Prototyping Culture: social experimentation

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…


Christopher M. Kelty is a professor at the University of California, Los Angeles. He has a joint appointment in the Institute for Society and Genetics, the department of Information Studies and the Department of Anthropology. His research focuses on the cultural significance of information technology, especially in science and engineering. He is the author most recently of Two Bits: The Cultural Significance of Free Software (Duke University Press, 2008), as well as numerous articles on open source and free software, including its impact on education, nanotechnology, the life sciences, and issues of peer review and research process in the sciences and in the humanities.

11 thoughts on “Prototyping Culture: social experimentation

  1. Chris, thanks for pointing us to this conference. Prototyping is a fascinating subject. Allow me to brazenly speculate that the sorts of urban experiments of particular interest to Corsin and Estrella belong to a larger and largely unexamined class of phenomena that occupy the space between the idea and the finished product in all sorts of context; science, engineering, design, filmmaking, knitting, programming and jazz are just a few that leap to mind. Whatever the case, the crucial step is from the idea to the tinkering, the messing around with materials, that lies between the idea and the final result. In my mind’s eye, I see rough sketches, circuit boards or cobbled-together bits of machinery, my wife knitting a patch from which she decides if the yarn she has chosen will work for the sweater she wants to knit, a sax player blowing a few notes that sketch a new riff. I note that academic interest in bricolage, assemblage, prototypes, etc., parallels the emergence in pop culture of back-stage scenes and dropped cuts in DVDs, Makers Fairs, and how-to YouTube videos. Both signal a growing interest in how things get done, as opposed to the bodiless idea or the fetishized end product.

    Anyway, cool stuff. I look forward to seeing what this conference produces.

  2. I must confess I hadn’t come across the notion of prototyping until Alberto told me about this Madrid meeting, which I’m looking forward to attending in November, albeit “de oyente” (as a lurker).

    Thanks Chris for this provocation to start thinking about these ideas prior to the meeting. Having worked on development issues in the past, prototypes make me think of pilot projects (or pilots for short), one difference being – it would seem – that pilots are typically top-down, are meant to be replicated and ‘rolled out’ rather than tinkered with or freely modified; and they are not supposed to fail (although in practice most do).

  3. It is also worth considering that the contexts in which prototyping occurs frequently involve group interactions that may be highly political. Thus, in an essay on how advertising is created in Japan, I wrote the following,

    In Discourses of the Vanishing, Marilyn Ivy describes the creation of Discover Japan, an advertising campaign created by Dentsu Incorporated for what was then the (as yet unprivatized) Japan National Railways. Her description of how the campaign was created is taken from an account by Fujioka Wakao. In 1970, when Discover Japan was created, Fujioka was the account executive in charge of the campaign. Ivy’s synthesis of Fujioka’s description of how the campaign was developed proceeds along the following lines.
    We learn first that the planning began with discussions about the meaning of travel. The starting point was the word tabi, an indigenous Japanese term associated with Edo-period pilgrimages.

    Tabi brings up associations of solitary pilgrims traversing remote mountains; it is a word appropriate for describing the journeys of Japan’s famous spiritual poet-travelers, the monk Saigyô and the haiku master Bashô (Ivy: 1995:37).

