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Infrastructural Competence
Steve Sawyer, Ingrid Erickson,
and Mohammad Hossein Jarrahi
We focus here on relationships workers have with information infrastructures
(Erickson and Jarrahi 2016; Henningsson and Hanseth 2011; Jackson et al. 2007),
particularly as they move about between locations and institutions as part of their
working. In doing so, these workers rely on stores of knowledge that allow them to
continue moving forward— both figuratively and literally. These knowledge work-
ers exist within a professional landscape that is increasingly expansive (i.e.,
globalized, interorganizational) and decomposed (i.e., expertise driven, project
based), and we assert that this knowledge not only is becoming highly individual-
ized, but also is progressively more elemental to what it means to be a knowledge
worker (National Academies of Science 2017; Spinuzzi 2015; Barley and Kunda
2006; Davenport 2005).1
We articulate the stores of knowledge that workers draw on as a form of “infra-
structural competence.” This idea builds on Star and Ruhleder’s (1996) contention
that infrastructures are sociotechnical entities, comprising not only a set of inter-
dependent technical elements but also the social layers of norms and knowledge
that make these technical elements function in situ. It also builds from the work of
the late Claudio Ciborra (2000) and his concept of bricolage, or the making- do
practices people use to ply resources at hand toward desired goals.
These conceptual foundations reflect both the scholarly influence of science
and technology studies (STS) and the contributions of organizational scholarship
(where the authors situate our work, straddling the two intellectual communities).
Within organization studies, there has been a constant focus on the roles of infor-
mation and communication technologies (ICT) as means and mechanism for
replacing human effort, automating work, and reducing both errors and tedium.
The STS influence has led many organizational scholars to contest this naïve
utopianism with empirical understandings of the conditionality of computing’s
roles (e.g., Zuboff 1985). In the case of certain kinds of work, such as clerical and
administrative tasks, for example, the introduction of ICTs served to “informate”
rather than liberate, simultaneously creating a class of worker whose agency was
stripped by the demands of the database or the data entry field. In this chapter we
argue from this analytical position, building out the idea of “infrastructural com-
petence” with both critical and empirical insight.
Given this chapter’s focus, it is useful to contextualize some of the complex
conditions that help to shape contemporary forms of knowledge work. At the tech-
nological level, the rising prevalence of (and reliance on) mobile devices in profes-
sional practice has increased communication flexibility while also expanding
expectations of availability and the speed of response (e.g., Mazmanian et al. 2013;
Mazmanian and Erickson 2014; Wajcman et al. 2009; Wajcman 2014). Mobile com-
puting technologies have also helped to hasten the dissolution of work/life bound-
aries and contributed to the belief that life appears to be speeding up (Wajcman
2014). Cloud- based computing infrastructures make it possible for workers to de-
couple device- application pairings (i.e., Excel spreadsheets can run on a Windows
PC and on any number of smartphones, accessing the file stored in some cloud-
based storage service) and reassemble individuated ensembles that they find
personally effective. As such, cloud services like Google Docs and Dropbox have
become infrastructural satellites around which workers now orbit, connecting
and reconnecting in different assemblage patterns as each specific situation
At the socioeconomic level, knowledge work is also being reshaped. The glo-
balization of work, a shift that began many decades ago, has resulted in an ex-
panded network of actors and institutions upon which knowledge work must be
executed today (e.g., Leonard et al. 2014). The normalcy of these international,
interorganizational collaborations accords a diverse array of boundaries that
must be negotiated— organizational, cultural, temporal, linguistic, legal, and so
on. At the same time, these arrangements have instantiated a new logic for team-
work built ever more on specialized, rather than localized, forms of expertise.
Coupled with this demand for expertise is the rising standardization of a project-
based economy, an organizational structure in which specialists can be ef-
ciently leveraged.
The ways of working have also been evolving, and the current primacy of
project- based work not only has increased the shift to specialization among work-
ers, but also is one of the forces underpinning today’s “gig economy” and its re-
lated dependence on freelance or contract workers. Global platforms such as
Mechanical Turk and Upwork reify the identity of knowledge workers as itinerant
experts who move from one project to the next as they amalgamate a career. In
some ways, the rising recognition of expertise in knowledge work has been the
undoing of work itself, as workers are now more valued for their skills than they
are for their humanity.
In all, these shifts in the sociotechnical and socioeconomic landscape of knowl-
edge work amount to an unsated need for workers to be productive anytime, any-
where irrespective of context and location (e.g., Czarniawska 2014; Kleinrock
1996; Pittinsky and Shih 2004). For many workers, this may mean an opportunity
to exercise agency, but it also implies the parallel imperative to manage all of the
components of our productivity individually. What are the connotations of this
A Model Modern Worker: Kaylie, the Realtor
Consider one example of today’s mobile knowledge worker (and increasingly,
doing so provides us a window into tomorrow). She is an agent of her own destiny
as her goal is to excel at her job— whatever its form (e.g., contract worker, indepen-
dent worker, full- time employee). In order to do this, she has to manage herself to
achieve maximum performance across all of the contexts and situations in which
(or through which) her work takes her. She might look something like Kaylie, a suc-
cessful (by which we mean well paid) real estate agent.
We begin with Kaylie’s car, a Subaru, that is clean, inside and out, which is rare
enough in snowy, road- mucky Syracuse that it deserves notice. In the 22 years that
she’s been a Realtor, Kaylie’s car choices have changed. It used to be that the back
seat was the most critical feature because clients were always getting in and out.
Now, her focus is on the car’s front seat: she needs to see her laptop, printer, and
chargers on the swiveling work desk she had installed after market. Clients no lon-
ger get in her car so that she can drive them around; instead, she meets them at the
specific houses they have identified via online searches. More broadly and for the
purposes of this chapter, the car is not the focus, but the means for mobility.
