Introduction: An Agenda for Infrastructure Studies

By Edwards, Paul N.; Bowker, Geoffrey C. et al. | Journal of the Association for Information Systems, January 1, 2009 | Go to article overview

Introduction: An Agenda for Infrastructure Studies


Edwards, Paul N., Bowker, Geoffrey C., Jackson, Steven J., Williams, Robin, Journal of the Association for Information Systems


1. Introduction: An Agenda for Infrastructure Studies

As with many special issues, this one has had a long history, traversing multiple infrastructures. Email, electronic banking, planes, trains, and automobiles got us to a workshop in Michigan in 2006, at which three of us were approached to produce a special issue of JAIS. The editor told us (even in the age of the Internet, word of mouth works wonders) of a similar workshop hosted by Robin Williams in Edinburgh, so we joined forces. What results is a special issue that brings together leading scholars in the emergent field of infrastructure studies - authors whose collective insights sketch out the vitality of, and lay the groundwork for, this field.

2. Imagining Infrastructure

During the last two decades, the term "infrastructure" has spread virally through journalism, government, MIS, and academia. Used in a vast variety of senses, the word often (but not always) connotes big, durable, well-functioning systems and services, from railroads and highways to telephone, electric power, and the Internet. In the 1990s, the "information superhighway" metaphor deliberately coupled the older hardware of urban civilization to rapid digital convergence. At this writing (2009), in the midst of the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression, infrastructure projects dominate economic stimulus proposals; repairs to aging bridges and roads compete intensively with investments in renewable energy sources and electronic medical records. Infrastructure today seems both an all-encompassing solution and an omnipresent problem, indispensable yet unsatisfactory, always already there yet always an unfinished work in progress.

In science, calls for new cyberinfrastructure (as it is known in the USA) and e-science (as it is called in Europe) to support data sharing and new interdisciplinary approaches have led to significant new funding for network-based services such as grid computing, data federation, and community building. The UK spent £275 million to promote e-science from 2001to 2006 (with a similar sum devoted to upgrading its computer and network equipment, as well as large investments particularly in biology and environmental sciences). In 2005 the US National Science Foundation (NSF) established a cross-directorate Office of Cyberinfrastructure, spending some $175 million annually to promote new projects throughout the natural and social sciences as well as to keep older ones, such as the colossal TeraGrid (teragrid.org), rolling. E-infrastructure also encompasses emerging forms of ecommerce such as RFID product tracking or online marketplaces, and related work in vertical infrastructure standards. As ever with infrastructures, however, the challenges far exceed the commitments. Despite the recent surge in awareness, infrastructure, in general, lacks visibility, symbolic value, and short-term payoff. Few in the public know, for example, that New York City Water Tunnel No. 3 is the largest engineering project in the city's history and one of the most complex engineering feats in world history.

But is e-infrastructure truly infrastructural? Are e-infrastructures really something different from information systems, the central concern of this journal and the Association for Information Systems itself? Perhaps e-infrastructure is merely a buzzword, just another in a long line of phrases from systems management (1960s) to knowledge networking (1990s) to enterprise management systems (2000s) - notional terms often deployed to assert understanding and control over systems that have invariably proved far more unruly in practice than on paper or in the imagination of their designers, builders, and managers. Similarly, the NSF, like other research funding agencies, cycles through new buzz phrases about once every five years, most recently from digital libraries (early 1990s) to collaboratories (late 1990s) to cyberinfrastructure (early 2000s).

We cannot disagree entirely with this jaded assessment. …

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