Session 22

SMUSI_22- Methods for Studying the Spatial Dimension of Global Digital Infrastructures

Global digital infrastructures are highly relevant to understand contemporary global society from the standpoint of various disciplines. They not only are the backbone of communication society and driver for societal change, they are also a complex phenomenon that can only be understood combining sociological, technological and spatial perspectives. Global digital infrastructures appear as multi-layered socio-technical systems that do not only show their network-like spatiality on the basis of material entities such as cables and geographical terrains, but also discursively in the complex cultural and political contexts and social practices of the respective stakeholders. Global digital infrastructures are created by specialized actors and form social orders as well as infrastructural imaginaries in their diverse everyday references. These are considered to re-figure social differences and social inequalities, also reinforcing them and leading to multiple interrelated controversies, tensions, and disruptions. The most striking example is the internet infrastructure, which consists of a complex combination of technological devices, codes, standards and protocols, but materially is based on undersea cables, satellites, internet hubs and data centres. Also, it is maintained and developed by a variety of organizations and stakeholders that negotiate the working order of the internet. Even if the internet is generally seen as one global network, there is a heterogeneity and inequality when it comes to local conditions, ranging from different forms of access and power, the role of different stakeholders (governments, private sector, technical community, civil society) that play into legal frameworks as well as into the practical local architecture of the network infrastructure. Not only Chinas’ great firewall, but also recent discussions about possible internet sanctions and limitations due to the Russia-Ukraine war show clearly the tensions conflicts that arise between the territorial and global spatial network form of the internet. In particular, such challenging conflict situations lead to expanding visibility of infrastructures that otherwise appear to run along latently. Furthermore, this augmented visibility illuminates the dependency of other institutions and societal developments on digital infrastructures and the associated social inequalities in their expansion, access and international distribution – also in the increased interdependence between digital infrastructures and natural resources. Since global digital infrastructures assemble in their spatial dimensions of material artefacts as well as discursive constructions, for instance along knowledge, practices, conventions and power, their socio-spatial exploration offers a potential methodological value. The session aims at discussing and bringing together methodological approaches to this complex phenomenon and discuss how the spatial, technological and social perspective on global digital infrastructure can be integrated and how the internet can be studied. Contributions might include, but are not limited to (a) ethnographies of digital infrastructures or data centres; (b) tracking and measuring of global data traffic from a spatial/sociological perspective; (c) visualizations and mappings of global digital infrastructures; (d) studying discourses on digital infrastructures, including imaginaries, conflicts and historic developments; (e) studying expert communities and or other stakeholders concerned with the internet; (f) exploration of the socio-spatial interdependencies of digital infrastructures and natural resource infrastructures.