Kaylie is active on several local media spaces. Indeed, Kaylie is active enough
online that she now outsources the work of maintaining her substantial web
presence— posting pictures, videos, and other details of her realty listings along
with a set of news feeds culled from various sources like the county tax office and
a mortgage rate source, among other things— to someone else. A two- person com-
pany that specializes in listing houses for sale posts and updates Kaylie’s residen-
tial links. Kaylie also works with three assistants: two help her to show houses, one
focuses on helping clients ready homes for closing.
Kaylie is always on the phone, talking. She texts using Siri and takes voice notes.
She is also always taking photos, sharing them with her network of lawyers, cli-
ents, contractors, mortgage brokers, the two- person team staging her listings, and
her web people. Kaylie controls her own calendar, but it also remains visible to
some of her most trusted staff and professional associates; access seems to be
granted depending on trust— most of her staff do not has access, but very few con-
tractors do.
Kaylie is always on the move. She always arranges to meet in places that are on
her way from one location to another. Sometimes we simply talk in the car, though
I am in the back seat— as noted, the front passenger seat is for her laptop and printer,
and the foot well is where she stacks her files and papers. Kaylie puts about 25,000
miles on her car per year, but never leaves the county and rarely takes a trip of
more than 10 miles.
From her car/office, Kaylie can copy, print, scan, email, and carry out document
preparation through a common program that keeps all real estate forms pre-
loaded, ready to be populated, printed, and shared digitally. Faxing signed papers
is still required for some legal realty matters, and Kaylie is able to do that from her
car as well. She keeps two old phones in her glove compartment and uses one or
the other when her usual phone dies (something I’ve never seen happen). She also
keeps backup batteries, phone chargers, and the like stuffed into several “cubbies”
and pockets in her car, home, purse, and gym bag. Power matters.
During one of our recent meetings, Kaylie fielded 14 calls, sent dozens of text
messages and emails, enlisted me to scan and send some papers for her, finished
paperwork while I bought us coffee, and bumped into one of her contractors. We
also were able to swing by her dry cleaner and run an errand to the drugstore. She
dropped me at my home as she headed off to Curves for a workout class she never
misses. Kaylie is always talking, noting that it is pretty quiet in her home in the
evenings as by that point she is “talked out.” Kaylie is an early riser and uses the
4:30 to 6:30 AM timeslot, before her spouse wakes up, “most days” to write her blog
posts. For Realtors like Kaylie, “most days” include weekends, which tend to be
busier. Wednesday and Thursday are her quieter days.
Kaylie’s case provides us the means to unpack a concept that we are calling in-
frastructural competence. We advance infrastructural competence as an individual’s
use- oriented relationship with infrastructures that combines social abilities, goal
orientedness, and leveraging of digital and material resources in a way that en-
ables one to generate a functional, operable, and patterned or routinized (while
also being personalized) set of sociotechnical practices to accomplish a necessary
task or set of tasks.
With the rest of this chapter, we situate infrastructural competence as a frame
that empirically illuminates new types of knowledge work practices but, in doing
so, also questions the implications of this competence as a new imperative for
workers of the future. In doing this, we draw on interviews with more than 50
knowledge workers located in New York (and primarily in New York City) and the
Research Triangle Park area of North Carolina. These interviewees represent a
variety of occupations such as architects, consultants, web designers, and sales-
people, yet what bonds them as a group is that they are all engaged in work that
requires them to be highly mobile. We have chosen these “mobile knowledge work-
ers” to build our case for the idea of infrastructural competence because these
professionals largely represent an extreme version of the modern knowledge
worker— embedded in expertise- driven, project- based work and heavy users of
cloud- based mobile infrastructures. In short, we posit that the case of mobile
knowledge workers will help not only to explicate our ideas of infrastructural com-
petence, but likewise to uncover how deft infrastructural use may be morphing
into a required element of all types of work in the near future.
From Infrastructure Use to Infrastructural Competence
The mobile workers with whom we spoke all leverage interconnected digital eco-
systems, increasingly cloud-based, to accomplish their work. Analytically, we refer
to these digital ecosystems as “knowledge” or “information” infrastructures (e.g.,
Edwards et al. 2007; Pipek and Wulf 2009). However, unlike the large- scale cyber-
infrastructures used in the sciences, the knowledge infrastructures in use by the
knowledge workers in our study rarely have a recognizable installed base (Mon-
teiro et al. 2014). This is primarily due to the fact that the demands of these work-
ers are broad and vary from person to person. Moreover, this lack of an installed
base derives from the fact that there are so many possible tools available to the
modern knowledge worker. The key in understanding these infrastructural pat-
terns, thus, lies less in the way a specific installed base learns to accommodate com-
munal changes and more in the patterned ways that workers develop functional,
personalized instantiations of infrastructure for immediate use.
Infrastructures, when considered as vernacular assemblages of software, hard-
ware, and related technological artifacts (Hanseth et al. 1996), belie their configu-
rational natures— configurations that either “move with the worker or are found in
the places in which the worker moves” (Davis 2002, 69). Indeed, for mobile work-
ers, infrastructure is often highly visible (e.g., Rossitto et al. 2014). As they move
between offices or from building to sidewalk, the digital assemblages they create
are at once scripted and dynamic: specific parts are uniquely geared toward nar-
rower task(s), but the whole is able to shift and change over time as professional
needs continue to arise and dissipate (e.g., Sawyer et al. 2014; Ribes and Polk 2014).
When these infrastructural scripts are tested, infrastructural seams (Vertesi
2014) are revealed. Evident seams or boundaries can be physical, in terms of geog-
raphies and companies, as well as virtual, in terms of suites and platforms of pre-
ferred ICTs.
