Wershler, Emerson, and Parikka: The Lab Book
University of Maryland Baltimore County
Citation: Shewbridge, Bill. “Wershler, Emerson, and Parikka: The Lab Book.” Hyperrhiz: New Media Cultures, no. 26, 2023. doi:10.20415/hyp/026.r02
Keywords: hybrid media, humanities labs, infrastructure, agential relations, practice.
Wershler, Darren, Lori Emerson and Jussi Parikka. The Lab Book: Situated Practices in Media Studies. University of Minnesota Press, 2022.
The Lab Book presents a model for considering the broad work undertaken in hybrid media and humanities labs, primarily in university contexts. This is an ambitious goal. Labs are almost by definition messy places where tools meet talent and failure is an option. “Everything is a lab,” the book proclaims (1). The book is potentially useful in giving those who work in hybrid lab environments a framework for thinking about their missions holistically while gaining a deeper understanding of the historical underpinnings of their work.
Hybrid lab spaces are proliferating in academic environments outside of science and engineering. These include media labs, hacker zones, tech incubators and innovation centers. Each is a unique enterprise customized for meeting specific goals and may bear only a slight resemblance to the archetypical scientific lab. These labs tend to be transdisciplinary in nature, and as such should not be thought of as “entirely disciplined” (240).
The Lab Book considers these spaces and their role in institutions as places of knowledge creation. The authors offer a model of the extended laboratory, a heuristic by which researchers can consider multiple aspects of their unique lab environments and how these aspects work together. The six elements of this model - space, apparatus, infrastructure, people, imaginaries, lab techniques - are considered individually in separate chapters of the book. The interrelationships of these elements are also discussed throughout the book, such as the interplay of space and apparatus, as well as infrastructure and people.
The authors draw on their collective background in media archeology in their selection of the numerous historical case studies, with examples representing a mixture of industrial, scientific and academic contexts. The authors cover an impressive range, including such icons of laboratory research as Edison’s Menlo Park, Bell Labs and the MIT Media Lab. They also explore lesser known examples drawn from facilities focused on humanities research, including the ACTLab at the University of Texas Austin and the Media Archeology Lab at University of Colorado Boulder. Recognizing that any given lab will articulate the elements of the extended lab model differently, the analysis of case studies varies in the extent to which the various elements are emphasized.
1. Lab Space
The first element of the extended laboratory model focuses on the question of what delineates lab space. This is especially relevant when considering the proliferation of virtual labs. What is inside and outside the lab in these contexts? A lab is a lab because of what takes place there, in particular the techniques of science. If these activities take place in a space where other activities are ongoing, can that space still be considered a lab? These questions are explored through an examination of historical narratives of lab space, beginning with medieval apothecaries and Benedictine monasteries. Three case studies, Edison’s Menlo Park Laboratory, the MIT Media Lab and the Media Archaeological Fundus (Humboldt University, Germany), also explore lab space in a historical context.
The physical layout of a lab is critical in determining the interactions of its workers. The Cube at MIT was designed as “flexible office space” with glass-walled offices and a large central open area. This forced people to consider their work as a collaborative exercise. “Power and privilege are embedded in and live on in the very space and infrastructure of the lab” (71). Interestingly, the most open and communal space at MIT, as it was at Menlo Park, is the machine and wood shops, which are always open to students who are encouraged to “make anything.”
2. Lab Apparatus
All elements of the extended lab model are deeply related, and a consideration of apparatus is entangled with space. The authors consider labs in terms of the technological equipment they contain. “Lab apparatus produces agential relations between humans and nonhumans” (78). The chapter focuses largely on media archeology labs as hybrid spaces. These labs represent material dictionaries that are historically analogous to research and teaching collections. They allow for the manipulation of objects as part of the “productive power of institutions” (16).
Media archeology is characterized as a space where the “obsolete” lives on, and hybrid labs are emerging as sites for collecting vintage media, primarily for academic use. The Media Archaeological Fundus (MAF) and Signal Lab at Humboldt University in Germany are discussed as an example of a media device collection that goes beyond providing access to new technologies. “Old media” collections of early digital and pre-digital apparatus contextualize the term digital. The authors consider such collections as “an antidote to any narrow understanding of the digital humanities” (106). As Frederich Schlegel wrote “The historian is a prophet looking backwards” (Wulf, 157). Understanding the evolution of technologies enriches the understanding of possible futures.
3. Lab Infrastructure
Infrastructure defines relations among labs, people and everything else, yet its transparent nature makes infrastructure largely invisible until it is needed. This chapter examines the policies that support the production of labs and their infrastructures. Labs are always built on top of something else, leading to a need to analyze institutions themselves when considering infrastructure. Looking at how the relationships between labs and institutions change over time is helpful in revealing their historical development and their future trajectory.
