What is a humanities lab? How do we distinguish between a lab in the humanities and a lab in STEM--especially in various lab processes and factors that include "technicians, technologies, traditions, techniques, and trajectories"? In his review of Darren Wershler, Lori Emerson, and Jussi Parikka's book The Lab Book, Jason Lajoie outlines the ways in which labs and lab culture have expanded to make room for making.
Outside of the work of Michel Foucault or Bruno Latour, I can think of no contemporary book that is so consciously and refreshingly possessed with exploring the rhetoric, infrastructure, and techniques of labs rather than the history and impact of their innovative technologies. The Lab Book: Situated Practices in Media Studies by Darren Wershler, Lori Emerson, and Jussi Parikka aims to
provid[e] both a method and a model for thinking about labs in general (240) by exploring the qualities and characteristics of laboratory spaces, both traditional and unusual, from medieval monasteries to contemporary university media labs and Silicon Valley start-ups. Through a dozen case studies ranging from the well-known (MIT Media Lab) to the esoteric (The French-Language Lab at Middlebury College, Vermont circa 1928), the authors show how labs connect deliberate processes across a nebulous web of relations between technicians, technologies, traditions, techniques, and trajectories. Instead of the typical STEM lab, the authors focus mainly on the “multiple specifications for the composition and function of one particularly prevalent form of hybrid lab: the contemporary media and humanities lab, especially in the context of the university environment” (240). The book is as much about the history and rationale of these creative spaces as a critical account of their operations.
Organized by six overarching categories that function as the authors' heuristic for studying labs,
the extended lab model, these idiomatic and imbricated aspects that make up a lab include space, apparatus, infrastructure, people, imaginaries, and techniques. Within these categories the authors also explore topics like administration, infrastructure, and policies. Using this model, the authors trace the manifold permutations of what a lab can be, including recent manifestations as a trend (i.e. Design Labs for fashion companies), a style (breweries now operate Beer Labs, as compared to say, amateur workshops), and a mindset (signifying rigor and objectivity). The authors chart a brief
long spatial genealogy (59): surveying hybrid spaces that range from monasteries, to apothecaries, to Edison's Menlo Park—the prototype for Xerox PARC and every other Palo Alto carbon copy that share tenuous connections to these precedents—and the MIT Media Lab. By tracing the procedures of lab discourse—and discourse about the exceptionality of labs—the aim is to move this discourse beyond the control of commercialized institutional spaces and their privileged claims to knowledge. (See especially the authors' exploration of the MIT Media Lab,
which has, notably, also claimed to be the only legitimate user of the term 'media lab' (241).)
Despite any claims to completeness suggested by its specific determiner in its title, the authors make clear that The Lab Book is not intended as an authoritative summary of labs or lab culture. Part of the reasoning is that labs come in various styles and configurations:
[m]edia labs, hacker zones, makerspaces, humanities labs, fab labs, tech incubators, innovation centers, hacklabs, and media archaeology labs (1). With the rise of mobile personal computing, it is now possible to carry portable simulation devices with us everywhere capable of conducting lab experiments.
Everything is a lab (1) they explain. While this statement runs the risk of making the term so broad as to offer no qualification, starting a book like this with an assertion like that seems intended to clear the mind of pre-conceptions about what a lab should be so that the authors can get around to suggesting what a lab could be. To that end, the acknowledgements include a long list of collaborators from several institutions, including over 70 interview participants, with transcripts available on Manifold, all of which seem to circle around this question of what a lab is and what it exists to do.
