Isolated yet profoundly networked: a mobile and multi-sited ethnography of control rooms
Asher Boersma (Siegen University)
Paper short abstract:
Through a mobile and multi-sited ethnography the contradictions of a network of control rooms are studied. Control rooms are physically isolated - organisational struggles are shaped by it. Yet even the smallest sequence of action highlights how operators' work is part of a transnational assemblage.
Paper long abstract:
Control rooms are build to have an uninterrupted overview. The isolation 1) protects the physical integrity of the operators, 2) prevents distraction, and 3) guards the prestige of the control room. State agencies that run the control rooms, in this case port and inland navigation control rooms in the Netherlands, Belgium and Germany, gain legitimacy through the representation of high-tech competence. Not the agencies' offices, but the control rooms are eagerly made public. Although the operators control the reinforced doors, it is management that decide who gets in. The isolation of the control rooms is physical and organisational - situated at major waterway intersections, hidden behind industrial zones, or in riparian land, not typical places to locate an office. Whereas managers regularly switch jobs within agencies, operators tend to stay put for decades. It is this context that intensifies operators' resentment after years of financial cut backs. The conflict between operators and management - at times spilling over into public spheres - makes the presence of an ethnographer problematic for management, yet welcomed by operators. The strategy of operators has been twofold: exposing dangerous conditions through broadcasting media, while using Twitter to show the grind of night shifts or complex interfaces - no slick panoramas. A stationary ethnography would reinforce control room isolation. Instead, this ethnography is extended to include the ships that navigate these waters. Together, these highlight the mobility operators try to enable, and that the skippers live. Both appear isolated, but are primarily concerned with forging assemblies.
The room where it happens: inclusion, exclusion and power in STS research and practice