Infrastructures of Evil: Participation, Collaboration, Maintenance
Location 212
Date and Start Time 02 September, 2016 at 11:00
Sessions 3


  • Christopher Kelty (UCLA) email
  • Joan Donovan (UCLA) email
  • Aaron Panofsky (UCLA) email

Mail All Convenors

Short Abstract

Explores the dark side of infrastructure and how participation, collaboration and maintenance can be looked at from the perspective of illegitimacy, inequality, and evil. Papers will address under-researched, unintended or surprising aspects of science, engineering and infrastructures.

Long Abstract

Why do good things happen to bad people? This track looks at the dark sides of infrastructure, especially on the otherwise rosy themes of participation, maintenance and collaboration. For most work in STS these concepts are already antidotes: Participation because: unaccountable expertise; Collaboration because: hierarchy and individuality; Maintenance because: the routine is innovative. .

But if we grant these concepts a positive and a negative moment, what does the latter look like? When is public participation a bad thing? When does it "democratize" inequality or vindictiveness? What does too much or the wrong kind of participation look like? When is collaboration insidious or destructive? How does does it order racism, homophobia, classism, or sexism? What kinds of maintenance perpetuate horrible infrastructures or malevolent forms of power? When is the routine an evil to be resisted?

The track will include research addressing under-researched aspects of science and infrastructure, or unintended consequences related to building and standardizing socio-technical systems. Some examples might include: How is the work of participation, collaboration or innovation in criminal, terrorist or other illegitimate worlds conducted? Can we learn something about infrastructure by looking at the worlds of hate groups, delinquents, spammers and scammers, or scientists and engineers otherwise working outside of the mainstream? What blind spots are created by the shared theoretical approaches of STS?

Research is welcome from all subfields of STS including: software and platform studies, labor, scientific communication, feminist and queer science studies, information and communication technologies, games, social movements, surveillance studies, biomedicine, public engagement, economics, to environmental studies, and beyond.


This track is closed to new paper proposals.


Do Silk Roads lead to Data Havens?

Author: Adam Fish (Lancaster University)  email

Short Abstract

The data haven concept is troubled by extraterritorial power....

Long Abstract

In Iceland, information activists, inspired by visits with John Perry Barlow and Julian Assange, have come together under the organization, the International Modern Media Institute (IMMI), to put forth a body of legislation that would make Iceland the most secure location in the world for the preservation of data—a data haven.

These laws include source protection from Sweden, communication protection from Belgium, freedom of information law from Norway and Estonia, libel protection from New York state, and others best practices.

One important case exemplifies the difficulties of generating a data haven. The Silk Road server--containing a trove of incriminating information about the selling of drugs, arms, and other contraband--was housed in an Iceland data centre. In the course of a 2014 FBI investigation the Silk Road server was confiscated from the Icelandic data centre. The relative ease with which the United States Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) acquired this server shows the faultlines in the data haven proposal.

Drawing on fieldwork in Iceland in 2015, this talk will focus on issues of data retention, data protection, and intermediary limited liability and the Silk Road server seizures. Theories of data territoriality and internet balkanization will be mobilized in a critique of the data haven concept. In summation I will propose what is needed for the emergence of a non-evil revolutionary information infrastructure.

Brand and issue: the janus face of the computationally enhanced car

Author: Noortje Marres (University of Warwick)  email

Short Abstract

This paper discusses controversies about computationally enhanced cars. Disruptive occurrences involving these entities, I argue, demonstrate their formative ambiguity, as both politically generative and perverse. I conclude that recognizing this ambiguity is only more necessary in times of crisis.

Long Abstract

This paper finds its empirical starting point in a set of recent controversies about computationally enhanced vehicles, with a special focus on rigged and hackeable cars. Rejecting rigid distinctions between virtuous and sinful, good and evil, light and dark technology, I make the case for the 'formative ambiguity' of these problematic technological propositions. I show how recent disruptive occurrences involving computerized vehicles, namely street trials and (near-)accidents, operate in several different registers at once, including the moral, the political and the economic. More specifically, computational vehicles are shot through with concerns, but equally have the capacity to organise publics and unlock alternative futures. To conclude, I give reasons why the tactical and strategic affirmation of multi-valence becomes more and not less necessary in times of crisis.

