and improving quality of life for Singapore citizens was emphasized (Au-
Yong 2014). In our examination we highlight the infrastructural nature of Smart Nation
as being particularly digital and revolving around a set of (in)visibilities. The case of
Smart Nation is pertinent for our purpose because it is the most recent one of a series of
seven ICT-related, state-initiated masterplans in Singapore stretching back to 1985, all
of which have had some infrastructural focus. Our analysis points out that the master-
plan implicitly organizes and creates a society and a workforce that is apt to full
imaginations of a Smart Nation. Previously this has been studied as a matter of pro-
ducing a particular normative citizen as well as a more precarious segment that is at
once created and rendered invisible through policy plans (Ho 2017;Tan 2012). In this
article we show how the imagination of work central to Smart Nation is particular in
how it is digital. While we agree with the observation that work is becoming increas-
ingly digital, we question how such work in smart urbanism discourse is, rst, erro-
neously conated with being immaterial and disembodied (see M. Tan 2012) and,
second, imagined as being divorced from physical reality. We thus aim to bring
together literature on smart urbanism that has argued for how work in such settings
is rendered invisible and research on digital work and labor that examines and critiques
the broader context in which contemporary work and labor relations and practices
reside. We use this literature and research to extend our analysis from a solely infra-
structural perspective, providing a more complete analysis of the different forms of
work that are rendered invisible and the human bodies that are absent in futuristic
visions of smart urbanism.
Our approach acknowledges that if the nature of work is changing in smart urban
settings, it remains and rests on older forms of work conducted by actual bodies that
both refuse to be eradicated and periodically come into focus and then disappear. We
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explore this changing nature of work through considering how embodied work and
practice is related to more recent forms of digital work, specically by zooming in on
how sociotechnical infrastructures that constitute imaginations of smart urbanism are
built and maintained, how their continuous production of data must be monitored and
interpreted, and how they rest on a particular conception of citizens as prosumers
whose everyday livesor net subjectivitybecome raw material for capital accu-
mulation(Ross 2013: 25). Rethinking smart urbanism as digital infrastructure
distinguishes itself from other analyses because it (1) generates a critical perspec-
tive on contemporary forms of organizing citizens and the scale at which they
operate, (2) develops an understanding of produced invisibilities by casting light
on what the affordances and narratives of digital technologies obscure, and (3) makes
visible the actors, locatedness, materiality, and politics of labor that has become
2 Infrastructure: Between Imaginations and Material Practice
Infrastructure studies has a rich and diverse heritage, spanning a range of disciplines
such as STS, anthropology, information and ICT studies, and even organization and
management studies. As Plantin and Punathambekar (2019) observe, this broad diver-
sity can roughly be categorized into analyses of large technical systems (LTS) and
sociological/phenomenological accounts of infrastructure. This rst category tends to
look at large infrastructures, such as electrical networks or entire cities, as sociotech-
nical systems and how they are historically situated and change over time (e.g., Bijker
et al. 2012;Hughes 1983;Graham 2010). For instance, as Paul N. Edwards (2003)
argues, sociotechnical systems become infrastructures by becoming so ingrained in
society that without them contemporary societies cannot function. LTS approaches
infrastructure from different scales and positions, ranging from, for instance, functional
accounts of how their design is shaped by cultural contexts and social institutions (e.g.,
Hughes 1983), to a more socially constructed understanding of infrastructures and how
actors can change or recongure them over time (e.g., Bijker et al. 2012). Implicit in
this perspective are publicly performed visions of desirable futures(Jasanoff 2015:
4) where states, corporations, and citizens collectively produce sociotechnical imag-
inaries on the promises of infrastructure.
Sociological/phenomenological accounts (e.g., Willems 2018a;Graham and Thrift
2007;Harvey and Knox 2012), on the contrary, have taken up Star and Ruhleders
(1996) observation that infrastructures are fundamentally relational; they are not just
well-designed actualizations of masterplans providing structure but they must always
be locally implemented and adjusted. This alternative view invites for infrastruc-
tural inversion(Bowker 1994), that is, foregrounding infrastructuresroutine inner
and invisible workings. This implies going beyond what policy makers and entre-
preneurs promise in their visionary discourses to, instead, showing how such visions
are translated in practice and how infrastructure materializes. For instance, this
means to focus on how different perspectives on a particular infrastructure are
negotiated, how conventions or standardswhich must be learned as part of a
membershipcome into being, and how, eventually, systems acquire the status of
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invisible, embedded infrastructure (Star and Ruhleder 1996). Moreover, and important
to the current article, a relational view brings into consideration that infrastructures
must be built and actively maintained. This consideration comprises the maintenance
work of technicians and repairmen (see, e.g., Graham and Thrift 2007) and also the
work of control room operators monitoring operations and gathering information about
infrastructure from a distance (see, e.g., Willems 2018b;Suchman 1997;Gad and
Lauritsen 2009).
It is this latter perspective that we are interested in here, as it explores smart urban-
ism at the intersection of sociotechnical imaginaries (Jasanoff 2015) and the mundane
practices of multiple stakeholders contextualizing and materializing such imagina-
tions. This is specically relevant with regard to the sociopolitical context and status
of Singapore: with it being a city-state and due to its size, governance structures, and
the ruling political partys continuity since independence, the gap between imagination
and reality is slim, although this gaprequires working out in practice, and the results
are still subject to resistance by citizens (see Graham et al. 2018: 490). Recently Jathan
Sadowski and Roy Bendor (2019) have examined how smartnessin smart-city dis-
course is being sold and disseminated by narratives of entrepreneurial tech companies,
thereby bringing a particular imagination into being. While we agree with their obser-
vation that smart-urbanism scholars should pay attention to explicating the overarch-
ing narrative that forms the foundation of the smart city imaginary(545), our case of
Singapore is distinct from their study of IBM and Cisco because Smart Nation is not so
much an entrepreneurial venture as it is a national collaboration between government
and small- and medium-sized enterprises through which citizens are directly engaged.
In other words, imaginations of a Smart Nation are less contested or questioned than
they are materialized via government agencies and local companies, not least because
the government employs a great deal of its citizens. In our view, then, analyzing Smart
Nation as a matter of infrastructure rather than vision or narrative is warranted as we see
infrastructure as a particular urban imagination being made material as well as a means
of working out this imagination in practice.
This also draws attention to how discourses on digital technologies bring into
being imaginaries of work as being digital and disembodied, thereby implicitly
leaving older forms of manual and embodied work out of their account (see Tan
2012). This is relevant to those infrastructures in smart urban areas as these are
particularly digital in nature. Such networks are constructed on and produce ows
of information and data, and an infrastructural inversion of them shows the labor
necessary to sustain them and necessary for the scales on which they operate (Ros-
siter 2016;Plantin and Punathambekar 2019). Casper Bruun Jensen and Brit Ross
Winthereik (2013), for instance, show how information infrastructures are crucial for
development aid and explain how, from an infrastructural perspective, we can under-
stand mismatches between promises and realities as well as translations from the
design to the use of such infrastructures. In a similar vein, Connor Graham and
colleagues (2018) trace the digitalization of Singapore as being grounded in infra-
structural development projects and a discourse of masterplans, while they also argue
that, on the ground, citizens can resist or challenge such projects; ironically, such
resistance and its visibility is afforded by those very same infrastructures or plat-
forms. In the context of smart urbanism, moreover, it has been suggested that the
implementation of digital infrastructure and technologies elicits improvizational
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responses so that governance and planning become blended with newly emerging
social practices (Offenhuber and Schechtner 2018).
