Inventive Infrastructure: An Exploration of Mobile Phone Repair Practices in Downtown Kampala, Uganda

Infrastructures of mobile telephony have grown rapidly across sub-Saharan Africa over the last fifteen years. Rather than focussing on the adoption and use of this ‘new’ technology, my research explores what happens when mobile handsets stop working. It is a detailed ethnographic study of the repair practices used by mobile phone repair technicians working in Kampala, Uganda’s capital city.

This field research illustrates how breakdown is a pervasive and fertile part of socio-technical arrangements rather than an exceptional occurrence. Repair is a vital response – not simply to fractured material connections – but to changed relations. Repair practices are attempts to get a device or a situation working again. They do so by making transformations and generating new connections and visibilities. Disassembled devices scattered across the workbenches of downtown Kampala provide a glimpse into the distributed networks of technology production, and the correspondingly extensive relations involved in repair. Moving outwards from the workbench, the research elaborates a range of connections that facilitate repair: from the material-semiotic imagining of device origins, to the building of collaborative hybrid networks with peers downtown, to the membership of transnational virtual communities online. It also addresses the competing ways manufacturers and repair tool developers control circulating phones.

The thesis argues that these connections should be understood as an inventive infrastructure of repair. A turn to infrastructure reorients questions around repairability from design decisions to socio-material relations that are geographically and imaginatively extensive. This infrastructure prompts the re- imagining of binaries such as global / local and centre / periphery that commonly structure discourses of technology and development. This ethnography adds to an emerging literature on ‘postcolonial computing’ (Philip et al., 2012) as a form of critique and an occasion for re-reading, where the study of ‘broken worlds’ (Jackson, 2014) prompts new insights not visible from elsewhere.