This study examines people’s interfacial experiences with a tracing infrastructure called the ‘Electronic Entry Register’ (EER) devised by the South Korean government during the COVID-19 pandemic. The objective here is to explore the ensuing ‘infrastructural change’ (Star and Ruhleder, 1996, p. 113) and chart how the experience of surveillance transformed in the process at the sites of the ‘interface’ as the citizens of Seoul engaged with the tracing system. To this end, this paper turns to critical infrastructure studies refracted through the lens of science and technology studies (STS) and interface studies.

The EER, like many other digital tracing systems, invented worldwide during the pandemic (e.g. Alipay Health Code in China, NHS COVID-19 in the UK, and TraceTogether in Singapore), traced citizens’ movements by producing digital data about their spatiotemporal locations. Although the tracing system could be regarded as a preventive measure that uses digital technology, this study deliberately defines it as digital infrastructure to investigate the ‘boundary blurring’ that occurs in ‘both the hard and soft forms of infrastructure’ (Steele et al., 2017, p. 75). This study also explores the process of digital-technology-mediated ‘infrastructuring’ (Blok et al., 2016; Donovan, 2015) via a case study. To this end, this study closely attends to evolving sociotechnical relations at the ‘interface’ sites to examine how people’s diverse ways of engaging with it led to infrastructural change and different derivatives of surveillance.

As broadly defined by Larkin (2013), infrastructures are ‘matter that enables movement of other matter’, and their peculiar ontology lies in that they are ‘things and also the relation between things’, in which the relation becomes ‘the grounds on which other objects operate…as systems’ (p. 329). When the relation between things shifts, the grounds (or the systems) upon which the objects operate also change. In this line of thinking, what makes the tracing system distinctive and interesting as a case to study infrastructure is that the objects (the mobile bodies) that circulate in space embody the ‘mediating technologies’ (Furlong, 2011)—i.e. the smart devices such as the smartphones—that create relations and ‘bring an unforeseen malleability to networked infrastructure’ (Furlong, 2011, p. 461). This is why this study attends to the physicality and sociality of the interface, which retains the latent capacity to decide the ‘when’ of infrastructure, which Star and Ruhleder (1996) underlined to be its critical nature.

The constituent place that interface takes in the design of this particular infrastructure is critical also because it conspicuously becomes the site whereby the ‘substrate becomes substance’ (Star and Ruhleder, 1996, p. 113), making the layer that ‘sinks into an invisible background’ (p. 112), visible. Indeed, whereas infrastructure is largely considered ‘invisible’ (Graham, 2010), meaning the state of lying beneath the surface of what is visible in our everyday life, the interface of everyday smart devices used for setting up the EER was visibly displayed at the entrances of urban venues to collect citizens’ personal data in exchange for access to these urban venues. Such physicality and interactivity brought the ‘experience of infrastructure’ (Dourish and Bell, 2007) above the surface for the users.

To interrogate these technological mediation sites for surveillance production, this paper focused on the role of users (Furlong, 2011) at everyday urban sites in the city of Seoul during the pandemic. The aim was to probe how their interactions and spatial engagements continually changed by modifying and adjusting relations at the sites of the ‘interface’, bringing significant infrastructural changes as results, and how their lived experiences of surveillance also shifted along with these changes. To this end, a sequence of field research comprising walking interviews, observations, and sit-in interviews was conducted with 11 research participants in various urban sites in Seoul. It studied how the citizens’ interactions and practices as ‘a set of micro-struggles’ (Coutard and Guy, 2007, p. 717) at these sites materially changed the shape of digital infrastructure.

Indeed, the citizens’ actions accounted for the sustenance of the tracing infrastructure as, by linking their actions to the infrastructure using their smartphones, they continually generated digital data (the quick response (QR) codes) on the move. On the other hand, as empirical evidence show, their changing modes of interactions did not lead to any perceivable infrastructure ‘failure’ or ‘malfunction’(moment of disruption), which infrastructure literature often highlights as the moment infrastructure finally becomes visible (Star, 1999; Graham and Marvin, 2001; Graham, 2010; Star and Ruhleder, 1996). Contrary to the assumption often taken for granted in the literature ‘that regard[s] everything that does not appear to conform as failed’ (Guma, 2020, p. 729), the EER proceeded to be used through these transformations, displaying ‘the very nature of infrastructure as inherently transitory’ (p. 734) and particularly flagging the need to attend to the emergent capacities of the digital interface as ‘an autonomous zone of interaction’ (Galloway, 2012, p. 120).

