Introduction: Evil Infrastructures

From the Series: Evil Infrastructures

Photo by Franck V..

Throughout the comic-book life of Superman, there has been a character called Bizarro, who was created by a reversing ray that inverted all the qualities of the superhero. Thus, Bizarro has freezing vision (instead of heat vision), vacuum breath, and telescopic vision that allows him to see a short distance behind his head, rather than a long distance in front of it. Bizarro is ugly, clumsy, stupid, and he may or may not be evil. He is, given the conceit, more likely to battle the Bizarro version of Lex Luthor than Lex Luthor himself.

Cover of Action Comics #785. Art by Ed McGuinness. Courtesy of DC Comics.

The pieces in this Theorizing the Contemporary series were originally commissioned for the 2016 Society for Social Studies of Science conference in Barcelona, in an effort to think about what we might call Bizarro infrastructure. The infrastructure in question is almost uniformly that of information and communication technologies: the Internet, software, platforms, data, networks, social media platforms, search engines, browsers and other apps, tablet computers, and cameras. The contributors come from an array of disciplines: anthropology, sociology, media and communication, information studies, and science and technology studies. They reflect on infrastructures that prohibit or frustrate participation rather than extend it, or that support inequality and racism rather than trying to neutralize it, or that facilitate closure rather than extending openness.

We reflected very little on what we meant by evil: my proposal to reread Leibniz and Hume on the subject, to say nothing of St. Augustine, was met with polite laughter. Fortunately, though, the contributors opened up a series of ways to think evil and infrastructure together. Noortje Marres, for instance (who was part of the session in Barcelona, but was prevented by evil forces from contributing here), pointed to the Volkswagen “defeat device” that produced low-carbon emissions in testing situations, but high levels when driven normally. Marres suggested that the idea of fixing evil in the device or in the person of an engineer is anathema to the science studies of the last several decades. As she pointed out, this is in fact an example of an infrastructure operating exactly as designed, as documented in the letter that the engineering firm Bosch sent to Volkswagen in 2007, which said: “We are delivering to you the code you requested, as we are your supplier, but if you use it in production it will be illegal.” If there can be distributed cognition, there can no doubt also be distributed evil.

Hence, our goal was not to question infrastructure as a concept (though that may well be due) but to instead to engage a sort of Bizarro method. It was a reminder that a very simple methodological technique—the reversing ray—has great power to illuminate things that are otherwise routine. For instance, against the common insight that infrastructure is made visible only when it breaks down, Adam Fish challenges us to see instead what is invisible in the normal functioning of infrastructure. His essay approaches the problem of seeing evil by using drones and video cameras to try and spy on the infrastructure, discovering in the process a problem of indexicality that is not solved by looking for breakdowns. Julia Fleischhack, for her part, asks what it means when two groups see breakdown differently by looking into the differences between Facebook’s community standards and the German law governing hate crimes.

Much attention has been paid recently to the ways in which data, algorithms, or infrastructure can embed forms of racism or discrimination in their normal operation. But what if the evil in question is simply going unmeasured or is hidden beneath a film of bad, dirty data? Britt Paris and Jennifer Pierre stage this for us in terms of one of the most obvious of cases: data about police homicides.

Theories of infrastructure also emphasize temporality, evident in terms like infrastructuring or in Susan Leigh Star and Karen Ruhleder's (1996, 112) now-classic question “when is an infrastructure?” Several pieces in this collection go one step further, asking: when and how does an infrastructure go from being good to being evil? Joan Donovan tells the story of the evolution of one tool ostensibly designed for good, but ultimately capable of a new kind of distributed evil. Alessandro Delfanti, in a similar way, asks us to attend more carefully to the political economy of academia before embracing the good of open access. Athina Karatzogianni and Jacob Matthews ask whether disintermediation platforms designed for sharing, cooperation, and openness are a necessary feature of zombie capitalism, or if something like platform cooperativism might be a way out.

There is also the classic ethical question: can evil be a means to do good? Paolo Magaudda takes us inside the troubling case of Tor, which can be seen either as a good technology perverted for evil purposes or as a necessarily evil infrastructure that exists to do good. The trope of necessary evil also makes an appearance in Ali Kenner’s account of how a municipal infrastructure designed to be responsive to Philadelphia citizens actually functions to preserve the evils they are trying to name and (literally) extinguish.

Aaron Panofsky and Elizabeth Losh both ask a surprisingly obvious question: how do actual evil people use and experience infrastructures? Panofsky wonders: how do white supremacists understand the results of genetic ancestry tests? He shows how the scientific infrastructure of genetic testing, sequencing, and interpretation can be surprisingly easily perverted into explaining the superiority of the white race. Losh asks how it is that online hate relies on the same infrastructures that victims do, and how we might therefore rethink our strategies for addressing the problem.

Finally, two pieces offer what amounts to some methodological guidance. Roderic Crooks enjoins us to look harder at what we expect to be evil: in his case, the surveillance of high-school students through computers, laptops, and tablets (also explored in the original session in Barcelona by Dan Green). Here, we discover that while surveillance exists, it might not be as evil as we assume. No less provocatively, Malte Ziewitz suggests that we may want to look askance at evil, rather than facing it head on, in order to see how peripheral actors are themselves confronting the evil in infrastructures—and maybe participating in it as well.


Star, Susan Leigh, and Karen Ruhleder. 1996. “Steps toward an Ecology of Infrastructure: Design and Access for Large Information Spaces.” Information Systems Research 7, no. 1: 111–34.