Two case studies explore these relationships between labs and institutions in the early 20th century: the Home Economics Food Lab at the University of Manitoba, and the Tuskegee Institute’s Jesup Wagon. The chapter also considers university lab policy and infrastructure as two different approaches to knowledge production. Reports from the Rockefeller Foundation on the importance of studio-labs and Crow and Bozman’s study of strategic interventions in university R&D labs are discussed in terms of policy and infrastructure.
4. Lab People
The human element and management techniques of labs over time are focused on in this chapter, returning to the examples of Menlo Park and the MIT Media Lab. People are a product as well as producers of labs. They are trained and refined through their interaction with the lab. In their discussion of the impact of “great man” narratives on the wider context of knowledge workers, the authors acknowledge the paradox of the lab worker who become so closely associated with a lab’s infrastructure that they are all but erased when credit is assigned, an erasure ironically due to their own technical proficiency. The current trend of hyperbolic discourse and manipulating scientific statements for political purposes, particularly by the right, is also discussed in the context of Bruno Latour’s “Why Has Critique Run Out of Steam?”
The University of Texas at Austin’s ACTLab is presented as an example of a space centered on experimental media arts where radical pedagogical ideas are adapted into institutionally accepted forms. “Where the MIT Media Lab nested a corporate mind-set inside a veil of creativity, the ACTLab used a corporate veneer as a shield that allowed the non-utilitarian and the non-profit-minded to flourish within its spaces” (178). Hybrid labs are places where “the gray work of institutional mediation means that funding can support research and activities that intentionally push against traditional boundaries” (185).
5. Lab Imaginaries
The imaginaries element of the extended lab model considers the fantasies and beliefs about historical laboratories alongside the idea of the laboratory as a place where the imagined is made real. Hybrid labs are speculative spaces that go beyond knowledge creation to be “places of recreation, imagination and activism” (189).
The chapter presents an interesting exploration of the parapsychology experimentation undertaken in the 1940s by Thomas Glendenning Hamilton of the University of Manitoba. This is paired with a more mainstream mid-twentieth century example, Bell Labs. Lab president Mervin Kelly characterized Bell Labs as “an institute of creative technology” where workers were paid for their imaginative abilities. Arthur C. Clarke observed Bell Labs represented “a factory of ideas” (205).
The collection of vintage equipment in the research collections of teaching labs is also discussed for their pedagogical value in introducing fundamentals of lab techniques at low risk or cost.
6. Lab Techniques
In hybrid labs, space, apparatus, infrastructure, people, and imaginaries are bound together through technique. The authors cite Johnathan Sterne as writing that technique “connotes a connection among practice, technology, and instrumental reason: it is a form of ‘reasoned production,’ ‘a way of revealing,’ a ‘means with a set of rules for the game’” (22). Technique is connected with rationality, and brings mechanics to bear on spontaneity.
The authors point to 3D printing as being a microcosm of the hybrid lab. 3D printing embodies common elements of the extended lab model, involving apparatus, infrastructure and imaginaries. Ideas are shared through code (STL). The printer itself is a lab apparatus requiring a complex infrastructure supply chain. The collective situations created in 3D printing “bind people into temporary affiliations around projects that bind people into temporary affiliations around projects” (216).
Once again, the authors turn to the Bell Labs example in exploring the relationship of collaboration and technique, where DIY becomes DIWO (do it with others). Experimenting, testing and failure are all part of the hybrid lab’s mission of probing what is possible. The shared lab environment makes documenting, observing, collecting, testing and reporting possible. Tom Hartnett’s consensus-oriented decision making process is offered as a template for collective thinking and resolution.
The authors also consider the “living lab model,” emphasizing community engagement and interaction with neighborhoods and individuals to be particularly important in hybrid labs. Living labs allow for an iterative process where community partners can join in evaluating prototypes and influencing future development.
The Lab Book concludes that hybrid labs are places of interdisciplinary translation, where the disciplinary language of one community is translated into that of another. The authors note that such translation requires breaking down, regrouping and reordering concepts, citing Thomas Kuhn’s perspective that “new practices do not so much flow directly from technologies that inspire them as they are improvised out of old practices that no longer work in new settings” (248). Those who work in hybrid lab environments, whether virtual or physical, will recognize the spirit of “creative misuse” in this statement and in much of this book. We build on what came before, but in ways that can’t be foreseen. As the authors conclude, the project of translation is always ongoing.
Wulf, Andrea. Magnificent Rebels: The First Romantics and the Invention of the Self. Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, 2022.
- Humboldt University, founded by brothers Wilhelm and Alexander von Humbolt in 1809 is a fitting place for hybrid lab work. The brothers were closely associated with the early German romantics who recognized the interrelationship of the sciences and the arts. Their contemporary Novalis wrote “Laboratories will be temples” where science, poetry and art will be as one. (Wulf)