Mobile workers relate to infrastructure in a different way than workers in more
static environments (Erickson et al. 2014; Ciolfi and de Carvalho 2014; see also
Plantin et al. 2016). In traditional workplaces, infrastructure, if working effectively
and as designed, tends to be invisible (Pipek and Wulf 2009). For mobile workers,
alternately, infrastructures are often starkly visible. As they move from one place
to another or from building to street, for example, the limits of their vernacular
infrastructures begin to show— one piece may work well in one context and not
another or infrastructure can fail altogether in other environments. It is not that
mobility forces infrastructural breakdown, rather that it raises illuminates infra-
structural seams (Vertesi 2014) or contextual boundaries (Cousins and Robey
2005). Evident seams or boundaries can be physical, in terms of geographies and
companies, as well as virtual, in terms of suites and platforms of preferred ICTs.
Consider the case of Monica, an architect in New York City who is building her
own consultancy. Because she is engaged in a lot of business development, Monica
must traverse the city quite extensively on a daily basis. It is not uncommon for her
to meet clients in their offices (as the demands of her expertise are often such that
being “on site” is a critical part of her problem- solving process), attend and orga-
nize professional lectures and meet- ups for the architectural community, and
work with a revolving set of interns at a coworking place where she shares a small
office. There is nothing necessarily unusual about this scenario upon hearing it,
but look a little more closely at the multiple contexts in which Monica must per-
form on a daily basis and you begin to see that she is regularly traversing multiple
boundaries— temporal, spatial, social, institutional, and digital (Cousins and Robey
2005; Kietzmann et al. 2013; Koroma et al. 2014). She has a strong incentive to
maintain connected to her clients and coworkers as she traverses the city; she also
has a strong incentive to do this as smoothly as possible because any gaps or
breakdowns will reflect poorly on the professional reputation she is working hard
to build. Despite this suite of sociotechnical challenges, she manages all of these
traversals quite agilely. Is this merely infrastructural use or something more?
We would suggest that her agility is made possible by her infrastructural
Infrastructural Competence: Artful Uses of Infrastructure
We define infrastructural competence as an individual’s use- oriented relationship
with infrastructure that enables him or her to generate a functional, operable, per-
sonalized, patterned, or routinized set of sociotechnical practices that accomplish
a necessary task or set of tasks. The knowledge puts infrastructure into action in
such a way that draws together social norms, goal directionalities, and the particu-
larities of digital and material resources at hand.
In keeping with recent discussions of infrastructural generativity, Monica’s
agility with infrastructure is not just (or even mostly) about her ability to use ICTs
well. And we are not suggesting that workers simply need “better technical skills.”
Rather, we advance infrastructural competence as a perspective, a way of framing
and seeing the ways in which digital and material infrastructures provide actors
possibilities (Hanseth and Nielsen 2013; Johnson et al. 2014). We see infrastructural
competence as generative for those who possess it. This understanding of genera-
tivity asserts that actors who possess the infrastructural competence to recognize
where productive infrastructural adjustments or interventions might be made can
leverage this knowledge endlessly. They can use the seams and boundaries articu-
lated above to achieve a goal again and again. Seen this way, Monica’s agility is not
just (or even mostly) about her ability to use ICTs well.
Developing the notion of infrastructural competence shifts the focus necessar-
ily to the behaviors and practices of people. Workers actively draw together a set
of digital components, colleagues, business partners, and working arrangements
to support an intentional agenda— even if these elements are not located in one
place or resist control. These efforts make the invisible visible— identifying,
adopting, and configuring infrastructural arrangements. These actions reflect
Vertesi’s (2014) discussion of “seamfulness”— an idea developed in relation to dis-
tributed teams of scientists who navigate, negotiate, and integrate many dispa-
rate infrastructures to accomplish their work. Referring to these navigational,
negotiated, and integrative alignments as “multi- infrastructural work practice”
(Vertesi 2014, 278), Vertesi further suggests that individuals range over a spec-
trum of greater or lesser “ability”— or, possibly, circumstantial opportunity— to
bring often conflicted sociotechnical systems (or device ecologies) into “artfully
integrated” union.
Vertesi goes on to contend that the ability to achieve artful integration with multi-
infrastructural environments connotes a degree of local knowledge and member-
ship (Vertesi 2014, 270– 71). Likewise, we suggest that someone with infrastructural
competence must also be able to grasp the reality that one person’s needed infra-
structure is another’s obstacle— what count as affordances or constraints in infra-
structural terms are constructed out of individuals’ own personal backgrounds,
goals (Star and Ruhleder 1996), and moment- to- moment needs.
For example, a knowledge worker’s complex use of calendaring (with different
rights of access) reflects both the sociality of who she wants to share with and the
technicalities of sharing (relative to the constantly evolving vagaries of Apple’s
Calendar, Google Calendar, and Microsoft Outlook). As such, any enacted infra-
structural arrangement not only must work technically, but also must conform to
social conventions, routines, and norms (as Kaylie’s case helps to make clear). This
aspect of infrastructural competence is made evident in the awareness of and re-
spect for the shared expectations of work outcomes (if not necessarily processes).
This awareness forces one’s own “infrastructured actions” (Vertesi 2014, 267) to
continually acknowledge the constellation of players who may be involved in shap-
ing and maintaining infrastructures in use.
Infrastructural competence is visible through individual workers’ patterns of
action that showcase their ability to bridge and adjust to local sociotechnical and
sociomaterial conditions. It can be identified by the set of routines that a person
uses to address these conditions. Like all routines, these practices encode a set of
recognizable “best practices,” a template or genre known to both the individual and
his or her collaborators that allows them to evoke a script of sociotechnical actions
that helps “bound” (in the spirit of “bounded rationality”) the particular details of a
situation while still acting effectively and efficiently. Routines enable rapid action
while lessening the need for perpetual sense making within interactions, but they
lose their usefulness if they don’t adapt as needed. Doing so aligns with organiza-
tional scholars like Feldman and Pentland (2003) who assert that even established
patterns of action, like routines, are dynamic, constantly evolving to align with
changing conditions while simultaneously maintaining a coherent wholeness that
is both externally and internally recognizable. We develop each of these points in
greater detail below using an example from our ongoing fieldwork.
