DISTRACT seminar with Signe Sophus Lai

Networks of Power: Analysing the political economy of digital infrastructures

The talk hovers around the structural consequences of the gradual shift to internet-based communication. It discusses how the conditions and characteristics associated with the Nordic Media Welfare state (Syvertsen et al., 2014) have come under pressure and ultimately been transformed as a result of legacy institutions losing control over the more mature digital infrastructure: Global, commercial players increasingly dominate all parts of the digital media and communication sector; digital communication services are subject to significantly less control than legacy media as government agencies have not yet managed to adjust and develop the regulatory frameworks; and so, welfare values and logics have been weakened as a more commercial regime has emerged.

Based on a conceptual framework for mapping and analysing digital communication systems (Flensburg & Lai 2019; 2020a), the talk focuses specifically on a study of the evolution of the internet infrastructure in Denmark, which assesses emerging digital power structures and regulatory dynamics (Flensburg & Lai, 2020b). We revisit and develop Thomas P. Hughes’ momentum theory (1994) and contend that the internet, as other large technological systems (i.e. the electrical grid), has evolved in different phases reflecting a shift from being mainly influenced by socio-economic conditions to having a determining influence on the development of societal structures. We argue that contemporary internet infrastructure studies can benefit from Hughes’ theoretical approach, but also need to strengthen their methodological and empirical strategy. The study contributes to this by approaching the changes in digital infrastructures, markets, and state policies in Denmark from 1992 to 2019. Building on database material, we analyse the development of digital devices and broadband connections, fibre-optic submarine cables and internet exchange points (IXPs), web domains, and digital data.

The analysis, and the conceptual framework, challenge and extend the institutional approach to systemic media analysis represented by e.g., Hallin & Mancini (2004) by emphasizing the material and infrastructural aspects of mediated communication as important analytical dimensions. Taken together, the talk presents an alternative interpretation of how the internet has influenced the welfare regime that governed mediated communication in the past. It also serves as a point of departure for current and future comparative undertakings, where we explore the impact of the welfare model on how digital communication systems are developing across the different welfare regimes of the Nordic countries

Signe Sophus Lai is Assistant Professor at the Department of Communication, University of Copenhagen.