iSGTW Feature - Studying Grid Society

Feature: Studying grid society

Social scientists are using grids for their research without ever submitting a job. They study grid technologies and grid communities, and how both develop and interact with each other.

"I think it's interesting to elicit the social elements behind technologies like the grid, and to make sense of technologies in social settings," says one such social scientist, Will Venters from the London School of Economics.

Grid computing is interesting to social scientists because it's an emerging technology and has a large, diverse group of researchers involved in its creation. Venters is beginning a project to study how scientists developing a grid and those who will become its users influence each other. Claus Jacobs, from the University of St. Gallen in Switzerland, is nearing the end of a project that studied the dynamics between grid technologies and communities, and how members of the grid community organize and use the language of the grid.

Exit the heroic inventor

"The traditional model of innovation is one heroic inventor coming up with a blueprint for a technology that is then smoothly rolled out," says Jacobs. "But recent studies on innovation have shown that it's very much the social network that shapes a new technology. I'm interested in how the communities and the technology influence each other."

Jacobs has been researching grids for almost two years. He started by focusing on the EGEE project and later expanded his research to include the concept of grid around the world.

"I research the social processes of how innovations are organized, specifically the communication aspects of organization," explains Jacobs. "I'm interested in the development of the grid in general, and what meaning people attribute to it."

Jacobs is analyzing the recursive dynamics of grid development - how the people shape the technologies and vice versa - and how members of the larger grid community interpret the language of the grid. He has interviewed several dozen people, including members of European Commission-funded grid projects, scientists using the projects, researchers and managers from commercial organizations involved with grid technologies, and academic grid researchers from the United States.

...And so what is a grid exactly?

"There doesn't seem to be a consensus about a universal definition of the grid," says Jacobs, indicating that this will come as no surprise to most familiar with grids. "This is important for the scientific community. If you can't explain the grid to people in a coherent way, then when and how on earth should they join the party? Academics might be willing to experiment, but how can you expect a large industry uptake if the experts don't have a consensus about what the technology actually is?"

Venters, who has previously researched the development of complicated IT infrastructures in large organizations, turned his focus to GridPP, the UK's particle physics grid project, earlier this year.

"I've been interested in the growth of infrastructure for quite a while," he adds. "How things like the railroad, like the Internet, become part of the working practices of people."

Venters and his colleagues interview computer scientists and particle physics and spend time with them at meetings and in their workplaces watching and recording how they work. They are interested in how particle physicists' collaborative tradition and pragmatic approach to technology enables them to manage the distributed development of grid technology.

Venters and Jacobs will both write up the final results of their work for their colleagues and for the general public, in the hopes that their findings will be used by others in the e-science and grid computing communities.

-Katie Yurkewicz, iSGTW