CHAPTER 1 Introduction

The emergence of information infrastructures

During the last 3 - 4 years a truly amazing transformation has taken place. From being the toy of square-eyed nerds and confined to esoteric enclaves, the interest around Internet and communicative use of IT has exploded. That advertisements would contain Web home pages, that newspapers would include a special section on Internet in addition to sports and finance and that it would be possible to tell your mother that you are "on the Net" or "surfing" is nothing short of astonishing.

In parallel with the increase in popular and media attention directed towards the Internet, the establishment of information infrastructures has been heavily promoted by political actors. The term "information infrastructure" (II) has been increasingly used to refer to integrated solutions based on the now ongoing fusion of information and communication technologies. The term became popular after the US plan for National Information Infrastructures (NII) was launched. Following that the term has been widely used to describe national and global communication networks like the Internet and more specialized solutions for communications within specific business sectors. The European Union has followed up, or rather copied, the ideas in their Bangemann report (Bangemann et al. 1994). In this way, the shape and use of information infrastructures has been transformed into an issue of industrial policy (Mansell, Mulgan XX).

The launching of ambitious political action plans like those mentioned above is to a large extent an effect of the success of the Internet - the great potential of such technologies that has been disclosed to us through the use of Internet. But the plans are over and above responses to a much broader trend concerning technological development and diffusion which the Internet also is a part of: the development of information and communication technologies. As a result of this trend, one (in particular technology policy and strategy makers) rather prefer to talk about ICT than IT or communication technologies separately. This integrated view on ICT is a result of a long term trend integrating telecommunication and information technologies - leading to a convergence of these technologies.

This convergence may be described as two parallel, and in principle, independent processes: information technologies "creeping into" telecommunication technologies and telecommunication technologies "creeping into" information systems. IT has crept into telecommunication first of all through the "digitalization" of telecommunication, i.e. traditional telecommunication components like switches and telephones are changed to digital technologies rather than analog technologies. The latter process has evolved as information systems have been enhanced through use of telecommunication technologies. Remote users have been given access to systems independent of physical location and independent systems have been integrated through information exchange based on services like electronic data interchange (EDI). In addition some integration processes which might be located somewhere in the middle between these two have unfolded. This include for instance the development of technologies enabling the public telephone infrastructure to be used as an interface to information systems. One example is solutions allowing bank customers to check their accounts directly using the telephone.

In total, the convergence of ICT has opened up for a vast array of new uses of technologies. The "informatization" of telecommunication has opened up for lots of new enhanced telecommunication services, and similarly, the "telecommunicatization" of information systems has opened up for an equally large range of new information systems supporting information sharing and integrating processes at a global level. The range of new solutions that seems useful and that may be developed and installed may be equally large as the number of traditional information systems developed.

Some examples of solutions of this kinds which may be available to us not too far into the future are:

The infrastructures mentioned so far can be seen as mostly been shared by the "global community." However, information infrastructures have also been developed along a different, a third, path. Inside individual corporations, the number of information systems has continuously been growing. At the same time existing systems have become increasingly integrated with each other. Most companies do not have just a collection of independent systems. The integration of and interdependence between the systems implies that they should rather be seen as an infrastructure - independent of their geographical distribution and the use of telecommunication. But this shift is of course strengthened by the fact that the companies are integrating their growing number of systems at the same time as they (drawing on the technological development sketched above) are becoming more geographically distributed (global) and integrate their systems more closely with others'.

There is also a fourth path which concerns the increasing degree ICT is penetrating and becomes embedded into our everyday lives (Silverstone and Hirsch 1992; Sørensen and Lie 1996). As individuals, we are using an increasing number of tools, systems, and services in an increasing part of our lives. ICT is not just represented in a limited set of tools we are using for specific purposes. We are rather using ICT, in one form or another whatever we are doing and wherever we are. In this way ICT is becoming a basic infrastructure for "all" our dealings in our world. We are "domesticating" the technology.

All these four trends are taking place in parallel. Just as information and communication technolgies are converging, information systems and telecommunication services are increasingly becoming linked to each other. The number of links is increasing.