Infrastructure Competence Is a Use- Centered View
Vertesi’s argument that scientists engage in individual, artful ways to use the mul-
tiple infrastructures that define their work suggests both that the work- arounds
they produce to bridge infrastructural gaps and pair otherwise disparate parts
together as a functional whole are expected and useful. In the large cyberinfra-
structure projects Vertesi studies, these artful bridges and work- arounds occur
continuously as infrastructures grow and evolve. In the case of mobile knowledge
work, these artful interventions are more frequent, but also likely more lightweight.
This occurs because the need to configure— or reconfigure— infr astructure(s) arises
both in direct proportion to a person’s physical mobility as well as in relation to the
social arrangements in which a particular work task is situated. In most knowl-
edge work situations, these are shifting on a daily, if not hourly, rate because of the
distributed, project- based nature of the work. The dynamism of these disparate,
yet oft sequential, situations forces individuals to focus on tasks as triggers for
unique, in situ problem solving. In slight contrast to other conversations about
infrastructural use, the individuated work- arounds and improvisations— this
infrastructure- in- use focus— rely on individual technological response. What may
work best for me in achieving the presenting task’s goals may not be the same con-
figured arrangement as my colleague.
Building on the use- centered and practice- or routines- oriented perspective on
using infrastructure, we identify five characteristics or attributes of infrastruc-
ture competence: goal orientation, reliance on digital assemblages, enacted and
operationally resilient, situated and relational, and an expectation based on pro-
fessional identity. We discuss each of these attributes in the rest of this section.
Goal Oriented
Mobile knowledge workers develop the skills and abilities to assemble and lever-
age a digital assemblage to pursue an outcome. Our subjects are not interested in
the ICTs they are using for any intrinsic or computational goals; these are re-
sources being marshalled to the needs, ends, or goals of their work. This goal ori-
entation leads to practicing, even routinizing, the skills learned through repeated
uses. The use- or task- related orientation of infrastructural competence may con-
note, falsely, that infrastructural practices are merely solution- driven engineering
feats. This is not at all the case.
In order for an infrastructural practice to be successful, it must not only work tech-
nically, but be socially recognized as legitimate and also be accountable to shared
needs. Workers may arrange their working environment in whatever way they would
like, for instance, or deploy a particular set of tools to address a problem, but at its core
an active technological assemblage— like any infrastructure— must adhere to the so-
cial guidelines that define it. In reality, this often means that one cannot stray out of
the bounds of a shared toolset, a common digital platform, or some other socially de-
termined sociotechnical baseline that anchors infrastructural actors to one another.
Reliant on Digital Assemblages
Knowledge workers are dependent on the collections of digital resources they as-
semble, but they are neither building these resources as hackers nor thinking of
themselves as computing experts. We observe that most mobile knowledge work-
ers are in a knowledge- based profession, are well educated, possess unique skills
and experiences, and are busy. The collections of commodity technologies (lap-
tops, phones, public Wi- Fi, cloud storage, available apps) they pull together and the
skills they develop to assemble this dynamic collection create a digital infrastruc-
ture to support their work. We have called these collections “digital assemblages
(Sawyer et al. 2014) in prior work. Others have called these sets “digital” or “artifact
ecologies” (Bødker and Klokmose 2012; Forlano 2010), “digital kits” (Mainwaring et
al. 2005), “individual information systems” (Baskerville 2011), or “constellations
of technologies” (Rossitto et al. 2013).
Such collections are not “systems” in that they are neither designed nor controlled
by one person, reflecting instead a multiparty, distributed, and often commodity-
based set of arrangements. They are at once purposeful and ad hoc. A digital assem-
blage is the patterned collection of digital resources that a person brings to bear on a
task or problem in order to pursue a goal or solution. A digital assemblage comprises
the devices, in formation resources, applications and platforms, connect ivity options,
software and computational resources, and other systems that a person brings to-
gether for a particular use. A digital assemblage is neither an infrastructure (which
is shared by many and owned by many) or a specific system (which is owned by a
few even if used by many), it is a personal collection.
Our ideas here build on some of the foundations in infrastructure studies (e.g.,
Hanseth and Monteiro 1997; Hanseth et al. 1996; Hanseth and Lyytinen 2010;
David and Bunn 1988). Without going fully into the resemblances between the
digital assemblages of mobile knowledge workers and infrastructural examples in
prior studies, it is important to underscore the parallelisms in our ideas. The digi-
tal assemblages contrived by the workers in our study are personal, but they are
built on, shaped by, and constrained by their relationship to a preinstalled base.
This pattern is consistent with the relational nature of infrastructures; different
individuals are positioned differently in relation to the infrastructure based on the
goals they want to achieve, and they use gateway technologies to facilitate infor-
mation sharing and communication among fragmented systems and interconnect
them into a single integrated system (Jackson et al. 2007). Another way to say this
is that the creation of a technological assemblage is an example of “installed base
cultivation” (Hanseth et al. 1996), meaning that an important aspect of infrastruc-
tural competence is learning “how to wrestle with the inertia of the installed
base” (Bowker and Star 1999, 382; see also Edwards et al. 2009), or a set of given
constraints, to achieve what you want to achieve.
Enacted and Operationally Resilient
This use in doing is reflected in the efforts directed at keeping all the elements of a
digital assemblage working together. Doing so requires substantial m icro- innovat ion
to learn, problem solve, adapt, and be productive. People develop redundancies
and work- arounds through trial and error, and they measure new devices, plat-
forms, and other digital resources relative to their operational usefulness and reli-
ability. It is a pragmatic and evidence- based use, visible in the stories of Monica
above as well as those of many of our other interview subjects. In essence, enacting
operational resilience is what brings the digital assemblage and goals together.