    The Dentsu team concluded, however, that in the Japan of the 1970s, few Japanese had ever had the chance to embark on a tabirashii tabi, a true journey of self-discovery. Then they realized that while their Edo prototypes were men, the only people in Japan with the time and money for travel were young, unmarried women.
    After market research confirmed that young women who travel imagine themselves as ‘just like movie heroines’, the team developed commercials in which pairs of young women appear as if on stage at travel destinations that represented the very essence of traditional Japan. Modern young women would see themselves leaving home and traveling into the Japanese countryside where they could discover their true selves. The ultimate destination not shown in any commercial was, of course, home again. There these young women would eventually assume their proper roles as Japanese wives and mothers, reproducing the essential Japan of which they would now be the true embodiment.
    My purpose in this paper is not to quarrel with Ivy’s interpretation of the larger cultural significance of Discover Japan. But as someone who has worked for thirteen years for Hakuhodo Incorporated, Dentsu’s largest Japanese rival, what I find unconvincing here is the smoothness with which the campaign’s development appears to unfold. Where are the unsuccessful alternatives? What became of the quarrels, the struggles, the late-night battles by which they were sifted and shaped into the proposals—never just one—that were shown to the client? How were they presented to the client? Who made the final decision? And why?
    I recall, however, that Fujioka is one of Japan’s most famous and successful account executives. The story we have just heard is precisely the kind of tale that great account executives (or the marketing planners or creative staff who may do the actual work) incorporate in presentations and then, when campaigns are successful, in press interviews and in books and articles which serve as promotional tools both for themselves and their agencies. As descriptions of the actual processes by which campaigns are created, they are, at best, highly sanitized history. One could, perhaps, following the lead of Joy Hendry (1993), describe them as a kind of verbal wrapping that focuses attention on the author’s intention while artfully concealing the substance of what they are talking about.
    My purpose in this essay is to peel away the wrapping and sketch, albeit very roughly, what goes on back stage at a Japanese advertising agency as advertising campaigns are developed, produced and delivered to the public who members, unless they take some special interest in the matter, will see only the polished surface of the finished print ad or TV commercial, floating free like a fetishized commodity from the messy muddle of industrial and artistic processes, corporate politics and frequently tense interpersonal relations through which it has been created.

  4. Thank you for your invitation to introduce the conference in Savage Minds, Chris.

    In your comments you mention two different and key issues that we are exploring in our fieldwork and we hope that will be discussed in the conference. One is the tension between closure and openness in the prototyping practices, the other is the issue of travelling. Regarding the first one, in the long presentation we elaborated for the conference we wrote:

    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?

    Indeed, the issue is what if prototypes are not technologies in the process of blackboxing but… something else. A blackbox is an stabilized entity whose relations have been closed, but what if a prototype is not a material arrangament almost stabilized but and ephemeral event that just happens, a socio-technical and temporal arrangement that aims at problematizing already established orders, opening things up instead of closing them. This is one of the points we will argue in our presentation and that has inspired our call. And this idea of prototypes as spaces of experimentation is present in very different contexts and practices; I think the diversity of participants in the conference is an evidence of it.

    Regarding travelling, there is an intriguing question we are dealing with: why some particular arrangements, some solutions that are proposed are deemed prototypes and other are just lcoal solution for particular problems. Posed in a different way: to what extend the aspiration and work for making a particular arrangements replicable in other locations is related to its prototype condition.v Is it possible a prototype that can not travel in any form?

    For concluding and coming back to the ending remark of Chris in which he points out to the varied set of meanings of the concept of prototype, we try to provide diversity into the notion of ‘prototypes’ and ‘prototyping practices’; and so, what we call a ‘hospitable prototype’ is a very particular mode of prototyping, a particular prototype, at least this would be part of our argument.

  5. One of my standard tactics is take new ideas and see how much I can make them seem like old ones — the older the better. If I had to do that with this conference I would say that it is about non-routinized and non-institutionalized phenomena. The two senses of ‘prototype’ are thus not necessarily opposed to one another as the first is about a novel configuration of elements, and the second is about that novel configuration becoming the type specimen for all future iterations — and institutionalizations — of that configuration as it becomes institutionalized. Critical Mass and the Catholic Mass are alike in the sense that the original protoype has given spawn to subsequent instantiations that are more and more copies: more and more cold (rather than hot, in the Levi-Straussian sense), more and more prescriptive rather than performative (as Sahlins would say). Except of course the Catholic Mass has gone on for quite some time, and its ‘hot’ prototypical moment bears little resemblance to what goes on today.

    I hope you have some Melanesianists on the panel and connect with the literature on The Phenomena Formerly Known As Cargo Cults since much of this connects (as I think Adolfo already knows) with Roy Wagner’s work on creativity and cultural innovation. Albeit with a new focus on ‘material culture’ in the STSS sense of the word. My 2 cents anyway.

  6. Rex’s comment raises something else I wanted to add. Which is one of my standard tactics: to introduce the question of scale. Most of the talk about prototyping here is about the movement around individuals or small groups of people engaged in trying things out, testing materials, instatiating modes of interaction that might then become institutionalized. So the Catholic Mass example is a nice one, and yes it’s hot moment was a much smaller scale “prototyping” moment than it’s subsequent glacial instatiation as ritual and codified practice.