The following is a brief explanation of the workings of the EER. Upon arrival at an urban venue, citizens were required to log in to one of the designated mobile apps on their smartphones to generate the QR codes. The QR codes contained a hyperlink to where the citizens’ mobile phone numbers were stored on the platform companies’ servers. After the QR code had been scanned onto the designated screen, the time-of-entry data were instantly produced and sent to the Social Security Information Service (SSIS), along with the QR code. When the need for tracing arose, the Disease Control and Prevention Agency requested that the SSIS generate personal information by compiling data on the time of entry and mobile phone numbers (by retrieving them from the servers of the platform companies using QR codes).

Using Seoul as the geographic scope of the research can indicate a lifestyle with a high level of sociotechnical potency even among the many countries (e.g. China, UK, France, Israel, Qatar, and Singapore) that adopted the QR code technology to track citizens’ movements during the COVID-19 pandemic. This is because, of the 27 advanced economies studied by Pew Research (Taylor and Silver, 2019), South Korea ranked first in the proportion of its adult population (aged 18 years and above) owning a smartphone. Statistically, nearly 100% of the South Korean adult population owned a mobile phone (95% of which owned a smartphone and 5% owned a non-smartphone mobile phone) as of 2019. In this regard, this case study is significant in its examination of how digital infrastructure is altered, modified, and revised at the sites of contestation and creative appropriation, that is interface sites, highlighting the significance of considering the ‘contingency of technological change’ (Coutard and Guy, 2007, p. 714) incurred at these boundaries of action.

The remainder of this paper is organised as follows. First, it considers the critical infrastructure literature influenced by STS and outlines its theoretical and analytical affordances in studying the EER. Second, the research design and methods are explained. Third, the findings are discussed using the themes of ‘evolving interface’, ‘collapse of linearity’, and ‘cohabiting citizenship’. The conclusion delineates the theoretical implications of this study and suggests future research agenda for studying digital infrastructure.

Interface as a site of infrastructural change

Existing scholarship in digitally mediated surveillance dominantly takes neo-Foucauldian perspectives and places weight on the top-down gaze, emphasising the modes of measuring, predicting, and regulating the bodies (Leclercq-Vandelannoitte and Aroles, 2020, p. 751; Kennedy, 2018). This study does not refute that the related surveillance concepts present analytical capacities to explain the mechanisms of tracing bodies during the pandemic: the concept of ‘lateral surveillance’ highlights the emulation and amplification of the top-down gaze through ‘responsibilisation’ (Andrejevic, 2004, p. 479); ‘self-vigilance’ (Koskela, 2003) depicts the ubiquitous existence of cameras fusing urban space and digital databases; and ‘platform surveillance’ (Wood and Monahan, 2019) reveals the dynamics of using existing platforms to track bodies as it was the case in South Korea, China and the US during the pandemic.

Indeed, many recent studies on the tracing infrastructures invented worldwide to combat the COVID-19 pandemic do not diverge from this mainstream discourse of surveillance (Yang, 2022; Kim, 2021; Shin, 2021; Eck and Hatz, 2020; Kitchin, 2020; Sonn and Lee, 2020; Duke, 2021; Lemos et al., 2022; Das and Zhang, 2021). Particularly, studies on South Korea’s COVID-19 tracking technologies and governance primarily engage with literature with the following three focuses: (1) the most popular narratives attributing the success of South Korean digital contact tracing to its collectivist culture (Ko, 2020; Sonn, 2020; Kang, 2020; Murphy, 2020) or its advanced network and data infrastructures (Kim, 2021; Sonn et al., 2020; Sonn and Lee, 2020; Kim and Yoon, 2020; Kang, 2020; Kim and Ashihara, 2020); (2) critique of surveillance with concerns around privacy protection and the manifestations of a control society (Oh et al., 2020; Park et al., 2020; Ryan, 2020; Baca, 2020); and (3) the tracing system discussed as symptomatic of biopolitical power dynamics taking a spatialised (e.g. governing through immobility) and networked character (e.g. use of mobile apps) (Shin, 2021; Yang, 2022; Kim et al., 2021).

These analyses are timely and important, but they project only a partial picture of the social phenomenon, by emphasising the unidirectional power dynamics engineered through digital technologies and neglecting the diversity of agential capacities affected by the multiple modalities present in the digital infrastructure to reorganise and recalibrate the experience of surveillance over time. Research studies such as Liu and Graham (2021) highlight this gap. The authors conceptualise algorithms as sociotechnical assemblages to ground their case study on people’s perceptions of the tracing system in China, and to reveal their co-constitutive roles in the material production of surveillance. Delineating technological operation as ‘intrinsically entangled with individuals engaging with it’, the authors suggest how people become the ‘constituent part of the algorithm itself’ (2).