The authors, each a director of a media lab located in either a North American and European university, begin by describing labs in general as spaces for creativity and creation. Labs function as
circulatory regimes, or systems, in which
people, objects, data, records, and even chunks of experiments constantly flow in and out as they are prepared, transformed, and tested (27). At their broadest, labs are configurations of power relations directed towards the production of knowledge (52). They need not be bounded by confines of space: examples in the book include virtual labs and even the
sky as lab (41). As the authors point out,
the historical narratives around lab space are often conflicted and dependent on the distinctions that scholars make, consciously or not, about what counts as legitimate practices for the production of knowledge (47). Labs are composed of interlocking infrastructures, including material, intellectual, cultural, and political spheres. They rely on power in these spheres to legitimize their claims on the production of knowledge. In this sense, labs are performative, their claims to knowledge coordinated through rhetoric and technique as much as through procedures. As the authors explain,
lab apparatus prepares knowledge because its mechanisms, arrangements, spaces, and situations define what counts as knowledge (59, original emphasis). This book therefore traces the way laboratories are responsible for and are complicit in the production of certain kinds of knowledge. The lab is both a process and product of social dynamics that produce new commands over knowledge and the very discourses constituting knowledge. This feed forward relationship allows labs to function as systems where culture is constructed and deconstructed. Through the rhetorical conglomeration of apparati, discourse, and techniques, lab operations
involv[e] the ability to make some kind of truth claim (25). This knowledge can be used for the benefit of the lab to justify its own existence, or by institutions to shore up their capitalist hegemony. Lab culture is therefore performative and comprised of rhetorical strategies aimed at securing resources like grant money, bodies, minds, and other raw materials to sustain and perpetuate its procedures.
The book is focused specifically on hierarchical and hybrid labs—those spaces where knowledge is composed, constituted, and privileged by techniques of knowledge production, which includes using specialized discourses and technologies. Drawing from Latour, they characterize lab practices as Janus-like,
black-boxed [...] science in the making (39). Although the text does not endorse this notion, I would have preferred more time spent investigating counterexamples to these activities. The case study of ACTLab at the University of Texas Austin, founded in 1993 by media artist and theorist Allucquere Rosanne Stone is a useful model for exploring ways labs can participate in what Stone calls 'The Unnameable Discourse' and what we might refer to as lab counterdiscourse. Whatever the lab, the authors trace how its practices are tied to methodologies and pedagogies of knowledge production, and organized according to access and ideology. So while they allude to anything being a lab, where does the non-institutional outlier really fit within this paradigm of knowledge production? For example, how might we apply this extended lab model to, say, the student-driven after-school club that meets in a library makerspace? Another of their vignettes, the Hawaii-based HICapacity is prized as a community-oriented hackerspace. However, even as early as 2017 the hackerspace had been subsumed within the University of Hawaii, Manoa, as the i-Lab (a detail that goes unmentioned within The Lab Book). Although the i-Lab touts
an absence of walls (UH News), access to its space has been limited by both institutional requirements and COVID-related restrictions. The i-Lab, it is also worth mentioning, was spearheaded by a dean of engineering, and aimed towards
notions such as creativity, innovation and eventually entrepreneurship (UH News). These rhetorical aspirations highlight the implacable capitalist incentives that undergird lab culture, which await further discussion.
Admittedly the authors are writing a lab book and not a manifesto, but I wanted more exploration and critique of the momentously transformative power of hegemonic lab spaces. This especially includes those labs most capable of validating their peculiar rhetoric through the acquisition of capital (symbolic, cultural, and economic). The most thorough account of this potential occurs whenever the authors discuss the corporate mindset of the MIT Media Lab,
one of the first university-based (but largely privately funded) interdisciplinary media labs dedicated to hands on practice (60), which they argue
paves the way for the mainstream North American corporate innovation lab model that continues today (151). I am interested to see how this extended lab model could be extended further to account for the capacities of certain labs to impact culture, society, and the production of knowledge. Reviewing this model, we could say that labs achieve and exert this power precisely because of the resources they acquire and wield in each of these six categories. The authors’ exploration of lab culture allows us to better understand the depersonalization and depoliticization of lab culture into present day hyper-commercialized instantiations like Silicon Valley tech oligopolies and influence-peddling operations like Cambridge Analytica. Digging deeper into the dynamics of these categories allows us to consider, for example, how the aim of these influence operations was in part to proliferate commercialized techniques for knowledge production towards the reification of their own epistemic fabrications. The authors' conclusion bears repeating here:
an exploitation of both lab naming and lab black-boxing makes possible the control and manipulation of information on a global scale (42). I am excited to see if and how scholarship takes up this extended lab model alongside the work of critical media scholars like Shoshana Zuboff, Ruha Benjamin, Zeynep Tufekci, and Safiya Noble to consider how these practices have been coopted and hyper-commercialized by Big Tech, especially within the domain of algorithm design.