Infrastructures are different

The broad trends outlined above, we argue, requires a re-conceptualization of the I(C)T solutions we are developing. If one is concerned with the development of the "information systems of the future", the phenomena we are dealing with should be seen as information infrastructures - not systems. This reconceptualization is required because the nature of the new ICT solutions are qualitatively different from what is captured by the concepts of information systems underlying the development of IT solutions so far. It is also significant different from traditional telecommunication systems - and even the combination of these two. This reconceptualization is what we are striving for with this book. We will here briefly motivate for the necessity of such a shift.

Understanding information infrastructures requires a holistic perspective - an infrastructure is more than the individual components. Successful development and deployment of information infrastructures requires more than a combination of traditional approaches and strategies for development of telecommunications solutions and information systems. Although these approaches complement each other, they also contain important contradictions and accordingly brand new approaches are required

The infrastructures we are addressing can still to some extent be seen as information systems as they contain everything you find in an IS. But an infrastructure is something more than an IS. In line with the brief sketch of the emergence of ICT, we can say that an infrastructure also through the "telecommunicatization" process, information infrastructures are traditional information systems plus telecommunication technology. This is of course correct, but still a bit too simple. A global infrastructure where any goods might be purchased is more than just an IS plus telecommunication. And also seen from the perspective of "informatization" of telecommunication - information is certainly more that telecom - or telecom added information systems.

Traditional approaches to information systems development are implicitly based on assumptions where the information systems are closed, stand-alone systems used within closed organizational limits. They are assumed developed within a hierarchical structure - a project (managed by a project leader and a steering group) - which is a part of a larger hierarchical structure - the user organization (or the vendor organization in case of a commercial product). Telecommunication systems, on the other hand, are global. The most important design work - or decisions at least - are taken care of by standardization bodies (CCITT and ITU). When developing infrastructures, the focus on closed, stand-alone systems has to be replaced by one focusing on the infrastructures as open and global as is the case for development of telecommunication technologies. However, there are other parts of the telecommunication approach which is more problematic.

Characteristic for traditional telecommunication solutions have been their stability. This is in particular true for their functionality and user interface. To put it simply, the basic functionality has been stable for more than hundred years. A telephone service has one function: the user can dial a number, talk to the person at the other end, and hand up when finished. As telecommunication got "informationalized," however, this started to change and new functions (for instance, you can transfer your phone "virtually" to another number, you may use it as an alarm clock, etc.) have been added. But the stability of the functionality is a basic precondition for how the approaches and strategies followed for developing telecommunication technologies.

What has been in focus has been the improvement of the technologies invisible to the users. At the national level, the telecommunication infrastructures have been built and operated by national monopolies since about the turn of the century (Schneider and Mayntz). Monopolies have dominated this technology as its size and interconnectedness makes this "natural," and most investments have been made based on long time horizons, usually 30 years (ibid.). All technologies are designed and specified as global (universal) standards. Such standards have been seen as absolutely required to enable smooth operation and use of the infrastructure. However, the development of such standards takes time - usually about ten years for each standard. And under the existing conditions - the simple user interface - one (or may be three: dial, talk, hang up) operation not being modified for 100 years, the long term planning of the infrastructure, and the limited number of actors - one for each country - this approach has worked pretty well.

Information systems development, however, has very different - or rather opposite - characteristics. While the telephone functionality and user interface has been extremely stable and simple, information systems are characterized by very rich and highly dynamic functionality. Information systems are closely tied to the working processes they support. These processes are inscribed into the systems making them unique and local - not universal. The environments of information systems are highly dynamic. And the information systems are in themselves a driving force in changing the very work practices and other environmental elements they are designed to support.

In the case of telecommunication technologies the stability of the functionality and user interface has made users irrelevant in the design process. The user interface has been given, and one could concentrate only on technological issues. For information systems the situation is the opposite. As the links between the technology and the users are so rich and dynamic, dealing with the interaction between technological and human, social, and organizational issues has been of utmost importance. (This fact is not challenged by the strong technological bias of most engineers involved in IS development, struggling to turn IS development into an ordinary technical engineering discipline.)