We do not wish to make a hard distinction between imaginations and material
practice as the two are intimately entangled. We see the Smart Nation documents as
future-generating devicesthat live in-between material and discursive realities
(Jensen 2005: 247). Imaginations such as infrastructural masterplans, in other
words, have performative capacity, and by analyzing them closely we can nd traces
of the directions in which they materialize. In this article we do so to identify the
different forms of work that Smart Nation, to different degrees, renders invisible as
well as how there is absence of the human body in these imaginations. The two
observations go hand in hand and should, in fact, be seen as a matter of smart urbanism
producing a certain kind of citizen. In the context of this article we emphasize this
citizen as being an economically productive one (i.e., one that labors) and, moreover,
as one with the specic skills and capabilities attached to prosumption so that imag-
inations of digital work can be realized.
It is worth noting here that the human body, and its different transmutations, has
often been a site for imagining the future. For instance, Chihyung Jeon (2018) explores
the symbolic/embodied dyad of the gure of the human in South Korea and how
imaginations of such gures are closely coupled with the nations visions for the future.
Central to these are the networks, or infrastructures, through which such gures can be
created and circulated. However, so he argues, the circulation of technoscientic imag-
inations of future and disembodied visions of humanity is given much more opportu-
nities by these networks, so that they can become decoupled from lived, embodied
experience. In a similar vein, Itty Abraham (2018) examines Aadhaar, a national
database for residents of India, who obtain a unique identity number based on their
biometric and demographic data. He traces the prehistory of Aadhaar via a number of
critical moments of technopolitical reduction of the corporeal body(380) and argues
that the body has been a site for the shaping of modern society in which individuals
have become digitized and are represented as fragments or metrics in databases. These
observations are important in the context of smart urbanism; they not only hint at the
potential absence of the human body in imagining what a smart city is or what type of
citizen lives and works in such an environment, but they also point to the importance of
data, and algorithms making sense of this data, in making visible certain imaginations
about societies at the cost of alternatives.
Below, we rst provide a brief historical overview of Singapore and how infrastruc-
ture has always been central to the development of this nation-state. We then locate the
Smart Nation initiative in the context of earlier technological masterplans and identify
how it imagines and organizes society exactly. Finally, by drawing on two specic
cases in the initiative, we highlight some different forms of digital work that are
imagined in Smart Nation and trace the role, or absence, of the human body in this.
3 Singapores Smart Nation initiative
After nearly one-and-a-half centuries of British colonial rule and after its expulsion
from Malaysia, the fully independent Republic of Singapore was established in 1965
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(Turnbull 2009: 1). It was a multicultural, multilingual, and multiracial society in
which religious pluralism existed, and the ruling party, Peoples Action Party (PAP),
chartered out a pragmatic plan for economic development for the island, as well as a
specic Singaporean identity that transcended cultural, linguistic, and racial differ-
ences (2009). The small nation-state was lacking natural resources and a hinterland
and, moreover, it was left with a largely low-skilled and unemployed populace. Eco-
nomic development was carefully planned and aligned with technological develop-
ment (Mahizhnan 2000): championing, translating, and re-fashioning specic tech-
nologies helped sustain the pre-existing charisma of the PAP state(Clancey 2012: 14).
Education plans have also cultivated particular skills through the state education sys-
tem. In addition, part of the states success has involved its encouragement of inter-
national, multinational company investment as well as its own successful investment
of sovereign wealth funds (Chua 2017;Turnbull 2009). In this way, the effective
organization of Singapore has become a key part of state ideology and the ruling
PAPs charisma, and the state itself runs much like a successful organization. In addi-
tion to the long working hours of the Singapore workforce (45.1 hours per week on
average in September 2017), that embed much of everyday life in organizations, the
state, like other countries with limited natural resources, consciously articulates and
acts on citizens as a key resource. In this way Singaporeans, like other populations
around the world, are both created and acted on by the state in different ways, for
example, through being counted through the ten-yearly census and being employed (as
of 2017 approximately 140,000 people work for the government in Singapore).
also sets the case of Singapore apart from others. In line with Tan 2012, for instance, the
Singapore government, through masterplans and specic policies, not only puts for-
ward a particular prioritized imagination of a future but it also, in doing so and by
providing the infrastructural means, materializes this imagination and, with it, a par-
ticular productive, skilled population.
Infrastructure is thus crucial to the states success in this regard, and since at least
1980 the development of national infrastructure has explicitly been of a digital kind
with the establishment of a National Computer Board (NCB) and the launch of the
National Computerisation Plan (NCP). This heralded a rst masterplan in 1985 that
was aimed at digitalizing the Singapore nation-state, followed by several others, of
which the Smart Nation initiative is the latest incarnation. Although imaginations in
each masterplan changed and each era can be identied by a specic range of tech-
nologies and infrastructure, some continuities across the plans point at the continual
reimagination of the nation as an IT hub and a pragmatic adoption of technologies to an
evolving global economy. This is clearly acknowledged in some of the Smart Nation
documents: While each masterplan had a different emphasis to address challenges of
the period, the underlying objectives have been clear and consistentto guide the use
of ICT to enhance Singapores international competitiveness, upgrade the skills of
citizens especially the workforce, improve service standards, and attract knowledge-
intensive activities(SNDGO 2018: 6).
For 2017 number of government workers, see Government Headcount,
government-headcount?resource_id = cbcc128f-081d-4a03-8970-9bac1be13a5d. Accessed on 19 January
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Moreover, while the development of a national and digital infrastructure is framed
in each of the masterplans as contributing to the improvement of society, over the
course of the plans the Singaporean citizen as a subject becomes increasingly impor-
tant. For instance, while the NCP focused on rolling out ICTs in computerizing Sin-
gapores civil service, later plans broaden this scope by including specic industries
and individual businesses, and in the NCBs (1992) IT2000 report it is mentioned that
information technology must become pervasive in every aspect of life in Singapore.
This resulted in later plans, such as Intelligent Nation 2015 (see, e.g., IDA 2006a,
2006b), presenting an imagination of Singaporean citizens as being highly connected
individuals, at once users of technologies and active consumers in a neoliberal econ-
omy (Tan 2012). In the Smart Nation initiative itself, this tendency continues: At its
core, Smart Nation is about empowering our people. . . . Everyone is part of Smart
Nation, and will be better equipped to imagine, design and implement, as well as enjoy
the opportunities and conveniences of a digital society(SNDGO 2018: 8). Infra-
structurally speaking, Singapore then not only offers appropriate and potentially
important insights on state-level plans for infrastructure development into the future,
it also provides specic insights into the perceived role of digital infrastructure in
the everyday life of Singaporeans and into how infrastructure organizes Singaporeans
from the position of the state.
3.1 The Infocomm Media 2025 Masterplan
Creating Connections, Inspiring Innovationsis the subtitle of Infocomm Media 2025
(IM2025), a ten-year plan released in August 2015 and developed by the Ministry of
Communication and Information (MCI), the Info-Communications Development
Authority (IDA) and the Media Development Authority (MDA).
IM2025 builds on
MCIs previous masterplan, Intelligent Nation 2015 (IDA 2006b) and contributes to
and enables Singapores aspiration to become the worldsrst Smart Nation. Accord-
ing to Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong at the Smart Nation launch on 24 November
2014, a smart nation is a nation where people live meaningful and fullled lives,
enabled seamlessly by technology, offering exciting opportunities for all.
This state-
ment reveals a preferred notion of citizenship and the role of the state, as respectively
living a particular kind of life given the right endeavor and creating the possibility of
this kind of citizenship for all sectors of the population. Crucially, technology is framed
as a key enabler and also as invisible and nonintrusive. These interconnections also
become visible in a recent strategic update to the masterplan by the Smart Nation and
Digital Government Ofce (SNDGO 2018). Here, Smart Nation is framed as integral
to Singapores next phase of nation building(1) and digital infrastructure is seen as the
key that forms the foundation of our Smart Nation, building on earlier investments in
connectivity and Internet penetration(20).
As of 18 August 2016, IDA and MDA have been restructured into the Info-Communications Media
Development Authority (IMDA), a statuary board of the government under the Ministry of Communication
and Information.
