Perspectives on Information Infrastructures

Perspectives on Information Infrastructures

DOI: 10.4018/978-1-4666-1622-6.ch002
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This chapter builds on the discussion in Chapter 1 by tracing the evolution of the concept of infrastructure into the concept of information infrastructure. The key objective is to describe in detail how different researchers have approached the notion from varied perspectives in their efforts to understand information infrastructure and its role in organizational transformation and practice. The objective is to clarify the distinct aspects of information infrastructures in relation to other information systems, whilst also to identify opportunities for constructing contributions in the existing literature. This chapter concludes with a summary of some key observations emerging from this critical literature review and identifies some implications for the theoretical approach adopted in the rest of this book.
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Historians of technology have consistently argued that there is no such thing as autonomous technological progress evolving free from the particularities of the culturally conditioned historical context (Hecht & Allen, 2001). In, Networks of Power (1983), Thomas Hughes describes large electrical networks as “evolving cultural artifacts rather than isolated technologies,” reflecting and making tangible the power and politics of the spaces within which technologies are developed, implemented, and used. Hughes argues that technology gains “momentum” both by becoming institutionalized in social values, and by the very affordances of its materiality–the possibilities of use it carries in its capabilities. In doing so, technologies “embody, reinforce, and enact social and political power” (Hecht & Allen, 2001, pp.3).

Such historical studies of technology later gave way to various sociotechnical approaches to understanding the evolution of large technological systems (Bijker, Hughes, & Pinch, 1987) and laid the foundations for an understanding of technology as “both socially constructed and society shaping” (Hughes, 1987, pp.51). However, the focus of these studies has primarily been on technologies emerging from the industrial revolution including electrical power networks, transportation infrastructures, and telephone networks. A key characteristic of these early technologies is that they were driven by expert communities–scientists, engineers, expert workers, and often the military (Hughes & Hughes, 2000; Noble, 1984). In contrast, the new information and communication technologies emerging in the mid 20th century have given rise to a different style of technological development in which development negotiations include constituents who are not members of the expert community (Abbate, 1999; Benkler, 2006; King, 2006).

The most prominent example is the Internet, which has evolved from a scientific project between a handful of academic and research institutions throughout the United States, to a widely distributed computer network serving millions of users around the globe (Khan, 1994). ARPANET, the predecessor of today’s Internet, was originally introduced in the early 1970s, by ARPA1, the USA’s Department of Defense’s Advanced Research Projects Agency. The original conceptualization of ARPANET favored military values, such as flexibility and high performance over commercial goals, such as simplicity or consumer appeal. At the same time, however, the group that designed and built ARPA’s networks was dominated by academics, who incorporated their own values of decentralization of authority and open exchange of information into the system. Further, as access to the ARPANET and the Internet spread beyond the initial group of computer scientists, non-expert users also exerted some influence on the development of network computing. For instance, decisions around which applications would become the standard and which would be removed as problematic rested on the spontaneity of the non-expert users, who were continuously improvising innovative ways of using the technology (Abbate, 1999). Electronic mail and the file transfer protocol are examples of informally created applications that became popular, not as the result of ‘expert’ development and decision-making, but through the spontaneous decisions of thousands of independent communities of users.

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