Prototyping cultures – a conference

We thought it was about time to share our ethnographic insights and experience thus far with others. For this reason, we are starting to organise a two-day conference on ‘Prototyping cultures’, to be held in the fall in Madrid. If you would like to hear more about the conference, do get in touch with us. For a start, here is the conference abstract:

Prototyping cultures: social experimentation, do-it-yourself science and beta-knowledge

Prototypes have acquired certain prominence and visibility in recent times. Software development is perhaps the case in point, where the release of non-stable versions of programmes has become commonplace, as is famously the case in free and open source software. Developers are here known for releasing beta or work-in-progress versions of their programmes, as an invitation or call for others to contribute their own developments and closures. An important feature of prototyping in this case is the incorporation of failure as a legitimate and very often empirical realisation.

Prototyping has also become an important currency of explanation and description in art-technology contexts, where the emphasis is on the productive and processual aspects of experimentation. Medialabs, hacklabs, community and social art collectives, dorkbots, open collaborative websites or design thinking workshops are spaces and sites where prototyping and experimentation have taken hold as both modes of knowledge-production and cultural and sociological styles of exchange and interaction. Common to many such endeavours are: user-centred innovation, where users are incorporated into artefacts’ industrial design processes; ICT mediated forms of collaboration (email distribution lists, wikispaces, peer-to-peer digital channels), or; decentralised organisational structures. Some economists favour the term ‘open innovation’ to describe an emerging production paradigm. From a historical and sociological angle, however, the backdrop of such cultures of prototyping is not infrequently connected, if in complex and not always obvious ways, with a variety of artistic vanguards, the do-it-yourself, environmental and recycling movements. Prototyping, then, as both a means and an end of social re-production.

Experimentation has also been at the centre of recent reassessments of the organisation of laboratory, expert and more generally epistemic cultures in the sciences. An interesting development is the shift in emphasis from the experimental as a knowledge-site to the experimental as a social process: for example, in open access publishing, or more generally in open collaborative scientific exchanges, where sociality and social exchange often become the limit-tests of experimentation itself.

These are only a few examples of what we mean by prototyping cultures. Our workshop invites participants to consider their own work in light of some of these developments and tensions. The following list of topics and themes is a first port-of-call to help think through some of the issues at stake:

Openness and closure: The concept of ‘black-boxing’ has been used for thinking about the process of stabilizing technologies. A prototype, however, is a non-stable technology, that is, one which is yet to be black-boxed. Thus, the process of its stabilization always involves the negotiation of forms of openness and closure. We want to investigate into this boundary and its consequences. How are openness and closure negotiated? How is failure made into a legitimate option? Can prototypes travel easily or on the contrary are they tightly linked to their context of production? What is the social life of prototypes in the long durée – what do they aim for: stabilization, robustness, commodification, or simply, the cultural re-evaluation of social experimentation?

Redefining technological engagement: Because prototypes do not aim for stabilization, initiators of prototyping experiments are known for making room for non-experts in the process of production. What experiences do we know of non-experts participating in the production of prototypes? How is the role of the public redefined in prototyping practices? Might this entail the redefinition of expertise to incorporate non-technical or scientific skills?

Material culture and cultural materialism: The production of prototypes often requires mobilizing whatever materials lie at hand. It calls for improvisation, recycling and re-mixing: a piece of furniture that is made by its future user, or a piece of furniture that is converted into something different in a recycling process. Remix culture, indeed, allows all work and objects to remain ontologically unclosed: anything can be materially transformed and reinterpreted if taken up and remixed anew. The prototype respects no standard classifications. If ‘dirt is matter out of place’, as Mary Douglas famously put it, then prototyping may be the culture of dirt par excellence: a cultural materialism of the un-wholly.

Opening the black-box, intervening in society: If technology is society made durable, as Latour had it, what does it mean to make prototypes that are not durable? Is indeed the production of non-stable artefacts a way of destabilizing society? Perhaps a focus on prototyping cultures allows novel forms of social durability to emerge – new expressions of cultural, political and aesthetic materiality and critique. What is opened-up in a prototyping intervention?

Social organisation: If prototyping practices open up a space for the participation of non-experts in the production of techno-science, an ensuing issue might be: what forms of organisation does prototyping promote or allow? What are the implications for institutions (laboratories, medialabs, art-science collaboratives) who wish to get involved in the production of prototypes? Moreover, how are institutions to measure the failure/success of their interventions if they are no longer to be evaluated by their robustness or durability? What consequences may it have for state and public institutions (say, in the art, museum or scientific worlds) whose jobs may now be reconceived as process-facilitators rather than artefact-producers?

Prototyping and property: Not unlike the impact that free and open source software had on traditional intellectual property rights regimes (leading to the development of copyleft and creative commons licences), prototyping practices generate novel and challenging social claims and entitlements over the ownership and management of the prototype and/or derivative products. Sometimes, it is legal form itself that is subjected to a prototyping experience. An area of potential interest here, then, is the purchase that prototyping might have as a critical legal tool: how prototyping might be strategically deployed across national barriers, legal languages, legal regimes and/or zones to provoke-into-existence new legal forms.

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June 2024