New Directions in the History of Infrastructure

September 26-28, 2014, Copenhagen, Denmark

Interdisciplinary Conference at the Danish Post & Tele Museum, 26 -28th September 2014

The purpose of the conference is to bring together historians and cultural researchers from all over the world for an inter-disciplinary discussion about current tendencies in the study of infrastructure. The conference is organized as a joint venture between the Danish Post & Tele Museum and the Department of Culture and Global Studies at Aalborg University. The conference will be held at Post & Tele Museum in Copenhagen, from the 26th-28th September 2014, and the working language at the conference will be

The main theme is the role of infrastructure in the modernization of society, from about 1850 to the present day, viewed in the light of recent research in history and cultural studies. The conference takes its point of departure in the notion of a material turn within the humanities, and highlights the dynamic and crucial relations between human actors, technology and society in the historical processes.

The development of infrastructure, and its significance for society, has been a largely neglected field of research in history and its neighboring disciplines, both in Denmark and in the wider international research community. Previous research on the history of infrastructure has primarily been carried out within a sub-discipline of history called the History of Science and Technology. As such, it has been dominated by studies of so-called Large Technical Systems (LTS) – a concept introduced by the American historian of technology Thomas P Hughes (Hughes, 1983, pp. 5-17). LTS is a concept with a firm explanatory potential, and it has yielded a wide array of interesting research. However, it draws a strict and increasingly obsolete line between material and immaterial forms of infrastructure, and it focuses on technology and technical system-builders at the expense of the surrounding society. And it is society that will be in focus at the Copenhagen conference, not the technical systems.

Yet infrastructural perspectives and research questions are gradually becoming more visible in cultural research, in the wake of the aforementioned material turn. Inspired by the French anthropologist and philosopher of science Bruno Latour, and the complex theoretical considerations surrounding the fields of Science Technology and Society (STS) and Actor Network Theory (ANT), a growing number of cultural researchers have directed their attention to the multifaceted interaction between human actors and technological objects (things, materiality) within historically situated networks (Bennet and Joyce, 2010, pp. 3 -8). This ongoing re-orientation from text to thing has opened up new perspectives in the study of infrastructure. For instance, scholars today are giving increasing attention to how infrastructure developments are experienced by end-users, and there is a clearer emphasis on human practice (social, cultural and political) (Trentmann, 2006, pp. 303-305). There is also a growing awareness about the significance of various types of conflict and tension for infrastructural change and development, from technical breakdowns, environmental pollution and political struggles to the discrepancies between entrepreneurial visions and everyday user experiences.

Another theme is the issue of political governance by means of material and technological devices and systems, such as the secret state surveillance of telecommunications and so-called cyber infrastructure.

Another central aim of the conference is to highlight the wider societal relevance of infrastructure studies -and to argue for its practical applicability. The development of new forms of infrastructure is never a straightforward process, and the practical applications hardly ever evolve according to plan. In fact, according to existing research on the subject, there is always a gap between vision and implementation, irrespective of whether the project under scrutiny concerns railroads, sewers, mobile telephony or landline grids (Jackson et al, 2007, pp. 7 -9). Thus, there is a need for historically informed studies of infrastructural dynamics and tensions: studies of impact, utilization and cultural embeddedness, which could be used to improve and strengthen the basis for decisions on future infrastructural projects. Accordingly, our Call for Papers invites papers that delve into particular kinds of infrastructure-communications, sanitation, transport, energy supply etc. – but we are also welcoming theoretical contributions on issues such as infrastructure and modernization or the analytical significance of the material turn.

Tony Bennet and Patrick Joyce (eds.), Material Powers. Cultural Studies and the Material Turn, Routledge, 2010.

Thomas P Hughes, Networks of Power. Electrification in Western Society 1880 -1930, Johns Hopkins University Press, 1983.

Stephen J Jackson, Paul N Edwards, Geoffrey C Bowker, and Cory P Knobel, “Understanding Infrastructure: History, Heuristics, and Cyberinfrastructure Policy”, First Monday: Peer Reviewed Journal on the Internet 2006:12 (6)

Frank Trentmann:”Materiality in the Future of History: Things, Practices, and Politics”, Journal of British Studies 2009:48, 283-307.

Posted: February 10, 2014