Lately I‘ve been doing a lot of reading on the concept of infrastructure or to be more precise the connections between infrastructures of work.
As in the assembly of tools, processes, knowledge and standards build up over years by people to enable good work.
I quite like this definition of infrastructure by Susan Leigh Star1. Mainly because she reaches beyond the idea of infrastructure as a technological construct:
- Embeddedness. Infrastructure is sunk into and inside of other structures, social arrangements, and technologies.
- Transparency. Infrastructure is transparent to use, in the sense that it does not have to be reinvented each time or assembled for each task, but invisibly supports those tasks.
- Reach or scope. This may be either spatial or temporal—infrastructure has reach beyond a single event or one-site practice.
- Learned as part of membership. The taken-for-grantedness of artifacts and organizational arrangements is a sine qua non of membership in a community of practice . Strangers and outsiders encounter infrastructure as a target object to be learned about.
- Links with conventions of practice. Infrastructure both shapes and is shaped by the conventions of a community of practice (e.g., the ways that cycles of day-night work are affected by and affect electrical power rates and needs).
- Embodiment of standards. Modified by scope and often by conflicting conventions, infrastructure takes on transparency by plugging into other infrastructures and tools in a standardized fashion.
- Built on an installed base. Infrastructure does not grow de novo; it wrestles with the inertia of the installed base and inherits strengths and limitations from that base.
- Becomes visible upon breakdown. The normally invisible quality of working infrastructure becomes visible when it breaks: the server is down, the bridge washes out, there is a power blackout.
- Is fixed in modular increments, not all at once or globally. Because infrastructure is big, layered, and complex, and because it means different things locally, it is never changed from above.
In that sense forms, standards, the dreaded bureaucracy — all these things are in the same sense part of a companies infrastructure as are computers, servers, the buildings, electricity or air conditioning.
In many ways this notion of infrastructure can be understood as part of what Dan Hill described as “Dark Matter”, the complete overarching context (from tools, to cultures and laws) that influences every decision made inside an organization.
Susan Leigh Star (1999). ‘The Ethnography of Infrastructure’. AMERICAN BEHAVIORAL SCIENTIST, Vol. 43 No. 3 ↩