Mediating Environments and Objects as Knowledge Infrastructure
The knowledge infrastructures of the sciences have been considered as human-made networks or ecologies of people, artifacts, and institutions that enable the production, calibration, storage, dissemination and re-use of data. Complementing these studies, this paper examines how scientists use the digitally mediated, shared availability of “natural” environments and objects for infrastructural purposes. Drawing on ethnography and informed by ethnomethodology, I focus on the uses of the sky in astronomical observation. Astronomical research is oriented to observing, and re-observing, sources on the sky, making it its topic. Yet, the sky is also an infrastructural resource, as it provides stable saliences that can be used alongside existing records for ordering work, diagnosing trouble with artifacts in data, and repairing data across diverse sites of practice. I consider a case in which such uses of the sky were new to researchers working in a novel domain, and one in which such uses were already established, but new to a student being inducted to its work. In both cases properties of the sky became salient through being mediated digitally. As existing records and new observations were made available to a single computational order, these data became accessible to what Melvin Pollner called mundane reason, wherein ceteris paribus clauses are used reflexively to maintain a world in common. Although the sky may appear to be an extreme case, I argue that other mediated environments and objects, and the reflexive practices through which these are engaged, have similar infrastructural uses in other disciplines.