The authors are all specialists in Media Archaeology, a methodology and anti-teleological mindset that excavates past media technologies in ways that eschews pat narratives about progress. In this way, the authors seem to be drawing from German media archaeologist Siegfried Zielinski's
variantology, which they briefly mention in their chapter about lab infrastructure to describe hybrid lab spaces. Variantology refers to a purposeful reading against the grain of established historical narratives, an approach that seems ideally suited to the kinds of recovery and recontextualizing that the authors offer here. After exploring Wolfgang Ernst's Media Archaeological Fundus, which places media archaeological artifacts at the center of both the lab space and theoretical practice (73-77), the authors note that
media archaeology labs build on the methodological work of investigating so-called old media discourses and objects through lenses of digital culture; they also problematize discourses of 'new' media with insight to historical contexts and material archives (82).
The six categories provide a necessary focus to each chapter, while also a degree of compartmentalization. A case study of lab space at Menlo Park, for example, focuses on the layout and spatial design of the lab, while eschewing discussion about lab apparati. It begins with a tantalizing mention of technologies Edison developed before establishing the lab, such as the Universal Stock Ticker, telegraph systems, and electric pen, but refers only obliquely to the “wide range of tools and parts” (59) and the “steady stream of prototypes” (194) at Menlo Park. This approach left me wondering what the critical technologies that exemplify these lab discourses are in each of the case studies, and how might these categories like lab spaces and lab imaginaries interact to shape lab discourse and knowledge production. Given the expertise of these authors in the field of media archaeology, and the contagious enthusiasm with which they explore technological artifacts in some of these chapters, I would have preferred to see more of this approach. In another example that left me begging the question, the authors discuss the historical importance of monasteries as a precursor to the architecture and function of modern labs, but do not examine the instruments, infrastructure, or social dynamics of monasteries. Bridging these categories might have allowed the authors to explore books as critical objects, or the gendered dimensions of knowledge production in these cloistered spaces, or innovations in book production techniques—including techniques of information management. Exploring this last topic could have contributed to their broader thesis about the historical development of knowledge production in lab spaces. It would have also tied back to their conclusion, drawn from Shapin and Schaffer's Leviathan and the Air-Pump, that modern labs provide
practical solutions to the problem of knowledge (qtd in Wershler, Emerson, Parikka 245). Is it possible that labs provide solutions to the problem of knowledge they themselves create?
As I mentioned at the start, the critical focus on lab culture and discourse rather than innovation and technology is unique for a book about labs. The latter approach has been done before, and often, whereas little has been said about the former. Outside of innumerable books about twentieth-century technological innovation hubs like IBM and Bell Labs, including Building IBM: Shaping an Industry and Its Technology by Emerson W. Pugh, and The Idea Factory: Bell Labs and the Great Age of American Innovation by Jon Gertner, close contemporaries to The Lab Book are two books by Marcel O'Gorman—interviewed by the authors for their book—Necromedia and Making Media Theory: Thinking Critically with Technology. Necromedia describes O’Gorman’s critical media projects developed as director of the University of Waterloo's Critical Media Lab (CML), while Making Media Theory offers a series of lesson plans cultivated from years of
critical making courses at the Lab. (Disclosure: this reviewer served as lab supervisor at the Critical Media Lab). Whereas those former books about IBM and Bell Labs can be classed as histories that document the institutional practices, technological breakthroughs, and uncanny insights that led to innovation, the latter CML
lab books describe and document the work of doing atypical technological Humanities work in the unconventional space of creation as experimental research practice.
In this regard of thinking against the traditional teleology of innovation for its own capitalist-sake, The Lab Book similarly considers the ways power, knowledge, and culture are imbricated within the discourse of the lab space. It traces how their power over claims to the production of knowledge exist in part because of those legacies of successful innovation documented by those earlier lab histories. The Lab Book is not a historiography however, nor is it meant as an exhaustive account of all labs or their developments. The reader will (thankfully) not discover that the legacy of labs is a tapestry of solitary geniuses but rather the escalation of hyperbolic discourses. Their chief target is the inflated claims of the MIT Media Lab, documented in various sources including Stewart Brand’s “reverential” (Wershler et al. 155) The Media Lab: Inventing the Future at MIT and in the self-aggrandizing words of its own former director, Nicholas Negroponte, whom the authors (m)align as a Barnum-esque showman. As important as it is to deconstruct these rhetorical maneuvers, what this also means is that those seeking a reconsideration of the ways marginalized individuals have pushed against these hegemonies and discourses will need to read elsewhere. Brief discussions of counterspaces like Hyphen-Labs, “a global team of women of color” and “[t]heir practice of NeuroSpeculative AfroFeminism” (244) are constructive yet brief examples. Another account of these sorts of speculative and critical practices can be found in Daniela K. Rosner’s Critical Fabulations: Reworking the Methods and Margins of Design. Although it is more about industrial design than about labs, Rosner’s work also performs a critical reading against the historical grain to focus on speculative possibilities by recentering innovation around those who have been pushed to the margins of design. And for anyone looking for other examples of these practices beyond those already mentioned in The Lab Book: Allied Media Projects represents a network of scholars, community organizers, hackactivists, and citizens raising critical awareness about media literacy through programs and publications to promote liberty and creative flourishing, particularly among those communities that have been historically marginalized.