See Transcript of Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loongs speech at Smart Nation launch on 24 November.
Prime MinistersOfce, Singapore. 24 November 2014.
8 T. Willems and C. Graham
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IM2025 has identied specic technologies and digital infrastructures that when
implemented will power many innovations over the next decade . . . so that Singa-
pore may reap their benets in the coming years(MCI 2015: 12). For instance, in
order to address the need to support issues around data collection and sharing, the
report offers a compelling comparison between data and oil, incorporating the meta-
phor into a vision of regional connectivity in which Singapore is a Digital Harbour
with a digital corridorthat supports a trusted Data Marketplacecoming into being
(9). This allusion to Singapores status historically as a safe harbor and a key node in
the global oil distribution and global trade network to portray an imagination of local,
national, and regional digital infrastructure connects strongly with one of Singapores
rst masterplans, AVision of an Intelligent Island: The IT2000 Report.This 1992 report
describes how the use of data and information exchange can further develop Singapore
into a global transportation hub with its air and sea ports made even more efcient and
free-owing(NCB 1992: ix). Appealing to these aspects of Singapores history and
global city status emphasize the necessity, rationality, and continuity of the imagination.
Arst reading suggests that the means described in the masterplan seem mainly
technical and the ways in which they should be implemented rather technocratic. In
fact, the implications embody a complex interplay of technological and social ends and
rest on a particular imagination of a collective brought into being through state-citizen
relations that position the state and key communities as knowing and individual citi-
zens reaping the benets of that knowing.For instance, plans refer at various points
to the power of computational technologies to effectively draw on data in making
businesses in general and the nation in specicsmarter, more productive and more
competitive, thereby powering our economic growth(MCI 2015: 19). In a 2016
interview with Vivian Balakrishnan, minister for Foreign Affairs and minister-in-
charge of Smart Nation, the Straits Times described this state emphasis on developing
technology enabling ows of data as part of emerging facetsof the Smart Nation
initiative (Chng 2016). Balakrishnan was quoted as emphasizing these: We re willing
to share government data with anyone. At the same time, we want to make sure that the
Government is not a choke point, we need to ensure that we are more efcient. We must
ensure that the APIs are integrated to our back-end systems, then we step out of the way
and let the community come forward(Chng 2016). This condence in the data that
technology generates is reiterated through an IMDAs (2018) website story 2014:
Building a Smart Nationwhich quotes a training course participants envisaged use of
data and its computation: I am interested to see, when data is analysed, what kind of
storieswe can extract from data. Through these stories,I can further understand the
needs of my customers and add immense value to them.As becomes clear, building a
digital infrastructure supporting Smart Nation is only part of the equation; a digitally
savvy population is necessary to reap the benets of this infrastructure. Policies and
initiatives, however, are being implemented in such a way that it incentivizes government
agencies, companies, and citizens to build a Singapore identity on these infrastructures
so that, effectively, all partake in materializing an imagination and in making it work.
Several initiatives, such as Code@SG,
support this imagined workforce of the
future, by engaging young people to create in them a passion for new technologies and
See Computational Thinking and Making.Infocomm Media Development Authority.
.sg/for-community/digital-readiness/Computational-Thinking-and-Making. Accessed on 12 November 2018.
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computer coding. In addition, the government has described its SkillsFuture program
as a means to skill upand prepare citizens for the future economy through a broad
range of courses and a digital budget.
In 2018, the then senior minister of state for
trade and industry and senior minister of state for education described this program as
empowering Singaporeans and as a means to support and enable our workforce to
acquire the skillsets that can help them thrive in new and emerging industries(Ang
2018). SkillsFuture, then, is established as a result of Smart Nation while simulta-
neously providing a skills-based infrastructure on which Smart Nation can be realized.
In other words, it is the infrastructural nature of Smart Nation that allows a specic
future with a specic citizenry to be imagined. This even involves creating challenges
for the media sectorbased on the problems posed by digital infrastructure itself, or
enterprise-level challenges(MCI 2015: 44) and Singapore as a Living Labto
develop, test, and commercialise solutions in a real-life setting(45).
Like the digital infrastructure and technologies supporting Smart Nation, the Sin-
gapore citizenryand its workforce in particularare equally imagined as being
connected and grounded in ows of data and information. Central to this new economy
are citizens who know how to use digital technologies and are able to assess its con-
sequences skillfully, for instance by knowing how to reach online communities, use of
specic smartphone services, or critically assessing algorithm-based recommenda-
tions. A specic type of citizen is imagined here, and the masterplan and associated
policies and initiatives such as SkillsFuture create the conditions on which citizens can
be aligned with this future imagination of the nation (see Abraham 2018;Jeon 2018).
This Singapore citizen is tech-savvy and has the appropriate skills to be economically
active and contribute toward realizing Smart Nation.
Digital infrastructures, such as broadband networks and ber technologies, are set at
the heart of such economic and technological developments. The plan argues that more
networked infrastructures are needed to efciently collect, transport and share mas-
sive amounts of data for information and analysis(MCI 2015: 21). The consequences
of computational technologies and more infrastructureis also, and perhaps espe-
cially so, experienced by the workforce. Inherent in IM2025 is the fact that people
become increasingly organized through digital infrastructures, and hand in hand with
the development of computational technologies the state imagines a workforce (and
national population) that has been transformed through these same technologies so that
it can imagine computational thinking as a national capability(39). The plan presents
AI as central to this task of organization and transformation, but how this is related to
technology and the kind of work it might involve or produce is less clear. Indeed, even
though a future-ready workforce with the right capabilitiesis seen as key to this
achievement (9), the extent to which this workforce is produced through or threatened
by specic new technology is not discussed.
We now turn to two examples of digital infrastructure being put in place in Smart
a national sensor network and e-payment. These infrastructures are keystones
SkillsFuture, Accessed on 21 September 2018.
We must emphasize that our aim here is not to unfairly critique Singapores Smart Nation nor to single it
out. Our later comparisons will show that we draw on Smart Nation as an instance of a cutting-edge vision of
smart, macro-level infrastructure of the future.
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of the plan (Tham 2017) and also show the forms of work that are imagined or that
remain absent.
3.2 Smart Surveillance and Sensor Networks
The following is an excerpt from Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loongs speech during the
National Day Rally on 20 August 2017:
When the Little India riot happened in December 2013, we were caught a little
at-footed. There were too few CCTV [Closed-Circuit Television] cameras
monitoring Little India. We had to rely on footage posted by the public on
social media. Since then we have made progress. We are building an integrated
national sensor network. We are making every lamp-post a smart lamp-post,
meaning it can mount different types of sensors on any of the lampposts. We are
installing more CCTV cameras in public places. We are combining inputs from
different sourcespolice, LTA [Land Transport Authority], hotels and com-
mercial buildings, even handphones, which are effectively sensors on the
ground. And we are learning to analyse this combined data, for example,
using articial intelligence to automatically ag when something unusual is
happening. So if I have 10,000 cameras, I do not need 1,000 people watching
those cameras. I just need maybe just 10 people. Each person can watch 1,000
cameras and if the AI [Articial Intelligence] detects that something funny is
happening, it will pop up and the man can pay attention and a response can be
In his speech, the prime minister imagines a super systemof surveillance, brought
into being through the threat of social unrest. The prime minister draws on multiple
already-existing infrastructures to imagine a system designed and organized by the
state to provide the population with protection, as well as opportunity: lampposts,
cellular networks, social media, CCTV cameras, Internet of Things (referring to the
sensors to be placed on the lampposts), AI to monitor all this data, among others. This
imagination of mass observation and data integration persists. An example is from
Balakrishnans speech at the IoT Asia conference in March 2017: Many cities talk
about lamp posts nowadays. We are going to roll outto take over in a sense
nationalise all lamp posts. . . . I think even within Singapore, the near term target is
to imagine having an operating system which can service a hundred million smart
objectsgenerating data in real time and data which is useful to multiple public
agencies and the private agencies.This quotation is notable because not only is
observational technology and data integration referred to but these are also imagined
through public-private sector partnerships and as part of a global trend. Moreover,
in the speech of Prime Minister Lee, surveillance is positioned as a consequence
of the Little India riot of 2013, where after a fatal accident involving a bus and an
Indian construction worker, a large group of migrant workers attacked the bus and
the emergency vehicles that arrived at the location. This was the second riot ever in
National Day Rally.Prime MinistersOfce, Singapore. 20 August 2017.
