Introduction: Everything is a Lab
Retooling is an extravagance to be reserved for the occasion that demands it.
—Thomas S. Kuhn, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions
Labs are everywhere, and we can’t stop talking about them.
Media labs, hacker zones, makerspaces, humanities labs, fab labs, tech incubators, innovation centers, hacklabs, and media archaeology labs: these hybrid spaces, which sometimes bear only a passing resemblance to the scientific laboratories from which they take part of their inspiration, are liminal but increasingly powerful. They appear in universities and colleges, wedged uneasily between traditional departments and faculties. They’re also in basements, warehouses, strip malls, and squats. They are stable to varying degrees; many have long-term addresses and an itinerant roster of occupants. Some pop up in one location for a few days, then relocate to another. Sometimes they’re even in mobile trucks in the streets, bringing tools and expertise to children in schools and the general public. When administrators streamline clusters of tools and talent to produce economic value, labs sometimes align with the most ruthless of venture capitalists; in other cases, they are free and open for all to use, disdainful of all commercial motivations.
The first difficulty in talking about labs with any precision is that the metaphor of the lab has permeated contemporary culture to the degree that it can apply to just about anything. Throughout this book, we argue that labs have always already been hybrids, and that we need a heuristic in order to study them. Ideally, such a heuristic would help labs of any sort describe themselves, with particular attention to the question of how their lab’s specific composition enables them to go about the task of producing knowledge. As we gathered the writing on laboratories that we found most instructive, a number of analytical categories began to recur: space, apparatus, infrastructure and policy, people, the imaginary, and technique. Each offered a powerful, if partial, perspective on our subject. After some thought, we began to realize that the differences between the kinds of analyses that these categories produced were not a liability. When we considered them together, comparatively, a way of mapping the indisputable complexity of laboratory relations began to emerge. As a result, these categories became the components of our heuristic, which we call “the extended lab model.” Eventually, they also became the structuring principle of this book, with each chapter focusing on one category. Each chapter also includes a few case studies, which provide an opportunity to think through the active relations between the aspect of the lab under consideration in the specific chapter and some, if not all, of the other aspects of the extended lab.
This introduction also includes a case study employing the extended lab model, focusing on a set of photographs of an early twentieth-century French language lab at Middlebury College. We then discuss why labs matter, including a clarification of the differences and overlaps between science labs and arts/humanities labs. We conclude with a section on the pre-emergence of hybrid labs, providing initial thoughts on the performative quality of the act of naming a space as a laboratory. In short, this introduction offers a condensed summary of the aims of the book and situates it in the context of earlier research on labs as sites of practice.