Metals of Concern in the Late Industrial City

Author: Alison Kenner (Drexel University)  email

Short Abstract

This article discusses the messy entanglements, both evil and necessary, posed by scrapyards operating in a late industrial neighborhood; it explores how civic engagement technologies have been taken up to highlight the complexity of the issue as well as limitations in municipal governance.

Long Abstract

This article discusses how Philadelphia's scrapyards get articulated as environmental health issues (or not) within the context of urban redevelopment. The article describes how community members living near three scrapyards are trained on a civic reporting platform, which connects them to municipal departments; the reporting platform enables citizens to help police the scrapyards through the existing enforcement system. The reporting platform, however, maintains what has been described as a "necessary evil" (the scrapyards) by enforcement agents: rather than facilitating discussion on the place of scrapyards in the neighborhood, and Philadelphia's late industrial economy writ large, the civic reporting platform reframes the scrapyard issue as a maintenance problem to be solved with neoliberal tactics.

Somerset's scrapyards are a sign and effect of disinvestment; dumping, deconstruction, and degradation dominate the landscape in a space where scrapping and recycling are one of the most accessible means of making a living. Within the context of district's economic landscape, the scrapyards hold an important place - for licensed scrappers, local businesses and residents who rely on their service, and industries dependent on scrap metal. The scrapyards may be bad neighbors, but they are also one of the only neighbors; they provide a service, albeit a messy one. Thus, this article discusses the messy entanglements, both evil and necessary, posed by scrapyards operating in a late industrial neighborhood; it explores how civic engagement technologies have been taken up to highlight the complexity of the issue as well as limitations in municipal governance.

Evil Energies

Authors: Dominic Boyer (Rice University)  email
Cymene Howe (Rice University)  email

Short Abstract

This paper explores intersections between energy forms, infrastructures and evil. We live in an era in which the moralization of energy is increasingly common and necessary. We discuss here the secret and not-so-secret evils wrought by fossil fuel infrastructures and electricity grids.

Long Abstract

In this paper we explore intersections between energy forms, infrastructures and evil. Some of these are better known than others. We discuss, for example, the politics, sentiments and worldviews enabled by fossil fuel infrastructures, which seem ever more clearly evil when viewed in the context of anthropocenic phenomena such as global warming, species extinction and oceanic acidification. That fossil fuel extraction inevitably summons dead life from deep under the earth creates a dark canvas for the moral imagination, necrocratic impulses that have been brilliantly captured by writers like Reza Negarestani and artists like Marina Zurkow. Studies of devastating "oil curses" in Africa mirror the more invisible curse of carbon democracy's inability to conceptualize a future beyond oil. Based on our research on renewable energy development in Mexico, we also wish to explore the lesser known evils of electrical grids. On the one hand, grids appear to enable a great many goods (artificial light and heat, modern conveniences, all the technologies of the digital era). On the other their design to make electricity available at all times without interruption virtually necessitates reliance upon the dangers of carbon and nuclear energy forms. More than this, grids are integral apparatuses of centralized state governance and surveillance. In sum, we live in an era where the moralization of energy is increasingly common and necessary. It is time to think carefully through the evils and goods that energy infrastructures provide.

Black Hat, White Hat: Ethicizing Participation in Search Engine Optimization

Author: Malte Ziewitz (Cornell University)  email

Short Abstract

What counts as 'good' or 'bad' participation in search engine optimization (SEO)? This paper uses materials from an ethnography of SEO consultants to show how the day-to-day work of 'ethicizing' participation is not just an annoying side effect, but an integral feature of the scheme.

Long Abstract

What counts as 'good' and 'bad' participation in search engine optimization (SEO)? This paper draws on materials from an ethnography of SEO consultants, a growing industry of marketing professionals that help their clients rank in search engine results pages. Often frowned upon for their contested practices, SEO consultants navigate a fine and ever-shifting line between desirable participation and illegitimate manipulation. They do so in the shadow of a corporation with a seemingly clear idea of what counts as a 'good webmaster' or 'quality content'. In practice, however, these determinations are subject to constant challenge and ambivalence. In this paper, I shall trace how various practices of 'ethicizing' shape this unofficial participation in generating rankings on the web. Moving back and forth between spreadsheets, software tools, client meetings, industry conferences, and online conversations, I shall identify a range of strategies for distinguishing the good and the evil, including denial, deferral, humor, storytelling, and the use of material objects. This ongoing respecification, I shall argue, is not just an unavoidable annoyance, but an integral feature of the scheme. Ranking the web is possible because of, rather than despite, the way participation is organized and ethicized.

