As long as there have been modern laboratories, there have been lab imaginaries—the visions that lab denizens have of how they would like their spaces and practices to be perceived by those outside their communities, and of how they would like to believe their own spaces and practices function. This process of envisioning, sometimes presented quite literally as a “vision” or “mission statement,” is an unavoidable element of all lab spaces, from early science labs to contemporary hybrid labs. Steven Shapin and Simon Schaffer’s Leviathan and the Air Pump, one of the works that defines the field of Science and Technology Studies, goes into significant detail about the importance of the imaginary to the emergence of the first modern experimental laboratories in the mid-seventeenth century; it also provides a solid set of ideas for how to discuss the imaginaries of more recent labs.
Experimental space was itself an imaginary solution to a range of social issues. Early experimentalists spent an enormous amount of time and energy publicizing “experimental spaces as useful: to identify problems in Restoration society to which the work of the experimental; philosopher could provide the solutions.”11 More specifically, during the Reconstruction, seventeenth-century experimentalists imagined themselves as the solution to the general problem of civil unrest: “they presented their own community as an ideal society where dispute could occur safely and where subversive errors were quickly corrected. Their ideal society was distinguished by the source of authority the experimenters recommended. . . . No isolated powerful individual authority should impose belief. The potency of knowledge came from nature, not from privileged persons.”12
These experimental spaces and their scientists also employed a variety of techniques, many of which were literary in nature. Early writing about laboratories occurred in great volume and in a number of formats, from books, broadsides, pamphlets, and lectures to personal correspondence. The idea of the witnessing of experiments, and subsequent testimony from witnesses as to their merits, was central to the process by which a laboratory produced new knowledge in the form of “matters of fact.”13 While witnesses had to be fellow experimentalists of a certain moral standing, they did not actually need to be physically present if experimentalists could produce descriptive literature that would theoretically allow readers to reproduce the experiment, or even imagine reproducing it. In other words, the regulation of experience, conduct, and practice was and has always been part and parcel of the moral economy of labs and other spaces of knowledge production.14
One early key element of the lab imaginary is what, in Leviathan and the Air-Pump, Shapin and Schaffer call “virtual witnessing,” which is a technique that consists of “production in a reader’s mind of such an image of an experimental scene as obviates the necessity for either direct witness or replication” (60). In effect, the reader realizes the experiment in “the laboratory of the mind” (60). Because the audience for virtual witnessing is theoretically unlimited, it was, in the eyes of the experimentalists, “the most powerful technology for constituting matters of fact” (60). In order to create a degree of trust and assurance that would guarantee to the reader’s satisfaction that the experiment took place in the way it was described, Boyle and his colleagues would, for example, deliberately develop a verbose, ornate prose style “with appositive clauses piled on top of each other” as a way to provide context through a surfeit of information (63). As in later realist fiction, the extra details created a sense of verisimilitude in the reader. Another technique they employed was the use of highly detailed engravings rather than simple line diagrams to illustrate accounts of their experiments. These engravings provided a naturalistic representation of the objects in an experiment which in turn acted as reinforcement for “the imaginative witness provided by the words in the text” (61–62). Relaying the details of failed experiments as well as successful ones was also part of virtual witnessing as a technique. It “allayed anxieties” in aspiring experimentalists and reassured them that everyone makes mistakes; it also anticipated criticism from those who would argue that experimentalists cherry-picked their own results (64). The net result of these techniques was a powerful lab imaginary that allowed experimental natural philosophy to prevail during an historically precarious moment. Such an account is compelling for many reasons, but for this chapter it is especially relevant in that it describes how the lab imaginary emerges from cultural techniques that place imaginaries in material practices.
In recent decades, increasing numbers of humanities and media institutions have pitched themselves as “labs” in a wide range of fields that do not traditionally utilize lab structures or methods, including (but far from limited to) fields such as design, fine arts, the digital humanities, and a media-archaeological reverse-engineering of technologies and cultural narratives about technology. The Paris-based artists Léonore Bonaccini and Xavier Fourt, who form the artist-duo Bureau d’études, speak of a “Laboratory Planet” which, besides designating the twentieth- and twenty-first-century science-military-entertainment-university-complex as the defining planetary situation that installs infrastructures of power and technology, also refers to the laboratorization of knowledge in general.15 As we point out in our Introduction, we now imagine the world as a lab, and that imaginary is a huge part of the discourse we use to justify smart cities, contemporary university institutions like incubators, and hack labs.16 Such processes often rely on a technique that Michał Krzyżanowski dubs the “prelegitimation of practice,” which we can adapt to describe the process by which institutions and people justify their actions by presenting their visions of what they might do with a lab, given the resources they are requesting. Even in an historical moment when we are so saturated with labs that it’s tempting to not use the term as a form of distinction at all, having a lab (or even wanting one) nevertheless lends an aura of legitimacy to a research agenda. Prelegitimation techniques can be difficult to spot precisely because they are drawn from “experience-like aspects” of social discourse about a given subject—and once again, lab discourse is all around us. Such prelegitimation practices can also be problematic because they play a significant role creating a sense that the person employing these strategies is an expert.17
An alternative strategy to building a sense of expertise and prestige is through what Thomas F. Gieryn calls “boundary-work” in an article titled “Boundary-Work and the Demarcation of Science from Non-Science.” For Gieryn, boundary-work consists of “ideological efforts by scientists to distinguish their work and its products from non-intellectual scientific activities” (782). Boundary work is often subtle because it doesn’t operate in a directly accusatory fashion. Instead, it involves attributing certain characteristics to science as an institution in order to identify other activities as non-scientific (782). What’s particularly intriguing about Gieryn’s argument is that the characteristics that boundary-work attributes to science are not always consistent; they vary according to the perceived threat, and can even contradict each other (786). For example, when studying the writings of the Victorian scientist John Tyndall, Superintendent at the Royal Institution in London, Gieryn notes that Tyndall struggled to differentiate science from its foes in both religion and engineering in order to garner more public support:
the characteristics [Tyndall] attributed to science were different for each boundary: scientific knowledge is empirical when contrasted with the metaphysical knowledge of religion, but theoretical when contrasted with the common-sense, hands-on observations of mechanicians; science is justified by its practical utility when compared to the merely poetic contributions of religion, but science is justified by its nobler uses as a means of “pure” culture and discipline when compared to engineering. (787)
We have already noted the ambivalence of lab discourse in our chapters on space and people. Gieryn insists that this deep ambivalence is constitutive not only of labs but of science more generally; “scientific knowledge is at once theoretical and empirical, pure and applied, objective and subjective, exact and estimative, democratic (open for all to confirm) and elitist (experts alone confirm), limitless and limited (to certain domains of knowledge)” (792). Scientists engaging in boundary-work are therefore not being cynical, but they are employing an inherent structural feature of science to advance their interests.
The question that arises is, how do we engage in good-faith discussion about technological and research practice in media and design labs while acknowledging, on one hand, that these are not just places of knowledge production but also places of recreation, imagination, and activism, and acknowledging, on the other hand, that science labs are not inherently any different?18 Such a question cannot be fully resolved in a single chapter, as it touches on the assumed tensions between regularity and unexpected outcomes, experimentation and standardization, creativity and routine, and other sorts of binaries that inform the techniques that culture uses to maintain the barrier between scientific and artistic activity. In order to avoid making assumptions about the legitimacy of various kinds of knowledge-producing activities (including creative ones), we need critical maps of laboratory practices which recognize the complexity of the issue.