Weather (Reporting) Infrastructure

An exceptional case is emerging in the US about weather reporting infrastructure. Today (July 4), according to a New York Times article:

The announcement on Monday that the Weather Channel Companies, owners of television’s Weather Channel and, would buy one of its rivals, Weather Underground, set off howls of displeasure on social media platforms and around water coolers across the nation. The purchase price was not disclosed.


Part of the controversy is about scientific versus non-scientific reporting of the news. The Weather Channel (TWC) is reportedly too personality driven and, in some conceivable way, benefits from odd reporting that over-reports the potential for (typically bad) weather, leaving its viewers in a situation where everyday has a chance of rain. Many, many news stations do exactly this — rather than report “clear skys”, they attempt to “keep watchers poised for the potential for weather” — obviously, as a way to keep people glued to the station. This, in STS, is referred to as “rhetoric” in scientific accounting; Latour and Woolgar write about this a bit where all the seeming “persuasion” interupts a true scientific account where the data speak for themselves.


In contrast, Weather Underground (WU) is more plain, and reveals details about its underlying data. This is a nice example of a different kind of “social” being pulled into scientific reporting — the less social it seems, the more social it is (as Latour and Woolgar told us years ago in Lab Life).

The controversy illustrates the deep national divide between those people who just want to know if it’s going to rain, and people who really, really, care about the data underlying the weather. Christopher Maxwell, a manager at a solar energy company in Richmond, Va., is in the really-really-cares-about-the-weather camp. He said he saw the Weather Channel deal as a sad sellout for Weather Underground.

“It seems to happen all the time,” he said. “Something great gets invented and sold in the United States, and it gets bought up and destroyed.”

This scientific versus non-scientific case about weather reporting infrastructure is a neat one because of the reversal it affords in understanding how “social” infrastructure can be (and how this happens). Additionally, the idea of “buying up” infrastructure might be an economic facet of infrastructure studies that seems only occasionally present in the STS literature.

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