In the name of the collaborative economy: Digital intermediation platforms as a new material and ideological vanguard for capitalist expansion?

Authors: Jacob Matthews (Paris 8 University)  email
David Pucheu (Université Bordeaux 3)  email
Athina Karatzogianni (Universoty of Leicester )  email

Short Abstract

In this work, we enquire into how digital intermediation platforms contribute to legitimising contemporary capitalism and to redesigning processes of domination and exploitation of digital labor.

Long Abstract

Our research aims at deconstructing the notion of "sharing" / "collaborative" economy and follows two key lines of enquiry. Firstly, we examine the rise of digital intermediation platforms (i.e. automated data-reliant transactional and labour management tools) within socioeconomic fields, such as tourism and accommodation, engineering, manufacturing, public and private transport, personal assistance, and finance. A critical political economy approach is used in order to analyse the role these platforms play within (or "above") production and capitalisation cycles (J Matthews, Beyond Collaborative Economy, 2016). Secondly, our research draws from cyberconflict theory to map the sociopolitical, ideological and organizational environment these platforms operate within, and the resistances they face (A Karatzogianni, Firebrand Waves, 2015). To that effect we ask: How do digital intermediation platforms contribute to legitimising contemporary capitalism, and potentially to redesigning processes of domination and exploitation of (digital) labor? How are these platforms used as a justification register, i.e. the use of digital commons for ideological purposes, in the sense of Boltanski and Thévenot's economies of worth? (On Justification, 2006) Is the platform cooperativism model strong enough to overcome the exploitative character of the "sharing" economy employed to sustain a capitalist order in crisis? Our investigations are based on interviews with platform users and representatives, direct observation, and secondary data compilation and analysis. Fieldwork is principally carried out in Barcelona and based on a sample of players including the emblematic Airbnb and Uber, as well as Trip4Real, Goteo, Veniam, Claro Partners, Makers of Barcelona and Barcinno.

ArXiv or viXra? Doppelgängers and the Quest for the True Archive

Author: Alessandro Delfanti (University of Toronto)  email

Short Abstract is the evil twin of, the centralized preprint archive used in physics and math. It mimics arXiv's design while claiming to serve "the whole community." Doppelgänger publishing venues question the rhetoric of openness that has become hegemonic in contemporary scholarship.

Long Abstract

Physicists and mathematicians use preprint archives to circulate papers, as well as to render visible data such as number of contributions and citations. Their core publishing infrastructure is arguably the centralized open access preprint archive, The role of, arXiv's evil twin, is thus to avoid the community-based forms of policing that keep undesired papers outside of arXiv. ViXra mimics arXiv's design and functioning, while claiming to be "truly open" and to serve "the whole scientific community" by allowing outcast researchers to publish their work. In fact, the strict moderation and review processes enforced by arXiv are seen as failing to meet the standards of openness preprint archives are supposed to live up to. While there is a certain dose of irony in viXra, one cannot help but notice that this archive has published more than 10,000 articles. Its use appears to be highly moralized, as physicists working in recognized scientific institutions are discouraged from publishing on it. This and other cases of doppelgänger, spam, bot-generated publishing venues provide a vantage point to understand efforts to construct and police the boundaries of science ("the community"). ViXra also demands us not to take at face value the rhetoric of openness that has become hegemonic in contemporary scholarship.

Evil media practices and the rise of an 'infrastructure of anonymity'

Author: Paolo Magaudda (University of Padova)  email

Short Abstract

Moving from a STS perspective, the paper displays and analyses the rise of an ‘infrastructure of anonymity’ online, highlighting how this is emerging ‘in the wild’, from a highly differentiated and often conflicting array of networks, technologies, groups, institutions and ‘evil’ practices.