This paper extends this dialogue by more closely focusing on how the surveillance infrastructure actually materialised differently. Moving away from the emphasis on the dominant structure laid out by the system designers and government officials, but focusing on the continuous infrastructural reconfiguration through embodied practices, this study conceptualises the EER as ‘both relational and ecological’ (Star, 1999, p. 377); as ‘something that emerges for people in practice’(Star and Ruhleder, 1996, p. 112). By doing this, this study aims to capture the moments at which digital infrastructures ‘grow and change’ (Jackson et al., 2007, para. 4) and reveal the diverse ways through which they can be reproduced.

Drawing heavily on the analytical constructs of STS and emphasising the significance of elements and their ‘relation to one another’ (Law, 2008, p. 631, emphasis in the original), critical infrastructure studies call for the ‘deeply contingent nature of the process of appropriation’ (Coutard and Guy, 2007) in technology to be highlighted. In this way, the STS perspective can help illuminate the sites of alternative power relations in the process of this infrastructuring, other than the ‘kind of stifling conjunctions a control society ordains’ (Munster, 2006, p. 37). In this vein, to consider ‘how configurations of infrastructure are reshaped by users in ways that are not always anticipated by their suppliers, producers, regulators, or developers’ (Graham and Marvin, 2022, p. 173), means interrogating how the users are otherwise productively embedded in the infrastructure to mutually form the technological system. They do this through their experiences of ‘infrastructured space’, the analytical site Dourish and Bell (2007) underline, as they make their ways through it, compromising and transforming the physical and spatial structures imposed upon them.

As Parks (2015) argues, the term infrastructure highlights the significance of materiality and physicality, thus ‘challeng[ing] us to consider the specific locations, installations, hardware, and processes’ (p. 356). In this vein, the proposed analytical approach of ‘infrastructural inversion’ by Bowker (1995) means interrogating particular technological arrangements for the purpose of revealing the infrastructural work (Bowker and Star, 1999). This also means ‘choosing and delimiting research sites where infrastructuring happens’ (Blok et al., 2016, p. 11) to bring a renewed focus on a particular site within the vast possibilities of infrastructural scales and pursue a more nuanced understanding of infrastructure. Inspired by this methodological consideration, this paper attends to the conceptual and analytical potentials that the ‘interface’ site offers, as ‘blurred boundaries’ (Steele et al., 2017): between the hard and soft forms, private and public arenas, and human and nonhuman actors.

Interface, the strategic analytical focus of this study, is broadly defined as ‘where the agencies of hardwares, softwares and humans meet to create a temporary entity’ (Rose, 2016, p. 346) and establish particular ‘crystallisations of institutional relations’ (Dourish and Bell, 2007, p. 3). In this study, the consideration of interface was not conceptually and analytically confined to the forms of digital screens facilitating user interaction—i.e. the so-called user interface (UI). Rather, it broadly encompassed any kinds of physical and spatial arrangements the users touched and engaged with during their data production activities in situ (e.g. use of a wristlet to replace repetitive QR code scan).

In this way, the interface is conceptualised as a ‘process, rather than objects’ (Verhoeff, 2017, p. 305). According to Galloway, ‘[a]n interface is not a thing, an interface is always an effect. It is always a process or a translation’ (Galloway, 2008, p. 939): it is inherently ‘an autonomous zone of interaction’ (Galloway, 2012, p. 120). ‘The interface effect’ (Galloway, 2012) is produced when the interface, as a non-neutral process, mediates our interactions with the world, to become an integral process of shaping the ways in which we understand and perceive our experiences. This implies broader cultural and political ramifications.

It is important to highlight that, among other kinds of interfaces, the digital screens of individual smart devices have a high capacity to effectively intervene as ‘mediating technologies’—defined as ‘small devices that can be added to an infrastructural network with the intention of modifying its performance’ (Furlong, 2011, p. 460)—to enrol everyday users’ involvement into the infrastructure and become the site of alternative expression by ‘the agency of the people using it’ (Rose, 2016, p. 341).

The significance of ‘epistemological and political commitments involved in selecting’ (Larkin, 2013, p. 330) this particular infrastructural site is also that it can invite ‘a less pessimistic view of the relationship’ (Furlong, 2011, p. 466). Studying the particular ways people ‘micro-struggle’ (Coutard and Guy, 2007, p. 717) at the sites of the interface can open up a terrain of better understanding infrastructure with possible ‘cracks’ emerging through situated practices and strategies. This is particularly important for studying infrastructural phenomena that involve digital technologies, as it can embrace into its equation the increasing digital skills and knowledge of ordinary users. The following section informs the method this study employed to reflect these theoretical concerns.