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postindependence Singapore and was cause of a great deal of concern, not least
because the good, docile Otherof the foreign worker (Abdullah 2005) expressed overt
resistance in a public place.
Digital infrastructure is promised here as potentially allowing to preempt similar
situations in the future. This crucially relates to observing and making visible, through
specic forms of digitally enabled and sensor-equipped surveillance, both the national
population and those outside it who threaten security, while how this is exactly
achieved beyond digital infrastructure (i.e., the forms of work that support this) is
not discussed. Yet what is clear in this imagination of the future is the perceived
analytical and extensive capability of AI algorithms for observers conducting visual
security work. Such a capability rests on a very human bias concerning, for example,
safeand dangerousconcentrations of bodies in the underpinning models, and the
ramications of using such systems is not considered by the state; however, as y Arcas
et al. note, whether intentional or not, this launderingof human prejudice through
computer algorithms can make those biases appear to be justied objectively(y Arcas
et al. 2017).
This case of a threatening incident driving the implementation of a surveillance
infrastructure resembles that of the UK by the Blair administration after the 7/7 bomb-
ings in 2005 (Lawless 2015), but the latter is also quite distinct from the vision of an
infocomm media”–mediated community and nationhood of the IM2025 report and of
similar previous national technology plans (e.g., NCB 1992). A key distinctive feature
is greater control and surveillance and interconnected infrastructures generating,
obtaining, and reconciling massive amounts of data: Our homes and estates will be
safer, more comfortable and more sustainable. The use of sensors and smart systems
will improve the effectiveness of municipal services, save energy and ensure sustain-
able use of resources(SNDGO 2018: 8). The plan in the IM2025 report is framed as a
solution in case something happens and as the energy-efcient delivery of government
services. However, such infrastructures are complex and multifaceted and, from indi-
vidual cameras to the cable networks they connect to, require physical installation,
periodic upgrading, and ongoing maintenance (Hartmus 2014: 336). This manual,
embodied labor is what such infrastructure relies on.
As we see with many post-9/11 city populations, this plan also organizes Singa-
pores population by subjecting them to these new machine sensordriven automated
means of surveillance, simultaneously creating disciplined and docile bodies(see
Foucault 1995) that can be managed and identifying those that are threatening or
vulnerable: Sensors can help detect when an elderly person has fallen down and
alert the relevant personnel, without him or her having to actually operate technology
(SNDGO 2018: 25). This is an extension of the installation of over 100 CCTV cameras
in Little India being linked to greater security by Deputy Prime Minister Teo: This
overall trebling of the number of cameras, beyond what was initially planned within
this time frame, will provide greater deterrence to crime and anti-social behaviour, and
allow the police and enforcement agencies to deploy their ofcers more effectively and
forestall or respond more quickly to incidents(Lee 2014). These surveillance capa-
bilities rely on monitoring, observational work being performed continuously and
often remotely: an instance of such infrastructures produced visual, if disembedded
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labor. A metastudy of 44 studies of CCTV systems between 1978 and 2007 showed
that most deployed active monitoring, or that an operator watched monitors linked to
the cameras in real time(Welsh and Farrington 2009: 729).
The population itself plays a crucial part in the generation of such surveillance data
through using digital infrastructure or even simply using public space which, in turn, is
used as a further means for governance. The willing relinquishing of personal data for
state purposes is assumed. This imagination is congruent with previous measures and
plans that disciplinethe Singaporean citizen (e.g., through education). But it also
extends citizenship through digital technologies to t an imagination of a smart
Singapore by connecting conceptions of the citizen with a data subject who can be
acted on by algorithms (Shah 2015): Singaporeans are already using wearable devices
or smartphones to monitor their health and activities, and this data can empower
individuals and inform service delivery(SNDGO 2018: 7). While this infrastructure
observes and renders visible a population, due to the nature of digital technology this
happens partially, imperfectly, and in accordance with certain conceptions of limits to
productive citizenship.
Thus, a nationwide digitally mediated system is imagined which is maintained and
sustained with as little human involvement as possible. However, as noted above, the
manual, embodied, and often skilled work required to install, interconnect, and main-
tain CCTV cameras and connect them with a sensor network is rendered invisible and,
signicantly, higher order,visual, disembedded work such as identifying patterns in
the data these cameras produces is delegated to AI, which is imagined as both auto-
matic and more efcient: The Government Technology Agency (GovTech)the
1,800-strong team behind tech transformation in the public sectoris working with
various agencies to develop a video analytics system, which could help detect potential
unruly crowds or trafc congestion, among other things(Tham 2017). Even when this
underlying infrastructure is rendered visible through its unfullled possibilities and its
failure, the human work it relies on is not mentioned: The web of cables that connect
these existing cameras and sensors remains untapped as a central data resource
although the foundation for this is now taking shape(Tham 2017). In each of these
cases the key enabling work to be done is performed by a certain class of transient,
blue-collar, or even machine worker, none of whom are easily contained within the
denition of the Smart Nations productive, digitally literate future citizen. Notably,
none of the 160 jobs titles listed as available at GovTech encompassed this kind of
work at the time of writing.
This is in contrast rst to prior approaches of the collective self-regulation of cit-
izens through infrastructure (Pang and Ng 2016): the footage posted by the public on
social media.CCTV cameras and AI are not only imagined as supporting the protec-
tive role of the state but also in taking control of surveillance, and by implication,
security work. The prime minister described this at a tech summit in India in 2017:
Whether it is a trafc police network, or police cameras or the water authority cameras
tracking drains or cameras in our housing estates watching lifts and security, you can
pull all of the pictures together and get one integrated data source for the whole
country(Straits Times 2017). An automated workow emerges from such discourse
Careers at GovTech.GovTech Singapore.
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in which the collection, monitoring, and interpretation of data is delegated primarily to
AI. Second, the work that is not visible contrasts subtly with digital labor like content
production, content tagging, and software development that is enabled and commod-
ied through digital infrastructure such as the Internet (Wood et al. 2019) and becom-
ing increasingly understood in terms of the digital or gig economy. The necessary work
that is not accounted for is either directed in an embodied manner at the digital infra-
structure itself or specically focused on reasoning about the product of digital infra-
structure. Building a stronger, more cohesive people(MCI 2015: 60) is achieved
through the state installing and controlling infrastructure and reasoning about the data
it produces through advanced, associated technologies that exist and perform their
work that is somewhere unspecied.
Like Tan 2012, these contrasts show the complex interplay between social and
technological forces as well as between imagination and reality. Not only are digital
infrastructures necessary for state population management, but citizens are simulta-
neously usedas a resource to produce (e.g., through street sensors) as well as con-
sume data (e.g., via data publishing platforms like that then organizes and
secures the state and its people by making some aspects of society visible (e.g., social
unrest) while obscuring others (e.g., maintenance work). In this sense, citizens are
organized and ordered through digital infrastructure, as well as through their own
work. As has been argued before, technologies can at once increasingly regulate
human conduct, automate labor, and translate meaningful events into data or informa-
tion and simultaneously become the means for a stricter surveillance of this human
conduct and these meaningful events (Zuboff 1988). But what is so distinct about the
Smart Nation is its imagination of this in terms of specically digital infrastructure:
Developments in digital technology present opportunities for Singapore to enhance
our strengths, overcome our national challenges and physical limits, and build new
sources of comparative advantage. Digitalisation will be pervasive, and change life as
we know it. To continue to prosper and stay relevant, Singapore must embrace digital-
isation and the benets it brings(SNDGO 2018: 1). However, given the complexity
and extent of the views offered through Smart Nation technologies to different public
and private sector actors, to consider the Smart Nation in terms of one all-seeing eye
would be a gross oversimplication. Thus, in the next section we address these com-
plexities of visibility and work in greater detail.