Long Abstract

The paper presents an exploratory research on technologies and practices of anonymity online, based on secondary literature, original documentation and online ethnography. Theoretically, it borrows from an STS perspective on infrastructures (Star and Bowker 1999; 2002) and its further elaboration in media studies (Sterne 2012; Parks and Starosielski 2015) to address the unconventional trajectory of emergence of an 'infrastructure of anonymity': a dynamic socio-technical formation of technologies, cultures and institutions, enabling anonymity-based practices over the Internet. The 'evilness' of this network especially lies in the fact that it has mainly co-evolved with an heterogeneous set of illegitimate practices, including espionage, illegal markets, whistleblowing, forbidden political protests and cyberattacks.

Thus, the paper discusses issues of participation, collaboration and maintenance in relation to this evil 'infrastructure of anonymity'. Topics discussed regard: a) the unconventional collaborations supporting TOR, a specific cryptographic network originality developed by the US Army, but today warmly supported by digital rights NGOs such as the EFF; b) the multiple forms of participation and support to this network, which is part of a wider socio-material infrastructure of hardware, software, servers, online platforms as well as cultural representations, social practices and digital politics; c) the controversies over exploitation, maintenance and change of the infrastructure, in which small groups, big corporations, governments and NGO take part in the same time. The paper ends discussing what relationship we can envision between evil practices occurring on this infrastructure and its heterogeneous and relatively unconventional trajectory of development and maintenance.

Learning to Labor or Liberate? The Infrastructure for Entrepreneurial Education

Author: Daniel Greene (Microsoft Research New England)  email

Short Abstract

Fieldwork in an urban American charter high school reveals a conflict between the school's liberation pedagogy and its technical infrastructure. The intensive data-monitoring system and one-to-one laptop program became means to re-impose an institutional mandate to train new knowledge workers.

Long Abstract

Ethnographic fieldwork and a series of interviews with students, teachers, and administrators in an urban American 'charter' high school I call Du Bois Charter, as well as within the public-private charter system (i.e., teacher trainings, board meetings) around it, reveals a conflict between the school's liberation pedagogy and its political and technical infrastructure. Du Bois' majority-white faculty developed curricula for their working-class black and Latino students based on individual empowerment and critical engagement with systems of oppression. But the digital entrepreneurial infrastructure supporting these curricula was beyond their control and had other values 'baked in'.

Individual empowerment was realized through an intensive, fine-grained data monitoring architecture that afforded personalized, participatory learning but ultimately catered to the standardized testing regime against which all Washington, DC schools, but especially entrepreneurial 'charters' outside of the regular public school system, are judged. Collaborative, critical engagement with systems of oppression was carried out through a Google-funded one-to-one laptop program and an intranet infrastructure whose form was experimented with almost as much as the first class of seniors. Fights to discipline laptop and internet use became proxy fights over the purpose of education in the lives of these students. Ultimately, administrators used those fights and that data monitoring as evidence of the school's departure from its institutional mandate to train new knowledge workers. The infrastructure was repurposed to more strictly impose a culture of professionalization, against the protests of many teachers, some of whom quit mid-year, and counter to the goals some students set for themselves.

Surveillance as Accountability: Data-driven Public Education

Author: Roderic Crooks (UC Irvine)  email

Short Abstract

This paper provides an ethnographic description of a one-to-one tablet computer program launched in 2013 in a Southern California charter school, focusing in particular on the emergence of a variety of surveillance practices that developed in the pursuit of accountability.

Long Abstract

This paper provides an ethnographic description of a one-to-one tablet computer program launched in 2013 in a Southern California charter school, focusing in particular on the emergence of a variety of surveillance practices that developed via the actions (and counteractions) of teachers, students, and administrators in the context of accountability measures. This project looks at surveillance practices as they happened in three distinct, common processes in the school: instruction, advising, and testing. Depictions of the school's complex electronic surveillance measures as articulated by principals, teachers, and student technology workers portrayed the surveillance apparatus as immediate, ubiquitous, and predictive. Paradoxically, as students and teachers adjusted to the use of tablets over the course of two years, the constant invocation of the administration's surveillance capability failed, in some cases, to force a particular behavior or achieve a particular outcome. In effect, reminders of surveillance meant to tout the reach of the school administration's supervisory gaze revealed such vision to be partial, probabilistic, and retroactive. I argue that conspicuous displays of surveillance power, rooted as they are in appeals to a panoptic principle, revealed limits of the power of school authorities to accomplish the goals for which accountability regimes were instituted in the first place; I explore this seeming contradiction and conclude by asking if this pattern holds at different scales of surveillance.

