Infrastructures and publics – notes from Conference in Siegen

I attended the First Annual Conference 2016 Infrastructures of Publics — Publics of Infrastructures to gain some more insight about the most current thinking in Europe around topics like platforms, society, and algorithms. The University of Siegen organized this conference as they have a new center of excellence around these themes.

Putting it all together

I’ve tried to do some categorization and choose highlights from the conference, but before moving to these smaller bits, I think it’s worth to say something about the whole conference. Throughout the journey of the conference, it became apparent terms such as infrastructures and the public have various meanings. Their focus on infrastructures focused surprisingly lot on physical things to my taste, but give insights e.g., to archeology research (not that far from coding, actually) and enablers for digital interaction. The public was developed primarily from media scholarship.

If I understood it correctly, the center of excellence aims to mingle these two approaches together, to create some ideas how infrastructures and publics interact and shape each other. Sadly, these people seem more prominent in media and culture studies, which I don’t follow that actively, and are publishing less in my favorite venues (CSCW). I do hope that these ideas will move towards the CS people as well, they (we?) tend to forgot these type of research far too often.

Politics and infrastructures

There were several presentations focused on the political aspects of using various tools and infrastructures. So, a huge collection to come here.

Christopher Le Dantec presented his work around using sensors for the public participation. Sadly, I had already read his work in CSCW/CHI domain (e.g. the biking case), and thus the presentation had less interesting novelty aspects. Fundamentally, he has instrumented city bikers to map routes they use and used the data in collaborative design sessions to develop new routes for bikers. He did, however, use a word I have not heard before data literacy. Sadly, there was not a clear definition of this and thus I’m inclined to consider this in similar way computational literacy – just recently under criticism by Matti Tedre and Peter J. Denning.

The more interesting presentation was by M. Six Silberman, a Ph.D. computer science now working in German labor union on new platforms for work. He presented work on Turkopticon, a platform which manages the reputation of those putting out tasks in Mechanical Turk. The idea of this is to balance the current platform by providing those employed through it also insights about their employers. I really like this thinking as it shows how information technology can be used to challenge the society (created by other IT researchers) and try to find balance in platforms.

Finally, Hagen Schölzel presented the concept of communication control, more applied in the business or public relationships literature. The idea behind communication control is actions are planned before hand behind the curtains to shape the communication towards hoped directions; it is precise but does not look like it. Such idea can be applied to various social computing applications, where their interaction is often more strategic than it seems.

Studying the app ecologies

Carolin Gerlitz and Fernando van der Vlist have made an interesting study about the applications types which emerge to support the primarily platform, e.g., in the case of Twitter, all the various Twitter-based applications out there. They concluded that there are at least three application types

  1. strategic engagement, where applications aim to utilize the various forms of data in the app
  2. enhancing functionalities, where applications improve the existing platform functionalities
  3. innovative apps, which add new novel ways to use the application.

These relate further to the grammar of actions, which tell more about how applications are supposed to be used. These relate to the APIs and various rules related to the platform. Finally, the examination fo the extended applications describe the grammar in rather a clear manner.

Archeology and infrastructures

Jürgen Richter presented how the cabinets used by archeologist also have shaped the direction of the research domain as a whole. For example, the early focus to classify objects based on their materials have directed research towards different ages, like stone age. The organization of the cabins has become, almost accidentally, materialized politics. I started to think what similar type of things might exist in fields I’m familiar, and suspect that the overuse of demographic variables to explain phenomena might be such historic relic, passed over generations and still shaping how we examine human activity in various social processes.

Furthermore, he presented an interesting temporal observation: as the archaeology collection is generated over generations, the current curator collaborates with the previous curators and aims to understand their logic of data categorisation and storing. To adapt this idea to more digitalised area, programmers collaborate with all the previous coders with the aim to understand what the heck is going on. Naturally, this collaboration might be difficult: the previous actors might be out of reach, i.e., in another company or even passed away.

I’m grateful for the travel grant from the Doctoral Programme in Computer Science at the University of Helsinki. This post has been crossposted to my personal blog.

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