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Engineering obsolescence

Marisa Cohn

Marisa Cohn

Editor’s Note: Marisa Leavitt Cohn writes to us from Stockholm, where she is a postdoctoral scholar studying the politics of software systems and computing work practices.

In this contribution to the series on Hackers, Makers, and Engineers, she tells us about her research on relationships to technological change in a long-lived NASA-ESA software infrastructure project. Her research considers how people live alongside technological change, inhabit the temporal rhythms of computing work, and approach concerns of legacy, inheritance, and survival of computational practices as they contemplate the end of life of the mission.

Marisa has a BA in anthropology from Barnard College and a PhD in informatics from UC Irvine, and she’s joining ITU Copenhagen as a professor in the fall. She’s a member of the ISTC-Social


Ethnographers have often been positioned in the technology field as translators between the worlds of technology use and design. When I first began my fieldwork with an engineering team at a NASA space science mission, I thought I might be able to trouble this dyadic concept of translation work between design and use by examining a case in which a complex set of translations took place between a diverse set of organizational actors, from scientists to engineers to managers. Indeed, I observed the engineers on the team working on a weekly basis to turn hundreds of observation requests from scientists all across the globe into commands that can be executed on a spacecraft over a billion kilometers away. This complex translation work was supported in turn by hundreds of software tools that had been developed over the years to, as one engineer described it, “turn scientists’ dreams into vectors.”

Yet when I presented early versions of this work to the social computing research community, I found that the relevance of my work was often challenged. The engineering project I was examining was deemed a “one-off,” a bespoke system that served a single purpose, and which was ultimately “disposable” since the spacecraft would be destroyed in space once it had run out of fuel and completed its mission. Not only that, the software tools that I was studying in organizational contexts were now decades old. They were written in FORTRAN and some of the earliest graphical interface programming languages, tools which have largely been abandoned by the engineering community – reaching end of support, dying out, or even being actively petitioned into retirement.

These make great bookmarks now. Image courtesy of http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:FortranCardPROJ039.agr.jpg

These challenges begged the question – what is to be gained by studying the work of engineers maintaining a space robot from the 90s? What is the role of the ethnographer in studying the so-called technological “dinosaurs” – the old-timers who are stuck in engineering methods and tools of the past? What relevance do these obsolete software tools and engineering practices that go along with them have for understanding technology today? Even to many of the engineers at the mission, my interest in their software tools seemed a bit odd. As one responded to my research,

You think our software is interesting?! It’s not Google or anything.

Legacies of a 90s space robot

These questions put me on the defensive about my contribution to the study of sociotechnical systems and my role as an ethnographer in the field. What was my role, as a translator or participant or otherwise? One of the roles I was enlisted into at the mission organization showed that this defensiveness was a part of my informants’ reality as well. I was asked to help with their work towards a final mission report, to help preserve some of the stories of their engineering accomplishments for the historical archive. The archive of scientific data was already assured, but what about the engineering knowledge gathered over the course of the mission? Might the work they have done over the past two decades be of any use for future outer planets missions? What if there is not another mission of this kind for another 50 or 100 years?

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