Introduction: Seda Gürses

Seda Gürses is an Associate Professor in the Department of Multi-Actor Systems at TU Delft at the Faculty of Technology Policy and Management, a member of The Institute for Technology in the Public Interest and an affiliate at the COSIC Group at the Department of Electrical Engineering (ESAT), KU Leuven. Beyond her academic work, she collaborated with artistic initiatives including Constant vzw, Bootlab, De-center, ESC in Brussels, Graz and Berlin. She is currently part of The Institute for Technology in the Public Interest3, a trans-practice gathering of activists, artists, engineers and theorists initiated by Myriam Aouragh, Helen Pritchard, Femke Snelting and herself.

Seda Gürses' work on programmable infrastructures, developed in collaboration with Martha Poon and Roel Dobbe, provides us with handles to study computational infrastructures.1 Also her work on protective optimization technologies2, which she co-wrote together with Bogdan Lulynych, Rebekah Overdorf and Carmela Troncoso, closely connects to the technological interventions that we are trying to imagine in this module.

Gürses (et al.) proposes forms of intervention-based optimization practices in the form of POTs: protective optimization techniques. The paper critically enquires current optimization approaches, the interests that feed their design and the way in which they displace their societal impact onto the shoulders of other parties and individuals. A POT is introduced as follows:

POTs provide means for affected parties to address the negative impacts of systems in the environment, expanding avenues for political contestation. POTs intervene from outside the system, do not require service providers to cooperate, and can serve to correct, shift, or expose harms that systems impose on populations and their environments. (2020, 1)

The work departs from a thorough consideration of multiple forms of harm caused by computational infrastructures framed as externalities4. Examples of such externalities include lack of privacy, discrimination, low wages and surveillance. How a POT might engage with them is then illustrated through a range of activist, artistic and deployed examples of repurposed optimization technologies. Following Michael A. Jackson’s theory of requirements engineering, it proposes to approach computational infrastructures as being far more than a technological system alone, thus shifting focus from the system itself to the economical, political and social context in which it operates.

We will introduce the work of Gürses and dive with her into the following questions:

  • What are computational infrastructures?
  • What are elements that shape (or are shaped by) computational infrastructures?
  • How can we understand the harm caused by computational infrastructures and the systems which deploy them?
  • What interventions are possible to mitigate or eliminate this harm?
  • What kind of limitations do you see in the realisation of these interventions?


  1. Seda Gürses, Roel Dobbe, Martha Poon "Seminar on Programmable Infrastructures" (2020) 

  2. Bogdan Lulynych, Rebekah Overdorf, Carmela Troncoso, Seda Gürses "POTs: Protective Optimization Technologies" (2020) 

  3. Miriyam Aouragh, Seda Gürses, Femke Snelting, Helen Pritchard "The Institute for Technology in the Public Interest" (accessed on 2020) 

  4. Externalities is one of the concepts and phrases in the paper that are borrowed from software and requirements engineering, and from economics and social sciences.