Lab Management Techniques and the Production of Value
The primacy of building markets and the discourse of innovation have persisted as core themes of the Media Lab. Joi Ito writes that in the Media Lab “There is a ‘Lab Culture’ but each research group and each unit of staff has its own culture. Each group buys into some or all of the Lab Culture and interprets this in their own way. This creates an complex but very vibrant and, in the end, self-adapting system that allows the Lab to continue to evolve and move ‘forward’ without any one piece entirely understanding the whole of it or any one thing controlling all of it”.40 Yet despite this portrayal of the lab as non-hierarchical, flexible, and collaborative, in 2017 Ito responds in-depth to a question about the lab’s organizational structure by outlining its inherent hierarchies, which, unsurprisingly, lead to Ito himself.
The Media Lab has a director, Joichi Ito, me. I am in charge of the operations which include the staff functions as well as the research which includes the Media Lab consortium that funds the majority of the work at the Media Lab. The Media Lab also has a number of initiatives and centers that also report to the director. The majority of the financial resources as well as the space allocation is managed by the director. The staff functions are roughly divided up by functional units that include network and IT systems . . ., human resources, academic administration, finance, facilities, communications and events. Most of these units have a director that reports to the director of the lab. The lab has many research groups and each group is lead by a professor or a principle research scientist. Each group admits students/RAs and also usually has staff members, post-docs and other researchers. Groups typically supported financially by funding from the consortium funding managed by the director as well as funds raised directly by the group.41
As we learned on our own research trip to the Media Lab, despite its claims to transparency, supposedly embodied by the abundance of glass throughout the lab complex, it is difficult to find out the precise contours of the everyday doings in the lab (exemplified by its strict rules forbidding photography of current projects). On the level of infrastructure, it difficult to discover the exact nature of the funding streams leading to the lab’s projects, prototypes, and patents from sponsors such as Google and Twitter (not to mention earlier sponsors such as the U.S. Army, the FBI, and individuals such as Epstein).
However, such issues have existed for almost as long as media labs themselves have existed. Only a few decades after the heyday of Menlo Park, Thorstein Veblen became one of the first to offer what appears like a critique of American universities’ appropriation of business management techniques to handle their administration, but is more properly a critique of the way knowledge is produced by way of the “businesslike organization and control of the university.” As he put it in his 1918 book The Higher Learning in America: A Memorandum on the Conduct of Universities by Business Men, “[i]n this view the university is conceived as a business house dealing in merchantable knowledge, placed under the governing hand of a captain of erudition, whose office it is to turn the means in hand to account in the largest feasible output”.42 While he does not dwell on laboratories, he does keenly understand that as long as universities seek to produce knowledge as efficiently and profitably as possible—as a factory churns out widgets as cheaply and rapidly as possible—its employees must also “be organized into a facile and orderly working force . . . The faculty is conceived as a body of employees, hired to render certain services and turn out certain scheduled vendible results”.43 From Veblen’s account, it’s clear that the management of university workers had already become part-and-parcel of university life.
There have been abundant accounts written of the history of neoliberalism and higher education.44 Suffice it to say that by the late 1960s and 1970s, as neoliberalism rose to its dominant position, the management of universities became a greater concern. Experts in business management increasingly saw universities and their role in producing education and technological innovation as one of the most important engines behind economic expansion. French journalist and center-right politician Jean Jacques Servan-Schreiber declared in his massively best-selling 1968 book The American Challenge that “Today the most important factors in economic expansion are education and technological innovation.”45 Writing during an extended stay in the U.S. and guided by the belief that Europe, especially France, was quickly losing an economic war to the U.S., Servan-Schreiber continues by asserting that “the technological gap is misnamed. It is not so much a technological gap as it is a managerial gap. And the brain drain [from France to the U.S.] occurs not merely because we have more advanced technology here in the United States but rather because we have more modern and effective management.”46 By the time Servan-Schreiber was writing, “modern and effective management” was a key element of university discourse.
In his canonical work from 1974, Management: Tasks, Responsibilities, Practices, Peter Drucker easily collapses the distinction between the public and private realms to claim that “[b]usiness enterprise is only one of the institutions of modern society, and business managers are by no means our only managers. Service institutions—government agencies; armed services; schools and universities; research laboratories . . . labor unions . . . are equally institutions and, therefore, equally in need of management.”47 Having flatly stated that everything, including universities and labs, can and even ought to be under the purview of management, he goes on to say that “these public-service institutions . . . are the real growth sector of a modern society” because those employed by such institutions are a new breed of “knowledge worker” whose productivity and continual achievement is the basis upon which “every developed society” also becomes productive.48 Further, if everything is now under the purview of management, then managers are also now responsible not only for creating conditions for productivity and profitability but they are also now responsible for protecting and even guiding the social good: “[t]he fact remains that in modern society there is no other leadership group but managers. If the managers of our major institutions . . . do not take responsibility for the common good, no one else can or will.”49 By the 1970s, education and technological innovation are tightly paired as the real drivers of economic expansion; management should or does reign supreme over everything, including higher education and the common good; and, finally, management is also now responsible for anticipating and molding the future, through monitoring the social impact.50
Even MIT’s administration was forced to respond to the questions raised by social movements. In the wake of 1967’s student and faculty protests against military-related research, MIT President Howard W. Johnson delivered a commencement address in 1968 with the theme of “humane technology,” in which he declared that “[t]here is a disturbing gulf between our technological achievement and the quality of our living-our sense of community.”51 Focusing less on MIT than on the larger Boston community, Johnson asserts that “[a]t first glance, the city personifies all of the problems faced by individuals and institutions with whom the professional must function.” In the face of “the magnitude of its ills,” where else lies the solution other than in management? “[Boston] is amorphous and unmanageable and impersonal and cold. . .It is a large system that does not work, but must” (7). It is in this context—the coupling of management with “humane technology”–that in 1967, MIT faculty member Nicholas Negroponte founded the Architecture Machine Group (AMG) and began to transform Johnson’s avowed dedication to “humane technology” into “humanism” through technology. However, the particular use of “humanism” as a justifying trope for multiple AMG and Media Lab projects was actually an early version of solutionism—of technological fixes for social issues—as well as a particularly troubling form of ignorance of social complexities of race, gender, and other issues that many other labs raised in the wake of the MIT Media Lab.52
This project-oriented technique of technological humanism is shot through with contradictions: “technology” is always a homogeneous, abstract, and neutral entity at the same time as it also (magically) shapes the present and the future. “Humans” are likewise homogeneous abstractions who are always inventive and in control of technology, and attentive to the present and the future—even though they are not in control of either. Once this particular brand of techno-humanism is aimed at those perceived as under-privileged, it morphs into a kind of digital colonialism.53 The next section focuses on one project started at the Media Lab in early 2000s as an example of the operations of techniques of technological humanism and its production of troubling assumptions about race and technological solutionism.