Situated and Relational
This characteristic of infrastructural competence is reflected in these workers’
skills and abilities to balance goals, dependencies, resources (such as what the
digital assemblage can enable), and priorities. We have observed that mobile
knowledge workers are able to maintain situational awareness across several
tasks and to leverage their digital resources to support multithreading. Such ac-
tivities reflect an expertise, an ability to “riff” on routines (adapting) and balance
competing goals and issues, that appears as a distinct set of skills beyond their
particular and specific expertise and professional knowledge. In this way, no-
madic workers have a common set of skills related to their mobility, even as they
are not professional colleagues, in the same profession (or even aware of one
another’s existence). They share the experiences and skills of being mobile.
A Professional Expectation
More broadly, infrastructural competence reflects an expectation by others that
the mobile workers can perform their role (as professionals, in this location, as
needed). As such, infrastructure competence reflects social accountability: what
others expect of you regarding acceptable professional behavior, norms of connec-
tion and availability, and knowledge base. This relates to the way that one learns to
enact infrastructure as a member of a community (Sandvig 2013). In this way, the
social environment (e.g., a particular professional, social, or cultural community)
articulates and perpetuates a common set of understandings about how certain
infrastructural practices should unfold or take shape. Within the roles of actors
such as real estate agents, for instance, these that can often be identified as profes-
sional routines (Pentland and Feldman 2005). In more mixed environments, these
routines are solidified at the course of a collaboration engagement or as the result
of certain technical requirements (e.g., privacy concerns). It is these routines that
enable different people to play the same song with different instruments, at differ-
ent tempos and in different keys, and sometimes with new riffs added. Difference
is allowed in the expression of the routine in situ, but nevertheless the pattern is
socially translucent enough among colleagues that a shared convention is identifi-
able and, thus, trusted. At the same time, it is imperative to note that routines are
always flexible and evolving (Feldman 2000), so these patterns that serve to order
sociotechnical actions are likewise ever in flux and open to updating.
Conclusion: Expectations of Infrastructural Competence
To possess infrastructural competence, then, is to recognize the goal- oriented
practices that rely on smartly tuned and constantly evolving digital assemblages.
These digital assemblages must be operationally resilient and are enacted in very
situated and relational ways. There is an expectation by others that professional
work requires such a set of skills and resources. Seen this way, infrastructural
competence reflects the stream of research that illuminates the ways in which
humans (and in our particular case, workers) take up and make uses of ICT.
Some readers will see the link between these insights and the broader scholar-
ship of STS that builds on concepts of bricolage (as noted). Some scholars may also
see the partial overlap of artful doing that is at the core of infrastructural compe-
tence with the concept of articulation, drawn from the sociology of work (e.g.,
Strauss 1985; Star 1991). Organizational scholars might also point to Pickering’s
(1995) mangle of practice or the Edinburgh school’s long use of “configurational
technologies and learning by doing” (e.g., Fleck 1994). The value of infrastructural
competence, set against these, is its attention to the artfulness of doing, the ongoing
and embedded nature of this set of skills, and the inherent and evolving flexibilities
of the digital and material resources, the specific situations, and the goals.
A second implication of modern workers’ need to create smartly tuned digital
assemblages is that doing is also a means to showcase infrastructural competence.
The two are bound up: each a window to the other. To understand how digital
resources are developed, deployed, and exploited is also to understand the goals,
situations, and practices of the person who assembled the digital kit. Infrastruc-
tural competence is what gives rise to digital assemblages. The uses and value of
digital assemblages are visible in the practices of infrastructural competence.
There is a need for more empirical work and conceptual development of this
nascent concept: both to provide more clarity and precision regarding the charac-
teristics and processes of infrastructural competence and to identify what makes
a person better or worse at doing or performing competently. Both require describ-
ing and mapping local practices and the competence that emerge as these serve as
bridges among various scales of infrastructure. In the specifics of our study of mo-
bile work, what becomes clear is that more attention is needed on the intertwining
of infrastructural competence and the work lives of organizations and individuals.
This need to see both the work and the digital and material elements that are
bound up in that effort, within the frame created by realities of large- scale infra-
structures and their constitution as platforms, demands extended attention (Ed-
wards et al. 2009; Plantin et al. 2016; Fenwick 2004).
We are acutely aware of the empirical challenges of studying infrastructural
competence and see the need for methodological developments in order to better
understand infrastructural competence. For example, we have valued digital im-
ages and worked to get trace data from workers’ devices even as we interviewed
participants, observed them, and pursued other data. Linking all of these sources
of insight together and doing more to connect the digital and material aspects of
mobility, while also getting more data on the multiple goals and trade- offs that
mobile knowledge workers seem to pursue, are both rich and demanding empiri-
cal spaces.
Thir d, programmatic attention to in frastruct ural competence demand s increas ed
attention regarding the roles of public and organizational policies, institutional
guidance and norms, training, and so forth on individuals and groups. Currently
we rely on individuals (or small groups) to develop infrastructural competence on
their own. If this is indeed a core element of more and more forms of work, more
attention is needed to the relational nature of the conception and to the develop-
ment of technologies that may advance the cause.
Fourth, we need to go beyond the observations from the outset regarding the
changing nature of work to connect with ongoing research streams regarding
changes to labor force structures, the forms of organizing, and the work of
macro- scale scholars such as Manuel Castells (2000, and his concept of networked
societies), Peter Drucker (1969, and his prescient insights on the knowledge
economy), Richard Florida (2001, with his articulation of the “creative class”),
and others. These theorists might be seen as extolling knowledge work and elevat-
ing this form of work and mobility as models of the future. Harkening Neil Post-
man (1993), we also know that technological arrangements are only new to the
generation in which they emerge. This leaves us wondering if, in a relatively short
period of time, infrastructural competence will move from being a desired and
differentiating characteristic of workers to being an expected and basic skill de-
manded from workers.
