DISSERTATION: The Instrumented Ocean: How Sensors, Satellites and Seafloor-Walking Robots Changed What It Means to Study the Sea

The Instrumented Ocean: How Sensors, Satellites and Seafloor-Walking Robots Changed What It Means to Study the Sea
DISSERTATION

Stephanie B. Steinhardt
Cornell Univesrity
Department of Communication

COMMITTEE:
Steven J. Jackson (chair), Cornell University Department of Information Science
Bruce Lewenstein, Cornell University Department of Communication
Stephen Hilgartner, Cornell University Department of Science and Technology Studies
Carl Lagoze, University of Michigan School of Information

This dissertation is drawn from over 5 years of ethnographic inquiry into the U.S. Ocean Observatories Initiative through field observations and over 80 interviews. The work is contextualized via archival and historiographic resources from oceanographic institutions, professional societies and historians of ocean science. The dissertation fundamentally addresses the concomitant relationship between innovation (e.g. imagining, planning, constructing, operating) and degeneration (e.g. down-scaling, breakdown, failure, repair). In doing so it argues: (1) Technological solutionism is a widespread ideology that inflects oceanography and can be seen in the turn towards big data. (2) The dominance of technoutopian or tech solutionist imaginaries and narratives drives the character of the infrastructure and can obscure critical less shiny realities of ongoing maintenance and repair. (3) Funding bodies and program managers alike place emphasis on technological sustainability while sidelining issues of labor and human sustainability (overworking, turnover, harassment and grievance, career-building) that can undercut even the best laid infrastructure plans. (4) In these more tender moments of breakdown, hard lessons emerge that often reveal what technology alone cannot fix: problems of labor, inequality, marginality and violence. (5) By making visible narratives of care (for each other and for the environment) in understanding the OOI, I highlight critical power dynamics of building transformative infrastructure, including the gendered and marginalized labor in service of an infrastructure’s development and futurism that does not get credited as time-on-task (e.g. mentorship and informal support networks, appealing to and amending grievance reporting, fallout from sexual violence, and accommodating peripheral stakeholders and agents like park services, fisheries, indigenous communities, industry manufacturers, etc.). My focus on care emerged from observing participants and is informed by feminist scholars such as bell hooks. I demonstrate that we must examine care in order to expand our understanding of the human and nonhuman actors that create knowledge about the ocean and, in turn, about the world.

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