Ambivalent Lab Imaginaries
Over the course of the twentieth century, laboratories became a core feature of engineering, chemical, and physical science activity, but also of business. As we have touched on throughout our book, Thomas Edison’s Menlo Park laboratory was a hub of creative engineering and business ventures, but it was also the much-discussed and debated source of a particular lab imaginary (while the laboratory of Nikola Tesla became a parallel sort of mythological space, where a lone male “wizard” created technological marvels).19 The place of invention was a site of imagination whose connotations resonated with those of the studio (creativity) and the library (the history of knowledge production), but it also carried a distinct experimental heritage and a set of emergent business practices with it. Edison was a symptomatic figure, managing to be both an idealized lone genius and the busy manager of a collective of experts and facilities. Even before Menlo Park, Edison was acutely aware that this early version of a media lab would need sufficient infrastructure, calling for “every conceivable variety of Electric Apparatus, and any quantity of Chemicals for experimentation.”20 Quite aptly, like a commentary track to Edison, in fictional accounts such as Auguste Villiers de L’Isle-Adam’s novel Tomorrow’s Eve (1886), the emerging “lab imaginary” was also defined by the interplay between the obsessed genius of the inventor and the lab crammed full of apparatus, linking to our discussion in chapter 2: “Here and there about the room one might glimpse, atop the cluttered tables, various precision instruments, intricate and obscure gear-boxes, electrical apparatus, telescopes, mirrors, enormous magnets, retorts amid a tangle of tubes, flasks full of mysterious fluids, and slates scrawled over with equations.”21
It was not only the technical apparatus—imaginary and material—that defined the emerging tech lab. New forms of management techniques (see our discussion of management techniques in relation to the MIT Media Lab in chapter 4) and infrastructure also defined the emerging methods of twentieth century science/engineering/media.22 Most people are familiar with Edison’s epithet “The Wizard of Menlo Park;” that aspect of his contribution to the lab imaginary—the inventor as possessor of near-magical powers—is clearly visible today in all forms of popular media. André Millard has written extensively on the techniques and practices that sustain the myth of Edison’s laboratory wizardry which may not be quite as exciting, but are at least as important.
Millard argues that Edison invented both industrial research and the method for managing a diversified business based on that research.23 What he means by “industrial research” is nearly identical to the process that would dominate work at Bell Labs and other industrial labs in the mid-twentieth century. Edison did not merely invent things and patent them; he labored to develop them into a “factory-ready prototype” and then manufacture them until he could sell the entire package to an interested business. His “invention factory” at Menlo Park produced a steady stream of prototypes, but it also innovated on his existing products in order to drive production costs down. This technique has had an enduring legacy. Mervin Kelly of Bell Labs would later aphorize the goal of continuous innovation in the lab as products that were “better, or cheaper, or both.”24 Later, Gunpei Yokoi, Nintendo’s famed head of research and development, referred to this practice as “lateral thinking for withered technology,” a technique that allowed the company to produce startling degrees of commercial success, earning a reputation for innovation at the same time as it was using cheap stock or obsolete components in its products.25
Before long, Edison was not just making consumer products, but he was vertically integrating the entire manufacturing process, from extracting and refining raw materials to dedicating whole factories to the production of each new product.26 Edison was not so much inventing individual devices as he was inventing entire processes for producing them. As philosopher Alfred North Whitehead put it early in the twentieth century, isolated technologies like the steam engine define the special advanced nature of modernity, but they also define the method itself: “The greatest invention of the nineteenth century was the invention of the method of invention.”27
In order to manage all this commercial activity, Edison formed TAE Inc. in 1910. TAE policy laid out a decentralized, multidivisional structure. It was intended to move decision-making closer to the customer by giving middle managers the opportunity to exercise their special technical or marketing skills. As Millard notes in “Thomas Edison and the Theory and Practice of Innovation,” it created channels for their input within the organization, providing the timely information with which to better apply the engineering and manufacturing resources of TAE Inc. to a changing market situation (196). Once a general policy was in place, division managers had “as wide latitude as possible.” Though it’s not usually described in business literature, Millard notes that “Edison’s policy of diversification came two decades before those of Du Pont or General Motors,” and “his move to a divisional structure [March 15, 1915] precedes theirs by several years” (197).
The divisional structure of TAE was visionary, but that didn’t mean Edison ran it well. He is notorious “as the architect of some of America’s greatest business failures,” chiefly because he didn’t let the diversified structure do its work (191). As a result of frequently overruling the very manager he had hired to be independent, making decisions not to move into radio and electronic recording, and relying on his own decidedly conservative tastes in terms of media content, his organization backslid from “twentieth century enlightened management to nineteenth century capitalism” (97).
