A lot of things function silently in the background of our daily lives, things we commonly call infrastructure. The internet is one of the most complex and widespread of these. Yet on the 27th of February 2017, Amazon Web Services (AWS) failed, meaning that “software, from web apps to smartphone applications, relying on this cloud-based storage quickly broke, taking out a sizeable chunk of the internet as we know it.” (Nichols 2017). This blog looks at how and how an infrastructural mode of thinking about it can help us understand it.
AWS is one of the largest hosting services on the internet, supporting thousands of businesses and webpages. To get a sense of what they do, this video paints a relatively comprehensive picture:
Whilst we talk about the internet as singular, it was suddenly divisible into ‘chunks’. This provokes us to reflect on what is it? Academically put, we might ask is there an ontology to the digital? (Knox and Walford 2016).
This clip from the IT Crowd pokes fun at the fact we perhaps don’t have a clear idea, or that it could be easily embodied at all:
Yet the AWS crash was, I think, very much what would have happened were the internet in that ‘little black box’ as it crashed to the floor. I think this reflects that we often think of the world in sets of opposing pairs – technology and society, physical and digital, people and things. Our need to define is often a need to separate – as the opposite of digital is physical, it’s laughable that we could present the internet on a pedestal. Infrastructure in anthropological terms traces the connections across these divides. As Star and Ruhleder say ‘Infrastructure is something that emerges for people in practise, connected to activities and structures.’ (Star and Ruhleder 1996, p.112). As AWS failed it uncoupled many relations that were dependent on it. I now take some of Star and Ruhleder’s dimensions of infrastructure (ibid, p.113) to analyse this further.
Taking ‘embeddedness‘ we see that these technologies are deeply integrated into the fabric of our world, becomes particularly visible at the moments of rupture. The ‘internet of things’ can look like a wholesale collapse between the physical and the digital in new types of materiality (Kuechler 2008). Yet these ‘smart objects’ (Fitbits, smart lightbulbs etc..) were rendered dumb as the digital souls were ripped from their physical bodies; the internet is the joining infrastructure for these technologies, it vanished separated the two and made the objects useless.
It also shows the types of membership and conventions which connect different social groups to it; from the immediate customers on front-end websites, to the business-people, to the back-end support trying to fix it. Each has a differing membership embedded in different bodies of knowledge and types of practise, arranged at different points around this digital infrastructure left hanging as the internet which connected them suddenly disappeared.
Kueclher, S. (2008) – Technological Materiality: Beyond the Dualist Paradigm in Theory, Culture & Society Vol. 25(1), pp. 101-120
Knox and Walford (2016) ‘Is there an ontology to the digital?’ [Online] Available at: https://culanth.org/fieldsights/818-is-there-an-ontology-to-the-digital [Accessed on 16/03/2017]
Nichols, S. (2017) – ‘AWS’s S3 outage was so bad Amazon couldn’t get into its own dashboard to warn the world’ in The Register [Online] Available At: https://www.theregister.co.uk/2017/03/01/aws_s3_outage/ [Accessed on: 16/03/2017]
Star and Ruhleder (1996) – Towards an Ecology of Infrastructure in Information Systems Research, Vol. 7(1), pp. 111-134
The IT Crowd (2006), Video, Talkback Thames Productions for Channel 4 [Online] Available at: https://youtu.be/Vywf48Dhyns [Accessed on: 16/03/2017]
What is AWS? – Amazon Web Services (2014), video, Amazon Web Services [Online] Available at: https://youtu.be/mZ5H8sn_2ZI [Accessed on: 16/03/2017]