Prototyping cultures: art, science and politics in beta

by Alberto Corsín Jiménez March 3, 2015

Offfficina (a.k.a The Dinosaur) by Inteligencias Colectivas. Photograph by Inteligencias Colectivas

Alberto Corsín Jiménez provides an overview of the Prototyping Cultures Special Issue of Journal of Cultural Economy (Volume 7, Issue 4, 2014). The summary builds on extracts from his introduction to the collection, which can be accessed in full here

Prototypes have acquired much prominence and visibility in recent times. Software development is perhaps the case par excellence, where the release of non-stable versions of programmes has become commonplace, as is famously in free and open source software (Kelty 2008). 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 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’ design processes; ICT-mediated forms of collaboration (email distribution lists, wikispaces, peer-to-peer digital infrastructures), or; decentralised and so-called ‘horizontal’ organisational structures. From a historical and sociological angle, 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, even the development of cybernetic philosophy (Turner 2006).

Experimentation has also been at the centre of recent reassessments of the organisation of laboratory, expert and more generally epistemic cultures in the academy. An interesting development is the shift in emphasis from the experimental as a knowledge-site to the experimental as a social process (Galison and Jones 1999). Thus, vis-à-vis the epistemes of modelling, systems-thinking, non/representationalism, patterning or the development of ‘science without laws’ (Creager, Lunbeck and Wise 2008), the figure of the prototype offers a domain where materiality, emergence and indeterminacy supplement and energise each other (cf. Chadarevian and Hopwood 2004; Manchanda 2006). Moreover, it offers a placeholder, too, for examining changing cultures of work inside the academy itself, such as the emergence of new para-sites of collaboration, where researchers and informants (now re-functioned as ‘epistemic partners’) mutually co-design and modulate an epistemic space (see George Marcus’ contribution to the special issue).

In art, design, science, even entrepreneurial and political organisation, the languages of openness and open-endedness, of provisionality and experimentation, are thus taking hold as models for cultural practice. The prototype works as descriptor for both an epistemic object and an epistemic culture (Knorr-Cetina 1999). It is a language of, and reference for, a new techno-political consciousness of craft, skill and communal self-organisation. The experimental and open-ended qualities of prototyping have become a surrogate for new cultural experiences and processes of democratisation.

In an age of audit justifications, social impact and public and ethical accountabilities, the seductiveness of the prototype is hard not to miss. The technological promises of the prototype seem to have instated a new illusion of democracy: it has brought the worlds of objects, engineering, design, cultural practice and politics together in some new fertile assemblages. Here is an epistemic culture built on collaboration, provisionality, recycling, experimentation and creativity, which seems as much oriented to the production of technological artefacts as it is to the social engineering of hope. If the culture of prototyping indeed prototypes hope, shouldn’t we all hope for prototyping cultures more generally?

The special issue

It is inspiring to be part of a cultural moment that takes the prototype seriously as a social form; it is slightly more daunting to have such a form prefigure our cultural moment. Ours is the time, so it seems, that makes both possible. This special issue brings together scholars in the fields of anthropology, social studies of science and technology, and critical design thinking, in a theoretical and ethnographic dialogue that takes the figure of the prototype seriously as a contemporary cultural heuristic and currency. The essays address some of the historical underpinnings and theoretical consequences that the notion of prototyping raises for social and political theory today, including:

Openness / closure: Prototypes are defined as dispositifs-in-the-making. They are open to scrutiny and re-adaptation; they are structurally unstable. They have not yet been ‘black-boxed’. What, then, goes into black-boxing a technology: how are the proto and the type parenthesised with respect to each other? Does ‘failure’, for example, play a role in such parenthetical exercises? If so, what kind of failure, and whose?

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. How is the role of the public thus redefined in prototyping practices – as users, stakeholders, militants?

Durability: If technology is society made durable, as Latour put it (1991), 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?

Organisation: What forms of organisation does prototyping promote or allow? 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?

Property: Prototyping practices generate novel and challenging social claims and entitlements over the ownership and management of the prototype and/or derivative products: Who owns something that is inappropriately finished – that apparently remains outside the proprietary? (Biagioli, Jaszi and Woodmansee 2011)

Critique: Is there scope for using prototyping as a tool for critical theory and praxis? What can prototyping do to/for theory?

Special Issue Table of Contents


Biagioli, M., Jaszi, P & Woodmansee M (eds) (2011) Making and unmaking intellectual property: creative production in legal and cultural perspective. Chicago and London: The University of Chicago Press.Chadarevian, S. de & Hopwood, N. (eds) (2004) Models: The Third Dimension of Science. Stanford, California: Stanford University Press.Creager, A. N. H., Lunbeck, E. and Wise, M. N. (eds) (2007). Science Without Laws: Model Systems, Cases, Exemplary Narratives. Durham and London: Duke University Press.

Galison, P. & Jones, C. A. (1999) ‘Factory, laboratory, studio: dispersing sites of production’ in The architecture of science, ed. C. A. Jones and P. Galison, 497–540. Cambridge, Massachusetts, and London: The MIT Press.

Kelty, C. M. (2008) Two bits: the cultural significance of free software. Durham and London: Duke University Press.

Knorr-Cetina, K. (1999) Epistemic cultures : how the sciences make knowledge. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press.

Latour, B. (1991) ‘Technology is society made durable’, in A sociology of monsters: essays on power, technology and domination, ed. John Law, 103-131. London, Routledge.

Manchanda, C. (2006) Models and Prototypes. St. Louis, Missouri: Mildred Lane Kemper Art Museum.

Turner, F. (2006) From counterculture to cyberculture: Stewart Brand, the Whole Earth network, and the rise of digital utopianism. Chicago: The University of Chicago.