3.3 Retailing in a Smart Future
We now draw on an example showing the future of a digitally mediated retailing
industry. The example is insightful for understanding how Singapore imagines differ-
ent forms of digital work. It is also a good example of the insertion of technology into
retailing as promoted through recent government statements connecting Smart Nation
with the enhancement of the shopping experience (Hong 2018;Tan 2017). Page 31 of
the IM2025 report provides the following scenario of Julia, a Singaporean shopping for
a blouse in a smartshop (MCI 2015: 31):
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Picture this: Julia walks into a boutique where she nds two blouses that she
likes. Using an app on her smartphone, she takes pictures of the blouses and
searches for information on the two items.
Instantly, a stream of information pops up on her smartphone, including:
customer service reviews of these two blouses;
the type of customers who have bought the two blouses, and friends on her
social media networks who bought similar blouses with links to their
reviews of their blouses;
where the blouses were made;
the materials used to make them;
the unique features of each blouse; and
recommendations on skirts, pants and accessories that would go with the
After seeing the positive reviews, Julia decides to try the blouses to see how they
look on her as well as the recommended accessories. Julia has also enabled the
location-based feature of the smartphone mobile app, which senses that Julia is
currently in the boutique and sends her a promotion coupon for the blouses and
After checking herself at the mirror, Julia likes the blouses but nds them a bit
pricey. At that instant, she spots the promotion on her mobile phone and instantly
takes up the offer. She can choose to pay at the counter and collect her purchases
immediately, or pay online and have the items sent to her house. She chooses the
latter so she can continue shopping without lugging her purchases around.
Julia benets from a quicker and more efcient shopping experience. The retailer
has cleverly used digital marketing and social media marketing to engage with
the customer at every step of the purchase journey. The retailer is able to make
offers at the right time to address Julias concern about the purchase. The retailer
is also able to use social media to generate brand awareness, nd and engage with
prospective customers and grow its customer base(MCI 2015: 31)
Much like the excerpt from the National Day Rally speech, human work and mate-
rial relations seem practically absent in the description of a woman buying a blouse in a
boutique shop provided in the extended excerpt from the IM2025 report provided
above. This scenario is particularly signicant because it addresses a key part of
Singapores economy and culture (Chua 2003), a symbol of prosperity and a national
pastime: shopping. In the scenario, shopping has become largely data-driven and is
reduced to a decision-making process enabled by just-in-timeand just-in-place
data enabled by smart technologies. There is also a lack of any unmediated human-to-
human interaction. Even the community that is imagined is one of customersand
friendsbrought together through highly visible, shared purchasing decisions and
enabled through data harvesting and connecting social media networksthat contribute
to social cohesion. The shop assistant has disappeared, and the IT literate and mobile
smart shopperis celebrated as the future citizen. This imagination was echoed in the
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prime ministers 2017 National Day Speech in which automated check-out systems and
automated inventory systems were lauded: Supermarkets have had self-service counters
for some time now, which are popular with shoppers. FairPrice has taken it further. They
have opened an unmanned, cashless Cheers store at Nanyang Polytechnic. There is no
cashier in this convenience store, no staff at all. To buy an item, you simply take it off the
shelf, you do a self-checkout. There is a back-end system which tracks the inventory and
automatically restocks when the stocks run down.
Bodily work has been removed in the above scenario from IM2025: there is no
suggestion that the shopper might need human help with trying on or selecting items.
Even communication is not imagined as happening in the shop but instead as being
mediated through technologies that rely on data-driven digital infrastructures, such as
the smartphone, online customer reviews, abstract information about an actual material
object, online and instant offers or promotions, GPS tracking, and a cashless payment
system. The data about the material object being shopped for and the relations this data
supports become as important to the process of shopping as the object itself.
This scenario, again, relies on an imagination of the citizen as a data subject rather
than a bodily one. It goes further, though, in how it imagines the citizen as a prosumer
who blurs the line between work and leisure, reducing interactive inputsuch as
writing reviews to free, creative labour (Ross 2013). It is also notable that the imagined
citizen also has to perform more information work(Strauss et al. 1985) through
online platforms in order to make an everyday purchase. In addition, although the
retailer clearly forms a part of this transaction, we do not even get a glimpse of who this
retailer may be, and neither does Julia. The human faceof the retailer and the
working bodies on which it depends to stack shelves, arrange products neatly and
attractively in place, select products for customers and place them in bags, are com-
pletely invisible in the description and is replaced by a knowing, and supportive
immaterial technological companion who is both nowhere and available every-
where through digital infrastructure. As we nd in Lilly Iranis analysis of Amazons
Mechanical Turk workers, the invisibility of this particular retailer transforms, com-
modies, and parcels up labor so that human workers come to be understood as
computation(Irani 2015: 226). The invisibility of all other workers and material
relations involved in maintaining this system of transaction, such as programmers
who develop mobile app updates, copywriters who develop content, and marketers
who post ads (some of the most common micro-tasks supported via such platforms
[Kassi and Lehdonvirta 2018: 44; cited in Wood et al. 2019: 3] enables this.
It is exactly the hidden computational and digital characteristics of work that are
celebrated and imagined in the Smart Nation initiative that directly feed back into and
make possible the destruction of particular embodied human labor that is not valued as
central to the states imagination and organization of the future workforce. In this
scenario, a population of highly efcient tech-savvy, data-driven prosumers and highly
automated digital retailers rely on and produce the states imagination of digital infra-
structure, organizing themselves in the process. Or, in other words, people having the
means to transact digitally, the skills and condence to use technology, and the agility
to adapt to change and keep up with the latest technologies to achieve a better quality of
life, as well as contribute to innovations in the digital era(SNDGO 2018: 8).
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There is no human-social interaction in the scenario: messages with friends are not
exchanged, screens and photos are not shared, and opinions from others are not
actively sought. This has been replaced by trust in a digital assistant. A more critical
analysis shows what remains hidden in the description: the retailer, although employ-
ing digital technologies, does work; the marketing employees of the online customer
review application, although perhaps behind a computer screen, do have to design,
build, and maintain the application and use it to connect objects for sale with digital
information about them, and they must come up with the right promotion that suits both
the customer and retailer; the GPS tracker, on which this whole system is built, only
functions due to a smart infrastructure that is constructed and maintained by actual
working bodies. In this way, certain work is obscured by imaginations associated with
digital infrastructure as organizing. This points to a signicant gap between how digital
infrastructure is imagined and how it operates in reality, that is, how such digital
infrastructures enabled and celebrated by the state in turn organize reality by making
visible some aspects of work while obscuring others, valorizing a certain productive,
digitally literate if strangely disembodied citizen. As we have argued, however, the
specic sociopolitical context of Singapore makes this gap slimmer, albeit no less
signicant, as it is through the construction of the nations infrastructures that imag-
inations of a Smart Nation are already becoming material and real. We will now attempt
to reveal, through a closer engagement with infrastructure as a theoretical construct,
how we can understand the inner workings of this relationship and how what has
become obscured may in turn be made more visible.
