Beki Grinter

Teenagers and Telephone Switches: A View of Consumption from Down in the Infrastructure

In research on February 3, 2012 at 11:40 am

Recently Apple’s iOS 5 created the greatest demand on the UK broadband infrastructure ever seen. Since reading this I wonder what implications it may have or be having on broadband providers and their requests to the builders of the technologies that comprise the broadband infrastructure.

When I worked at Bell Labs, I worked with people in the switching division. It was the mid-90s and the average call time had shifted from 20 minutes to 3 hours due to dial up modems and the Internet. This was a really significant change because a series of switching design decisions were based on that 20 minute average. Suddenly this design decision was wrong, and that was generating all sorts of new work. The far away world of end-user use was changing Lucent’s business, and rapidly so. Changing the very infrastructure of networked activity by putting it under increasing pressure. Hence my curiosity about Apple’s similar move recently.

In HCI, the idea of network complexity and network cuts are receiving attention. By network complexity mean the idea behind acts are large and complex networks of people and technologies that extend in time and space beyond the moment of encounter back to the inception of design of any technology as well as the technical experiences of each individual and the way that that shapes all future encounters. Alex Taylor, in his paper in CHI 2011, introduced me to the idea that we cut these networks. In order to make an analysis we typically foreground some of the people and technologies involved in human computer interaction while hiding others. Lucy Suchman argues that one that is often hidden, at least partially, is the developer.

I always thought that seeing the work to rework the infrastructure was a unique opportunity. Now, I think the uniqueness of it was that I saw a piece of the network complexity typically cut from analyses, particularly those starting with the end-user. Instead of seeing dial up traffic and its objectives as the human-computer interaction, I saw engineers architecting, building, and testing switches that a distant arm of the company sold to telephone operators, who in turn had marketing departments who sold plans to end-users, who were using those plans to dial numbers that connected them to a completely new network that leveraged the telephone network but changed it. My position of privilege was to see deep into the infrastructure, to have that piece of the network not be cut (likely of course at the costs of others). To see the world of end-use from the point of infrastructure is, I think, somewhat more unusual.

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