Breaking Down While Building Up: Design and Decline in Emerging Infrastructures


Breaking Down While Building Up: Design and Decline in Emerging Infrastructures

Stephanie B. Steinhardt

ACM SIGCHI Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems (CHI) 2016 | San Jose, CA | May 7-12, 2016

Best Paper Award Honorable Mention

This paper asks what we can learn from breaking down systems to understand the development of systems. Through ethnographic fieldwork around a large-scale infrastructure development project in the ocean sciences experiencing a scale downward and threat of further defunding, I highlight four often overlooked components of innovation and development that have important implications for the HCI community. The first debunks the mythical liquidation and restart of Western development’s “fail fast, fail often” mantra by tracing the complexities of breaking down an infrastructure, highlighting that the end of a technology is entrenched in longer-lived social, political and organizational consequences. The second dives deeper into these social consequences, as formalized structures are broken down and new temporary and contingent working orders surface to fill their place. Third, I signal the critical consequences of the thoughtful practices of assessment and evaluation of both human and material resources that occur during the downturn of systems. Last, I discuss the deeply personal connections that amplify through processes of breaking down systems.