4 Analysis and Discussion
In the context of smart urbanism we see, as does Ezra Ho (2017), digital infrastructure
as organizing society as a form of governmentality (Foucault 2007). Analyzing it
entails an inquiry into how diverse institutions produce and organize subjects who
are particularly apt to fulll the goals of these institutions and through which organiz-
ing practices and infrastructures they aim to do so. States construct populations through
technical factorsof the economy such as statistics (Foucault 2007: 99), meaning that
contemporary states not only consist of infrastructures but that the organization of
these states itself is constituted in them. While public policy as a form of governance
has, for a long time already, been a matter of categorizing and reducing society into
controllable variables (see, e.g., Scott 1998), the logicof the digital and the sheer
amount of data that is currently being produced and regarded as neutral makes this
issue even more urgent. Taking this logicto the extreme, the people of a population
and their work can, rather than representing something for the state to act on, be
reduced to data through partnerships with the private sector, and their value can
unproblematically and unquestionably be seen as a data subject (see Abraham
2018). This is complicated by the fact that the sovereignty of the territory of nation-
states is becoming more uid as the organization of such states is increasingly dened
by an infrastructure of data storage, processing, and transmission (Rossiter 2017). The
above observations thus provide nuance to the notion of governmentality in smart
urbanism, moving away from the direct surveillance of society to a more subtle and
distributed form of seeing,with sociotechnical infrastructures creating partially
overlapping and connected (in)visibilities.
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Building on Michel Foucaults (1995) exposition of the all-seeing, regulating, yet
unseen panopticon, Shoshana Zuboff (1988) argues that information technologies in
the workplace make work more visible to management. While the idea of an all-seeing
eye might hold in the workplaces and societies of the late twentieth century, techno-
logical advances have, arguably, made this more elusive in the contemporary. As
Christopher Gad and Peter Lauritsen (2009) observe, surveillance, which they see as
the result of work distributed between humans and technologies, is a fragile situation
where it is often difcult to distinguish between the observerand the observed’”
(50). For Rob Kitchin (2014: 4), this is especially the case with digital technologies that
intimately operate on the generation and interpretation of data: data, let alone infor-
mation, provide oligoptic views of the world: views from certain vantage points,
using particular tools, rather than an all-seeing, infallible Gods eye view.So, rather
than complete visibility, digital technologies offer multiple, partially overlapping but
also diverging views on the world across public and private entities. For Bruno Latour
(2005: 181), a more realistic version of panopticons, then, are oligoptica through which
sturdy but extremely narrow views of the (connected) whole are made possibleand
where the tiniest bug can blind oligoptica.This understanding is in line with our
infrastructural approach and is informative for understanding the role of infrastructure
in organizing smart urbanism. Surveillance, here, becomes a matter of coordination
and collaboration (i.e., embodied work) between humans and nonhumans in assem-
bling and connecting partial (in)visibilities (see Latour and Hermant 2006). This type
of work, however, is not addressed in the Smart Nation initiative.
Singapores aspiration to become a smart nation addresses the need to produce
infrastructures making possible technological growth that reduces certain kinds of
undesirable human work, for example. through automation and augmenting human
physical and cognitive abilities(SNDGO 2018: 28). Yet our two cases highlight four
types of human work that are rendered invisible through Smart Nations engagement
with work as largely disembodied and digital. First, both physical and digital infra-
structure must be built and maintained. The fact that infrastructures are essential in
constructing and sustaining a smart nation is not denied, but the idea that this requires
human labor remains largely unaccounted for. This manual, embodied work of install-
ing and maintaining the physical aspect of infrastructure is often done by already
marginalized groups in society, such as a low-skilled and low-paid workforce or, in
Singapores case, foreign workers putting energetic and material labor into the con-
struction. maintenance, and continuous repair necessary for Smart Nation to function
as a well-oiled, invisible infrastructure (Myers 2015;Graham and Thrift 2007). Sec-
ond, and somewhat counterintuitively, the forms of commodied digital work associ-
ated with the construction and maintenance of digital infrastructure that citizens inter-
act with, such as mobile development,”“QA and testing,”“server maintenance,
software development,”“Web development,and Web scraping(Kassi and Leh-
donvirta 2018: 44; cited in Wood et al. 2019: 3), is also absent. Despite the application
of digital technologies to better plan for city and infrastructure development being
central to smart urbanism and digital infrastructure being imagined as being productive
of specic kinds of increasingly precarious work, it is not necessarily imagined as
being constituted by it.
Third, although the physical and digital infrastructure is imagined to produce a
continuous stream of data that algorithms churn for specic outcomes, we read very
little about the work that is necessary to produce or interpret this data. Implicit to such
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digital surveillance is a decentralization of power and control (Gad and Lauritsen
2009), which indicates its partial and distributed nature. Specically, the observational,
disembedded work that is required for this infrastructure to full its surveillance and
security function is either not described or it is outsourced to AI algorithms. Fourth, the
clerical and marketing work that is required to populate this infrastructure with content
and make it function well such as data entryand ad postingis also not described in
any detail. What is described instead is the information work such as navigating and
synthesizing information and creative work such as article writing(Kassi and Leh-
donvirta 2018: 44; cited in Wood et al. 2019: 3), which is necessary in such partici-
patory networks. This latter work is presented as central to the imagination of the future
(digital) citizen, while none of the other forms of work are. In short, the work necessary
to connect the distributed elements of the sociotechnical assemblages of the Smart
Nation initiative and produce value from it is largely omitted.
5 Infrastructural Inversion of Smart Nation
While discussions of technologies often provide deterministic views of technology by
focusing on their design, impact, or affordances, a discussion on infrastructure looks
especially from an STS perspectiveat the entanglement of society and technology.
So, infrastructure co-constructs society and technology while holding them ontolog-
ically separate(Edwards 2003: 189), and this explicitly takes into account the net-
worked nature of technologies in becoming infrastructure and becoming embedded in
society. It is this networked aspect of technologies that we are specically interested in
when discussing digital infrastructures. We observe the specic organizing quality of
such technologies, especially when these are interconnected and form a pervasive
infrastructure underlying, for instance, a state: technologies are organized in such a
way that they become technologies organizing and describing their own system,
which, especially in contemporary societies, centers on the production of data and
information (Batty 2013). These digital infrastructures organize by means of producing
parts of society as visible while obscuring others. Smart cities can be seen as digital
infrastructure linking up pervasive technologies with related policies and entrepre-
neurial activities such as tech companies while concurrently reimagining citizens into
the producers and consumers of data through which they are regulated (Tan 2012). In
such environments, where smartis more than mere imagination but is materializing
as infrastructure that is organizing society, a specic normative citizen is also pro-
duced, which implicitly reproduces invisible segments in society or commodies labor
(Ho 2017;Myers 2015). Adopting a view of infrastructural inversion,we nally
offer three sensitizing questions that may guide smart urbanism scholars in attempting
to better account for digital work in relation to infrastructure.
5.1 What Is the Mundanity of Digital Work?
Digital technologies tend to make invisible the work it takes to construct infrastructure
and keep it operational, especially because these technologies are often embedded in
very mundane artefacts. The personal computer or the mobile phone, for instance,
fundamentally supports human labor in todays work world by operating on and
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producing data. In our example of future shopping, data has thus become crucial or
even a key resource in Smart Nation(SNDGO 2018: 18). Yet, because of the ordi-
nary and mundane nature of these technologies, they obscure a range of practices and
consequences that operate across different scales that are used to produce and process
such data. Boundaries between work life and private life, for instance, become blurred
as mobile phones allow work and data production to pervade in personal time and
space. Likewise, decision-making strategies become increasingly invisible as they are
embedded into algorithms that directly affect the experience of contemporary workers
(Irani 2015). Unravelling the infrastructures that comprise digital work allows making
such labor visible. For instance, it can focus on how workers engage with technology
and their underlying infrastructure in embodied ways.
Unravelling infrastructures in this way emphasizes that the mundanity of digital
work draws a close link between human skill, on the one hand, and the visibility or lack
of it, on the other. In our example of retailing, a specictypeof user and workforce is
imagined, one that is highly mediated. The actual use or practices around these tech-
nologies are less explored, while we can expect these to require skills nonetheless.