Future information infrastructures will be just as dynamic as our information systems have been so far. They will be very heterogeneous (re. the combined vertical and horizontal integration of information systems).

So, can we find an approach to infrastructure development which account for the dynamics and non-technical elements of information systems at the same time as the standards enabling the required integration - an approach which works for more heterogeneous and dynamic technologies that telephone services up to now? This is an all to big question to be answered in one book. However, that is the question we want to inquire into. Our main focus is the tension between standardization and flexibility, which we believe is an important element in the bigger question. And in discussion this tension we will in particular be concerned about the interplay and interdependencies between technological issues on the one hand and social, organizational, and human on the other.

New trends, new research

"Everybody" observing the trends briefly described above have concluded that brand new technologies are on their way. However, large groups of IS and IT developers seem to conclude that the new technology is still software and information systems, so that good old software engineering and information systems development approaches still do. 1 Among researchers, however, the announcement of the Clinton/Gore and Bangemann reports triggered new activities. Several researchers soon concluded that the solutions envisions in the reports were new, and as we did not have any experience in developing such solutions, we did not have the required knowledge either (several papers in (Brandscomb and Kahin). One issue identified as the most probably key issue was that of standardization. It was considered obvious that the new infrastructures require lots of standards. Equally obvious - existing standardization practices and approaches are not at all sufficient to deliver the standards needed. An early conclusion is that the Internet experience is the most valuable source for new knowledge about this issues (Brandscomb and Kahin 1996).

Science and Technology Studies has been a rapidly growing field in the last 10-20 years. Neither standards nor infrastructures have been much in focus. However, there are a number of studies within this field which also give us important knowledge about standards useful when developing information infrastructures and which we will draw upon in this book (Geof, Marc, Leigh, ..).

IT infrastructure has also become a popular topic within information systems research focusing on the situations within individual business organizations (Broadbent, Weill XX).

Our focus, approach and contribution

II is a vast field. It covers all kinds of technologies, all kinds of use and use areas. It involves lots of political, social, organization, human aspects and issues - from the development of industrial at national, regional (EU), or even the global level within the G7 forum to the micro politics in the everyday activities between people involved in the design and use of the technology. An all these issues interact, they are interdependent and intertwined. Lots of research into all issues and all combinations are important. In this context this book will just cover a minor aspect of infrastructures. But an important one - we believe. Our focus on the standardization, and in particular the tension between standardization and flexibility. In inquiring into this tension we will in particular be concerned about the interplay between technical and non-technical (social, organizational, human, etc. (Latour,xx) issues.

We focus on information infrastructures. By this term we mean IT based infrastructures at the application level, not lower levels IT based telecommunication networks like for instance ATM networks or wireless networks. We see information infrastructures as "next generation" information systems. An information infrastructure can be described as an information system except that it is shared by a large user community across large geographical areas such that it might more appropriately be seen as an infrastructure than as a system.

Our motivation behind this book is to contribute to a firmer understanding of the challenges involved in establishing a working information infrastructure. Without such a basis, political action seem futile. The potential and probable impacts of information infrastructures in our everyday lives and at work, in terms of regional development and (lack of) distribution urge us to develop our ability to make informed judgements. Closing your eyes or resorting to political slogans cannot make a sound strategy.

As the information infrastructures of the future have yet to materialise -- they are currently in the making -- we are necessarily aimed at a moving target. Our analysis in this book is dominated by continuity: we expect and argue that the future information infrastructures will be an extension, combination, substitution and superimposition of the bits and pieces that already exist (Smarr and Catlett 1992). Hence, the experiences acquired so far is relevant. The aim of this book, then, is to paint the emerging picture of information infrastructures based on a critical interpretation of the fragments of existing experience.

