When John Seberger took a break from his dissertation a few years back to drive down Ocean Boulevard for a coffee, the UCI Ph.D. student had no idea he was on the road to earning the Social Informatics Best Paper Award. How did a coffee break result in Seberger and his Ph.D. adviser, Informatics Professor Geoffrey Bowker, earning a best paper award from the Association for Information Science and Technology (ASIS&T) Special Interest Group for Social Informatics (SIG SI)?
It started with an Apple Maps notification sent to Seberger as he left the coffee shop: “19 min to Anytime Fitness.” That notification served as motivation for the 2020 paper, “Humanistic Infrastructure Studies: Hyper-Functionality and the Experience of the Absurd.”
“The project grew out of a shared interest in how people become visible to themselves through digital infrastructures,” says Seberger, who earned his Ph.D. from the Donald Bren School of Information and Computer Sciences (ICS). Now a postdoctoral fellow in the Department of Informatics at Indiana University, Bloomington, he says the “weird interaction” he had with his phone “constituted a perspicuous example of the meeting point of several shared interests: infrastructure, identity and existentialism.” As explained in the paper, the Apple Maps notification left Seberger feeling out of place. “Had his phone just called him fat?” (No, it had not.)
After telling Bowker about the experience, the two researchers explored it further and eventually identified a phenomenon that they call hyper-functionality, wherein “an infrastructure functions in an unexpected way but is not functionally broken,” says Seberger. They came to view hyper-functionality as “a tool for understanding how individuals and groups of people become newly visible through infrastructure, thus challenging them to consider and adapt to new knowledge about themselves and their societies.”
The resulting paper explores the existentialism of Albert Camus and evaluates the hyper-functional effects of Facebook manipulation on the American political sphere, creating a new agenda for humanistic infrastructure studies. “It’s about how increasingly mundane technologies — things like platforms and the idiosyncratic groups of apps that each of us use — challenge people’s assumptions of their daily worlds,” says Seberger. “More than that, it’s about understanding challenged assumptions as a site for increased human agency.”
Seberger and Bowker were both honored to receive the award. “I am so very pleased to see that others find this work meaningful,” says Seberger. “It’s always a risk when you publish something you really care about — a passion project. The best paper award is a huge honor.”
Bowker, now Professor Emeritus, was also grateful for the recognition. “I learned so much from John in the process of working with him on this paper and am grateful that we have received recognition for it,” he says. “I think that it lays the groundwork for what will be a rich and creative vein in his career.”
— Shani Murray