Please login first
Critical Alternatives in Computing Scholarship: Coordinates of a Struggle to Go Beyond Capital
* 1 , 2 , 3
1  School of Informatics and Computing, Indiana University/901 W. 10th Street, Bloomington, IN, USA 47408
2  Department of Information Engineering and Computer Science, University of Trento / via Sommarive 9, 38122, Trento, Italy
3  Cultural Practices / 720 S Brighton Crest, Bloomington, IN, U.S.A. 47401



The history of computing scholarship has been marked by two narrative tropes about the work of scholars and computing professionals. Historically, these tropes go back to the 1950s, to the work of Norbert Wiener on one hand (1954), and of Shannon and Weaver (1949) on the other. Wiener was concerned with the social implications of digital technologies, centrally automation. Shannon and Weaver were more concerned with the technical characteristics of computing technologies and the smooth flow of communication. Since that time, the Shannon/Weaver program has been the dominant narrative, especially in the academic discipline of Computer Science. However, in computing practices, both narratives are recognized, as the search for technical proficiency is often framed in terms of social demands to be intercepted and translated into technological solutions, in the quest for an always “new new thing” (Lewis, 1999). Thus, from the beginning, there has been a gap between the way computing has actually developed—as a socio-technical process—and the way it is usually conceptualized—as a primarily technical activity, but one that largely takes as given the centrality of capital. One current manifestation of this confusion is the various positions taken on what “openness” means in computing, even in corporate talk: As a force for liberation but also a platform for the reproduction of capital (Tkatz, 2009).

The strange duality of computing narratives—socially and technically aware in practice, but engineering/corporately oriented in theory—has fostered an alternative domain of critical scholarship, manifest in, among other places, the decennial conferences held in Aarhus, Denmark. These conferences, as well as the closely related “Participatory Design Conferences” and “Computer Supported Cooperative Work” domain of inquiry, pay attention to the emergence of “Critical Alternatives” to the dominating computing practices, as illustrated by the title of the 2015 Aarhus Conference. Similarly, the aim of this paper is to sketch out, on the basis of our reading of the academic literature in the field of critical alternatives in computing, basic concepts for technological design that can be integrated into a leftist perspective, one that goes “beyond capital.”

1. A constructivist, critical perspective, on technology design

In general, constructivist perspectives on technology need to focus on more than the interpretation of technology. Some of these perspectives have been rightly critiqued for merely replacing one form of determinism, a technological one, with another social one. That both determinisms dismiss the dynamic relations between the social and technical dynamics is a theme in Science and Technology Studies (e.g. Latour, 1993). Still, technicist views of technology remain dominant.

The important task of building critical alternatives needs to begin by identifying and promoting what Shaowen Bardzell (Bardzell, 2010) has called the “constellation of qualities” that can replace incomplete with more nuanced perspectives, ones that acknowledge social construction while still attending to the co-construction of the social and the technical. Here, we outline the implications of one such a perspective for how design and production of digital technologies are conceived. We recognize DTs as one of the main sites where future societies are being built, seeing technology as “society made durable” (Latour, 1990).

Two concepts best capture the relation between an STS-inspired view of technology and the design of technology themselves. First, promoting the understanding that design comes “from somewhere” as opposed to being “from nowhere” (Suchman, 2002), or abandoning the idea of the designer as holding a form of authoritative knowledge. Second, recognizing contemporary digital technologies as infrastructures, which means questioning the designer/user opposition. This requires taking seriously the contexts of production and use of technology, as well as the already existing technological base (Pipek & Wulf, 2009).

Both these concepts are essential to “infrastructuring.” This concept is a direct borrowing by the design community of a concept from Science and Technology Studies (STS), in particular of the work of Susan Leigh Star and colleagues (e.g. Neumann & Star, 1996; Star & Ruhleder, 1996; Star, 1999; Star & Bowker, 2006). Their work identified the characteristics of infrastructures and the processes bringing them into existence. In infrastructuring, software designers transition away from a project-based design activity, often seen as (and encouraged by proprietary law to do so) as always starting from scratch. The new approach is to design “in the wild” (Dittrich, Eriksén, & Hansson, 2002), which meant dealing directly with the mass of already installed software applications and technological working practices (Hanseth & Lundberg, 2001).

