Each chapter in this book thinks through one aspect of the extended laboratory model in order to better understand the place of hybrid labs in the academic and cultural spheres. This chapter in particular is about how labs produce and assign value to people, both internally and for the outside world. Labs are about social production and the production of social relations inside and outside the lab, as idealised humanism in some cases and as critical reflective practice in others. This chapter pays particular attention to the management techniques of people in Edison’s Menlo Park laboratory and the evolution of these techniques in the MIT Media lab which emerges in the 1980s and paves way for the mainstream form of understanding the North-American corporate innovation lab model through the 1990s and 2000s. In combination with lab discourse, such techniques create the conditions for the high visibility and empowerment of some while simultaneously rendering others invisible and disempowered. Our point is to read through these case studies and examples how people—and the missing people—are constantly produced in lab projects and discourses. While this chapter outlines how the focus on directors emerges from both existing lab cultures over the 20th century and the 1970s’ turn to managerialism, we are also interested in how this impacts the wider social context of the knowledge worker in the lab with repercussions for questions of gender, sexuality, and ethnicity including practices of racialization.
Our analysis of hybrid labs is very much informed by our current political moment and awareness of the intensive forms of direct and indirect violence towards particularly vulnerable groups of people of color, immigrants, and other targeted minorities not least in the USA. Furthermore, another trend of the current political moment includes a strategic focus on manipulating, even falsifying, scientific statements. We do not write this lightly, but scientific discourse itself, not just lab discourse, is under direct attack from the highest office in the land. Even the conservative RAND Corporation argues that we are suffering from “Truth Decay”–“the diminishing role of facts and analysis” in public life.1 Under such conditions, it is difficult to be frank about the shortcomings of laboratories themselves, because they are supposed to be the major source of those facts and analyses.
This is not to say, though, that lab discourse itself has never employed hyperbole as a way to produce value in the public imagination—far from it. The long line of swindlers, hucksters, and snake oil salespeople extending back to ancient times includes plenty of lab denizens and lab directors. However, an odd thing happened over the 20th century in modern North America: the mutual desire of advertising for the legitimacy of the sciences and of the sciences and engineering for the persuasive power of advertising has resulted in our current situation where it can be difficult to distinguish one from the other. In Fables of Abundance, Jackson Lears documents the history of the advertising industry in the 20th century, locating the carnivalesque huckster at one end of its spectrum of possibilities, with P.T. Barnum as its epitome; and empirical market researchers like N.W. Ayer and the J. Walter Thompson company on the other. But in Lears’ account at least, advertising never quite escapes the snake oil because it is fundamentally engaged in the opposite of the production of facts:
Despite their drive toward professionalism, advertising executives could never cast aside their Barnumesque inheritance, could never make common cause with the clinicians of society whose ideology they emulated. Part of the problem was the limited nature of their authority: unlike doctors and lawyers, they claimed professional expertise but always bowed to the opinions of the client, however inexpert he might be. Yet a deeper difficulty was embedded in the very nature of the advertising business: it had always involved the clever orchestration of surface effects, in a fashion that undermined all pretensions to sincerity and claims to objective truth. Straining to stabilize meanings with resort to a managerial idiom of expertise, advertisers remained surrounded by the ambiguities of their trade.2
What Lears didn’t imagine was that parts of laboratory research—especially those parts that had to do with the development of modern media technologies—would be quite eager to meet advertising in the murky middle ground.
One of the places where early 20th-century industrial manufacturers, R&D labs, and media labs found common ground with advertising was in the notion of planned obsolescence. Many accounts attribute the relative beginnings of planned obsolescence to the bicycle industry in the last years of the 19th century, which began producing annual models that were aesthetically (if not mechanically) different than their predecessors, and depreciated those models at year-end sales.3 Around 1924, General Motors Chairman Alfred Sloan and Harley Earl, his styling chief, formulated the technique as “Dynamic Obsolescence” by pairing the annual model change with aggressive advertising emphasizing novelty, and the GMAC Bank, which offered loans that allowed potential customers to buy cars on credit.4 On December 23 of the same year, representatives from the world’s major lightbulb manufacturers (including General Electric, Philips, Osram and Compagnie des Lampes) representing hundreds of factories met in Switzerland to form the Phoebus Cartel, “a supervisory body that would carve up the worldwide incandescent lightbulb market, with each national and regional zone assigned its own manufacturers and production quotas.” More importantly, the cartel specified a shorter lifespan for the incandescent bulb, mandating that its members scale back from the 1500–2000 hours common at the time to 1000 hours by 1925.5 This was a carefully produced engineering difference rather than a stylistic one. In their archival research on the subject, Markus Krajewski and Helmut Höge “found meticulous correspondence between the cartel’s factories and laboratories, which were researching how to modify the filament and other measures to shorten the life span of their bulbs”.6 By the 1930s, US advertising and industry alike had embraced the notion that innovation was wedded to disposability. As the example of the Phoebus cartel demonstrates, part of the job of R&D laboratories became not only developing new products, but ensuring their disposability. Both parties had become eloquent and vocal enough about the idea that the high consumption of novelty was the engine of US prosperity that it became something like national ideology.7 This method of producing value by way of tying persistent, overblown discourse about the lab’s wonders to actual production has much to do with why labs such as the MIT Media Lab are synonymous in the popular imagination with innovation, entrepreneurialism, and profitability (regardless of whether or not their products are successfully monetized).
