How We Collaborate 2: Labs

Written by Ruth AhnertJune 14, 2019Comments: 0

The work on the project is organised around five ‘Labs’ that explore different historical and methodological questions and approaches. The Labs are: Language, Space and Time, Sources, Communities, and finally, Integration, Infrastructure and Interfaces (3I). Before we come to the nature of the work going on within each of these Labs, however, I wanted to pause to reflect briefly on the reason we chose to invoke the Lab as an organisational principle instead of, for example, ‘work packages’.

The word laboratory has a specific set of connotations. We are used to thinking of a laboratory as a room or building filled with scientific equipment, a place for doing tests and experiments, for teaching science, or producing chemicals and medicines. However, if you work in the humanities, you will have noticed in recent years a growing trend for using the word Lab to describe research groups of centres, specifically in the subdisciplines of media studies and digital humanities. Urszula Pawlicka-Deger produced this interactive exploration of the rise of (Digital) Humanities and Media Labs around the world, beginning in 1983 with the Laboratory Paragraphe at the University of Paris 8.

These organisations share an emphasis on technology, experimentation, and collaboration across the usual disciplinary boundaries. There is also a rhetorical effect to borrowing concepts from the sciences, as Pawlicka-Deger has observed: it signals values such as ‘quantifiability, verifiability and functionality’. This is part of a wider turn that has been described as the ‘scientification of the humanities’, and which has been met with mixed responses. It has been criticised by some as complicity with the neo-liberal agenda in higher education. Others have stressed the problems of using the word Lab because of the history of structural inequality that has been found in scientific environments, and the possibility of perpetuating those. Conversely, however, the appropriation of Labs by arts and humanities scholars has led to an important critical engagement with those issues, such as the recent symposium ‘What is a feminist lab?’

On reflection we decided that that positive connotations of the Lab – of collaboration, experimentation and innovation – outweighed the issues. We are actively seeking to mitigate any inherited cultural problems by writing our own project Charter, which state our values as a team (blog post coming soon). In addition, we are hopeful that by ensuring mixed memberships of each of the Labs, which draw on research backgrounds from across the team, we can bring the good things from our respective disciplinary backgrounds and critique the things that don’t work for us. Finally, we have also sought to stop the labs becoming closed systems by encouraging people to be members of multiple Labs. This is also to ensure the Labs don’t become knowledge silos, but that their work feeds into the larger aims of Living with Machines. We will report on how this goes in future blog posts, starting first with introductions to each of our Labs.

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