To investigate how the EER as digital infrastructure was experienced and altered, the practices of data-producing citizens and their spatial engagements were analysed in everyday urban sites across Seoul. Methodological procedures from grounded theory, as suggested by Corbin and Strauss (2008), were employed to design the field research and analyses. The proposed analytical tool, the ‘coding paradigm’, with its processual categorisations—core phenomenon, causal conditions, contextual conditions, intervening conditions, actions/interactions, and consequences—was particularly useful in this study. Specifically, it was instrumental in ensuring systematic examinations when dealing with diverse spatial arrangements, unpredictable movements of people, and unforeseen incidents across a wide range of urban sites, including cafés, a warehouse, a community centre, department stores, and a reading room (see Supplementary Fig. S1 for explanations on how the coding paradigm was integrated into the fieldwork).

To recruit research participants, the study adopted ‘theoretical sampling’, a purposeful sampling method involving alternating data collection and analysis to gather data ‘based on evolving concepts’ to ensure ‘density’ (Corbin and Strauss, 2008, p. 116, 112–113). The analysis began after completing the first fieldwork so that the researcher could identify relevant concepts and emerging questions early on and return to the field to gather additional data selectively. This approach was useful for avoiding redundancy in data collection and minimising health and safety risks during the pandemic.

To begin recruitment, the study used the three groups of citizens identified in a previous study conducted for the author’s PhD dissertation: citizens who had little difficulty using the EER (A), citizens who found it difficult to use the EER (B), and citizens who attempted to avoid using the EER (C). Four recruitment rounds were conducted before reaching density, resulting in 11 research participants. The anonymity of the participants was protected by assigning aliases, and appropriate rewards were provided for participating.

Each fieldwork session was undertaken in three sequential steps: (1) walking interviews, (2) observations, and (3) sit-in interviews. The researcher and the participant conversed as they walked together for 10–15 min toward an EER site the participant chose within the radius of their everyday life (Fig. 1). As ‘data generated through walking interviews are profoundly informed by the landscapes in which they take place’ (Evans and Jones, 2011, p. 849), this approach was effective in quickly grasping the participants’ mobile life in the city and in contextualising the EER within their everyday social activities. As a rapport-building phase, the researcher asked questions such as how participants used their smartphone every day, how they felt about the tool, and how they learned to generate the QR code for the EER (see Supplementary Table S2 for details on interview questions).

Fig. 1: Fieldwork locations.
figure 1

Neighbourhoods in the city of Seoul where fieldwork sessions were conducted.

Upon arrival at an EER site, the participants underwent a series of operations with their smartphones to produce the QR code and scan it onto the designated screen. Although complicated, the duration of the operation mostly lasted less than one minute. Therefore, the researcher video-recorded the participant’s performance and the spatial organisation at the site. The documented video was examined multiple times to delineate the bodily movements and the spatial organisations of the urban venue (see Supplementary Table S3 for observation inquiries).

After the operation, a sit-in interview took place where the participant was asked to reflect on their experience (see Supplementary Table S4 for details on interview questions). After the recorded interviews were transcribed, the researcher used the NVivo software to analyse the texts. The coding process resulted in 10 final codes with 37 child codes (see Supplementary Table S5): (1) prosthetic-ness, (2) relationship with the QR code, (3) discipline and/or control, (4) posthuman citizens, (5) spatial perceptions, (6) digital technology, (7) urban life with smartphones, (8) mobile bodies, (9) sociality, and (10) networked-ness.

The empirical evidence collected across the city casts a light on how the site of interface enroled the users to appropriate, deflect, adjust, and modify their engagements to alter the shape of infrastructure, its spatial manifestations, and the meanings of being traced. The themes addressed in the following sections are by no means exhaustive of the different shapes of ‘infrastructural change’ (Star and Ruhleder, 1996, p. 113) that may transpire at the sites of the interface. However, they are significant because they demonstrate the situational criticality of the interface in driving these changes and the extent to which cultural manifestations of surveillance transformed through these ongoing interactivities.

