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Infrastructure and the Power of Elites: Repair as a Hidden Dimension of Inequality

Sat, September 1, 9:00 to 10:30am, ICC, E5.8


Industrial modernity features infrastructures in almost every setting for human life, including energy, communication, food and water, transportation, and many others. In this paper, I argue that the design and ongoing control of infrastructural materiality is an important source of social power, and that the maintenance of sociotechnical systems is also an essential, if often hidden, means of reproducing power. This infrastructural repair helps elites maintain control over the sociotechnical systems that are often at the center of wealth creation and cultural influence and provide the resources for elites` accumulation and ongoing access to power. Sociotechnical structures are complicated systems, and when things inevitably break down, repair is a critical means of maintaining and reproducing elites` access to these systems, including the direction and outcomes for repair---or whether repair is even seen as necessary at all. I focus on two main dimensions of repair that tend to support elites` control over infrastructural systems and the power that can be gained from this access. The first dimension centers on the role of the state, and especially state-sponsored systems of expert knowledge and technical capacity as a means of developing and controlling sociotechnical systems. The second dimension I describe is the process of discursive repair, or the coordination of technical and cultural frames that shape the terms of debate around infrastructures, especially in times of crisis and change. To support and illustrate my argument about sociotechnical repair and power, I draw on a series of ethnographic and historical case studies.