Dealing with the "evil" everyday. Combating hate in the Online World

Author: Julia Fleischhack (Georg-August-Universität Göttingen)  email

Short Abstract

My talk examines the work and role of activist groups and NGOs in Europe that are engaged in campaigning against online racism, sexism and hate.

It looks at the ways they appropriate the online infrastructure and “online rights“ by looking at the worlds of hate groups or other “malevolent forces”.

Long Abstract

My talk draws on my ethnographic research in a non-governmental organization and among activist groups in Europe that are engaged in campaigning against online racism, sexism and hate. Their members - online activists, lawyers, and technologists among others - deal with the "dark sides" of the online-infrastructure everyday in different ways: by reviewing and analyzing cyberhate structures, by creating information campaigns for raising awareness on the matter, by doing lobby work for (inter)national legalization, and by creating technological tools to make the online space safer for its users. By doing so, they often serve as "intermediaries" (Engle Merrry 2006) between national and international justices institutions/systems, the internet industry, and state interests.

Examining the work and role of these activist groups and NGOs, my talk looks at the ways they appropriate the online infrastructure and "online rights" by looking at the worlds of hate groups or other "malevolent forces": How is this "evil" programmed and engineered into common online practices, spaces and infrastructures? How is their understanding of the online world - and also their own work and personal online practices - affected by the "infrastructures of evil"?

I argue that the "evil" is a routine, a common thing in their work, that needs to be explored further in its social and cultural impacts on our online world and also on our own (theoretical and analytical) approaches in this field.

All Citizens are Bastards?

Author: Joan Donovan (UCLA)  email

Short Abstract

“How is infrastructure politics by other means?” As police departments adopt and adapt technologies for crime reporting, citizens are not only on patrol, they are called into action by police who are experimenting with video evidence in order to surveil crowds.

Long Abstract

In this talk, I describe the politics of new apps for citizen policing in order to recast the STS question, "Do artifacts have politics?" (Winner 1980) by asking, "How is infrastructure politics by other means?" Technical questions become political ones as forms and norms of usage and users develop. As police departments adopt and adapt technologies for crime reporting, I describe the complicated ways in which citizens' use of policing technology is also a form of participation in the process of innovation and product development. I explore the infrastructure of the Large Emergency Event Digital Information Repository (LEEDIR) as it evolved from a website used to support the Susan G. Komen charity to a streaming mobile phone app and web repository for Occupy protesters called "Studio Occupy." In its current iteration, it is used by police who ask citizens to upload footage of events that involve hundreds of people. The consequences of participation in the LEEDIR project are chilling for protesters. The ethics of participation for the user are enmeshed with the business ethics of the provider, especially in moments of beta-testing and midstream engagement. In this situation, protesters were unaware of the consequences of adopting this technology or their role in its trajectory. Incorporating social media and online broadcasting technologies into social movement's repertoires is an important component of networked social movements, but the lessons of LEEDIR show a sharp distinction between the politics of participation by companies, police, and protesters when using the same technology.

Critical Civic Data: Examining Semantic Inconsistencies in Police Homicide Data

Authors: Irene Pasquetto (UCLA)  email
Jennifer Pierre (University of California, Los Angeles)  email
Britt S. Paris (University of California Los Angeles)  email

Short Abstract

This project investigates how police-officer involved homicide (POIH) data gaps relate to semantic inconsistencies in naming and classifying POIH homicides. Definitions and expressions by which these homicides are referred to greatly vary among agencies and activists groups.

Long Abstract

Newspaper headlines throughout 2014-15 reported a spate of killings of unarmed African Americans by police officers around the United States. The revelation of this disturbing trend of racially targeted violence exposed the difficulty of tallying the extent of these killings, as there exists a significant gap in data on the number of police officer-involved homicides (POIH) across the US. States are not required by law to report killings by law enforcement, and when states do report, their data is collected and interpreted differently across states and local jurisdictions.

