Code Ethnography And The Materiality Of Power In Digital Communication Infrastructures


The aim of this paper is to introduce code ethnography, a method to examine code as a sociotechnical artifact, in consideration of its inherent social, political and economic implications. It aims to help social science scholars capture critical aspects of digital communication infrastructures that are not only inaccessible to outsiders and researchers with a non-technical background, but may also be hidden from insiders and specialists who have different interests in the code. The paper discusses the paths to do code ethnography, considering the immersion in the scholarly field where the code is placed, interviewing, collecting code, and collaborating with code technical specialists to answer the questions that the research poses. To exemplify the kinds of results that code ethnography can bring, the paper focuses on its application on the study of Border Gateway Protocol (BGP). BGP is the language that internet network routers use to interconnect among themselves and send and receive data packets and routes over the internet. Following the tenet of symmetry in actor network theory (Callon, 1984; Callon & Latour, 1981) along with the necessity to “learn from the South and with the South” (Santos, 1995, p. 508), BGP data was collected at two of the largest physical facilities where internet networks interconnect, known as internet exchange points (IXPs): São Paulo in Brazil and DE-CIX Frankfurt in Germany. In comparing data collected at two of the largest IXPs in the world, the study highlights differences that lead to disparities of power concentration in internet infrastructure between the global North and global South heretofore overlooked in internet studies. The study also advances STS methods in dialogue with internet governance and decolonial scholarship and contribute to further understand the materiality of data centers, where the code was collected.


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Contributed date

May 28, 2020 - 3:59am

Critical Commentary

This is an abstract for the EASST/4S 2020 open panel "Digital Experiments in the Making: Methods, Tools, and Platforms in the Infrastructuring of STS".

Cite as

Fernanda R. Rosa - University of Pennsylvania, "Code Ethnography And The Materiality Of Power In Digital Communication Infrastructures", contributed by Lina Franken, STS Infrastructures, Platform for Experimental Collaborative Ethnography, last modified 28 May 2020, accessed 23 July 2024.