Evolving interface

At the EER sites across the city, digital interfaces were created by any combination of smart devices (e.g. smartphone, tablet PC, and laptop), software, and mobile apps (the official EER mobile app for the designated screen, and a range of commercial mobile apps for the citizens to use for generating the QR codes). When using everyday technologies, the exact ways in which these components were combined and spatially positioned in situ were at the users’ discretion to a considerable extent. The diverse possibilities of ‘linking’ these components—the hardwares, softwares, and humans (Rose, 2016)—to create interfacial arrangements, and the resultant spatial organisations broadened the chances for ‘contingency of technological change’ (Coutard and Guy, 2007, p. 714).

A fieldwork session with Im, a 27-year-old gig worker, took place at a distribution centre in the south-eastern part of Seoul. After entering the distribution centre on the ground floor, we went downstairs and walked for more than 5 min to join other workers who had already checked in with their QR codes. Im walked fast toward a staff member of his team for the day, to have his QR code scanned by the staff member’s smartphone (Fig. 2). The smartphone held by the staff member moved along with him. Im explained that depending on who your subcontractor was for the day, the EER was organised differently.

[Pointing at an EER setting outside a door] oh, yes, but that is for Team M, so it doesn’t work for me. Like this, the subcontractors using this warehouse set up the EER differently.

Fig. 2: EER organisation at the distribution centre.
figure 2

Im virtually checked into the distribution centre more than 5 min after entering the space.

The interface of the EER was situated in different spots on the basement floor of the warehouse—in Im’s case, ‘in the hands’ of his employer for the day—and registered the mobile bodies at different parts of this enormous space. Against the technical and pathological meaning of having the QR code checked before entering an urban venue, the organisation of the tracing system was structurally deflected by the venue operators and subcontractors, according to their business arrangement needs, which were further reflected in the different spatial arrangements for the EER.

Along with the need for forming particular social relations (e.g. subcontracting arrangements) that required different ways of ‘linking’ these components, the mobile and prosthetic characteristics of the portable screens made the ‘urban screens’—with their spatial nuance of standing fixed at a particular spot in space (Verhoeff, 2017), like a kiosk—irrelevant. The initially imposed infrastructural arrangement deviated from and eluded the bounded connotations implicit in the initial formulation of the EER. The structural imagery of dividing, segmenting, and serialising (Foucault, 2020) the infected and uninfected bodies, was no longer so meaningful.

After the body temperature check, we were given stickers that stated that our temperatures were ‘36.5 °C on this Saturday’ (the day Im conducted his fieldwork), which we had to stick on our bodies where they would be ‘visible all day long’, as instructed by another staff member. Im explained: ‘With this, we don’t have to scan the QR code every time we come out and back into the building’. With the stickers stuck on the mobile bodies that had been cleared as having a normal temperature, these body parts became the interface, which was put on display all day long to indicate a safe body and could be ‘gazed’ by everyone in the venue. Although rudimentary, they replaced the official EER interface to a certain extent in this particular gig work environment, where newly registered anonymous bodies constantly moved in and out.

This study also witnessed the evolution of the EER interface into urban surfaces that better read human actions. For example, according to Jang, a 32-year-old designer, the commercial venue operators as ‘active infrastructurers’ (Donovan, 2015, p. 739) in the Gangnam neighbourhood—‘where businesses do well’—created urban surface arrangements that better recognised bodily movements.


I think it’s mostly in the Gangnam area, where businesses do well…as people use different devices with all different directions of screen faces, they [the businesses] have set up the scan [surfaces] in three dimensions. For example, as you can see, this Starbucks café here has its iPad out just like that. But they [businesses in Gangnam] have three screens; one straight on the table, one up there [in the air above the table], (with the gesture of moving her hand up and down to explain the perpendicular surface) and one like this. Then the customer can hold [the smartphone] this way, or that way, or even that way.


I see. So, people could more easily…they could have their bodies in any direction.


Yes, Correct.

Jang explained this after her several attempts to scan the QR code with her Apple Watch failed because the Apple Watch screen size was too small—the café staff supported this by saying that ‘the watch version with a 40 mm diameter tends to work better than the 38 mm one’. Jang also suggested that it may be because the watch’s angle could not easily align with the designated screen and attested that the screen setup in the restaurants in Gangnam instantly responded to the QR code on the Apple Watch from any angle.

These ‘strategies of coping and improvisation’ (Graham and Marvin, 2022, p. 173) deployed by the citizens of Seoul illustrated the extent of interactional and physical adjustments that users made over a period of little more than a year since the introduction of the EER. In effect, the improved three-dimensional urban surface made the citizens more competent data producers. In turn, the experience of surveillance ever so slightly changed through these processes as the mobile bodies tried to better link their bodily movements to and receive prompt responses from the urban screens: the experience of surveillance became infused with a mode of ‘collaborative corporeal conduct’. Indeed, Jang said that she had just recently purchased the wearable device to ‘do the QR code better’ with the more natural and ‘elegant’ movement of tapping her wrist to the designated screen.