Our intention in writing the book is addressing what we see to be (some of) the core characteristics of information infrastructures, i.e. those aspects making information infrastructures different from information systems and at the same time being critical in their development and use. These are aspects which our (research) and experience form the information systems field cannot tell us how to deal with properly.

As will be elaborated at length later, establishing a working information infrastructure is a highly involved socio-technical endeavour. Developing a firmer understanding, then, amounts to developing a reasonable account of these socio-technical processes: the actors, institutions and technologies that play a role. Seemingly, we have translated design of information infrastructures from the relatively manageable task of specifying a suitable family of technical standards and protocols to the quite unmanageable task of aligning innovations, national technology policies, conditions for commercially viable experimentation, governmental intervention and so forth. A perfectly reasonable question, then, is to inquire whether this is doable at all: is not design of information infrastructures a comforting, but ultimately naive, illusion?

Kraemer and King (1996), for instance, take a long stride in this direction in their appropriation of the NII initiative in the United States. They basically present NII as a political-economic negotiation where "there is no design (...) [only] order without design" (ibid., p. 139). Against this background, there seems to be little space for influencing the shaping of an information infrastructure through design related decisions.

Our handle on this is slightly different. We seek to make visible, not side-step, the issues of the political-economic negotiations. By making the inscriptions explicit, the intention is to pave the road for subsequent scrutiny and discussion. In this sense, we pursue a slightly, hopefully not overly, naive approach where we argue for making the most out of the available options rather than fall back into apathy or disillusion.

The fact that information infrastructures are established through complex and vast processes, implies that the notion of "designing" them needs to be critically reassessed. The connotation and assumptions about design is too much biased towards being in control of the situation. In relation to information infrastructures, we argue that it is more reasonable to think of design in terms of strategies of intervention and cultivation.

Brief outline of the book

Chapter 2 presents two examples of information infrastructures: The Internet and the information infrastructure for the Norwegian health care sector. These two cases illustrate two different types of infrastructures. They also illustrate two different development approaches. Internet is based on an evolutionary, prototype oriented approach. The Norwegian health care infrastructure is tried developed based on a specification driven approach where the focus has been on the specification of European standards for health care information exchange. These two development efforts are also different in the sense that the Internet has been growing rapidly throughout its life from the very beginning, an indisputable success. The development of the Norwegian health care infrastructure has followed a different pattern. It started with a tremendous success for one actor building the first limited network for transmission of lab reports to GPs. That solution was soon after copied by several others. After that, however, the infrastructure has developed very, very slowly.

Chapter 3 critically analyses the notion of information infrastructure. The concept is not strictly defined, but rather characterized by six key aspects. These are the aspects, we argue, making infrastructures qualitatively different from other information systems. We are arriving at these aspects by presenting and analysing a number of infrastructure definitions provided by others, including the one used in the official documents presenting the US Government plan for the building of the National Information Infrastructure. The 6 aspects are: enabling, shared, open, socio-technical, heterogeneous, and installed base.

Infrastructures have a supporting or enabling function. This is opposed to being especially design to support one way of working within a specific application field.

An infrastructure is one irreducible unit shared by a larger community (or collection of users and user groups). An infrastructure is irreducible in the sense that it is the same "thing" used by all its users (although it may appear differently), it cannot be split into separate parts being used by different groups independently. However, an infrastructure may of course be decomposed into separate units for analytical or design purposes. The fact that infrastructures are shared implies that their parts are linked and they are defined as shared standards. This means that standards are not only economically important but a necessary constituting element.

IIs are more than "pure" technology, they are rather socio-technical networks. This is true for ISs in general, as they will not work without support people and the users using it properly. For instance, flight booking systems do not work for one particular user unless all booked seats are registered in the systems. But this fact is largely ignored in the thinking about the design of information systems as well as infrastructures.

Infrastructures are open. They are open in the sense that there are no limits for the number of users, stakeholders, vendors involved, nodes in the network and other technological components, application areas, network operators, etc. This defining characteristic does not necessarily imply the extreme position that absolutely everything is included in every infrastructure. However, it does imply that one cannot draw a strict border saying that there is one infrastructure for what is on one side of the border and others for the other side and that these infrastructures have no connections.

