Issue 0 Prototyping Prototyping »

The Long History of Prototypes


The conference organisers Alberto Corsín Jiménez and Adolfo Estalella state at the beginning of their invitation: “prototypes have acquired certain prominence and visibility in recent times”.

What I want to focus on is what the words “visibility” and “recent times” may mean in the above sentence. The problem here is that the conference description can be read to imply that the practices of prototypes and prototyping have become more prominent, widespread, and important “in recent times.” Alternatively, it can also be read to imply that prototypes have always been important, but that they merely became more visible at some (recent) point in time. If the former is true, we need a history of prototyping and to ask: why and when the increase and qualitative switch of prototyping took place? If the latter is true, it amounts to asking: why do we suddenly recognize the importance of prototyping? Obviously, a mixture or a connection between these two interpretations is possible. However, I want to propose, that it is predominantly the second, discursive interpretation that I think we can observe now.

In a nutshell, my answer is: “prototyping” has always existed and probably, for most of human history, has been more important than it’s opposite, orderly science and planning. But the differentiation of the functional system of science and art and the strong differentiation between experts and lay people in high modernity has obscured existing forms of prototyping. Only since the late 1960s, as part of the “revolt of the audience” as Jürgen Gerhards has called it (Gerhards 2001), has it become possible to acknowledge prototyping as part of western society.

Such a claim rests on a notion of prototyping as laid out in the description of the conference: prototyping is not simply understood as the development of “first forms” or “first strikes” as beta-versions of products as in industrial design, but as a more general mode of doing culture: a mode that is tentative, based on bricolage, user involvement and ongoing change and improvements of products and practices, as “open innovation”, rather than on an expert in a closed lab who turns out a finished product to be used by a unknowing user.

The thesis, that proto-typing in this sense has always existed but was not recognized until some point around 1970, relies on a discourse that came with the establishment of modern science. It aligned on one side, in the west, with science, experts and scientific methodologies that produce working results and on the other side, with lay people, un-methodological working and bricolage. For Lévi Strauss, who introduced the term “bricolage” the social sciences, the bricoleur was still the “savage mind”, the mind of the primitive in a closed world as opposed to the openness of the “engineer” with his scientific mind (Lévi-Strauss 1962:19 ff.). But with the changes of the 1970s, these assumptions were thoroughly reversed, and the notion of prototyping as used in this conference testifies to this reversal: now bricolage is identified with the supposed openness of lay participation, and product development in labs is imagined to be a sign of closure and narrow-mindedness. A well-known version of this thesis is Bruno Latour’s book “We Have Never Been Modern” (Latour 1993). He argues that the modern differentiation between science and the rest of society rests on an unwarranted but constitutive assumption that science produces objective truths while other forms of knowledge do not. Latour’s focus is on the side of the experts and science: he wants to prove that they are indeed messy bricoleurs as well.

But I focus here on the crisis of differentiation between experts and lay people. I would suggest that the discourse on the prominence of proto-typing according to the definition given above is a direct result of the crisis of differentiation of experts and lay people and the assumed ways of how these work.

As I will show in the case of architecture, the modern discourse of producing things claimed that experts—scientists, artists, urban planners, architects or bureaucrats–would arrive at the best available solution to a given problem. The role of lay people would be to adopt, adhere to and cherish these solutions. Artists would produce great artworks that define our times. Scientists would come up with truths about the world, that bureaucrats and engineers would translate into procedures for managing organisations or states or making use of nature. Architects and urban planners would design buildings and cities that would deliver the best solutions to scarce housing and give city dwellers beautiful flats. This asymmetry between experts and lay people first needed to be established in a long process of differentiation.

But the establishment of these differentiations did not mean that there were no lay people who made drawings at home that they or their relatives liked – or often didn’t. Neither did it imply that there were not a lot of people (actually most people in the non-western world), who built or adapted their own houses according to their own tastes.  Many people could invent products at home, or produce ad-hoc solutions to practical problems they encountered with a piece of wood and some nails (Arkhipov 2006). The problem is rather, that there are few historical sources and very little historical interest in these processes, since they do not lend themselves to the writing of histories (they are endlessly repetitive and do not change very much over time).

This is not to deny, that modernity has not brought modern ways of organizing and doing science, inventions, engineering or architecture. But the modern way of doing these things has not replaced bricolage, tinkering and lay building. It has merely made them invisible from its own discourses for about a century. Modernity did not want to see how much it has always been based on prototyping, in the same way as the history of technology did not want to see the continuing importance of low tech in high modernity (Edgerton 2006).

In modernity all these processes of bricolage, home-tinkering and strange projects were largely written out of history, in favour of the great achievements of science, art, planning and organization. High modernity could ignore home tinkering, because the differentiation of society allowed experts to ignore and downplay lay people and tinkering. Science and the arts could still be run by elites with elitist values and a disgust of anything lay-based or popular. But the massive expansion and increased access to higher education made it ever more difficult to run societies based on experts and their pre-elaborated plans only to be inserted into the world. Prototyping is then also an expression of the “professionalizing of everyone” (Wilensky 1964). Furthermore, strong and simple asymmetries between experts and lay people make sense, as long as the knowledge and practices of the experts are manageable and easy to control. However, if they accumulate in such complexity that it becomes difficult to claim to be knowledgeable in more but one highly specialized field and at the same time, if more and more people have access to the foundations and the basics of specialist knowledge, these simple asymmetries break down. In the late 1960s these neat separations came into crisis and the previously negative sides of the distinctions expert/lay person and planning/bricolage suddenly gained a positive value. This includes largely three processes:

First, groups of lay people asked for recognition of their achievements and in a long process western states came to embrace these achievements. For example in medicine, women discovered their bodies and contested medical knowledge (Boston Women’s Health Course Collective. 1971). In architecture users revolted against the tyranny of architects and city planners (Jacobs 1962). Science shops opened to facilitate between scientists and non-scientists and criticised existing knowledge (Leydesdorff and Van den Besselaar 1987). In religion, people left the existing churches and their priests and looked for other forms of spirituality, without priests.