The concept of infrastructuring contributed to another direction in the design community leveraging the constructionist approach of Lucy Suchman (1993, 2002a, 2002b). Suchman drew upon feminist theory, in particular the work of Donna Haraway (Haraway, 1988), to question the way design was done. Suchman questioned the role of authoritative knowledge, which meant conceptualizing design as an activity detached from actual work practices. She referred to this view as “design from nowhere” as opposed to being “from somewhere” (Suchman, 2002a). Design activities came to include both the entry of the professional designer into the working relations of users as well as accounting for the forms of local improvisations shaping the technology in use (Suchman, 2002b). In short, Suchman was overcoming the dichotomy “designer/user” by incorporating the actual reconfigurations of working relations that take place when introducting DTs.

The connection between these streams of thoughts in the design field becomes especially clear when an infrastructuring approach is applied to the design of large scale entities. Design becomes seen as the ensemble of activities making possible, maintaining, and redesigning digitally-mediated things (Pipek & Wulf, 2009). The concept stresses both the dynamic characteristics of infrastructures and their emerging trajectories, underlining the articulation work of all actors involved in creating the infrastructure itself.

Recently, with the emergence of large scale infrastructures outside of the workplace (e.g. social media and web-based applications in general), the infrastructuring perspective has been articulated as public design (Ehn, 2008; Le Dantec & DiSalvo, 2013; Teli & al., 2015). The connection here is to other trends in STS, attending to “matters of concern” (Latour, 2004) while also focusing on “making things public” (Weibel & Latour, 2005). Focusing on matters of concern means acknowledging that “things” are forms of gathering, assemblies within which controversies are solved. “Making things public” opens up space to examine them as part of the issues people are concerned about. These scholars then relate such issues to Dewey’s concepts of public and publics. Specifically, Di Salvo and colleagues have clarified how design can be relocated as “public design” (DiSalvo, Lukens, Lodato, Jenkins, & Kim, 2014). When these two perspectives are attended to, a society becomes understood as being constituted by many publics and groups of people interested in specific issues, and thus design can both support existing publics and participate in their formation.

2. Constructivism beyond Capital

In the context of a “Beyond Capital” (Hakken, forthcoming 2015) perspective, the discussion and promotion of public design and infrastructuring becomes particularly relevant. First, it recognizes the contestable role of technologies, dismissing any deterministic view in favor of the politicized view of technology. Second, it stresses how technology design can start with the concerns of people, as in Scandinavian Participatory Design, involving people not only in the interface with design but also in the definition of the goals of the design project [Ehn, 2008]. Third, these approaches obviate a vision of technology designers as having a god-like view, replacing this with a more situated perspective that leads to a variety of changes in how technological projects should be carried out. Most basically, the idea of the technology designer (as well as of any other intellectual in society) as somebody who is a person primarily with design (or sociology, anthropology, philosophy, etc...) skills needs to be promoted. Projects would become seen as combining the skills and needs of the main beneficiaries of the project itself with the design, intellectual, and communicative skills of the professionals involved.

Such a shift will require change in the way projects are funded, to favor open-ended, socially-based, projects over projects that presume that the answers to research and design questions are already known. Public design and infrastructuring are particularly open to another recent approach to DTs, what is called “digital social innovation”. This expression, promoted by the European Union through its research funding, encompasses “a type of social and collaborative innovation in which innovators, users and communities collaborate using digital technologies to co-create knowledge and solutions for a wide range of social needs and at a scale that was unimaginable before the rise of the Internet” (DSI, 2015: 9). Without specific measures being taken to guard against it, the practices described appear to provide space for the subsuming of collaborative practices into the processes of capital valorization, extending the ability of capital to extract value from life (Morini & Fumagalli, 2010). However, when articulated in terms of public design, digital social innovation is re-articulated as innovation that addresses societal challenges properly. This puts at the center the concerns of people and their collective ability to address issues. However, the perspective depends on integrating nuanced understandings of the capital relations in normal design practices, something that can be fostered in interdisciplinary teams that, include sociologists, anthropologists, etc. Achieving interdisciplinarity makes another institutional move necessary, restructuring the career opportunities of scholars now trapped in strictly disciplinary career paths in academia, while expanding possibilities to do effective interdisciplinary work in organizations. Such restructuring is what will make possible for scholars to engage in open-ended projects, contributing to the interdisciplinary thinking that is needed to promote a constructivist, beyond capital, perspective on technology.


Maurizio Teli's research is funded by the Ministero dell'Istruzione, dell'Università e della Ricerca, through the project “Città Educante”.

