Lab Discourse and The California Ideology
As we have argued so far, the output of labs is a thick network of objects, practices, people, discourses, and fantasies has material impact across the cultural field. Imaginaries persist on multiple levels, and one of them is how they entangle with material infrastructures. In other words, imaginaries manifest as collective representations or values, but they also impact how the world takes shape. At the end of the twentieth century and into the twenty-first, the lab imaginary continues to shift, morphing from enclosed idea factories into entire geographies of ideas, like Silicon Valley and Richard Florida’s “creative cities,” and into even larger and more dispersed networks of ideas.45 These institutions and assemblages continue to articulate versions of the technocultural imaginary that structure our everyday habits of thought and discourse.
The language of networking and connectivity is everywhere in contemporary culture, from philosophy to business manuals, and has been for some time. It’s worth considering what happened to the lab imaginary in particular when it was hybridized by an entrepreneurial media lab discourse that emphasizes networks as a structuring principle. Though this process occurred in many places more or less during the same era, California played a special role. As a result, even in the 1960s, popular discourse positioned the state itself as a kind of laboratory. For example, one of the most famous and often-repeated lines from photographer Dennis Stock’s recently republished 1968 photo book California Trip is “Our future is being determined in the lab out West.”46
Almost 30 years later in 1995, in a prescient article titled “The Californian Ideology,” Richard Barbrook and Andy Cameron delineated the current dominant version of the lab imaginary at the moment of its emergence. For Barbrook and Cameron, the Californian Ideology is the “hybrid faith” of the digital era, a potent mix of “the freewheeling spirit of the hippies and the entrepreneurial zeal of the yuppies,” soldered together by a shared “profound faith in the emancipatory potential of the new information technologies.”47 It was written in an attempt to understand the “lived experience” of the fixed-term contract workers who have always comprised the tech sector’s labor pool.48 Briefly, the Californian Ideology promises that digital tech will simultaneously give everyone a shot at becoming a successful entrepreneur and dissolve the checks and balances of the state, replacing the latter with “unfettered interactions between autonomous individuals and their software” in a barely regulated market.49 As such, even though it evokes hippie ideals of emancipation, there is a marked “rightwards drift” in the Californian Ideology, away from the ideal of the public good toward radical individualism.50 The California Ideology argument is sympathetic with Evgeny Morozov’s discussions about solutionism (see chapter 4), as well as David Golumbia’s argument about how “computationalism” and the core belief that “computers empower users” is enormously useful to governments, corporations, schools, and other institutions that wield power and shape individuals.51
Labs (especially media labs) play a significant role in the development and propagation of the California Ideology. Fred Turner’s From Counterculture to Cyberculture: Stewart Brand, the Whole Earth Network, and the Rise of Digital Utopianism provides the best account of this process. Turner argues that hippies and other members of members of the 1960s counterculture “imagined themselves as part of a massive, geographically distributed, generational experiment. The world was their laboratory.” With the drugs, computers, stereos and the other new technologies and gadgets available to consumer society, the counterculture of this era believed they could act as both researchers and their own objects of study, usurping the world-saving project that the military-industrial complex had begun long before.52 Turner further argues that since the 1960s “the knowledge-based principles of production, the organizational styles, and the information technologies of the military research laboratory have in fact proliferated” precisely because of the counterculture, which stripped them of their ominous ambience and re-presented them as something like a force of nature.53
Turner’s entire book is deeply relevant to our interests here, but we want to draw particular attention to his work on the role of the MIT Radiation Laboratory because of its importance for the aspects of the lab imaginary that inspired the 1960s counterculture and fed directly into the California Ideology. The Rad Lab was founded in 1940 as part of the US war effort, not as a single space, but as “a collection of interlinked research projects housed together at MIT.” Its many engineers, mathematicians, scientists, designers and government planners worked together on radar, navigation, and antiaircraft gun-aiming technologies. Like the basic research sections of Bell Labs, “the Rad Lab was a site of flexible, collaborative work and a distinctly nonhierarchical management style,” even though it was housed within and supported by several large bureaucracies. Turner notes that “entrepreneurship and collaboration were the norm, and independence of mind was strongly encouraged;” specialists became competent generalists, capable of designing and building as well as theorizing. Unlike the privileged basic researchers at Bell, though, Rad Lab denizens did their share of administrative and infrastructural work: even the scientists “had to become entrepreneurs, assembling networks of technologists, funders, and administrators to see their projects through.”54 Because of the power and success of this type of lab discourse, by the early twenty-first century, people in many university labs had come to speak of themselves as entrepreneurs.