Thijs Willems (2018b), for instance, has shown how the very mundane and sometimes
even boring work of system monitoring consists of a constant and active engagement
with attending to minor deviations in infrastructure. Such work, while mundane, is
highly skilled and, while largely technologically mediated, fundamentally embodied.
So, which retailer will survive when a shopping experience becomes dependent on the
availability and transmission of information? Moreover, what skills are necessary for
the computer programmers, app developers, or marketing-trend watchers who must
build and sustain the infrastructure required for future retailing? And how do they
acquire these skills exactly? Based on the Smart Nation initiative, we cannot give a
denite answer, as these types of laborers are largely invisible; their skills are not
discussed in detail or imagined as largely disembodied and immaterial. A focus on
the mundanity of digital work and the infrastructure on which it operates may illumi-
nate the taken-for-granted aspects of that work, precisely because mundanity shows the
pervasiveness of technologies. The task of smart urbanism scholars, then, is to nd
ways to make visible the empirical objects, day-to-day practices, and mundane tech-
nologies that comprise digital work in contemporary urban settings and their infra-
5.2 What Is the Temporality of Digital Work?
By referring to the temporality of digital work we mean to say that digital technologies
not only make work invisible by ignoring its historical embeddedness as well as tem-
poral emergence but also, in the imaginations associated with them, engage in a gloss
over the vulnerabilities produced by this history and emergence. A focus on tempo-
rality in digital technologies (Chung 2015) draws our attention rst to a processual
understanding of reorganizing and restructuring work. Second, it acknowledges digital
infrastructure as a layered human achievement. Its state is never a stable or nished
object, but it only temporarily reaches a stable appearance, which is achieved through
continuous work and organization. At the same time, plans for a smart Singapore
are also the product of path dependency and can be regarded, in some respects, as a
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continuation of its economic development trajectory and, in other respects, as discon-
tinuous of this trajectory by its more explicit grounding in digital infrastructure.
Infrastructure studies problematize the temporalityof systems perceived to be
largely stable, specically by zooming in on the work that keeps systems in place. The
undersea cable network, for example, may seem like a monolithic and, due to its scale,
largely unchangeable infrastructure but, in fact, it can only exist by continuous mon-
itoring and repair work and collaboration across different cultural understandings of
what the infrastructure means and is (Starosielski 2015). Likewise, as Penny Harvey
and Hannah Knox (2012) show, national road networks, while promising the taming
and xing of place and time, are highly unstable construction projects. This provides a
basis for assessing Smart Nation: an essential population or workforce, both in terms of
organizing and producing the data for infrastructures and of being consumers of it, are
not imagined in the initiative and it neither forms part of the transformational potential
of smart urbanism in general (Kong and Woods 2018).
The temporality of digital infrastructure is central to understanding and producing
what its ongoing achievement is. The human work of installing software patches,
retrieving lost data, repairing malfunctioning algorithms, responding to denial of ser-
vice attacks, and rewriting and updating protocols is crucial to digital infrastructures
continual existence and to its organizing and producing capacity. It is the perception of
digital work as immaterial and disembodied that reduces the visibility of digital infra-
structure as an ongoing achievement. Moreover, the temporality of work itself here is
reorganized by digital infrastructure, for instance, in terms of being always onand
being sustained by a seemingly unlimited number of interdependent micro-tasks (see,
e.g., Irani 2015). In terms of digital work, this requires a shift from the technological
object through which such work is conducted on infrastructure as a sociotechnical
assemblage of heterogeneous actors and mundane technologies. Rather than focusing
on the effects and affordances of software, this would imply revealing the work
between humans and technologies in how software is built, updated, retrotted, and
so on. (Rossiter 2016).
5.3 What Is the Materiality of Digital Work?
Digital work is often erroneously equated with immaterial work, and infrastructurally
reversing smart urban imaginations can counter this. It considers human work associ-
ated with digital technologies as operating with different materialities at distinct scales.
For instance, manufacturing devices such as the iPhone require actual laboring bodies,
ranging from Congolese children mining cobalt by hand for iPhone batteries to Chi-
nese students who are forced into internships and illegal working hours in some of
Foxconns factory cities (Qiu 2016). These devices are also operated by humans in the
course of their everyday life. This alludes to the fact that digital work does not imply
intangible work; it is highly embedded and situational and, thus, always contingent on
material reality and material relationships.
The digital is thus often misunderstood as being less materially situated in concrete
human practices. As such, human digital work is undervalued as it concerns practices
in which human involvement is hidden (Bilić2016). Where digital work or infra-
structures are imagined in relation to materiality, this is only done in terms of the
related digital technologies. Yet, materiality exists on a broader scale and via diverse
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modalities, so digital work as immaterial obscures the fact that, for instance, the Cloud
is built on and in already existing and deteriorating material infrastructures such as
sewage systems or railroad tracks, and that it is situated in massive physical server
farmswhere numerous people (e.g., server technicians), on a daily basis, conduct
actual work to repair, maintain the servers to keep them up and running (Hu 2015). This
reduction of physicality in relation to data and technology also has implications for
understanding the corporeal nature of work and even our existence (Abraham 2018).
Taking an infrastructurally informed perspective on smart urbanism attempts to situate
this discourse beyond its associated ideologies and, instead, illustrates how it is situated
in concrete materialities. This, in turn, shows how digital infrastructure obscures these
materialities and how this produces and organizes a particular state of being, which
includes a range of invisible vulnerabilities. It is, in other words, a productive way to
reveal the implications and consequences of existing smart-urbanism discourses,
potentially offering a more sensitive and even more ethical alternative for what becom-
ing smart entails.
6 Conclusion
In this article we engaged with studies on smart urbanism by showing how it is often
imagined as digital infrastructure and how, in fact, these infrastructures organize peo-
ple and digital work. We have argued for seeing this relationship in at least two ways.
First, imaginations of smart urbanism as digital infrastructure show how certain spaces
are imagined in which human work has been reduced as much as possible. This is based
on a misunderstanding that digital work is similar to immaterial and disembodied
work. We have empirically illustrated this by analyzing Singapores Smart Nation
initiative, the strategic plans of the Singapore government to build and invest in digital
infrastructures through, mainly, info-communications technologies and big data. We
have analyzed several ofcial documents and publicly available material to examine
how exactly Singapore imagines a smart nation, how it is historically situated, how it
relies on organizing the state through/as digital infrastructure, and how, in the process,
human work is obscured.
Second, in examining the link between smart urbanism and digital infrastructures
through a detailed engagement with infrastructure studies, we have shown how these
imaginations and what they obscure may be problematized and revealed. We have
offered three sensitizing keywordswhich we have derived from relevant literature
within these eldsthrough which we can rethink and make visible digital work:
mundanity, referring to ways through which the often mundane aspects of digital
technologies are emphasized; temporality, allowing scholars to highlight the work
behind digital infrastructures, for example, how it is built, maintained, repaired, or
monitored; and nally materiality, that is, refusing to equate digitality with immateri-
ality and show how digital work and technologies are embedded in concrete material
tools, which are operated by actual human bodies.
Our article contributes to a better understanding of the human digital work that
comprises much of contemporary states and other organizing institutions. The crux of
that contribution is that we have shown the potential gaps that may exist between how
states imagine themselves as a digital infrastructure in which human involvement has
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been obscured and how these digital infrastructures operate. A focus on imaginations
through an infrastructural lens highlights the performative nature of urban imagina-
tions and unveils, in some regard, how imagination comes into being. Although human
involvement becomes obscured, so we have shown, this is in the imaginations and
narratives rather than reecting how digital work is actually conducted. Identifying
these gaps offers a way forward in understanding the emerging concern for invisibil-
ities and vulnerabilities within the unfolding digital age. An infrastructural understand-
ing of these issues takes stock with what becomes invisible or precarious in smart urban
settings and, simultaneously, offers a way forward by making these issues more appar-
ent. It remains to be described how this analysis of digital infrastructures relationship
to smart urbanism discourse can be developed into more general claims through further
engagement with studies of infrastructure.
