The International Journal of Technology, Knowledge, and Society offers an annual award for newly published research or thinking that has been recognized to be outstanding by members of the Technology, Knowledge & Society Research Network.
When Google rolled out Google Fiber, its new fiber optic network, in Kansas City, Missouri for the first time in 2012, it revealed deep racial and economic divides in the city. This undermined Google’s claim that Google Fiber would help solve the nation’s digital divide, but it helps us understand some of the ways infrastructure and inequality intertwine. My interest here is to explore the connection between cyberinfrastructure and inequality with regard to the situated play of visibilities enacted when the boundaries of citizenship are advanced or hindered by infrastructure. I will examine the ways public interest features in legal, discursive, and material shifts that relate to changes in broadband technology. Through interviews with public officials and brokers in Kansas City and a discursive analysis of policy, I will address the impact of Google’s experimental model of infrastructure on the city. This case study will demonstrate that the cultural realities of underserved sectors of cities have the potential to become less visible when privatized, demand-driven infrastructural models are implemented.
This project began as a short co-authored article (with colleague Whitney Terell) for Harper's, which inspired significant subsequent media attention and discussion. Journalists as well as a local group called the Prairie Network Society Requested interviews, commentary; the latter secured a keynote address from me for its annual meeting. All of this reflected keen interested in topics ranging from privatizing infrastructure and policies supporting net neutrality to questions about the impact of Googlefiber on the nation's digital divide. This "Cyberinfrastructure" piece thus became part of a larger national conversation about the relationship between citizenship and digital technology with particular emphasis on the ways technology, race, and inequality interconnect.
Kansas City has been a testing ground for digital tools and technologies developed to solve public problems and enhance community with little attention from scholars about the actual impact of this development agenda on the lives of citizens. Anthropology as a discipline and ethnography as a methodology are both ideally suited to critically engage the technological lifeworlds of urban citizens. I have thus decided to embed this article in a book titled “The Machine in the City: Technology, Inequality, and Citizenship.” The Googlefiber experiment, documented for this article, suggests we should be skeptical about whether tools designed to enhance consumption can be converted into tools utilized to enhance creation, particularly of the rights of citizens. This will be the theoretical thrust of the book.
Cultural Anthropologists have only recently begun to invest ethnographic attention in infrastructure and the capacity of modern technologies to shape both political imagination and practice. A debate has erupted among Anthropologists about whether non-human artifacts have agency, whether technology, for example, has the capacity to generate meaning independent of human intent. Decades ago Philosopher Langdon Winner asked whether artifacts have politics—Anthropologists are only now trying to address this question in a vigorous way. The debate, in some respects, enables Anthropology to enter a more interdisciplinary sphere of concern about the moral limits of digital technology, the nature of the human/non-human interface, and the dangers that come with reducing the capacity of humans to critique and control technological development. This article on cyberinfrastructure, and the research surrounding it, has enabled me to pursue sustained investigation of discourses proliferated by “smart city” initiatives as well as the ways “smart” technologies like sensors and the dynamic digital data they yield impact the lives of citizens. This recent technological turn in urban governance opens new routes for tech entrepreneurs to shape not just the image of cities, but the power of network effects to more fully convert charged citizens into passive users as well.
Andrea D. Isogai, Dr. Daniel D. McCarthy, Jim D. Karagatzides, Skye Vandenberg, Holly Gardner, Vicky Edwards, Dr. Don Cowan, and Dr. Leonard J. S. Tsuji, The International Journal of Technology, Knowledge, and Society, Volume 8, Issue 1, pp.131-142