Intrinsically, the divergences of spatial organisations and interfacial arrangements remained ‘incomplete’ (Guma, 2020, p. 729). Such situated interventions made by the users indicated that the mode of surveillance was constantly readjusted through their practices even within the dominant structure inherent in this digital infrastructure that traced their bodies. Although the modes of interfacial adjustments and modifications differed in the two vignettes—whether making it more visible by fixing it on one’s body or making it more interpretative of the bodily movements—it is clear that such alterations in these conjunctures of digital infrastructure reshaped the experience of surveillance.

Collapse of linearity

The imagery of spatial organisations at the EER sites as initially imposed by the government had mirrored the structural shape implicit in the concept of disciplinary space, which uses ‘a linear time…oriented towards a terminal…in terms of progress’ (Foucault, 2020, p. 160, original emphasis). Linear spatiality was intrinsic to the design of this surveillance infrastructure, as scanning the QR code onto the designated screen had to be conducted consecutively, often in a queue. To this end, the space of enclosure, where ‘separations should be clear and the openings well arranged’ (Foucault, 2020, p. 202), was fervently produced during the earlier periods of the EER adoption.

However, talking with the participants about their experiences of using the EER for the past 14 months (as in August 2021) revealed that such linear spatiality shifted its shape throughout the course of the pandemic. It was gradually largely abandoned, as the citizens of Seoul started to realise the material incongruence between the physicality of the space and the spontaneity intrinsic in digital technologies. Kim, a housewife aged 66, shared her observation that, in the earlier days, urban spaces were reorganised to make it easier to account for the flows of movements and to make the bodies more ‘visible’ by limiting the number of entrances or by using smaller entrances:

In the early days, when I went to the Hansalim [supermarket], I had to go through the back door and have my temperature measured there. They blocked the front door then. Now, it is all wide open (laughs).

Linear spatiality implicit in the organisation of the EER often contradicted with the flows and volumes of circulation in urban venues where ‘people moved in simultaneously from diverse angles’ as Yun, a 40-year-old consultant described it. Citizens who initially constructed the spatiality of unidirectional and focused gaze of surveillance, by limiting the number of entrances (e.g. using one entrance door) or by using smaller entrances (e.g. using the backdoor), increasingly dismissed the structural magnitude of this gaze in constructing the meaning of being traced.

In this vein, a spun-off system called the ‘080 Rest-assured-call’ was invented by a local government, the Gwangjin borough office of Seoul in early November 2020, fast spread across the country. It was initially devised to assist elderly citizens who found it difficult to generate the QR code on their smartphones: instead of generating a QR code, anyone entering a public facility could call a phone number starting with ‘080’ to register their mobile phone numbers and time of entry automatically. With its materialisation taking a liminal form (Guma, 2020), this emergent intervention bridged the more familiar act of making a phone call to that of generating data on digital screens.

Choi, aged 65, remarked that the shopping mall she chose for the field research had recently started to promote the ‘080 Rest-assured-call’ as an alternative to the EER, because it became difficult to manage the volumes of people coming in on foot and by car, especially during the weekend (Fig. 3, left image). She stated that ‘It is faster to call, and you don’t have to be facing the screen’. However, she acknowledged that this spun-off infrastructure largely prioritised speed over accuracy.

The gatekeepers tell you to park your car first, and then make the phone call as you go inside the shopping mall. But as we can all speculate, there must be people who just don’t call the number or those who forget to do it entirely.

Fig. 3: ‘080 Rest-Assured-Call’ numbers found at the corner of the table.
figure 3

Han and the researcher sat during the sit-in interview (right); Reference to the size of phone numbers put up at a carpark, Choi’s field site (left).

Despite this foreseeable flaw in the system, the ‘080 Rest-assured-call’ unexpectedly spread quickly to other local governments and private venues across the country and replaced the EER, ultimately ‘changing notions and experiences of time and space’ (Graham and Marvin, 2022, p. 172) that are entailed in surveillance through its ‘infrastructural change’ (Star and Ruhleder, 1996, p. 113). While the resultant data products remained the same (‘mobile phone numbers’ and ‘time of entry’), the users’ interaction with the device (one makes a phone call and hangs up) and spatial engagements (one walks inside while making a phone call) largely altered, transcending the structure of surveillance imposed by the EER. Jang assessed that it was an ‘advancement’ because this method required ‘no contact’ during a pandemic. This highlights the significance of the ‘materiality of the intervention’ (Donovan, 2015, p. 744), which, in this case, is the ‘absence of physical contact’.