Beyond the open questions of specifics, methods, and expectations, we contrib-
ute here a new construct to the digital STS community as well as those in the bur-
geoning area of infrastructure studies. Our work progresses and deepens the
discourse on seams within sociotechnical systems, and further contributes to our
understanding of the skills and competencies that may be coming to define 21st-
century work.
1. “Knowledge work” and “knowledge workers” are contested terms, and we use them fully aware of
this debate, as we discuss later in the chapter.
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... As noted earlier, IIs are sustained through (1) the power of the "installed base" and (2) a set of standards (e.g., norms and rules of uses and access) that allow for information to move across systems and boundaries (per Ciborra and Hanseth, 1998;Hanseth and Monteiro, 1997). Stability in digital assemblages, by contrast, is primarily achieved through workers engaging in dynamic and adaptive infrastructuring practices, piecing together an ever-evolving collection of digital platforms, consumer and organizational applications, and multiple devices to meet their needs-a form of infrastructural competence (Sawyer et al., 2018). ...
... Due to the similarity of work arrangements (e.g., constant needs to interact with clients and collaborators) and similarity of challenges (e.g., location independence and distant collaboration), the mobile workers in our study share a common set of sociotechnical infrastructuring practices that transcend any particular profession and or workstyle. This "infrastructural competence" is tied to ongoing infrastructuring work, which creates a functioning and effective digital assemblages based on oft conflicting sociotechnical systems (or device ecologies) (Sawyer et al., 2018). ...
... It appears that an MKW's success is due in some part to the sociotechnical acumen that shapes these worker's understandings of the availability, uses, and potentialities of various digital resources (Erickson et al., 2014;Jarrahi and Thomson, 2017), as they must intelligently span organizational, temporal, and spatial boundaries to accomplish their work (Cousins and Robey, 2005). Mobility demands MKWs to constantly confront and account for the complex sociotechnical environments in which their work occurs (Sawyer et al., 2018). As Vertesi (2014) observes in the context of "multi-infrastructural work practice," such an ability expresses not only one's "artfulness" and skill but also a degree of local knowledge and membership (p. ...
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We theorize mobile knowledge workers' uses of digital and material resources in support of their working practices. We do so to advance current conceptualizations of both 'information infrastructures' and 'digital assemblages' as elements of contemporary knowledge work. We focus on mobile knowledge workers as they are (increasingly) self-employed (e.g., as freelancers, entrepreneurs, temporary workers, and contractors), competing for work, and collaborating with others: one likely future of work that we can study empirically. To pursue their work, mobile knowledge workers draw together collections of commodity digital technologies or digital assemblages (e.g., laptops, phones, public WiFi, cloud storage, and apps), relying on a reservoir of knowledge about new and emergent means to navigate this professional terrain. We find that digital assemblages are created and repurposed by workers in their infrastructuring practices and in response to mobility demands and technological environments. In their constitution, they are generative to both collaborative and organizational goals. Building from this we theorize that digital assemblages, as individuated forms of information infrastructure, sustain stability and internal cohesion even as they allow for openness and generativity.
... Sutherland and Jarrahi note their similarity of digital nomads' knowledge networks and cobbled-together tech and social practices to those of gig workers for ride-sharing apps or oddjob marketplaces [59]. Sawyer [56], Erickson and Jarrahi [17] describe the layers of both technical and social knowledge that modern workers must draw on as "infrastructural competence," a form of bricolage [43] in which people apply any resources at hand in their given work conditions or contexts toward the desired goals. ...
... Few non-IT university workers in our study were consciously aware of policies and trainings for account sharing limits and procedures, and many said they are not easily accessible or comprehensible, echoing Weidman and Grossklags' findings [55,56]. The picture that emerges from our interview data ( Figure 1) contradicts our expectation that cybersecurity policies and procedures also would impact workgroups from a university IT and from personal level. ...
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Account sharing is a common, if officially unsanctioned, practice among workgroups, but so far understudied in higher education. We interview 23 workgroup members about their account sharing practices at a U.S. university. Our study is the first to explicitly compare IT and non-IT observations of account sharing as a "normal and easy" workgroup practice, as well as to compare student practices with those of full-time employees. We contrast our results with those in prior works and offer recommendations for security design and for IT messaging. Our findings that account sharing is perceived as low risk by our participants and that security is seen as secondary to other priorities offer insights into the gap between technical affordances and social needs in an academic workplace such as this.
... The learning process of making sense of black box algorithms-for which Uber's is an examplegives workers the tools to potentially circumvent or manipulate the algorithm in the future. The process of familiarizing one's self with their management algorithm can be viewed as an extension of "infrastructural competency"-the process of building relationships with the infrastructures around one's self to develop sociotechnical practices to complete tasks [84]. For gig workers, this process is analogous to learning a new trade, a new boss, and a new workplace all in one. ...
... Remote sensing technologies are increasingly part of the territorial project in Switzerland. However, there is a significant inequality between cantons in infrastructure competence (Sawyer, Erickson & Jarrahi 2019) to collect and process the data, so much so as to be referred to a 'Swiss patchwork' by an interviewee. For example, canton Aargau is considered a referential canton, in terms of in-house cantonal flight, quality of remote sensing data and open data policy. ...