Regrettably, one of the outputs of modern and contemporary labs is hyperbolic discourse. When paired with particular management techniques and policy decisions, hyperbole has real effects and can make a lab powerful and apparently successful. It is also part of the assemblage that drives the creation, construction, and manipulation of facts. Facts, in turn, are part of the structure upon which “history” and “the future” are built. This line of thinking comes close to the work of Bruno Latour, whose influences weaves its way through the entirety of this book. As he put it in “Why Has Critique Run Out of Steam?”, his earlier work, including his sociological account with Steven Woolgar in Laboratory Life of how science labs produce facts, was dedicated not to undermining the existence of facts altogether, but to renewing empiricism. Latour hoped to spare “the public from prematurely naturalized objectified facts” by revealing the inner workings of labs, including how they produce facts for public consumption.8 Instead, he writes, “a certain form of critical spirit has sent us down the wrong path, encouraging us to fight the wrong enemies and, worst of all, to be considered as friends by the wrong sort of allies because of a little mistake in the definition of its main target. The question was never to get away from facts but closer to them”.9 “Why Has Critique Run Out of Steam?” is important, then, because it conveys Latour’s horror at the recognition that arguments about the social construction of facts had been co-opted as a technique by the political right and that it was time to correct course. It remains as important as ever to scrutinize the role that many kinds of labs continue to play in the creation of facts and, therefore, in the battle over who owns the past, present and future of media technologies.
Because of its prominence in the hybrid lab landscape and its apparent dominance in shaping ownership of the past, present and future, we are particularly interested in the case of the MIT Media Lab.10 Major accounts of the Media Lab’s Nicholas Negroponte tie him firmly not only to innovative engineering and technical knowledge, but also to the carnivalesque end of the advertising and sales spectrum. In Stewart Brand’s reverential 1987 book The Media Lab: Inventing the Future at MIT, IBM senior scientist Nat Rochester describes Negroponte as one who “combines very great technical knowledge and creativity with . . . really world-class salesmanship.”11 Thomas A. Bass elaborated on this description of Negroponte in his 1995 Wired magazine profile: “His MIT colleagues sometimes dismiss him as the P. T. Barnum of science, someone who puts on a flashy show without much substance. ‘This is the red-light district of academia,’ jokes a young scientist at the lab. But 10 years after Negroponte began selling multimedia as rich terrain for scientific prospecting, he has been proved right. The human-computer interface that began as Negroponte’s promotional pitch is now the linchpin of an industry whose sales are pushing a trillion dollars a year.”12
The projects Negroponte developed while he was Director of the Architecture Machine Group (founded in 1967) and the Media Lab (founded in 1985) demonstrate he could be the very embodiment of the Barnumesque promotional wizard, playing to popular fantasies about the emancipatory powers of technology. In Negroponte’s strain of lab discourse, this fantasy is particularly effective when deployed in conjunction with the figure of the child in the developing world who lacks access to digital technologies. But of course, the resounding failure of Negroponte’s early 2000s One Laptop Per Child (OLPC) project for children in the developing world demonstrates one particular bankruptcy of the hyperbolic promotional culture of certain strands of innovation lab discourses. In this case, as we follow up below, overblown, inaccurate statements about “reality” help to support the ever-widening gap between the powerful and the powerless, as well as the ever-widening gap between the material, embodied, lived realities of particular technologies and people and popular and academic discourse about those realities.
Following our discussion of the production of value by the Media Lab, we then delve into the particularities of management techniques at work in Edison’s Menlo Park laboratory, proceeded by a discussion of their use at several of MIT’s most well-known and influential labs, particularly the Radiation Lab, the Architecture Machine Group and again the Media Lab. Subsequently, we look at the history of the One Laptop Per Child project as an example of liberal corporate lab humanism. In contrast, and in light of the recent intensive discussion about corporate sponsorship models and the infamous MIT Media Lab’s “Epstein case”, we end this chapter by discussing a key example from the other legacy of critical media labs from the 1990s onward: the ACTLab. Founded in 1993 by media theorist and performance artist Allucquére Rosanne (Sandy) Stone, the ACTLab established a very different sense of people and discursive space of projects than liberal humanist ones. It was also one of the first hybrid labs specifically dedicated to questions of radical politics of identity in contexts of technology and it still, to this day, presents an insightful way of describing a radical lab’s work inside a more conservative institution as “codeswitching.”