The incompleteness and lack of standardization of national police-officer involved homicide (POIH) data provided the starting point for this research. This paper draws on our previous assessment of several POIH datasets for Los Angeles County collected by federal agencies, local organizations and activist groups. (Currie et al., under review). We investigated these datasets applying Geoff Bowker's (1994) technique of "infrastructural inversion," and drew insights from what Dalton & Thatcher (2014) define as "counter-data actions" through the organization of a civic hackathon.

Through the hackathon, we found that in many cases, the gaps in the POIH data were related to semantic inconsistencies in naming and classifying instances of POIH, which render a life taken incommensurable with the data point that represents it. Our paper ultimately details how involving communities in critical analysis of POIH data can lead to the development of projects that promote social justice and act as a countervailing force to the rationalization of complex events processed as discrete POIH data points.

When genetics challenges a racist's self-identity

Author: Aaron Panofsky (UCLA)  email

Short Abstract

How do white nationalists interpret genetic ancestry tests?

Long Abstract

Since the advent in the mid-2000s of genetic ancestry tests (GATs) available directly to consumers, researchers have considered what their effects would be on individuals' conceptions of their own identities and their understanding of race and ethnicity. Studies have focused especially on the impact on African Americans and more recently on differences in reception among individuals from diverse backgrounds. This study focuses on a different population: white nationalists posting and discussing GAT results on the web forum Stormfront. This is a self-selected population that ostensibly has strong ideological commitments to notions of racial distinctiveness, purity, and hierarchy and where genetic information might put individual identity at risk. Our research shows that they use practices of "affiliative self-fashioning" similar to other populations—that is, white nationalists incorporate and reject elements of ancestry testing results selectively in ways that tend to preserve prior identities. Identity "repair" practices include denigrating the racial motivations and putative Jewish ownership of genetics companies and denigrating the validity of genetics as opposed to genealogical research or self-knowledge ("looking in the mirror"). On occasion GAT reveals are occasions for individuals to denigrate each other's identities. Finally, Stormfront posters typically interpret results in essentialist ways—they think about particular MtDNA or Y-chromosome haplotypes as typical of particular desirable and undesirable populations and emblematic of membership rather than as distributed in diverse and clinal fashion inconsistent with distinctive populations. Thus GATs become occasions for debates about the necessity of racial purity to a commitment to white nationalism.

All You Base Are Belong To Us: Infrastructures of Online Violence

Author: Elizabeth Losh (College of William and Mary)  email

Short Abstract

Online harassment orchestrated by the #GamerGate campaign uses multiple rhetorical, algorithmic, demographic, and legal infrastructures to target feminist game developers, critics, scholars, and fans of independent gaming with very intense campaigns of online harassment.

Long Abstract

Online harassment is facilitated by a wide variety of material, human, informational, and rhetorical infrastructures. Carefully orchestrated recent campaigns to punish, shame, threaten, and terrorize female or feminist game designers, critics, fans, and players have benefited from specific infrastructural conditions. For example, GamerGate borrows from the tactics of hashtag activism around metadata naming conventions, the standards of legal equality trumpeted by the men's rights movement, the doctrines of the "magic circle" in gaming culture, and the architectures of distribution, replication, optimization, and reciprocity built into the Internet itself. GamerGaters have capitalized on rules for registering domain names, standards for IP addresses, upvoting procedures in online communities, and the protocols of crowdfunding and customer service mechanisms to align their interests and coordinate their hostile and exclusionary affective labor. They have even appropriated the infrastructural advantages of certain feminist topoi, such as level playing fields or safe spaces.

This paper examines the larger discursive context of #GamerGate and why hard-core gamers who are fans of AAA videogames with military storylines and first-person shooter game mechanics have constructed a seemingly illogical and paranoid explanatory theory about so-called "social justice warriors" pursuing unfair advantage. As they deny the materiality, embodiment, labor, and situatedness of digital culture, they also affirm positive notions about the exceptionalism of a realm defined - in Nicholas Negroponte's terms - by bits rather than atoms. This rhetorical infrastructure, which emphasizes transparency, neutrality, and universality, is also a key feature of the GamerGate campaign.

This track is closed to new paper proposals.