Infrastructures are heterogeneous. They are so different in different ways. For instance, they are connected into ecologies of infrastructures as illustrated above, they are layered upon each other as in the OSI model, they are heterogeneous as they include elements of different qualities like humans and computers, etc. They are also heterogeneous in the sense that the seemingly same function might be implemented in several different ways.

Building large infrastructures takes time. All elements are connected. As time passes, new requirements appear which the infrastructure has to adapt to. The whole infrastructure cannot be change instantly - the new has to be connected to the old. In this way the old - the installed base - heavily influence how the new can be designed. Infrastructures are not designed from scratch, they rather evolve as the "cultivation" of an shared, open, socio-technical, heterogeneous installed base.

The remainder of the book views information infrastructures through this lens. We subsequently look deeper into the above mentioned aspects of infrastructures, and then gradually move towards design related strategies.

Based on the assumptions that standards are playing crucial roles in relation to infrastructures, chapter 4 spells out the different kinds of standards defining the Internet and the standards defined through the standardization effort organized by CEN (CEN TC/251), the organization given the authority to set European standards for health care information exchange and Internet. Different types of standards are identified and the process through which standards are worked out are described. The organisation of the standardisation process vary significantly.

The openness of infrastructures is addressed in chapter 5 and might be illustrated by an example form health care: A hospital is exchanging information with other medical institutions, even in other countries. It is exchanging information with social insurance offices and other public sector institutions, it is ordering goods from a wide range of companies, etc. These companies are exchanging information with other companies and institutions. Hospital doctors might be involved in international research programmes. Accordingly, a hospital is sharing information with virtually any other sector in society. Drawing a strict line between, for instance, a medical or health care infrastructure and an electronic commerce infrastructure is impossible. However wide an infrastructure's user groups or application areas are defined, there will always be something outside which the infrastructure should be connected to.

Openness implies heterogeneity. An infrastructure grows by adding new layers or sub-infrastructures. Over time, what is considered to be separate or part of the same will change. Infrastructures initially developed separately will be linked together. These evolving processes make infrastructures heterogeneous in the sense that they are composed of different kinds of components.

Open worlds, like those of standards and infrastructures are dynamic and changing. To adapt to such change, infrastructures and standards must be flexible. They also need to be flexible to allow some kind of experimentation and improvement as users get experience.

Standards are neither easily made nor changed when widely implemented. Standardization means stability. The openness of infrastructures implies that the range and scope of standards must change over time, and so will their relationships to other standards. This chapter inquires into the implications of considering infrastructures open, the need for flexibility and the more intricate relationships between flexibility and change on one hand and standardization and stability on the other.

Chapter 6 outlines a theoretical framework we argue is relevant for appropriating the socio-technical aspect of information infrastructures. The framework is actor-network theory (ANT) and is borrowed from the field of science and technology studies (STS) (REF XX Latour, Bijker, Law). This chapter motivates for the relevance of ANT by comparing and contrasting it with alternative theoretical frameworks, in particular structuration theory (Orlikowski, Walsham XX). Also other scholars of information systems research have used ANT (Walsham ifp8.2, Leigh, Bloomfield et al. XX).

One key concept in actor network theory is that of "inscriptions." This is explored at length in chapter 7. The concept explain how designers assumptions about the future use of a technology, described as programs of action, is inscribed into its design. Whether the technology in fact will impose its inscribed program of action depends on to what extent the actual program of action also is inscribed into other elements like for instance documentation, training programs, support functions, etc., i.e. into a larger network of social and technological elements (humans and non-humans).

This chapter analyses in detail what kinds of programs of action are described into two specific standardized EDIFACT message definitions for health care. We are looking at which elements, ranging from the atomic units of the message definitions to the overall organization of the standardization work, various programs of action are inscribed into as well as how these elements are aligned to each other.

So far we have inquired into the core aspects (as we see it) of information infrastructures. Starting in chapter 8, we turn more towards design related issues. In chapter 8 we look into the basic assumptions underlying most infrastructure development work, in particular standardization activities.

