Issue Number Zero: Prototyping Prototyping

Prototyping Prototyping: A Preface

by: Christopher M. Kelty

Prototyping Prototyping, began as a conference publication that was finished before the conference.

Its goal was to be a “prototype” of a conference on prototyping cultures.  Participants were invited 2 weeks ahead of time to submit a short piece, and nearly everyone involved did so.  I’m tempted to say: prototyping works.

The rub of course, is that this is a group of people who, at best, each have different ideas of what a prototype is or why it might be a salient figure of our contemporary experience. There is a wealth of practical, empirical material to gather and analyze about how prototypes work in different domains (design, architecture, art, metrology, engineering, social science), and also a definite conceptual problematic picked out by the term “prototyping.”  It concerns innovation, participation, intellectual property, collaboration, democracy, interdisciplinarity, software, design, ethnography, sociality… just to name a few of the limits and terms proposed herein.

Alberto Corsín Jimenez and Adolfo Estalella, have been either generous or foolhardy to let me prototype their conference, maybe both. The conference could and would no doubt have generated these thoughts without my help, or presence.  But part of the experience of using prototypes is to recognize that sometimes that’s where the design work gets done.  As Marilyn Strathern puts it in here piece, sometimes the rehearsal is the research.  If this is the case, and there is some small success in it, then it changes the stakes for the conference itself.  I apologize if necessary.  As Lucy Suchman points out here, one of the powerful effects of “prototyping culture” is that it forces people to live in a future not of their own choosing, and some prototypes (e.g. Silicon Valley’s) are more powerful than others.

A different and related reason for this publication is that I want to prove—to myself and others—that it can be done.  We have plenty of publications, but few spaces for collaborative experimentation with ongoing research.  In some fields “conference proceedings” are de rigeur, but in the social sciences we tend to treat them as ephemeral spaces of interaction. Anthropological Research on the Contemporary (ARC Studio) is a place to experiment with preserving the interactions in a collaboration, and a way to valorize the work that goes on—before and during a conference.

The Anthropology of the Contemporary collective has been in existence since roughly 2005, in various forms and with various ongoing projects. A key focus has been “concept work” which generally means a couple of things.[1] First, the development of a serious collaborative enterprise in anthropology—one that makes use of shared concepts, modes of inquiry and norms of judgment with respect to those concepts and inquiries.  The need for such a collaborative environment is driven by a historical over-emphasis on the single-authored, monographic project, itself driven by the constraints of a classical model of fieldwork (guy in tent in village).  Various critiques of that form have been leveled: e.g. that the guy in the tent was never alone, he had translators or friends or family with him.  But the most urgent challenge came as anthropologists increasingly turned to new, complex, reticulate forms in contemporary society: development agencies, corporations, stock exchanges and finance, pharmaceutical ad biotechnology industries, information technology, the economy, etc.  Such objects are far too large and complex for a guy in a tent in a village to inquire into.

The other problem that “concept work” addresses is the need across the disciplines for new tools—new conceptual “equipment” for rerouting entrenched conceptual flows.  Here the distinction between first and second order observation (drawn primarily from Luhmann) is frequently invoked.  The distinction is dangerous because it can imply that 1st order actors (for example, economists measuring productivity) are completely understood by 2nd order actors (anthropologists measuring economists).  While the distancing move is necessary (anthropologists must study someone), the point of the inquiry is different:  to make sense of why 1st order systems of knowledge and rationality take the form they do, and to inquire what the political and ethical consequences of this form are.

So to propose a conference on “prototyping” as Alberto and Adolfo have done, engages in both of these aspects of concept work:  on the one hand they start, as anthropologists, from the simple act of studying prototypers (and in this case, the class of people who fit this description is fuzzy, but likely to include: designers, artists, architects, information architects, device makers, engineers, programmers, users, performers, curators, and others) in a specific place (MediaLab Prado and its environs).  On the other hand, in proposing prototyping as a “figure” (a field that includes, as the subtitle says: beta knowledge, DIY science, social experimentation), they introduce a distinction between 1st order knowledge of prototypes and second order knowledge of “prototyping culture.”

First order observers of prototyping see a concrete field of experimental relations that is well specified.   Georgina Born was on to this long ago in her studies of software prototyping at IRCAM in the 1990s.[2] Alex Wilkie’s piece nicely captures some of these debates, and extends them.  Suchman’s piece points to their use as a key component of future-making, especially in centers of power like Silicon Valley.  Indeed, for people who deal daily with prototypes there is nothing particularly new or radical or unusual about them.

Second order observers see something different: prototyping as a figure.  As Pottage points out in his contribution, “crudely, prototyping is what happens when the distinction between means and ends folds into itself, so that what is means and what is end becomes an effect of interest or strategy.()”  And to ask the question “what comes next?” whether in science or in engineering or in culture, is to see the figure of prototyping at work.  Prototyping as a figure reveals as set of cultural relationships that are organizing and constraining our relationships with ourselves and others, even if we never touch a real prototype or engage in a specific act of prototyping.

You will see in these contributions, a tension between these first and second order observations of prototypes and prototyping culture. The function of a project like this can only be to work out some of those tensions, so although this takes the form of an “official” looking publication, and in fact intends to be one, it nonetheless represents a moment in an ongoing exploration.  Thank you for playing along.

– Christopher M. Kelty, Somewhere over the Atlantic.


[1] http://anthropos-lab.net/documents
[2] Born, Georgina, 1996 “(Im)materiality and sociality: the dynamics of intellectual property in a computer software research culture” Social Anthropology 4(2)101-116.