skip to main content

4S Preview: Materializing Governance by Infrastructure

Francesca Musiani, Annalisa Pelizza and Stefania Milan

14 August, 2016

We are publishing a series of posts highlighting some of the tracks on the program of the 2016 4S conference, which will convene jointly with the European Association for the Study of Science and Technology (EASST) in Barcelona, August 31-September 3. The theme of this year’s 4S/EASST conference is “science and technology by other means.” For more information on "Materializing Governance by Infrastructure," and to view the accepted abstracts, please see the track page. - Ed.


We are three Italian researchers, affiliated with universities throughout Europe. We share an interest in what has broadly been defined as the ‘politics of code’ in information technologies, which we have explored in our respective fieldworks – the deployment of technologies for and by social movements, alternative Internet services subtending decentralized and P2P architectures, and government digitization programs as sites of state transformation. Our observations of these artefacts, systems and dynamics have led us to become interested in information infrastructure not only as a target, but as an actor of governance and regulation. Debates on the new ‘materialities’ of such infrastructure is a very important part of this exploration of ‘governance by infrastructure’, as they shed light on older discussions about the material vs. discursive binary that often characterizes the analysis of socio-technical systems. Looking at code allows grounding this debate in different kinds of artefacts for which this binary distinction loses its analytical relevance, and the performativity of infrastructures emerges in hybrids of technologies and discourses.

The contributions that have been submitted to our panel (we had to go through a selection in order to fill the five sessions allocated to us to full capacity) illustrate the interest for and timeliness of these issues, as well as the variety of fieldwork venues and policy arenas where the issues of materialities and governance by infrastructure are examined by STS scholars today. A first set of contributions clusters around the themes of algorithms and (big) data, and will explore how data analytics, content display, targeting and profiling practices shape today’s politics of knowledge and organization. A second cluster of contributions addresses the infrastructures of openness and contribution in information technologies, and how these become a tool for activism, anti-surveillance practices, and user empowerment. A third set of contributions addresses technologies of mobility as technologies of governance, and links this issue to a broader discussion on standardization in a networked world. The two remaining sessions open up broader theoretical and empirical reflections on how governance of infrastructure meets governance by infrastructure, discussing how infrastructure as an instrument of governance finds its place among competing normative systems and forces such as markets, practices, law and political regulation.

Our track closely connects with several issues whose relevance for the public debate is widely recognized today. On one hand, it contributes to the discussion of data as ‘the new oil’, by stressing the material dimension of data production through circulation; data are not produced in a vacuum, but through politically-charged infrastructures, reflective of imaginaries and values of designers, developers and ‘transformative’ users. Furthermore, it fuels the debates on technical architectures as proxies for state power and private sector influence, as technologies of governance become the heart and the ‘battlefields’ of economic and social conflicts. And finally, the track contributes to the discussions of the so-called ‘algorithmic governance’, which extends to algorithms of finance, health, cultural recommendations, and makes it necessary to investigate the dynamics of inclusion, exclusion, power relations, behavioural prediction and personalization embedded in code and subtending today’s information society.


Francesca Musiani is an assistant research professor at the French National Centre for Scientific Research (CNRS), Institute for Communication Sciences (ISCC), where she co-leads the research group Modeling of temporal interactions. She is an associate researcher at the Centre for the Sociology of Innovation of MINES ParisTech-PSL and acts as academic editor for the Internet Policy Review. Francesca’s research work focuses on Internet governance, in an interdisciplinary perspective blending information and communication sciences with Science and Technology Studies (STS). She currently leads a work package in the EU CAPS project NEXTLEAP (Next generation Techno-social and Legal Encryption Access and Privacy, 2016-2018).

Annalisa Pelizza is Chancellor’s Fellow at the unit Science, Technology and Innovation Studies, School of Social and Political Science, Edinburgh University. Before that she was assistant professor at the Science, Technology and Policy Studies department (STePS), University of Twente, which she joined thanks to an individual Marie Curie Fellowship. Her fields of interest are governance by information infrastructures; performativity of data circulation, especially affecting modernist institutions; internet cultures; computational methods; interactive digital art , especially in urban environments; Actor-Network Theory, script analysis and semiotics as research methodologies.

Stefania Milan is a researcher, writer and activist whose work explores the intersection of digital technology, governance and activism. She is Assistant Professor of New Media and Digital Culture at the University of Amsterdam, where she leads DATACTIVE (, a research team exploring the politics of big data (European Research Council Starting Grant 2014_639379). Stefania sits in the Council of the Generic Names Supporting Organization of the International Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN), representing non-commercial internet users, and contributes to the Working Group ‘An Internet Free and Secure’ of the Freedom Online Coalition.

Backchannels / Projects

Descriptions of current work—the makings and doings—of STS scholars across the globe. This includes individual work, as well as collaborations between / with academics, practitioners, and policy makers.