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The paper explores the quantification and inventory of forests with remote sensing in Switzerland, by leveraging contributions of political geography related to the material and volumetric dimensions of territory. As remote sensing infrastructures are increasingly used to monitor forests and map environmental risks, they contribute to the transformation of forests into smart milieux. Focusing in particular on spatial and aerial technologies, the findings show varying infrastructural competence among cantons. The article further expounds upon the role of remote sensing in the National Forest Inventory as a vector of continuity, scalability and rationalization of forest monitoring. In conclusion, due to their rhizomatic characteristics (Deleuze & Guattari 1987), forests escape remote sensing’s attempt at all-encompassing analysis. Résumé L’article explore la quantification et le recensement des forêts par les technologies de télédétection en Suisse, en s’appuyant sur les recherches en géographie politique qui analysent le territoire sous l’angle de sa dimension volumétrique et matérielle. Les infrastructures de télédétection étant de plus en plus utilisées pour surveiller les forêts et cartographier les risques environnementaux, elles contribuent à la transformation des forêts en ‘smart milieux’. En se concentrant en particulier sur les technologies satellitaires et aériennes, on s’aperçoit que les compétences infrastructurelles entre les cantons suisses varient de manière significative. De plus, l’article explique le rôle de ces technologies en tant que vecteurs de continuité, d’extensibilité et de rationalisation de l’inventaire forestier national. En conclusion, de par leurs caractéristiques rhizomatiques (Deleuze & Guattari 1987), les forêts échappent à l’analyse exhaustive par le moyen de la télédétection. Abstrakt Der Beitrag untersucht die Quantifizierung und Bestandesaufnahme von Wäldern in der Schweiz durch Fernerkundungstechnologien und stützt sich dabei auf Forschungen im Bereich der politischen Geographie, die das Territorium im Hinblick auf seine volumetrische und materielle Dimension analysieren. Da Infrastrukturen zur Fernerkundung zunehmend zur Überwachung von Wäldern und zur Kartierung von Umweltrisiken eingesetzt werden, tragen sie dazu bei, Wälder in ‘Smart Milieus’ zu verwandeln. Der Artikel konzentriert sich insbesondere auf die Satelliten- und Luftverkehrstechnologien und zeigt, dass die Infrastrukturkompetenzen zwischen den schweizerischen Kantonen sehr unterschiedlich sind. Im weiteren erläutert der Beitrag dieser Technologien als Mittel zur Kontinuität, Skalierbarkeit und Rationalisierung des Schweizerischen Landesforstinventars erläutert. Zusammenfassend lässt sich sagen, dass Wälder aufgrund ihrer rhizomatischen Eigenschaften (Deleuze & Guattari 1987) mittels Technologien der Fernerkundung nicht erschöpfend analysiert werden können.
Accessibility efforts, how we can make the world usable and useful to as many people as possible, have focused on how we can support and allow for the autonomy and independence of people with disabilities, neurodivergencies, chronic conditions, and older adults. Despite these efforts, not all technology is designed or implemented to support everyone's needs. TikTok. Recently, a community-organized push by creators and general users of TikTok urged the platform to add accessibility features, such as closed captioning, to allow more people to use the platform with greater ease. Through an interview study exploring the experiences of creatives on TikTok, we explore the creative practices of people with ADHD and those who experience similar challenges, focusing on the kinds of accessibility they create through their creative work. We find that creatives engage in critical infrastructuring--a process of bottom-up (re)design--to make the platform more accessible despite the challenges the platform presents to them as creators through creating and augmenting video editing and video captioning infrastructures. We then reflect on how the introduction of a top-down infrastructure - the implementation of an auto-captioning feature - shifts the critical infrastructure practices of TikTok creatives. Through their infrastructuring, creatives were revising the broader sociotechnical capabilities of TikTok to support their own needs as well as the broader needs of the TikTok community. We discuss how the routine of infrastructuring accessibility is a form of incidental care work and highlight how accessibility is an evolving sociotechnical construct, forwarding the concept of contextual accessibility.
The Historic Westside Universities Alliance Data Dashboard was created to meet the data equity needs of a group of resource-constrained communities in the Westside neighborhoods of Atlanta. We observed the development of this dashboard by participating as ethnographers and developers of its public safety module. Our ethnography and subsequent situational analysis of the dashboard's infrastructuring process led us to the work that individual stakeholders do in bringing such a dashboard to fruition. These stakeholders, whom we call infrastructural bricoleurs, operate through principles of situated knowledge, partial perspectives, limited power, and located accountability. Our analysis, which builds on concepts of infrastructures, bricolage, and feminist principles of technology design, helps us add further specificity to the work that infrastructural bricoleurs need to do when building civic data dashboards with resource constrained communities. Our findings benefit other researchers studying data infrastructures as well as administrators and practitioners within programs like DSSG (Data Science for Social Good) who are interested in building data infrastructures under similar constraints.
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This chapter advances an articulation of the contemporary knowledge worker as an infrastructural bricoleur. The practical and pragmatic intelligence of the contemporary knowledge worker, particularly those involved in project-based work, reflects an ability to build adaptable practices and routines, and to develop a set of working arrangements that is creative and event-laden. Like Ciborra’s octopi, workers augment infrastructures by drawing on certain forms of oblique, twisted, flexible, circular, polymorphic and ambiguous thinking until an accommodation can be found. These workers understand the non-linearity of work and working, and are artful in their pursuits around, through and beyond infrastructural givens. Modern knowledge work, then, when looked at through the lens of infrastructure and bricolage, is less a story of failure to understand, a limitation in training or the shortcomings of a system, but instead is more a mirror of the contemporary realities of today’s knowledge work drift as reflected in individuals’ sociotechnical practices.
Data-driven algorithms now enable digital labor platforms to automatically manage transactions between thousands of gig workers and service recipients. Recent research on algorithmic management outlines information asymmetries, which make it difficult for gig workers to gain control over their work due a lack of understanding how algorithms on digital labor platforms make important decisions such as assigning work and evaluating workers. By building on an empirical study of Upwork users, we make it clear that users are not passive recipients of algorithmic management. We explain how workers make sense of different automated features of the Upwork platform, developing a literacy for understanding and working with algorithms. We also highlight the ways through which workers may use this knowledge of algorithms to work around or manipulate them to retain some professional autonomy while working through the platform.