Initially people who were close to the experts often led these movements, but increasingly their practices were disseminated in written form to wider audiences. Buried lay knowledge based on messy practices became itself formulated. A central resource for the dissemination of such non-expert knowledge was a sprawling genre of self-help books  epitomized by the “Whole Earth Catalog” edited by Stewart Brand (Turner 2006; 1968; Kirk 2007). The Whole Earth Catalog was a massive resource book that brought “access to tools” as its subtitle said, including books, that enabled non-experts to become fluent in topics such as “”earth imaging”, “cybernetics”, “permaculture”, “log houses”, “metal working”, “psychological self-care” and “factions” and “tactics” to name but a few. Many of these knowledges and practices were not new discoveries and did not have their origins in (elite) universities (a central exception being cybernetics and computers), but rather old. They were re-discovered and in many ways “re-imported”: either traditional practices that came from the far-east or native people of the west (such as various alternative medicines and mind and body techniques) or re-imported from the rural areas of the world both north and south (as many buildings practices, such as building with stone, wood or mud). These included not only science, technology, medicine and building, but also music and art: the whole earth catalogue includes descriptions of what was then called “world music” and guides how to build various musical instruments, both traditional and modern.

Second, a lot of these practices and knowledges were, at least from the viewpoint of experts and science, messy. They include the collaboration of non-experts, outdated technologies, seemingly non-rational forms of knowledge and knowledge generation. These forms often deliberately tore down the division between experts and audience, and they even tore down the difference between performers and bystanders. For an extreme case, consider something like the actor’s lab: a group of people met with no piece to play and no instruction whatsoever. It was unclear who was a performer and what the performance consisted of and whether what was happening was a form of theatre or a religious ceremony (Grimes 1978). The actor’s studio not only undermined any idea of acting as an expert practice but of theatre as a performance that would differentiate actors from an audience. Similarly, medical self-help books such as “Our Bodies Our Selves” erased the difference between doctor and patient by encouraging women to self-diagnosis and self-treatment.

Third, along with these processes, the experts themselves came to embrace the values of lay people. For example, architects discovered the “user” and “participative” architecture. They also discovered the fact that buildings are malleable and can be changed and defined by users. Architects and urban planners themselves sought to include users into their own concepts and procedures, thereby reclaiming power by distributing it. In art, it became fashionable to recognize that “everybody is an artist”. Arts councils started to distribute money not only for professional art, but for community oriented arts practices. The emergence of pop music, and its commercialization in that sense can be seen as a long process of establishing collaborative forms of music and the lay musician as an acceptable form of musician. In medicine, the patient became a subject that had to be heard, and whose condition had to be discovered in a collaborative practice, rather than a body that is simply diagnosed (Armstrong 1984).

All these trends together do not result in an invention of prototyping, but in the invention of prototyping as a positive, celebratory discourse. From the 1970s onwards, it became impossible to denounce collaborative, non-hierarchic practices, lay people’s knowledge in the name of rational expert based planning. Rather, even the most hard-nosed expert had to account the positive value of collaboration and multiplicities of viewpoints. The invention of “change of use of buildings” is part and parcel of this larger process and since it directly depends on the notion of building types, it helps to elaborate why we speak of proto-typing.

Works Cited

1968. The Whole Earth Catalog. Menlo Park: The Portola Institute.

Arkhipov, Vladimir. 2006. Home-Made: Contemporary Russian Folk Artifacts. London: Fuel.

Armstrong, David. 1984. “The Patient’s View.” Social Science and Medicine 18:737-744.

Boston Women’s Health Course Collective. 1971. Our Bodies Our Selves: A Course by and for Women. Boston: New England Free Press.

Edgerton, David. 2006. The Shock of the Old. Technology and Global History Since 1900. London: Profile.

Gerhards, Jürgen. 2001. “Der Aufstand des Publikums. Eine systemtheoretische Interpretation des Kulturwandels in Deutschland zwischen 1960 und 1989.” Zeitschrift für Soziologie 30:163-184.

Grimes, Ron. 1978. “The Rituals of Walking and Flying: Public Participatory Events at Actor’s Lab.” The Drama Review: TDR 22:77-82.

Jacobs, Jane. 1962. The Death and Life of Great American Cities. London: Cape.

Kirk, Andrew. 2007. Counterculture Green: The Whole Earth Catalog and American Environmentalism. Lawrence: University Press of Kansas.

Latour, Bruno. 1993. We Have Never Been Modern. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

Lévi-Strauss, Claude. 1962. The Savage Mind (La pensée sauvage.). [S.l.]: Weidenfeld & Nicolson.

Leydesdorff, Loet, and (with Peter Van den Besselaar. 1987. “What We Have Learned from the Amsterdam Science Shop..” Pp. 135-160 in The Social Direction of the Public Sciences: Causes and Consequences of Co-Operation Between Scientists and Non-Scientific Groups, vol. 11, Sociology of the Sciences Yearbook, edited by Stuart Blume, Loet Leydesdorff, and Richard Whitley. Dordrecht: Reidel.

Stanitzek, Georg. 1987. “Der Projektmacher. Projektionen auf eine ‘unmögliche’ moderne Kategorie.” Ästhetik und Kommunikation 17:135-146.

Turner, Fred. 2006. From Counterculture to Cyberculture. University of Chicago Press.

Wilensky, Harold L. 1964. “The Professionalization of Everyone?.” American Journal of Sociology 70:137-158.