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Thijs Willems is an organizational ethnographer interested in the daily work of people in complex and
technological organizations, as well as how they experience their work in the broader organizational context.
In his work, he usually draws on ethnographic material analyzed via practice and process theories. He
currently works under the research program Future of the Digital Economy and Digital Societies. For this,
he focuses on the relationships between (digital) technologies and embodied work, how both shape and
dene each other, and how that effects knowledge and skills.
Connor Graham is a senior lecturer at Tembusu College and a research fellow at the Asia Research Institute,
both at the National University of Singapore. His teaching and research center on science, technology, and
society (STS), with a particular focus on Internet technologies and their relation to life and death. His recent
work has been examining the evolution and features of Internet and smart technologies and initiatives in
Southeast Asia.
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... From a broader perspective, the return of TraceTogether to the fore of the Singaporean government's strategy, especially to assist with the re-opening process after its 'circuit breaker', is very interesting indeed in the context of the country's digitally underpinned governmentality (Ho, 2017;Lee, 2014Lee, , 2020Willems and Graham, 2019). This is worth being in mind in interpreting the 2020 election, in which the government received some strong criticism by opposition candidates for its poor handling of the pandemic, especially concerning the continuing high number of cases in migrant worker dormitories. ...
Full-text available
Widely and intensively used digital technologies have been an important feature of international responses to the COVID-19 pandemic. One especially interesting class of such technologies are dedicated contact and tracing apps collecting proximity data via the Bluetooth technology. In this article, I consider the development, deployment and imagined uses of apps in two countries: Singapore, a pioneer in the field, with its TraceTogether app, and Australia, a country that adapted Singapore’s app, devising its own COVIDSafe, as key to its national public health strategy early in the crisis. What is especially interesting about these cases is the privacy concerns the apps raised, and how these are dealt with in each country, also the ways in which each nation reimagines its immediate social future and health approach via such an app.
Full-text available
Infrastructure makes worlds. Software coordinates labor. Logistics governs movement. These pillars of contemporary capitalism correspond with the materiality of digital communication systems on a planetary scale. Ned Rossiter theorizes the force of logistical media to discern how subjectivity and labor, economy and society are tied to the logistical imaginary of seamless interoperability. Contingency haunts logistical power. Technologies of capture are prone to infrastructural breakdown, sabotage, and failure. Strategies of evasion, anonymity, and disruption unsettle regimes of calculation and containment. We live in a computational age where media, again, disappear into the background as infrastructure. Software, Infrastructure, Labor intercuts transdisciplinary theoretical reflection with empirical encounters ranging from the Cold War legacy of cybernetics, shipping ports in China and Greece, the territoriality of data centers, video game design, and scrap metal economies in the e-waste industry. Rossiter argues that infrastructural ruins serve as resources for the collective design of blueprints and prototypes demanded of radical politics today.
This book tells two closely-related stories: first, how the digital cloud grew out of much older networks, such as television, the railroad, and the sewer system; and second, how the cloud grafts digital technologies onto older ways of exerting power over a population (such as state violence and torture). With the latest revelations about National Security Agency surveillance, readers are increasingly aware that the cloud represents politically contested terrain. While typical responses to this debate invoke technological and legal solutions, such as do-not-track software or a new law, this book takes an alternate approach. The perspective of media studies, and, more generally, understanding the cloud as a cultural fantasy, situates these vital debates within a wider American political and social context. It allows readers to understand why discussions of threats to the ‘free’ Internet, such as spam and hackers, often invoke the specter of foreignness (e.g. China, Iran, Nigeria); why Cold War rhetoric has increasingly informed digital threats, as in the New York Times ’s invention of the phrase “mutually assured cyberdestruction”; and even why the NSA’s facilities for decrypting intercepted messages are often identical to those used by archivists trying to place digital media into cold storage. By locating the materiality of the cloud within the discourses of security and participation in postwar America, A Prehistory of the Cloud offers a set of new tools for rethinking today’s digital environment.
This article investigates the (dis)embeddedness of digital labour within the remote gig economy. We use interview and survey data to highlight how platform workers in Southeast Asia and Sub-Saharan Africa are normatively disembedded from social protections through a process of commodification. Normative disembeddedness leaves workers exposed to the vagaries of the external labour market due to an absence of labour regulations and rights. It also endangers social reproduction by limiting access to healthcare and requiring workers to engage in significant unpaid ‘work-for-labour’. However, we show that these workers are also simultaneously embedded within interpersonal networks of trust, which enable the work to be completed despite the low-trust nature of the gig economy. In bringing together the concepts of normative and network embeddedness, we reconnect the two sides of Polanyi’s thinking and demonstrate the value of an integrated understanding of Polanyi’s approach to embeddedness for understanding contemporary economic transformations.
In recent years, Reliance Jio’s offer of 4G services, guaranteeing free voice calls and ‘unlimited’ data streaming, lead to disruption in the Indian telecom market with other cellular operators losing their revenue and customer base. To comprehensively analyze this churn in the Indian telecom industry and its impact on mobile phone customers, the article argues for observing the entanglement of infrastructural and platform-related discourses at three levels of operation: Jio’s strategies to capture the Indian telecom market and the responses by the leading incumbent service provider (Airtel), ordinary citizens’ phone use practices and infrastructural encounters, and the government’s vision for India’s digital future. Connecting pipes to platforms, Jio made infrastructural investments (in spectrum, cell towers, and fiber optics networks) to promote its suite of apps (JioTV, JioChat, and JioMoney). Ordinary citizens relate their access/proximity to telecom infrastructure (cell antennas) to their ability to effectively use apps on their phones. ‘Digital India’ vision purportedly facilitated infrastructural growth to create platforms that would support demonetization and facilitate transparent governance. Through such a three-pronged analysis, I conceptualize ‘infrastructural imaginaries’ that are coproduced by states and citizens, and lie at the intersection of structured state policy/corporate initiatives and lived experiences/affective encounters of ordinary citizens.
What does the human look like in South Korea? This article identifies two different figurations of the human in contemporary South Korea: the alpha human and the Korean. The alpha human is a human imagined, shaped, and circulated on the network of technosciences and media; it is embraced by technoscientific researchers, entrepreneurs, policy makers, and journalists. The alpha human’s defining characteristic is the extended longevity, or even immortality, made possible by the developments in biomedicine, artificial intelligence, and robotics. On the other hand, the figure of the Korean is imagined to be going through a crisis of survival, as it is excluded or displaced from technoscientific as well as socioeconomic networks. It is represented by the indexes of fertility, inequality, and suicide, as well as reports of lived experiences of Koreans across generations. What does it mean to craft such a futuristic figure, or even a fantasy, of the immortally networked alpha human when the Korean is figured as experiencing dispossession and disparity? This article suggests that the alpha human is a decontextualized figure that can propose only technofuturistic escape but no vision for collective action.
The Internet or, as these authors argue, Internets (plural) in Asia are composed of cables and exchanges, protocols and firewalls, regulations and other legal devices, making them subject to investment and governance strategies, as well as treaties and court cases. But they are also composed of figures, layers, stories, and rumors. These latter descriptors provide a heuristic framework of social features that, together with metaphors from folklore, provide analytic tools for understanding the diversity, conflicts, competitions, and disengagements of the patchwork of Internet development across Asia. The authors further argue that Singapore provides an exceptionally valuable comparative site from which to explore these features. The first part of this article lays out some of the comparative features, and the second part turns to the four themes or heuristics of figures, layers, stories, and rumors, developed through an STS research cluster at the Asia Research Institute and Tembusu College, both at the National University of Singapore.