References and Notes

  1. Bardzell, Shaowen. "Feminist HCI: taking stock and outlining an agenda for design." Proceedings of the SIGCHI Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems. ACM, 2010.
  2. DSI. Growing a Digital Social Innovation Ecosystem for Europe, Report 2015.
  3. Le Dantec, C.A. and DiSalvo, C. Infrastructuring and the formation of publics in participatory design. Social Studies of Science 2013 43, 2, 241–264.
  4. DiSalvo, Carl, Jonathan Lukens, Thomas Lodato, Tom Jenkins, e Tanyoung Kim. «Making public things: how HCI design can express matters of concern». In Proceedings of the 32nd annual ACM conference on Human factors in computing systems, 2397–2406. ACM, 2014.
  5. Dittrich, Yvonne, Sara Eriksén, e Christina Hansson. «PD in the Wild; Evolving Practices of Design in Use». In Participatory Design Conference, 2002.
  6. Ehn, Pelle. «Participation in Design Things». In Proceedings of the Tenth Anniversary Conference on Participatory Design 2008, 92–101. PDC ’08. Indianapolis, IN, USA: Indiana University, 2008.
  7. Hakken, D., Andrews, B., and Teli, M. Beyond Capital: Values, Commons, Computing, and the Search for a Viable Future. New York: Routledge (forthcoming 2015)
  8. Hanseth, Ole, e Nina Lundberg. «Designing Work Oriented Infrastructures». Computer Supported Cooperative Work (CSCW), 2001, 10, n. 3–4: 347–72.
  9. Latour, Bruno. «Technology is society made durable». The Sociological Review 38, n. S1 (1990): 103–31.
  10. Latour, Bruno. We Have Never Been Modern. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1993.
  11. Latour, Bruno. «Why Has Critique Run out of Steam? From Matters of Fact to Matters of Concern». Critical Inquiry 30, n. 2 (1 gennaio 2004): 225–48. doi:10.1086/ci.2004.30.issue-2.
  12. Morini, Cristina, e Andrea Fumagalli. «Life put to work: Towards a life theory of value». Ephemera: theory & politics in organization 10, n. 3/4 (2010): 234–52.
  13. Neumann, Laura J., e Susan Leigh Star. «Making Infrastructure: The Dream of a Common Language». PDC, 1 gennaio 1996, 231–40.
  14. Pipek, Volkmar, e Volker Wulf. «Infrastructuring: Toward an integrated perspective on the design and use of information technology». Journal of the Association for Information Systems 10, n. 5 (2009).
  15. Shannon, Claude E., and Warren Weaver. "The mathematical theory of information." (1949).
  16. Star, S. L. «The ethnography of infrastructure». American behavioral scientist 43, n. 3 (1999): 377.
  17. Star, Susan Leigh, e Geoffrey C. Bowker. «How to infrastructure». Handbook of new media: Social shaping and social consequences of ICTs, 2006, 230–45.
  18. Star, Susan Leigh, e Karen Ruhleder. «Steps toward an ecology of infrastructure: Design and access for large information spaces». Information systems research 7, n. 1 (1996): 111–34.
  19. Suchman, Lucy. «Located accountabilities in technology production». Scandinavian journal of information systems 14, n. 2 (2002): 7.
  20. Suchman, Lucy, «Practice-Based Design of Information Systems: Notes from the Hyperdeveloped World». The Information Society 18, n. 2 (2002): 139–44. doi:10.1080/01972240290075066.
  21. Suchman, Lucy. «Working Relations of Technology Production and Use». Computer Supported Cooperative Work 2, n. 1–2 (1 marzo 1993): 21–39. doi:10.1007/BF00749282.
  22. Teli, Maurizio, Silvia Bordin, Maria Menendez Blanco, Giusi Orabona, e Antonella De Angeli. «Public design of digital commons in urban places: a case study». International Journal of Human-Computer Studies, 2015.
  23. Tkacz, Nathaniel. "From open source to open government: A critique of open politics." Ephemera: Theory and Politics in Organization 12.4 (2012): 386-405.
  24. Weibel, Peter, e Bruno Latour. Making Things Public: Atmospheres of Democracy : [exhibition], ZKM, Center for Art and Media Karlsruhe, 20.03.-03-10.2005. Mass., 2005.
  25. Wiener, N. The Human Use of Human Beings: Cybernetics and Society. (1954)
Keywords: computing, critical alternatives, beyond capital, infrastructuring, design