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how technical is technology research? Acquiring and Deploying Technical Knowledge in Social Research Projects christian sandvig As our ‹ve-hour trip entered its eighth hour, we were driving through a Midwestern blizzard on Interstate 94. I had borrowed a university motor pool subcompact that wasn’t up to the job, and it slithered through the whiteout with the wipers on high, packed with jiggling cameras, microphones , laptops, and a solid-state recorder. My job was to drive, or at least to try to maintain some forward progress through the snow. My colleague was trying to call our next interview, who had agreed to ‹nd us a place to sleep. The cell phone alternated between no signal and no answer. It was late at night, and there was no other traf‹c. I had my ‹rst government grant and a great sense of responsibility. Everything seemed to be riding on these visits. I arranged a three-state driving tour during Thanksgiving break to interview the most promising members of my sample: groups that build their own alternative communication systems. I was then following sixty groups, and the plan was to select the few that seemed to have produced something truly signi‹cant and were near enough to reach by car. We would visit them for a day to tour and photograph what they had built, and we would get them to explain how 141 they did it. Thanks to my own overambitious timetable, we had high expectations , we were pressed for time, and we were short of money. The next morning, in the bright calm after the storm had passed, we walked through a downtrodden residential neighborhood in parkas and snow boots, taking pictures and recording everything: the community center , the park, the condemned house, the abandoned car, and the wireless antennas. Our hosts worked in a local nongovernmental social services agency, and they knew just what we wanted. No doubt they had been called upon to give this tour many times—certainly a representative from each of their various funders would have wanted one. Looking back on the interview transcripts, I see now that they knew just how to package their work for our research: the tour leader had a doctorate, and in fact everyone in our party had a graduate degree. The person I will call Dr. Gunn led the project, and he explained all of the good the project had produced. In short, they had built their own wireless communication system for the community, and it had made a difference . But in addition to broad statements about educational opportunity, new jobs, and better quality of life, he also had vivid anecdotes of success. Better still, his stories were fresh, and his technical approach was unusual. If it worked here, it looked well worth replicating elsewhere. It was everything I hoped to write about. I was excited. Gunn didn’t concern himself with the technical aspects, so he turned us over to his employee Veronica, who held a graduate degree in information systems engineering. Information technology infrastructure itself is not usually much to look at—it is typically just a bunch of beige boxes. Nonetheless, I still asked to see parts of the communication network in operation . After some initial ambivalence, Veronica agreed. She led us up ladders , through crawl spaces, and across rooftops to show us how the network functioned. Then it happened: the moment when it all unraveled. On the top ›oor of the community center that controlled the wireless system, we walked through a utility closet to get to the roof, passing by a communications patch panel. This was a CAT5 patch panel for telephone and Ethernet, and it looked like they all do: a jumble of color-coded wires and blinking LEDs. We stopped in the corridor for a moment to position the ladder and to try to get the heavy roof hatch open. Since we had stopped, I asked a technical question about how the signal for their network traversed the panel—my question was at the outer limit of my own technical expertise. After I heard Veronica’s response, I looked more closely at the panel and noticed that what seemed to be the appropriate 142 • research confidential section of the rack had no lit LEDs. I asked her about it. She came back to the panel, opened the clear plastic cover, and looked at the racks more closely; then she became more and more nervous. She ‹shed out one prominently dangling black...


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MARC Record
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