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Star & Bowker plenary

Infrastructures, Voices and Diversities

Susan Leigh Star and Geoffrey Bowker

University of California, San Diego

The politics of infrastructure and design often mean that the voices of the powerful are written deep into the code of the system being built or deployed.  Organizational, social and cultural values are layered into databases through classification and standardization practices. Sometimes this is direct, as in racial coding in census data or heterosexually biased medical forms.  At other times it is more subtle, for example, the increases in memory required by new memory-hungry programs exclude lower-end users.

This talk addresses an abstract problem with concrete consequences:  the politics of granularity.  We know that zooming in and zooming out, as with visual images, provides radically different views of the world.  The view of Earth from space, for instance, is very different to the view from the Empire State Building.  This in turn is very different than the view from a hospital room in Bellevue.  Decisions about granularity are even more deeply embedded, technically and ethically, in information infrastructures.  Shall we encode a phenomenon statistically, or according to the severity of a particular case?  Shall we make a map that emphasizes local problems and suffering, or pan out and show a larger relational view?  Where we "land" in that decision making process has political consequences at some level of granularity; we may also be building nascent legacy systems that will carry on that tradition.


Geoffrey C. Bowker is Professor in the Department of Communication, University of California, San Diego. His PhD is in History and Philosophy of Science at Melbourne University. He studies social and organizational aspects of the development of very large scale infrastructures. His first book (Science on the Run, Cambridge, MA: MIT Press) discussed the development of information practices in the oil industry. He has recently completed with Leigh Star a book on the history and sociology of medical classifications (Sorting Things Out: Classification and Practice - published by MIT Press in September 1999) and has co-edited a volume on Computer Support Cooperative Work (Social Science, Technical Systems and Cooperative Work: Beyond the Great Divide, LEA Press, 1997). He is currently working on an NSF funded project to examine the mobility of knowledge in distributed scientific collaborations using high end collaborative software. He is also writing a book about archival practices in the sciences over the past 200 years. More information can be found at his website:

Susan Leigh Star is a faculty member in the Communication Department at UCSD, where she recently moved after several years in the Graduate School of Library and Information Science, Univeristy of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign. She works in the Laboratory for Comparative Human Cognition, which studies educational and work processes through the lenses of activity theory and American Pragmatism.

She wrote her Ph.D. in Sociology from UCSF on the work practices of brain surgeons, physiologists, patients, and hospital administrators in Britain in the late 19th century. She worked with the late Anselm Strauss, and was trained in grounded theory. During that time she began collaborating with computer scientists at MIT, using data on scientific communities to model decision-making. She's since studied different kinds of intersecting communities, including natural historians, worm biologists, nurses, the WHO, chip designers, and library users. From this work, her concept of "boundary objects" has been picked up by different research areas. Her most recent book, with Geoffrey Bowker, is Sorting Things Out: Classification and Its Consequences (MIT, 1999). Citations to other work can be found at

Recently she's become interested in how infrastructure encodes values and aspects of culture, with the methodological question of how people can better "read" complex infrastructure, including but not limited to information infrastructure (or rather, information broadly construed). She is also a poet, and calls this "the poetics of infrastructure." Many of the processes that go into building and using infrastructure come to life by thinking of irony, invisibility, fragility, suffering, rage, and love -- the language of poetics.

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