Construction plays the role of the subconscious.
—Walter Benjamin, The Arcades Project
Each chapter in this book isolates a particular aspect of the hybrid lab to answer two interrelated questions: how do we read labs, and why do labs matter? Through a series of examples and case studies, this chapter attends to the foundational role of the production and power of lab space. This chapter also initiates a refrain that appears across the entire project: despite the singularity, certainty and individuality of the moniker “the lab,” labs have never been static, unchangeable, unitary entities with clear-cut histories. They are—and have always been—shaped by communities of people both inside and beyond their walls, by these same communities’ intellectual trajectories, and, of course, by the labs’ physical locations and configurations. Since lab space shapes and is shaped by its human denizens (whose own shaping of the lab space is both unconscious and intentional), readers will note many continuities between this chapter and the fifth chapter of this book (on People).
While much of our analysis of hybrid lab space necessarily draws on terminology and concepts from a range of disciplines (including history, Science and Technology Studies, media history, philosophy, architecture and design), two works have been particularly helpful to us. Henri Lefebrve’s The Production of Space provides a background our investigations, as it furnishes us with conceptual parameters for thinking about space as a “mode of production” produced by members of a society. Lefebvre also helps us to see our work as an extension of his project to produce a common language for understanding how space precedes and produces the subjects populating lab spaces.1
Lefebvre proposes a conceptual triad that’s helpful for thinking about the production of space:
- 1. Spatial practice, or the “production and reproduction” of a given space and its subjects, as well as specific locations and their relation to various social formations. Spatial practice is what creates a given society’s social space.
- 2. Representations of space, or what we write and say about these spaces, which is in turn tied to relations of production and how those relations establish order. This is the space of bureaucrats and planners—the “official”—version of what social space is supposed to be.
- 3. Representational spaces, or the “complex symbolisms” tied to “the clandestine or underground side of social life.”2 Representational spaces are spaces where actual lived experience takes place, including the unsanctioned areas for doings that cannot happen in the “official” areas.3
While we do deal with representations of labs in discourse, or what Lefevbre calls “representational space,” we are also concerned with the practices, relations and subjects that develop in the particular spaces of the hybrid lab.
The second work which informs this chapter is architect Christopher Alexander’s A Pattern Language. Published just a few years after Lefebvre’s The Production of Space (1974), A Pattern Language (1977) provides an extensive and clearly delineated set of 253 architectural patterns that can aid in solving problems related to the organization of space. While he does occasionally cite laboratories as particular spatial entities, Alexander’s work is most useful to us in terms of how it includes patterns that can form larger assemblages like labs.
According to Paul Dourish, a technical report circulated in 1993 by Mark Weiser (the so-called father of ubiquitous computing) on the spatial properties of Xerox PARC, is the only known instance of a computer scientist using A Pattern Language to talk about lab space.4 Despite the rarity of the approach, we find that the language and methodology of Alexander et. al’s work helps us to articulate the significance of individual particularities of spatial design coupled with the relations between those particularities which form a lab environment.
However, before we attend to lab space and its relations, we will address the contemporary trend in lab discourse of referring to assemblages which lack any kind of bounded space (e.g. websites, ideas and products) as “labs.” We are also interested in how assemblages that do have bounded space but do not resemble traditional science labs at all have also come to be referred to as “labs.” This discussion of naming is important because it demonstrates that an analysis of lab space must begin with a determination of how and where particular communities delineate the inside and outside of their labs, and the ways in which that delineation (often arbitrary yet always important) defines what is possible within the lab’s confines. We then provide a commentary on the histories and historical narratives of spaces which existed before laboratories began to emerge in the sixteenth century. Those spaces from the ninth century through the present moment which are often named and referred to as “laboratories” provide evidence of how both discursively and materially, spaces of technical knowledge production have always had blurry, porous boundaries. Moreover, we argue that both historical and contemporary examples of lab discourse show how blurry lab boundaries may be beneficial or detrimental, depending on the nature of the work involved and on attempts to control the boundaries between inside and outside the lab as a way to control who has access to the lab (a textbook example of a knowledge monopoly). We subsequently provide in-depth case studies of Thomas Edison’s Menlo Park laboratory (opened in 1876) and the MIT Media Lab (opened in 1985). Despite these labs’ implicit and explicit claims to being completely new and without historical precedent (an act which is completely characteristic of many modern phenomena), both draw on and reconfigure the long history of lab spaces and their antecedents.
The contemporary uncertainty around what is and isn’t a lab historically finds an echo in Bruno Latour’s observations about the Janus-faced nature of contemporary science, with its black boxed, hermetic practices facing one direction and the open controversies of “science in the making” facing the other. If this sort of doubleness characterizes contemporary scientific discourse in general, then it should come as no surprise that it also typifies lab discourse in particular.5 In our discussion of the MIT Media Lab (later in this chapter and then again in chapter 5), this double discourse is supple enough that it can describe a lab’s innovativeness, entrepreneurial spirit, anti-institutionality (and even radicality) at the same time as it lays out how such labs are busy producing institutionality and various means and methods of control. Further, the two-faced functioning of contemporary lab discourse also depends on an opacity about what goes on within the lab’s space and spatial practices.
Building on Latour’s work, Robert K. Kohler pinpoints the ways in which a quality of “placelessness” is necessary to the practices that many modern labs use to establish their authority. “Placelessness marks lab-made facts as true not just to their local makers but to everyone, everywhere. It marks the lab as a social form that travels and is easy to adopt, because it seems rooted in no particular cultural soil but, rather, in a universal modernity.”6 Thus, as the following discussion of the Strategic Communications Laboratory shows, placelessness or opacity about space is sometimes strategically (and cynically) necessary, as placefulness would reveal the double discourse for what it is . . . at which point the entire edifice of the lab as a machine for the production of universal knowledge would effectively crumble. By contrast, as we illustrate in our discussion at the end of this chapter of the the Media Archaeological Fundus, and our discussion of the ActLab in chapter 5, Janus-faced lab discourse can also produce the inverse effect, when hybrid labs might appear to produce institutionality while they actually unsettle the structures of organization and control underlying such institutionality. In these instances, the placefulness of spatial practices is a must.
In short, the techniques that produce, organize, and account for lab space act as a barometer for other parts of the hybrid lab assemblage. The way these techniques operate broadly implies assumptions about who is allowed access to the space, and which knowledge practices appear as legitimate within that space.