Ahn, a 23-year-old university student, also witnessed that during his trip to the city of Busan, every venue he visited employed the ‘080 Rest-assured-call’ instead of the EER.

As Busan has many tourists, [when] stampingFootnote 1 the QR code, if not recognised, you have to stamp again, and so on, then you get a traffic jam. Just putting the numbers up on the wall, everyone can see it at once and do it at the same time, so the queue quickly moves forward.

Han (25) welcomed this innovation and called it an ‘improvement’, echoing Jang’s assent, because it greatly shortened the number of interactions. For her recent trip to a beach, all visitors were required to wear a waterproof wristlet as a marker on their bodies for others to see (similar to Im’s gig work environment) after making the ‘080 Rest-assured-call’, further deflecting the interfacial organisations and spatial relations in the tracing system. Another incidence of spatial alteration was evident at a café Han and the researcher visited for her sit-in interview. The 080 phone numbers were pasted at the corner on every table in the café (Fig. 3, right image). Han remarked: “(Laughs) all spots have it these days, it gets better.”

With this intervention, the initial spatial arrangements of urban screens that imposed ‘evolutive time’ (Foucault, 2020, p. 160) indeed became irrelevant. In favour of speed over precision of control, the distribution of technological modalities in the infrastructure became more ‘spatialised’ and finely dispersed than an installation of a smart screen that enforced an ambiguous boundary. Interestingly, the Disease Control and Prevention Agency did not interfere with this nationwide adoption of the phone call method as long as the collection of the two datasets continued. The government agency ultimately embraced the users’ developing needs and interactional preferences, to see the maturation of this digital infrastructure.

Such shifts in interfacial interactions are significant because ‘actions are not merely played out in space, but they serve to structure and organise that space’ (Dourish and Bell, 2007, p. 8, emphasis in the original). Despite its operation having to rely largely on individual citizen’s good will (because of not entailing a designated screen and boundary through which a person must pass), the local governments and citizens increasingly adopted this method as it speeded up the mobile progression within the tracing infrastructure. Such preferences and social needs for speed mutually reshaped the structure of surveillance and differently materialised spatial experience. These changes made by users at multiple nodes of infrastructural network brought about critical shifts not only in the digital infrastructure as ‘malleable’ (Furlong, 2011, p. 477), but also in the lived experience of surveillance.

Cohabiting citizenship

When you pass through the EER, you usually see a green light flickering. It makes me feel like that I have agreed to give [personal data], and come in. Checking in with a QR code is like signing a contract.

Ahn echoed many other participants’ perceptions of the EER as a contractual engagement, indicating shifts in the ‘infrastructural politics of agency and action’ (Graham and Marvin, 2022, p. 172). Rationally or even calculatedly engaging with it, the participants asserted that the main reason behind their continued efforts in generating the QR code, despite the nuisance, was to ‘remain in the circle of knowledge’ (Jang) or to be ‘in the know’ (Park). That is, they wanted to continue receiving timely health and safety information during the pandemic. This was because producing the QR code in the context of uncertainties pertaining to one’s everyday mobile life, was the only way to remain included in the digital infrastructure that dispensed information they could later find useful.

Such awareness and perception concerning their own constituent positions in the infrastructure as ‘simultaneously the informant, the informed, and the information’ (Michael and Lupton, 2016, p. 104), altered the meaning of being a surveilled body. In turn, urban spaces inhabited by oneself and fellow citizens who have checked in after generating the QR codes became laden with particular values: safer and protected. Their inhabitation was mostly transient; still, inhabiting the space together entailed a sense of acquiring insurance against possible adversities. Ahn further explained:

It feels like I have come into a safer space … Passing through the EER is like, putting on a safety mark as a person who has done one’s part in making the social promise. Because these people here have all checked in with their QR codes, if there is any outbreak, it’s like, ‘we will let each other know’. I will be contacted and can protect myself better. (Emphasis speaker’s own)

Choi expressed her sense of being positioned in this infrastructural network, stating:

These invisible things are all networked…and I feel I am part of it. It makes me feel that I am part of this social thing. Of course, I know this is all temporary, to do with quarantine during a pandemic, but still I feel these actions of ours protect each other.

