Post local forms of repair: The (extended) situation of virtualised technical support
We address the seemingly implausible project of moving the technical support of complex organisational technologies online. We say ‘implausible’ because from the point of view of micro-sociological analysis and the influential work of Julian Orr (1996) there is a consensus that the diagnosis and resolution of technical failures is an intrinsically ‘localised affair’ (i.e., rooted within a specific place and time). Notwithstanding this view, technology producers have been pushing in the recent period to develop online forms of support. Today, and particularly in the area of organisational software, many technical failures are now repaired at a distance. How is this possible given the consensus amongst sociologists? Drawing on ethnographic fieldwork conducted at a major software producer we show how repair work has been recast and inserted in a new geographical and temporal regime. This has implications for how sociologists of technology conceptualise the nature and practice of technical failure but also the time and situation in which it occurs. We attempt to refocus understandings of technical problems from a preoccupation with their rootedness onto how they are lifted out of local contexts and passed around globally distributed offices in search of requisite specialist expertise. Importantly, whilst virtualisation appears a seemingly effective means to resolve failures it also has negative consequences. Whereas in more traditional types of technical support place-based social relations are seen to bear the burden of controlling and regulating support, in online forms other means have to be found. Our conceptual aim is to move away from a view of repair revolving exclusively around the situation conceived of as a ‘small place’. Rather, since support work is increasingly ‘stretched out’ across a global network of labs connected up by technologies, it now takes place across an extended situation. We work up this notion first to highlight how aspects once seen as central to localist forms of analysis are no longer the only organising features as technical work moves online and second to demonstrate the various ways in which the locales for this work are now mediated by technology.