Alberto Corsín and Adolfo Estrella, of the Spanish National Research Council (CSIC), have organized a conference I’m going to called “Prototyping cultures: social experimentation, do-it-yourself science and beta-knowledge.” This is something Adam Fish has written about here, and which is perennially on my mind.
Here is how they orient the problem:
What do a self-managed arts and social squat in downtown Madrid, the monthly Critical Mass cycling assertion movement, or a new media and digital cultural public organisation working at the intersection of art, technology and science, have in common?
All of them, we want to suggest, express novel forms of socio-technical experimentation: precarious and very often temporal entanglements in which an abandoned building is turned into a public and open cultural centre; city streets are parenthetically transformed into bicycle-friendly environments; or the call-for and inclusion of amateurs in the production of cultural and artistic works redefines the terms of institutional expertise. In all of them a certain politics of the urban is enacted; all of them are prototypes of new modes of city life.
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. But 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 further 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 the artefact’s industrial design process; 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 the do-it-yourself, environmental, countercultural and recycling movements spanning the 1960s right through the 1980s. Prototyping, then, as both a means and an end of social re-production. Around this notion of prototypes we have organized a conference under the title of Prototyping cultures: social experimentation, do-it-yourself science and beta-knowledge in which diverse proposals of researchers working around this notion of prototyping will be discussed.
This is good as a starting point, but there is something not quite there about it yet that I hope the conference will bring out. For one, prototyping has a pretty diverse set of meanings in different locations–from engineering and computer programming to architecture to industrial design to art. Cetainly we don’t talk much about prototyping in anthropology, but we do it: we try out ideas, we half-form theories, we make unwarranted assertions in order to see how they might fly. But does the diversity of meanings facilitate a metonymy across cultural and professional locations, or does it erase distinctions? Secondly, it’s pretty clear that prototype can mean two quite different things: 1) a first try, an experiment, a temporary solution, an object to think with and 2) a standard, a reference object, the first instance of something against which all others are compared. Do these two meanings not pull in opposite directions when we are talking about something like “social experimentation”? On the one hand a tendency towards flexibility, ad hocracy, and a emphemeralization of appropriate knowledge, and on the other towards things like definitive works, standard classifications and a certain fixing of the future?
I’m curious if the proposal resonates with people here. Feel free to provoke Alberto and Adolfo, I’ve suggested to them that they might want to test their prototype here…