Media labs, hacker zones, makerspaces, humanities labs, fab labs, tech incubators, innovation centres, hacklabs and media archaeology labs: they’re everywhere, and we can’t stop talking about them.

Media labs are liminal but increasingly powerful spaces in many contemporary settings. They appear in universities and colleges, wedged uneasily between traditional departments and faculties. They’re also in basements, warehouses, strip malls and squats. They are stable to varying degrees; many have long-term addresses and an itinerant roster of occupants. Some pop up in one location for a few days, then relocate to another. Sometimes they’re even in mobile trucks in the streets, bringing tools and expertise to children in schools and the general public. As clusters of tools and talent streamlined to produce economic value, labs sometime align with the most ruthless of venture capitalists; in other cases, they are free and open for all to use, disdainful of all commercial motivations.

Despite their sudden visibility due to the burgeoning of the digital humanities, media labs have a surprisingly long history. As part of the historical avant-gardes, media arts labs were the sites where the new materials and aesthetics of technical modernity were developed. They often share a common ideology, tied not just to the neoliberal drive to privatize, innovate and disrupt, but to long-standing modernist ideas about creative destruction, quantification and the value of scientificity.

THE LAB BOOK will thoroughly document and explicate this significant cultural force. This project, authored by three established mid-career media and communications scholars working in three different countries, consists of two components: a print book and a companion website. As a whole, the project includes:

  • contextualization of today’s media labs in terms of 20th century history and the ideology of modernity, especially in terms of the discourses of scientificity, innovation, disruption and creativity
  • interviews with the denizens and operators of historically important and contemporary media labs of all shapes and sizes
  • examination of contemporary discourse about media labs in print and online journalism, in fiction and popular media, and in official documents from universities, and other public and private sector institutions
  • evaluation of the complex and ambivalent relationships between media labs, traditional educational institutions and neoliberal economic forces
  • investigation into the extent to which media labs have the potential to intervene in these economic forces and perhaps model a version of posthumanities scholarship

The print portion of the project, THE LAB BOOK, presents a much-needed critical, historical and international examination of a major ongoing shift in contemporary ideas about higher education, the information technology sector and the public good. The book investigates the history of media and humanities labs as situated practices. This website will deliver a synchronic overview of contemporary media labs through a series of interviews with their occupants.

We are pleased to be able to announce that THE LAB BOOK will be published by the University of Minnesota Press.