Theoretical Foundations for Information Science

This page is part of my STSS Portfolio.
INSC 501, Prof. Megan Finn, Winter 2021

Unlike the other classes for my STSS certificate, this class came after my dissertation proposal, data collection, and the most of analysis. Those earlier classes had helped frame my research questions and field work, but the benefit of Prof. Finn’s class was in guiding the interpretation of my research and inspiring the writing of my dissertation. In its generic form the class is billed as laying the groundwork for the study of information, but this delivery was a reflection of Prof. Finn’s particular goals for the course. The primary readings were drawn from books published by recent graduates of information schools, and were selected to showcase current work in the field while also introducing some of their theoretical foundations. I also had the opportunity to work with Prof. Finn to tailor the class to my own interests and goals. In the end, I focused on two main ideas that struck me from the readings.

  • The first is a rejection of a structural political-economic critique of technology in favor of a view that is tuned to the agency, affects, desires of individual users. Several readings from the class made the point that in claiming that some new gizmo will either save us or ruin everything, technology boosters and critics alike fall into the trap of technological determinism. (Brock, 2020; Lindtner, 2020; Sims, 2017). Looking more closely at how people actually use, co-opt, or resist these technologies can reveal the particular, situated, embodied work of information technologies at the level of the individual. This requires seeing people as not simply rational liberal subjects, but as humans moved by desires, relations, and feelings. Sara Ahmed’s (2010) work on the “promise of happiness” provides a theoretical grounding for this kind of study of affect, and Brock’s (2020) study of Black Twitter was for me especially influential in its attention to the role of emotion, individually or communally felt, in motivating digital behavior.
  • Closely related to this is an attention to the rhetorics and promises surrounding new technologies. In Ames’s (2019) and Sims’s (2017) studies of tech-centered educational reforms, the question of whether these promises are ultimately realized is less important than the question of the what the promise does to motivate attitudes and behavior. These and other readings showed how anticipated futures built around a concept like “innovation” can organize the collective production and use of new technologies (Irani, 2019; Lindtner, 2020). The power of mythology has a history in technology studies (Mosco, 2004), and I am eager to apply it to urban planning, a field that is inherently future-oriented but has comparatively little critical attention to the work of promises.


My final paper, “Promises and desires: Finding human agency and affect in sociotechnical systems,” set out to use the information studies literature from class to “lay the groundwork for a study of platform urbanism that can more fully theorize human agency within everyday sociotechnical practices.” It began from an argument in the “platform urbanism” literature claiming that studies of cities and technologies had focused on the structural critique new technology’s capitalist political economy to the exclusion of the everyday social and spatial practices of individual urban inhabitants. I explored how the theorizations of affect and promise underlying recent work in information studies could productively inform an alternative view of urban technologies. This is much of the project of my dissertation. In the end, it is a political project. Building on Mosco’s (2004) argument that social change happens in technology’s banal and ordinary spaces rather than in its sublime mythology, I suggested that it is in noticing and questioning our own beliefs and behaviors in response to technology’s promises that we can open space for radical social change.

Key Readings

  • Ahmed, Sara. The Promise of Happiness. Durham, NC, 2010.
  • Ames, Morgan G. The Charisma Machine: The Life, Death, and Legacy of One Laptop per Child. MIT Press, 2019
  • Brock, André L. Distributed Blackness: African American Cybercultures. Critical Cultural Communication. New York: New York University Press, 2020.
  • Irani, Lilly. Chasing Innovation: Making Entrepreneurial Citizens in Modern India. Princeton Studies in Culture and Technology. Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 2019.
  • Li, Tania Murray. The Will to Improve: Governmentality, Development, and the Practice of Politics. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2007.
  • Lindtner, Silvia M. Prototype Nation: China and the Contested Promise of Innovation. Prototype Nation. Princeton University Press, 2020.
  • Mosco, Vincent. The Digital Sublime: Myth, Power, and Cyberspace. Cambridge  Mass.: MIT Press, 2004
  • Murphy, Michelle. The Economization of Life. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2017.
  • Sims, Christo. Disruptive Fixation: School Reform and the Pitfalls of Techno-Idealism. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2017.