Issue Number Zero: Prototyping Prototyping

Prototyping Prototyping :: Second Iteration

Our conference prototype – the document created by Chris – had the prototypical characteristic of just-in-time production, which meant that I’ve only been able to engage with it properly after the fact. Doing so was a pleasure, and leaves me wishing now for another iteration of the conference. But at least ARCEpisode2 provides a form of that.

My contribution to ‘Prototyping Prototyping,’ Chris points out, fails to mention prototyping. This is admittedly a notable absence, so in this next iteration I want to try to account for it, at least briefly, as well as to acknowledge some of the things that I learned from the last iteration; that is, both our meeting together in Madrid, which Alberto and Adolfo generously hosted, and the document that Chris has assembled for us.

First the missing prototype. My contribution was perhaps more in the way of a response to the presuppositions of the prototype, entangled as it is in discourses of future making within specific histories of Euro-American design. I’m captured by Michael Guggenheim’s proposition that “we are not witnessing the recent invention of prototyping, but the invention of prototyping as a positive, celebratory discourse” (51).

Michael reminds us of the place of the prototype in the professionalization of making things, and I’ve participated directly in this in the context of my own professional life as a Member of the Research Staff at Xerox Palo Alto Research Center from 1979 to 1999. During that period I engaged critically with objects identified as prototypes (for example, an ‘expert system’ designed in the 1980s), and embraced the prototype in my own practice (in the form of the ‘case-based prototype’, a central object in our iterative crafting of an ethnographically-based process of co-design in the 1990s). Technology prototypes were at once demonstrative objects and strategic allies for myself and my colleagues, a good prototype being a sociotechnical configuration that a) involves the working out, in detail, of mundane forms of infrastructural connection that enable novel transformations on existing technologies; b) can tell multiple stories, intelligible to differently interested audiences including prospective users, fellow researchers, and financial sponsors; and c) demonstrates possibilities that in turn imply further reconfigurations. In Alain Pottage’s words “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” (p. 74). James Leach articulates this as “a description that reveals something of the tentative and unexpected consequences of knowledge production” (25); Alex Wilkie as “a sociomaterial technique for performing the future in the present” (46), though I might revise this to asserting a possible future in the present. Crucially, our prototyping practices required that we work outside the bounds of the research laboratory, in relations of collaborative research with other relevant practitioners. Both intelligibly familiar and recognizably new, like scholarship in Alain’s characterization the work of the prototype was to “reframe, reanimate, enrich and recombine” (75). Our prototypes helped us to reconfigure at least slightly the space of professional design that we inhabited: among other things they “reconstituted material instruments as means of ‘de-instrumentalizing’ the social process of bringing machines into being” (Pottage p. 73).

At the same time, the opposition of prototyping to “orderly science and planning” that Michael Guggenheim identifies (51) continues in the ambivalent status of the prototype within product development: it’s okay as a first approximation, but then science/engineering needs to take over. It’s still the case that “the modern discourse of producing things claim[s] that experts—scientists, artists, urban planners, architects or bureaucrats—[will] arrive at the best available solution to a given problem. The role of lay people [is] to adopt, adhere to and cherish these solutions” (52); that prototyping is “an expression of the ‘professionalizing of everyone’” (53). I worry in this regard about the premise that we are all designers, a move that, as Michael points out, reclaims the power of the designer by distributing it (55). Must those not identified as designers be shown in fact to be designers in order to be legitimized?

At the conference itself, Fred Turner proposed that prototypes assemble aesthetic conventions that in turn enable connection between otherwise disparate cultures/networks, illustrating this with an account of the 1970 Pepsi Pavilion’s immersive environment, as a prototype for what has subsequently been named the ‘military-industrial-entertainment’ complex, with the effect that, in Fred’s words, “information became sensation and people became information processors.” Prototypes in this sense are conflict-obscuring devices as well as idealized arrangements; how might prototyping rather illuminate conflicts, contradictions and politics? Rather than implying origins and singularity, (how) could prototyping be about collection and multiplicity? Nereo Calvillo’s presentation on the project In the Air, in which urban residents collectively make visible the composition of the air that they breath, points the direction, as does Hernani Dias’ Refarm the City.

Marilyn Strathern wonders whether an interest in prototyping may be symptomatic of a wider preoccupation with interdisciplinarity (17). I note in this regard that my own experience with prototyping came some years after a preoccupation with interdisciplinarity; or perhaps better put, at the point where the latter was (simply, if not without difficulty) enacted rather than discussed programmatically. This was marked by a shift from my participation in conference panels on relations between computing and the social sciences in general, to work with a small group of colleagues, including anthropologists and computer scientists, to enact a practice of ethnographically informed co-design. As noted earlier, the case-based prototype was central to our efforts.

James Leach wonders about entanglements of anthropological knowledge with Western constructions of the person, and the consequences of a sense of responsibility and ownership for collaboration (23-24). Another issue here, I think, is a commitment to the non-alienability of anthropological labor; that is, the inseparability of the generation of ethnographic ‘evidence,’ and (responsibility for) its readings.

Chris presents as the warrant for the ARC collective; that “[t]he 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)” (p. 6). I wonder about the performative effects of this reiteration of the figure of ‘classical fieldwork,’ which works to erase histories of collaborative labor within anthropology (even within the ‘classical’ model), as well as the discipline’s ongoing critical reflections on, and transformations of, its historical locations and practices. Might we not even want to defend the value of the single authored monograph in this time of compulsory teamwork? And might we not also want to question the propositions that follow this premise, that the contemporary is somehow more complex, that studies in “development agencies, corporations, stock exchanges and finance, pharmaceutical and biotechnology industries, information technology, the economy, etc.” somehow demand new modes of research? If new modes are needed, presumably they were as relevant earlier as they are now. What other grounds might there be for reconfiguring ethnographic writing, and aren’t there already interesting forms of innovation in play? What’s at stake in this call for anthropology’s renewal, which simultaneously asserts an absence needing to be filled? How might the statement that “[p]rototyping as a figure reveals a 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” not simply reveal those relationships, but in its own assertion make other relationships less possible? We need to be wary of figures untethered from the specific cultural, historical, political and economic locations that give them life, and prototyping is no exception.