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It is often said that, in the face of an ever-changing world, infrastructure must remain flexible. Yet, what is meant by change remains glib and, consequently, so too do our studies on flexibility. In this paper, we develop three sensitizing concepts to investigate change to research infrastructure: 1) technoscientific: changes in research objects, scientific methods, and instruments; 2) sociotechnical: changes in social organization, coordination and, collaboration tools; and data sharing techniques; and 3) institutional: changes in funding and regulatory regimes. The majority of studies of "information infrastructure" have focused on the sociotechnical facet, and so we offer the two additional facets of change to help sensitize researchers to empirical instances of these encountered in the field, and to broaden the research agenda. To elaborate these concepts, we focus on a long-term research infrastructure that has been investigating HIV disease for nearly thirty years: The Multicenter AIDS Cohort Study (MACS). Over time, the MACS has faced tremendous changes in its science, collaboration and communication tools, its data and specimen repositories, its institutional environment, and the disease itself. Before we can begin to characterize flexibility, we must understand the nature of change research infrastructures face. We conclude by outlining a research agenda that will match forms of flexibility to the heterogeneity of changes an infrastructure may encounter.
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This paper addresses issues related to how to enable broadest possible innovative activities by infrastructural technology design. In this paper, we focus on the development of high level services based on mobile telecommunication technologies which we for matters of simplicity term the development of a Mobile Internet. The focus of our analysis is how features of the technology itself enable or constrain innovations. We do so by looking at a few embryos of the Mobile Internet (primarily the Norwegian CPA platform, but also two pre-CPA platforms in Norway and Japan’s i-mode) through the concepts of end-to-end architecture, programmability of terminals and generativity. This analysis illustrates that the change from closed infrastructures like MobilInfo and SMSinfo to more open ones like CPA and i-mode increased the speed and range of innovations substantially. At the same time the differences between CPA and i-mode regarding programmability of terminals, and the billing service provided by the CPA network enabling the billing of individual transactions, also contributed to, at least, basically the same speed and range of innovations around CPA as i-mode in spite of the huge differences in investments into the networks made by the owners. But the analysis also points out important differences between the Internet and the existing Mobile Internet regarding in particular technological constrains on innovations. It also points out important ways in which powerful actors’ strategies inhibit innovations and how they embed their strategies into the technology and, accordingly, creates technological barriers for innovation. These issues are first of all linked to the programmability of terminals. Therefore, we conclude that the by far most important issue regarding the enabling of more innovations related to the Mobile Internet is to improve the terminals programmability.
Two theoretical approaches have recently emerged to characterize new digital objects of study in the media landscape: infrastructure studies and platform studies. Despite their separate origins and different features, we demonstrate in this article how the cross-articulation of these two perspectives improves our understanding of current digital media. We use case studies of the Open Web, Facebook, and Google to demonstrate that infrastructure studies provides a valuable approach to the evolution of shared, widely accessible systems and services of the type often provided or regulated by governments in the public interest. On the other hand, platform studies captures how communication and expression are both enabled and constrained by new digital systems and new media. In these environments, platform-based services acquire characteristics of infrastructure, while both new and existing infrastructures are built or reorganized on the logic of platforms. We conclude by underlining the potential of this combined framework for future case studies.
The technologically tethered, iPhone-addicted figure is an image we can easily conjure. Most of us complain that there aren't enough hours in the day and too many e-mails in our thumb-accessible inboxes. This widespread perception that life is faster than it used to be is now ingrained in our culture, and smartphones and the Internet are continually being blamed. But isn't the sole purpose of the smartphone to give us such quick access to people and information that we'll be free to do other things? Isn't technology supposed to make our lives easier?In Pressed for Time, Judy Wajcman explains why we immediately interpret our experiences with digital technology as inexorably accelerating everyday life. She argues that we are not mere hostages to communication devices, and the sense of always being rushed is the result of the priorities and parameters we ourselves set rather than the machines that help us set them. Indeed, being busy and having action-packed lives has become valorized by our productivity driven culture. Wajcman offers a bracing historical perspective, exploring the commodification of clock time, and how the speed of the industrial age became identified with progress. She also delves into the ways time-use differs for diverse groups in modern societies, showing how changes in work patterns, family arrangements, and parenting all affect time stress. Bringing together empirical research on time use and theoretical debates about dramatic digital developments, this accessible and engaging book will leave readers better versed in how to use technology to navigate life's fast lane.
Our research examines how knowledge professionals use mobile email devices to get their work done and the implications of such use for their autonomy to control the location, timing, and performance of work. We found that knowledge professionals using mobile email devices to manage their communication were enacting a norm of continual connectivity and accessibility that produced a number of contradictory outcomes. Although individual use of mobile email devices offered these professionals flexibility, peace of mind, and control over interactions in the short term, it also intensified collective expectations of their availability, escalating their engagement and thus reducing their ability to disconnect from work. Choosing to use their mobile email devices to work anywhere/anytime-actions they framed as evidence of their personal autonomy-the professionals were ending up using it everywhere/all the time, thus diminishing their autonomy in practice. This autonomy paradox reflected professionals' ongoing navigation of the tension between their interests in personal autonomy on the one hand and their professional commitment to colleagues and clients on the other. We further found that this dynamic has important unintended consequences-reaffirming and challenging workers' sense of themselves as autonomous and responsible professionals while also collectively shifting the norms of how work is and should be performed in the contemporary workplace.
Understanding contemporary environments in the laboratory and elsewhere requires grappling conceptually with multiple, coexisting, nonconforming infrastructures which actors engage at the same time. In this article, I develop the analytical vocabulary of "seams" for studying heterogeneous, multi-infrastructural environments. Drawing upon six years of ethnographic fieldwork with two distributed science teams, as well as studies in Ubiquitous Computing, I examine overlaps among infrastructures and how actors work creatively with and across their seams. Rather than suggesting that actors are hemmed in or incapacitated by multiple infrastructural commitments, inclusions, and exclusions, I show instead how they work artfully to align them in ways concordant with membership and how this produces both consequences for their work and opportunities for analysis.