Let me begin by posing a semantic question: Can we reasonably interpret what Star describes as the ethnography of infrastructure as an archeology of more contemporary artifacts? Is this question even worth asking? The reason I ask is that I feel Star’s ideas, which undoubtedly have a novel tone, are perhaps more established than the buzz around the Ethnography of Infrastructure would lead us to believe. Let me explain.
Homo sapiens have always been a technologically dependent species, and since the development of archeology, the technological extension of humankind has proven to be a fruitful way to interpret human culture and social relations. Is the ethnography of infrastructure not then, in essence, a continuation of this tradition? I suppose one key difference between the two children of anthropology (archeology and ethnography of infrastructure) is the focus on living versus past humans, which is a significant conceptual difference. However, the commonalities between the two in terms of their focus on technology and artifacts as the basis for interpreting human social life is too compelling to be ignored. Both the archeologist and ethnographer of infrastructure have a privileged detachment as researchers for examining social phenomenon (past and present). I will give two brief examples to illustrate my point:
First, artifacts from an aboriginal burial ground tell the archeologist a story of customs and rituals common to a tribe during a certain time-period. Second, the health care infrastructure in small-town Ontario tells the ethnographer of infrastructure a story of customs and rituals of physicians who need to cope with a lack of resources and networks. In both cases, and for arguments sake, those who are directly involved in the use of such technologies are less likely to produce a scientific account of their social implications. On the other hand, the ethnographer-archeologist is in a suitable position to examine such implications by means of the researcher’s own technological extension, namely the tools used for building an appropriate framework of analysis.