Brit Ross Winthereik is one of the three Heads of Lab in ETHOS Lab, and a member of the ETHOS Lab research group. We asked Brit some questions about her research and about her visions and hopes for the ETHOS Lab. Here is what she replied:
1: What is your position in the ITU and what sort of research do you do?
I am an Associate Professor at the ITU and have been since January 2008. I am fascinated with ‘mixed economy’ situations where people with widely different backgrounds, concerns, capacities and capabilities work together in ways that allow for difference. I am increasingly interested in how to create environments for such differences in knowledge and experience to co-exist. I am also aware that the modern interdisciplinary university is a space where such mixed economies can potentially thrive and do so in close collaboration with non-university partners.
In my research I focus on social situations organized as ‘partnerships’ and on how partnerships are infrastructure. Information technology is crucial for infrastructuring along with many other technologies. Infrastructures have always been a key focus in my research. My definition of infrastructures is broad and this allows for understanding and participating in the mutual construction of humans and technology.
For many years my research focused on information technology and on its effects in health care practice, and on the fact that it did not always work as intended or had unintended consequences. I was attentive to how standardization processes of work routines make an IT system perform well, for examples in a clinical setting, the data that is entered into a system needs a diagnostic code for the data to later be used for administrative or research purposes. However, often such human work is made invisible or done poorly and the IT system is believed to have superpowers all by itself.
Tracing differences between what is envisioned with respect to a system on the one hand, and how IT acquires specific effects in practice on the other hand, is interesting because, continuously, societal hopes as to IT’s powers and performances are high. Hopes, visions and practices are all part of an information technology infrastructure when understood in the broadest possible sense.
My interest in IT has often been around the processes through which IT fails to become invisible infrastructure or ‘second nature’. Despite expectations that this will happen seamlessly, IT does not naturally slide into the background. Instead, it takes social work to integrate IT into organizations. Its powers and performances must be upheld locally; digital infrastructures must be maintained in various ways to work as infrastructures. Recently, I have become interested in the work being done to turn ‘big data’ into infrastructure for government decision-making.
2: What is your role and connection to ETHOS Lab?
The ETHOS lab began for me as an idea several years ago and was refined in conversation with Marisa Cohn and Laura Watts. As IT scholars working on ‘naturally occurring experiments’, to use Bruno Latour’s term, our engagement with empirical materials would take place in organizations and partnerships among people and their IT systems.
Through studies of online activism to further transparency in development aid spending and decision-making processes related to such spending, I became increasingly aware of how ‘naturally occurring experiments’ would also happen online. With ETHOS Lab I hoped to make space for a research collective that would attend to software and data ethnographically.
As Head of the ETHOS lab I make sure that the people, who are running the lab on a daily basis are taken care of. I supervise, strategize, and network, all of this in-between the many other tasks one is blessed with as a senior scholar. It is gratifying to see students invest time and energy in the lab and seeing it become alive as a place for knowledge creation. Presently, I am working on a grant application on big data and decision-making in government institutions to ensure the continued liveliness of the ETHOS lab.
3: What role do you see ETHOS Lab performing at the ITU?
The Lab is proof of the vibrant community of students and scholars working on social science and humanities approaches to IT. The lab is an experimental space where the starting point is that knowledge making does not follow predetermined procedures. Apart from functioning as a meeting place for students who want to become leaders in innovating digital infrastructures, I hope the lab will become a place where interesting scholarship on big data and digital tools can be performed.
Students and scholars who use the lab to become skilled in data ethnography, will be challenged with respect to what we think we know about the world. I also wish for the lab to experiment with university-based consulting where firms and organizations collaborate to impact developments in digital innovation and management in the public sector and elsewhere.
4: What is a laboratory in your mind? What does it mean to experiment in the social sciences and humanities?
A laboratory is a center drawing together people and materials that create knowledge about reality. As they create knowledge they perform a perfect place for learning about the assumption of reality as well as new constitutions of reality. A laboratory is an entity that intervenes. When we speak about laboratories it matter enormously what counts as inside and outside. Experimenting with this boundary, with what counts as scientific, experimental data and what not; what counts as society and external partners and what counts as scientific experts; and how is the boundary between the lab and the world constructed and maintained could be one example of experimenting on/with the social sciences and humanities.
5: Which projects are you (interested in) working with ETHOS Lab on?
Infrastructures for government institutions’ use of big data for decision-making. In my next blog post I will present an excerpt of the funding proposal I have been working on.
6: How do you think ETHOS Lab “creates value with IT”?
The Lab has created value for all the students engaged through the course Navigating Complexity on the Digital Innovation and Management MSc. These students have learned a hands-on approach to big data that they would not have been able to learn without the lab and the digital tools available. Also, having a space where students and scholars differently located and engaged at the ITU and outside of it can meet is of enormous value, because people meet around data bringing their different experiences to the table. In terms of economic value I don’t think the lab has created any of that yet.
7: What do you understand ‘data’ to mean?
A data point is a little representation of the world that has been bounded off from its environment for purposes of scrutiny.
8: Finally, what are you reading these days and what are you currently working on?
I am reading Teun Zuiderent-Jeraks book ‘Situated Intervention: Sociological Experiments in Health Care” MIT Press, 2015. Teun is a friend of mine and his more than 10 years of interventionist studies in health care management has now finally come out as a book. In the book he coins the term ‘situated intervention’ as a way of experimenting with the boundary between sociological description and intervention. It is a very interesting book that applies outside of the health care domain as well as inside of it.
Besides this, I am writing on a couple of papers to be presented at two conferences in the US next month. One of them is about the digital walking stick that we developed last year as part of the Alien Energy project (www.alienenergy.itu.dk). This paper focuses on the walking stick as an unusual infrastructure for knowing about renewable energy on the geographical edge. This paper will be presented at the Social Studies of Science in Society’s annual meeting in a panel on ‘digital STS’.
The other paper is about the ontological turn in Science and Technology Studies and on what methods to use for studies of emerging realities. This paper will be presented at the American Association for Anthropology’s annual meeting in a panel on ‘ontography’.