Most information infrastructure standardization work is based on a set of beliefs and assumptions about what a good standard is. These beliefs are strong - but are indeed beliefs as they are not based on any empirical evidence concerning their soundness. They have strong implications for what kinds of standards that are defined, their characteristics as well as choice of strategies for developing them. Beliefs of this kind are often in other contexts called ideologies. Hence, the focus of this chapter is on the dominant standardization ideology: its content, history, how it is tired applied, what really happens and its shortcomings. We will argue that it has serious short-comings. In fact, the dominant standardization approach does not work for the development of future information infrastructures. New approaches based on different ideologies must be followed to succeed in the implementation of the envisioned networks. The chapters 9 through 11 are devoted to spelling out viable, alternative design strategies to this dominating, main-stream one influenced by universalism.

The focus on infrastructure as an evolving "installed base" in chapter 9 implies that infrastructures are considered as always already existing, they are NEVER developed from scratch. When "designing" a "new" infrastructure, it will always be integrated into and thereby extending others, or it will replace one part of another infrastructure.

Within the field institutional economy some scholars have studied standards as a part of a more general phenomena labelled "self-reinforcing mechanisms" and "network externalities" (REFS XX). Self-reinforcing mechanisms appear when the value of a particular product or technology for individual adopters increases as the number of adopters increase. The term "network externalities" is used to denote the fact that such a phenomenon appears when the value of a product or technology depends also on aspects being external to the product or technology itself. Chapter 9 briefly reviews these conceptions of standards and the phenomenon we call the irreversibility of the installed base - the cause of this phenomenon as well as its effects. Furthermore, we look at how the irreversibility problem appears in relation to information infrastructures, its negative implications and the need for flexibility and change. This leads to a re-conceptualisation of the very notion of design of information infrastructure to something closer to a cultivation strategy.

The practical implications of the argument of chapter 9, that the installed base has a strong and partly neglected influence, is illustrated in chapter 10 by one specific case presented in detail. It describes the revision of the IP protocol in Internet. IP forms the core of Internet and has accordingly acquired a considerable degree of irreversibility as a result of its wide-spread use. Changes to IP have to be evolutionary and small-step, i.e. in the form of a transition strategy. Transition strategies illustrate the cultivation approach to design of information infrastructures.

By way of conclusion, chapter 11 explores alternative cultivation based approaches to infrastructure development. These alternatives allow more radical changes than the basically conservative character of cultivation. They are based on the use of (generalised) gateways which link previously unrelated networks together. In conjunction with cultivation, these gateway based approach make up the intervention strategies for information infrastructures.

Earlier papers

This book is to a large extent based on work we have reported on in earlier publications. Some material is new. And the format of a book allows us in a completely new way to combine, structure and elaborate the various threads and arguments spread out in earlier publications. These publications are listed below.

Eric Monteiro and Ole Hanseth. Social shaping of information infrastructure: on being specific about the technology. In Wanda Orlikosiki, Geoff Walsham, Matthew R. Jones, and Janice I. DeGross, editors,Information technology and changes in organisational work, pages 325 -- 343. Chapman & Hall, 1995.

Hanseth, O., Monteiro, E. and Hatling, M. 1996. Developing information infrastructure standards: the tension between standardisation and flexibility. Science, Technology & Human Values, 21(4):407 - 426.

Hanseth, O. 1996 Information technolgogy as infrastructure, PhD thesis, Gøteborg Univ.

O. Hanseth and E. Monteiro. Inscribing behaviour in information infrastructure standards. Accounting, Management & Information Technologies, 7(4):183 - 211, 1997.

O. Hanseth and E. Monteiro. Changing irreversible networks. In: Proc. ECIS `98, 1998.

Monteiro, E. 1998. Scaling information infrastructure: the case of the next generation IP in Internet. The Information Society, 14(3):229 - 245.

 


1. These assumptions are very visible in the methodological framework developed for engineering European wide telematics applications (..).

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