    But what about the large-scale prototypes we are seeing today: Deep water oil drilling; vaccination; folic acid supplementation; the Toxic Assets Relief Program… you get the drift… experimental, in the sense of untested, practices that are immediately of import at a huge scale. To me this isn’t an issue of black-boxing, because we’re dealing with the stage way before anything gets settled, but visited upon the entire planet at once. Clearly there’s a resonance here, but I’m not sure “prototyping” is the right concept yet.

  7. This is what I call ‘traction’ rather than ‘friction’: large scale bureaucratically structured institutions create zones of hotness and innovation inside themselves, wait for innovations to be spit out of them, and then routinize and distribute them globally using cold and well-structured systems. What I like (or at least think I understand) about Adolfo’s comment is that one question of the conference (I imagine) is: what other mechanisms of diffusion are there other than scary corporate ones? Perhaps we should do a session entitled “Beyond Skunkworks as Cultural Form”.

    Still, if something can diffuse in recognizable form then it must have stabilized somewhat, eh? And diffusion across space time is by definition a method of enrolling people in ever more expansive networks?

  8. I don’t want sound dumb, but could you clarify a little? Would you say that prototyping is basically culture development or evolution? I love the use of the word in this context, but is it another way of saying what anthros have studied for while; that is what’s different? Finally, and this is what I’m most curious about, is prototyping considered a kind of conscious evolution or creation? I’m thinking the answer to the last question is yes, but I want to make sure. If that is indeed the case, and you’re talking about the way rapid information flows can diffuse new cultural forms quickly and to large audiences, then I’m really interested.

  9. Rick, you don’t sound dumb to me. Not being one of the organizers of the conference, I cannot speak in their stead. My own take is that prototyping is an instance of cultural development or evolution–but distinct enough from other possibilities to warrant consideration on its own. You have put your finger on a critical difference when you suggest that prototyping might be considered a kind of conscious evolution. That said, I would be more inclined to say that prototyping is a conscious intervention that attempts to shape evolution. In the cases which occasion the conference, the evolution in question is the evolution of society in an increasingly urban and/or digitally interconnected world.

    The use of “prototype” in this context, differentiates these conscious interventions from both the normally unobserved gradual changes to which uniformitarian views of evolution point and the catastrophic, big news story, events to which punctuated views of evolution (or revolution) point, pointing instead to small-scale but potentially important experiments in social organization. It directs our attention to those moments before the experiments settle into new institutions or fade into fossils.

    That, anyway, is my take.

  10. speaking as a non-anthropologist who is embedded within several communities of prototyping, i do wish to point out (in agreement with rex & john) a couple of of things:

    – when prototyping, there usually exists common agreement that the solution or problem is not clear, and the prototype is a way of negotiating the claims of the disciplines involved. the end result may not bear any resemblance to the original prototype at all. (i think that is why you see more prototyping occurring in interdisciplinary contexts, where no one has the right or complete answer.)

    one critical difference between experiments and prototypes is that prototypes may function as an epistemological construct even when not so intended: an attempt to construct a solution to a problem may give rise to a new perspective on that problem, redefine it, or uncover others. this is the common skein that connects the social experiments with the technological ones: wherein an app becomes a way for an engineer to learn about human behaviour. this is also the space in which a lot of recent design work is happening – anyone in the HCI community will be familiar with Wizard of Oz techniques, in which behaviour is prototyped without any actual technology being developed.

    – second, prototypes rarely become archetypes directly. it is much more common for some piece of the prototype to become the focus of future development, and for that piece to become integrated into other constructs or give rise to other standards. it is also much more likely that the prototypes will give rise to or become part of a family of adapted copies

    what i would like to see is a better understanding of process prototypes as compared with object/construct prototypes. in my line of work i encounter both, and approach both with the same set of concerns in mind. but the mechanisms of iteration and copying work very differently in both, as do modes of expression and reproduction. i think that’s a rich body of knowledge – are there ‘design principles’ that can carried over between contexts that account for all of this? i’m looking forward to the conference’s output

  11. Are any of the papers from this conference available either through “official” channels or the samizdat system?

    I was at Aberdeen portion of the Design Anthropology short course last March, so I am somewhat familiar with the topic James Leach presented, but the other papers…..remain objects of curiosity.

    Any help is appreciated.

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