It’s intriguing that Edison managed to turn even his shortcomings as a businessman into an enduring part of the lab imaginary. After noting that Edison “attempted to downplay his role as a businessman by stressing the fact that he was an inventor who preferred to stay in his laboratory,” and that “he was forced into financing inventions and building factories because entrepreneurs were too timid to do the job,” Millard flatly states that “[t]his story, like many others concocted by Edison, was simply untrue.” Rather, “[i]t was part of his successful creation of an Edison myth and a ploy to keep him out of the litigation that invariably accompanied his business activities” (192). In other words, the fantasy of the scientist who is hopeless with practical matters like administrative tasks is not only part of the larger lab assemblage, it also sustains that assemblage in important ways, allowing it to avoid certain kinds of oversight. Though this strategy succeeded for a time, Millard notes that, by the late 1920s, there was a widening “gulf” between Edison’s wizardly image and the reality of his failing businesses (197). What remained in the lab imaginary for most of the twentieth century, and which is arguably still present, was not the importance of a solid set of organizational principles, but a certain kind of license that shields those engaged in pure research from the drudgery of practical concerns.
Because of Edison and Tesla, the lab imaginary thickened and spread. Lab discourse became an inextricable add-on to the experimental product itself. The institutionalization of labs across the 20th century (from Bell Labs to Silicon Valley design labs, from Palo Alto PARC to various forms of MIT institutions, to the hack lab and creative lab scenes in Europe of the 1980s and 1990s) became crucial for the understanding of media innovation. The massive financial investment in many forms of labs, especially in the US, ran parallel to the massive hyperbolic rhetoric that many of the places gained with their products.
Latour describes the power of the laboratory in terms of its scale-shifting abilities. The lab gathers its special powers from its ability to scale the connections from its experiments to the outside world. Latour discusses the particular ability of labs to take advantage of scale in terms of Louis Pasteur’s nineteenth-century microbe farming and its massive social consequences. Developing techniques to manipulate temporality and recursion is key. The powers of the lab reside “in the special construction of laboratories in a manner which reverses the scale of phenomena so as to make things readable, and then accelerates the frequency of trials, allowing many mistakes to be made and registered.”28 Latour’s discussion attends specifically to the particular situations of that scientific practice and its relevance for issues of health, farms, animals, and more—a whole bundle of material and narrative factors emerge from his work. As he elaborates, the laboratory’s apparent containment by way of a notion of inside/outside is relevant because “the laboratory positions itself precisely so as to reproduce inside its walls an event that seems to be happening only outside.”29
Both the material experiments and the imaginary of the late nineteenth and early twentieth-century labs already involved massive back-and-forth scalar operations. These shifts in scale included bridging the assumed separation between science and the social world, as Latour acknowledges, but also other sort of complex shifts. Consider, for example, how the scientific authority of representation and practice was entangled with parapsychological practices, and vice versa. As Eric Kluitenberg observes in his work on Edison and Tesla and their respective interests in the occult, “the dividing line between inventiveness and the imaginary is ambiguous and often porous.”30 Kluitenberg admits that it’s entirely possible that the two “wizards” were engaged in an arms race of occult discourse, exploiting the general fuzzy understanding of the difference between science and magic by making “bogus claims that spurred the public imagination, referencing the supernatural with their costly technical ventures.”31 But with Edison in particular, Kluitenberg ends on an almost tragic note, seeing Edison’s “appropriation of the language of scientific rationality” for mediumistic purposes as part of an understandable desire to avoid the finality of death.32 This, too, is a kind of imaginary boundary-work. However, the attempt to apply lab discourse to an irrational object does not necessarily make the object more rational; lab discourse can even cause further occult discourse to proliferate. In other words, the wider cultural context of inventing invention was full of both real and imaginary machines, from occult labs to the wildly imaginative ones such as Edison and Tesla’s. As Ghislain Thibault argues, it is necessary to understand that from the parascientific to the other spectrum of invention, visual inscription techniques and similar forms of technical demonstration were there to provide public scientific legitimacy.33
In many cases, the authority of lab discourse has been deployed to legitimize or prelegitimize the practices of parapsychology. As in the case of Albert von Schrenck-Notzing’s parapsychological laboratory, these sites were also self-nominated labs. In many ways, the discourse around such spaces reveals key traits of what the lab was imagined—and thus constructed—to be around 1900: it needed apparatuses that register facts beyond the fallible human observer; it trained the experimental subject according to right protocols; it established a discourse about objects of experimental knowledge that can then circulate; and it attempted to stabilize the disciplines through such infrastructural arrangements of technologies and people.34 This does not mean von Schrenck-Notzing was successful, but the way that the parapsychological lab performed its own view of scientific space and discourse is worth considering in some detail.