Symposium: Innovation in Tradition
Institut for Cultural Anthropology and European Ethnology Ethnologie at Georg-August-Universität Göttingen
Switzerland’s flagship computers for research now belong to “the most powerful computer in Europe” (CSCS Press release: March 2014). With the recent upgrade of their supercomputer ‘Piz Daint’ in March 2014, the ‘Swiss National Supercomputing Centre’ in Lugano has finally broken the petaflop barrier, the highest level of performance a computer of this kind can reach today. These High-Performance Computers can predict weather forecasts and run simulations for complex molecules or chemical reactions. It is a work field where experimenting with physical, material, technical and operational limits of computing systems and applications form a significant feature of the daily work routine.
My talk aims to give insights in this work environment and its stories of innovation and tradition. Drawing on my ethnographic research in the ‘Swiss National Supercomputing Centre’ in Lugano, I examine how computational scientists, hardware manufacturers, system engineers, and technicians from the field of ‘High-Performance Computing’ explore and discuss in their daily work the technical, material, organizational and cultural limits of computing.
I argue that tracking the everyday practices and knowledge forms that shape the daily work with ‘High Performance Computing’ in facilities like the ‘Swiss National Supercomputing Centre’, can contribute to studies of innovation by highlighting not only how innovation is apprehended in a highly digital environment, but also how this cluster of computer experts (trans-)form and challenge today’s digital materialities, cultures, practices, norms and visions at the beginning of the 21st century.