Given its title, The Lab Book is most likely to be read by aspiring lab directors seeking to describe and/or legitimize the condition of their office spaces already overstuffed with odd gear, tech, and projects to their confounded colleagues, bemused administrators, and indifferent funding agencies. However, since it explains how culture and politics are intrinsically woven into the development of knowledge and technology, this book would ideally be read by innovation-driven lab folk who view the design and development of technology as an apolitical and value-neutral practice.
Other key audiences for this book are interdisciplinary practitioners and independent researchers in DH and media studies, as well as media activists looking to consider how their methods relate to broader hierarchies and institutional legacies. Since only one category of the extended lab model focuses on space, the other five categories suggest how those without access to labs can nonetheless participate in making knowledge and discourse. This potential is especially apparent in the final chapters on lab imaginaries and lab techniques and leads to one of the more intriguing aspects of the book: namely that this final chapter on lab techniques remains purposefully in progress. On the book’s Manifold website, the authors solicit a call for techniques to contribute to their “glossary of lab techniques”:
The final chapter of The Lab Book provides an initial but incomplete catalog of nine techniques: 3D printing, collaborating, collecting, dis/assembling, experimenting, failing, living labs, prototyping, and testing. But what other terms would help to reflect the diverse practices of laboratories around the globe? In order to grow the catalog and help lab communities across the disciplines to reflect their own conditions of knowledge production, we want to extend the existing glossary. (Wershler et al. “A Glossary”)
Taking into consideration the Western focus of this book, acknowledged by the authors throughout, such a call invites response from labs elsewhere. For instance, carrying on with the topic of lab spaces in the Pacific, there are several in the Pacific Islands that could offer valuable contributions to the heuristic here, particularly related to their existence at the peripheries of Western influence and patronage.
There is an urgent need to consider the impact of labs, especially if we consider, as the authors suggest we do, that some of the greatest harms we have faced this past decade—namely the spread of misinformation and coordinated disinformation campaigns—may have originated from these alternative lab spaces. This is a book that provokes the reader more than it provides easy formulations. Indeed, despite their stated aim to offer a heuristic, the book (quite wisely) refuses to give any sort of ready-to-hand framework aside from its table of contents. As The Lab Book makes clear, the domain of a lab is more than just the walls that enclose it, it is also the ideas that define it and which it seeks to define in turn.
Gertner, Jon. The Idea Factory: Bell Labs and the Great Age of American Innovation. Penguin Books, 2013.
O'Gorman, Marcel. Making Media Theory: Thinking Critically with Technology. Bloomsbury Academic, 2021.
O'Gorman, Marcel. Necromedia. University of Minnesota Press, 2015.
Pugh, Emerson W. Building IBM: Shaping an Industry and Its Technology. MIT Press, 1995.
Rosner, Daniela K. Critical Fabulations: Reworking the Methods and Margins of Design. MIT Press, 2018.
UH News. “I-Lab Opens at UH Manoa.” University of Hawaiʻi System News, 4 Mar. 2016, https://www.hawaii.edu/news/2016/03/04/i-lab-opens-at-uh-manoa/.
Wershler, Darren, Lori Emerson and Jussi Parikka. The Lab Book: Situated Practices in Media Studies. University of Minnesota Press, 2021.
Wershler, Darren, Lori Emerson and Jussi Parikka. “A Glossary of Lab Techniques—Extending The Lab Book.” https://manifold.umn.edu/page/extending-the-lab-book.