infrastructure studies

The struggle for recognition in technological cultures: an anthology of “engineer’s laments”

Engineers have a lot of reasons to be miserable. I mean, they spend their precious time designing sophisticated and super-clever technological solutions to problems faced by people who hardly ever grant them the recognition they deserve. Take this piece of poetry, posted in a display case at Bletchley Park military research facility – the place where artificial intelligence pioneer Alan Turing and colleagues created Colossus, the very first electronic computer.

Most likely inspired by pre-existing seamen’s ballads written by ‘marine engineers’ operating ships and cargos, this lament was first published by Henry Jennings, a post office engineer, in the Bedford Telephone Area newsletter in 1950. Of course there’s a lot to be said about recognition. Philosopher Axel Honneth maintains mutual acknowledgement of the existence of social actors is what makes society work (cf. his seminal essay The Struggle for Recognition: The Moral Grammar of Social Conflicts, Polity Press, 1996).

Quite understandably engineers want to be appreciated for what they do. Problem is, when a system works, engineers’ activity becomes invisible. And when it becomes visible again, it’s usually because something’s gone wrong… There’s a lot of interesting books about this ‘vanishing effect’ of engineering, from Bruno Latour’s Paris: Invisible City (La Découverte, 1998) to Stephen Graham’s Disrupted Cities: When Infrastructure Fails (Routledge, 2009) – although they mostly deal with civil engineering.


Slides séminaire de Jérôme Denis : Villes, infrastructures et #opendata (EHESS, 18 janv. 2012)

Dans le cadre de mon séminaire EHESS Étudier les cultures du numérique : approches théoriques et empiriques, j’ai eu le plaisir d’accueillir pour une séance sur ville, infrastructure et données Jérôme Denis, sociologue, enseignant-chercheur à Télécom ParisTech, auteur (avec David Pontille) de l’excellent Petite sociologie de la signalétique (Presses de l’Ecole des mines, 2010) et co-animateur du blog Scriptopolis. Voici les slides de son intervention.