According to Park, a 37-year-old employee at a pharmaceutical company, the people in the Starbucks we visited were ‘different’ from people walking outside because we became safer bodies through the process of the QR codification. He called our shared space an ‘inner circle’.

Inside, where I stamp this, and outside get completely separated. These people here take possession of this space. (Emphasis speaker’s own)

These bodies, by producing digital data, determined the ephemeral productions of social space as ‘safe’. As the ethnography of water infrastructure in Mumbai in Anand (2011) finds the production of ‘hydraulic citizenship’ to be a form of ‘belonging’ through the city’s water infrastructure, the EER engendered ‘cohabiting citizenship’ as a form of responsibly dwelling in the digitally produced safer public space, albeit temporarily. Arguably, the spatial component in the infrastructuring process mutually transformed the experience of surveillance, infusing it with the interiorised values of ‘safety’ and ‘protection’.

Furthermore, because smartphones as ‘mediating technology’ (Furlong, 2011) in this infrastructure are highly individualistic interventions, both conceptually and practically, the corporeal practice of using the smartphone to register oneself to an urban space strongly influenced the projected imagery of liberal citizenhood. In this way, the meaning of being a traced body changed, too. The ontological politics (Law, 2008) entailed in being a technologically capacitated mobile body to ‘possess’ (Park) a safer space, transformed the reality of surveillance from ‘being gazed by remote and invisible technologies’ to ‘co-producing momentary urban shelters’.

In this vein, simply regarding the digital tracing systems as engendering controlled citizenship (Bærenholdt, 2013: p. 30) or self-governance (Shin, 2021; Yang, 2022), risks forgoing the agential complexities emerging through the infrastructuring process. As a complementary approach, critical infrastructure studies with analytical merits borrowed from STS, can highlight ‘the process of socialisation…and…the mutual shaping of new technologies and their use(r)s’ (Coutard and Guy, 2007, p. 718, emphasis in the original). This paper argues that a critical site where such contingent relations can be found to drive changes in today’s digital infrastructure, is where the hardware, software, and humans meet: the interface. This contention is increasingly more relevant in contemporary urban environments, where mobile bodies carrying smart devices have the capacity to enact technological mediation modalities to a considerable extent.

As infrastructure becomes ‘in relation to organised practices’ (Star and Ruhleder, 1996, p. 113), the ‘micropolitical moment-to-moment shifts in capacities are not politics on a smaller scale’ (Bissell, 2016, p. 400). In this regard, the empirical evidence around the emergence of ‘cohabiting citizenship’ indicates that we need to foster our thinking of ‘people as infrastructure’ (Simone, 2021) and space as critical parts of infrastructural components (Dourish and Bell, 2007). This approach can help alleviate the risk of discussing materiality with ‘a certain assumption of static physicality’ as it too often happens in the literature (Donovan, 2015, p. 733). Not downplaying the role of users in making sense of and reappropriating infrastructural technologies in everyday contexts can open pathways to imagine other possibilities of urban organisations and deepen our understandings of political capacities inherent in the infrastructuring process.


This study examined the co-constitutive role of users in reshaping a tracing infrastructure formulated by the South Korean government during the COVID-19 pandemic. Highlighting the significance of ‘interface’ as the site of agential interactions that engender new relations, this paper illustrated the diverse ways in which the structural organisations of tracing infrastructure were continually reshaped and the resultant meanings of surveillance shifted.

A question emerges as to what this means to the future of urban infrastructure, which, expectedly, is to involve digital mediation increasingly. As the invention of the three-dimensional interface in Gangnam illustrates, infrastructure scholarship needs to bridge the gap between those who build and those who dwell (Sennett, 2018). This is particularly critical for confronting infrastructuring processes that increasingly involve digital technology, which by its nature, quickly interoperates and expands with new methods invented along the way. Furthermore, the latent capacities accumulated in this process—specifically, the productive capacities that users come to embody—can become a critical site of analysis, as they can be re-mobilised for any number of digital infrastructure formations. Such research on users’ latent digital capacities as an urban asset is another area of study that could enrich future digital infrastructure studies.

Considering digital infrastructure as ‘evolving’ can help to transcend the bounded connotations often assumed in the infrastructure imagination and to avoid granting infrastructure ‘more reality than the practices that constitute them’ (Braun, 2005, p. 840). As an acknowledgement of the limited geographic scope and context, this paper suggests further situated studies on digital infrastructure that critically investigate the possibilities of appropriations and alterations in diverse social contexts. This could assist to generate empirical evidence that casts much-needed light on the realities of infrastructural change and project the potential consequences it may present to the shapes of urban life in years to come.