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Geographies of Trust and Practice in Internet Infrastructure

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K.020, King's Building

Strand Campus, King's College London

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WC2R 2LS

United Kingdom

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How can we study the infrastructures of the internet? What can be learned from research about the distributed collectives, technologies and practices upon which connectivity depends? How might we re-envisage internet politics in light of an understanding of the very specific geographies and circuits of expertise involved in networking our societies? Ethnographer of internet infrastructure Ashwin J Mathew will join us to reflect on these questions and talk about his recent research around these issues. The event will be hosted by Mark Coté and Jonathan Gray at the Department for Digital Humanities, King's College London.

Geographies of Trust and Practice in Internet Infrastructure – Dr. Ashwin J. Mathew, University of California, Berkeley

Since its origins, the Internet has been imagined as a space which is "everywhere and nowhere" (Barlow 1996): a virtual "space of flows" separated from the physical "space of places" (Castells 1996). These are politically charged imaginaries, as the virtual spaces of the Internet are often thought to intrinsically encode a democratic participatory politics, surpassing the the seemingly more limited democratic possibilities of the territorial space of the nation state. However, as the Internet has evolved, the problems of increased participation have become readily apparent, with attention today turning to questions of legitimacy and trustworthiness, whether in terms of "fake news", or privacy and security in online settings.

In this talk, I connect the seemingly disparate problems of trust and space in the Internet through an analysis of the underlying mechanisms involved in the production of virtual space. I locate these mechanisms in the sociotechnical organization of Internet infrastructure: the practices, institutions, and cultures of the technical personnel responsible for the reliable, stable operation of the thousands of interconnected computer networks which comprise the Internet. I draw from two research projects for my analysis, in which I studied network operators and information security personnel, in sites spanning North America and South Asia.

As I found, the infrastructure of the Internet is stabilized and ordered through practices which rely upon social relationships of trust, across organizational and territorial boundaries. This reliance on trust relationships makes the Internet quite unusual in comparison to other global infrastructures (such as shipping, airlines, or telephone systems) which rely primarily upon state and market arrangements for governance. Indeed, I argue that it is critical to understand the geographies of trust and practice which govern Internet infrastructure if we are to develop a trustworthy and secure future Internet.

Dr. Ashwin J. Mathew is a visiting scholar and lecturer at the UC Berkeley School of Information, a fellow at the Slow Science Institute, and a researcher at Packet Clearing House. His research is in the area of Internet governance, which he studies by focusing on the relationships, practices, and institutions of the technical personnel who operate Internet infrastructure. He holds Ph.D. and Masters degrees from the UC Berkeley School of Information. Prior to his doctoral work, Dr. Mathew spent a decade working as a software engineer and technical architect in companies such as Adobe Systems and Sun Microsystems. More about him can be found on his website.

Cover image: "Under the Beach (Tumon Bay, Guam)" by Trevor Paglen.

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K.020, King's Building

Strand Campus, King's College London

London

WC2R 2LS

United Kingdom

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