The University Lab After Entrepreneurship
As the lab imaginary began to absorb the California Ideology and related ideas, university discourse as a whole also changed. Many universities have shifted from imagining themselves as custodians of historical knowledge to being incubators for startups and fashioners of the entrepreneurs that fill them. That process brings with it serious implications not only for academic researchers, but for the public audience for their research.
Brian Holmes argues that the entrepreneurial professor and its close companion, the university, as a serious player in the business world, have their relative beginnings in the 1970s, with the development of a specific research technique, followed by a piece of legislation that formalized the policy decisions proceeding from that invention. Holmes writes that “[t]he archaeology of the public university’s ruin” dates to 1973, when the Cohen-Boyer method of gene-splicing technique was invented at Stanford University and was subsequently privatized by the institution’s patent administrator. The combination of the invention of a primary research technique with the huge amount of money the patent netted ($300 million dollars over 17 years) guaranteed that University Patent Offices would become a significant component of research infrastructure in the decades that followed, and that the amount of university research flowing directly into the public domain would begin to decrease.55 On the level of law and policy, Holmes argues that the 1980 Bayh-Dole act of 1980 functions as “something like the genetic code of the corporate university,” because it codified “the increasingly prevalent practice of patenting and commercializing publicly funded research,” making the transfer of technology between the university and industry easier than ever before.56
The corporate university is also the entrepreneurial university that links closely with industries and constantly aims to lower the threshold of collaboration with external (commercial) partners. Indeed, the prototypical nature of the New American University (NAU) as described by Crow and Dabars emphasizes networking and connectivity that can also be seen as core elements in the current neoliberal innovation discourse:
Along with cutting-edge research, universities that aspire to have broad impact are marked by a very high degree of connectivity, both internal and external. Such an ecosystem of networked connectivity creates many pathways for people to move ideas from conception to reality. When all of the elements are working together, one perceives a well-rounded innovation infrastructure, and the university becomes part of a larger ecology of innovation.57
The production of both infrastructure and imaginaries of connected, co-working, collaborative, and industry-friendly staff and faculty is part of the modus operandi of this discourse. Another striking aspect of the NAU model’s imaginary is its vanguardism, which echoes traits we discussed in relation to the MIT Media Lab (see chapter 4). Crow and Dabars rail against “filiopietism”—a scornful neologism they coined to describe the homogeneity that they believe results from the university’s “excessive veneration of tradition.”58 Instead, they consistently position their model as the epitome of an institutional avant-garde because of its commitment to innovation.59 Many commentators over the last several decades, including Lev Manovich, have noted that this insistence on the production of difference and individuality is the way in which we are all now exactly the same.60 Manovich argues that it’s a consumer reaction that appears as a result of emerging networked forms of culture. Because the NAU imagines itself in precisely this way, it’s hardly surprising that it would make such a claim.
One of the problems that faces any hybrid lab attempting to do something other than business as usual is that what used to be the model of resistance has become the very model of control. The truth of interdisciplinarity is also the dismantling of departments and disciplinary priorities. Further, the fetishization of innovation has done substantial damage to the traditional functions of the university as memory institution and producer of citizens rather than employees.
But all is not doom and gloom. Peter Galison and Fred Turner both note that the intense process of hybridization in the Rad Lab also produced its own lab discourses consisting of “local, shared sets of practices and terms, a ‘trading language’ aimed at solving problems in the borderland. . . . As the interdiscipline grows, the pidgin becomes a creole; that is, a language rich enough to allow someone to grow up within.”61 Just as the Rad Lab trading language helped to produce entire new fields outside its own research, like cybernetics, this book is itself part of the trading language of hybrid lab discourse in its early stages. Though we too might be infected by the California Ideology, we are not determined by it.62