[contact-form-7 id="1137" title="Contact form"]

Response to Alberto Corsín Jiménez’s “Ethnography: A Prototype”

As part of GIDEST’s March 3, 2017, “Our Own Devices” workshop on ethnographic tools and techniques, I responded to Alberto Corsín Jiménez’s paper, “Ethnography: A Prototype.” Here are my comments:

An impassioned political preamble seems obligatory in even the most modest of academic addresses these days. I’m going to skip it – but I will say this: As so much of the world is wondering what forms of collective action and communication resonate amidst so much political and epistemological upheaval, Alberto Corsín Jiménez and Adolfo Estalella offer a model for thinking recursively about how we constitute and act as publics – particularly as publics in cities, which are commonly our stages for political action and are now, some believe, the only remaining spatial scale at which we can work to maintain “sanctuaries” for democratic ideals.

Drawing on work in the free and open-source software community, Jiménez and Estalella propose that the community’s commitment to sharing, to the commons, and to the “democratizing potential of technology” can be productively, if not seamlessly, transferred to the urban realm. The software developer’s operational unit, the “prototype,” is also of potential utility for ethnographers and other researchers, whether they’re studying software and urbanism, or not.

The prototype is a proof-of-concept meant to be built upon. It’s a model from which we can construct things, ideas, publics, and politics. It’s a technical form and a social form encompassing a methodology, an epistemology, an ontology, and even an ideology. In free culture communities, the prototype embodies openness and adaptability, and it calls for iteration and transference. Our authors describe the Inteligencias Colectivas, for instance, who are interested in “evolutionizing” urban prototypical forms and knowledges. They acknowledge the “architectural intelligences behind mundane objects,” then imagine their “resonances, extensions, and analogies” in other contexts and environments. The portability of the prototype renders it more widely accessible, thereby potentially democratizing design – but only if the design is effectively communicated, rendered intelligible and actionable, to other communities. Thus, Jiménez notes, the archive is an integral ingredient of the prototype; it’s the “ur-design,” the “infra-ontology” of the prototype. The archive captures not only a prototype’s composition, but also its “biography”: its historical contexts, its evolution, its social relations of production and use.

Different kinds of objects and practices call for different forms of documentation. To be rendered “fully legible,” Jiménez says, “some intelligences require a multi-layered combination of iconographic techniques,” like photographs, sketches, and video recordings. The choice of particular files, formats, and languages depends not only on their representational affordances and pedagogical potential, but also their politics: proprietary software and restrictive file formats, for instance, would limit a prototype’s accessibility and mutability and contradict the whole open-source ethos. The ethnographer’s experimentation with such a range of modalities in his or her own work likewise represents an aesthetic and political choice – to extend ethnographic work into what Michael Fischer calls “third spaces of articulation.”

While we learned from our MakerBot fetish phase that prototyping doesn’t always elicit criticality, it does have the potential to engender self-reflexivity, to create what Christopher Kelty calls “recursive publics”: publics that are “vitally concerned with the material and practical maintenance and modification of the technical, legal,… and conceptual means of [their] own existence as a public.” In their conscious choices of democratic, egalitarian modes of action and communication, he says, they “speak to existing forms of power through the production of actually existing alternatives.” One would like to think that scholars and reflective practitioners are also “vitally concerned” with the material conditions of their own knowledge and cultural production, but this of course isn’t always the case: we turn a blind eye to our underpaid adjuncts, indebted graduate students, and the free editorial labor and exorbitant subscription fees that sustain our scholarly publishing systems. Yet Jiménez and Estalella found that their fieldwork with free culture activists in Madrid required a “form of ethnography that takes its own changing infrastructure as an object of inquiry.” We all would do well to consider how the evolving technological and social infrastructures of the academy, of our disciplines – and the larger culture within which they exist – necessitate new knowledge infrastructures, new methods and modes of dissemination. Jiménez and Estalella felt compelled to transform their study of free culture prototypes into “a prototype for free culture itself.” Through their “Taking Critique Out for a Walk” series, they talked about the city while talking through it, and they sought means to “open-source the very architecture of education.” Such recursive thinking generated for them new modes of scholarly practice and publicity.

I’d argue that recursion should involve “vital concern” not only with the methods and political-economic conditions of one’s own practice – but also with the temporal depth of that recursivity. What’s the history of recursion’s loop? What’s the prototype of the prototype? We tend to metaphorize complicated systems – like cities and brains – in terms of the prevailing technologies of the time. At various points we’ve likened cognition and urban operations to the workings of hydraulic or electrical systems, or computers. And we often draw parallels between these two ur-metaphors: cities seem to work an awful lot like computers, and computer programmers draw inspiration from architecture. When we see free and open culture in our cities, it bears a resemblance to open-source software.

Over the past two decades, we’ve seen several iterations – prototypes, we might say – of open-source architecture and urban design. Paperhouses and Wikihouses offer freely available, modifiable plans. Pritzker Prize winner Alejandro Aravena has released four of his “half-a-house” designs into the public domain, allowing for their unrestricted use and adaptation. Carlo Ratti and Matthew Claudels proposed their own model of “open source architecture” in 2011, and, before them, Architecture for Humanity’s Cameron Sinclair aimed to bring open-source principles to humanitarian design. In the early aughts, Usman Haque experimented with open-source architecture using inflatables, and then he and Matthew Fuller joined forces to prototype an “Urban Versioning System.” In 2003, Dennis Kaspori proposed an “open source [design] practice” that allows for the “collective,” iterative and evolutionary “development of solutions for spatial issues involving housing, mobility, greenspace, urban renewal, and so on.” He’s speaking free culture’s language.

Even well before the age of open-source, in the 1970s, Cedric Price prototyped his anticipatory architecture, and Christopher Alexander offered up his “pattern language,” which was also built on principles of democratic (albeit moralistic), evolutionary design. Stewart Brand, meanwhile, supplied a whole host of prototypes for living in his Whole Earth Catalog. And having been raised in Amish country in Pennsylvania, and having attended a few barn raisings in my time, I’d say the Amish have been prototyping free and open-source design for a few centuries. Without autoCAD. Rahul Mehrotra tells of similarly-minded design principles at the Kumbh Mela Hindu pilgrimage, which involves the construction of a massive, modular temporary city every several years – and which has, for well over a millennium, embraced evolutionary, recombinant, accessible, recursive practices.

It’s also helpful to recall that the widespread use of architectural and urban plans are a relatively recent phenomenon, as architectural historian Mario Carpo argues. Before the rise of print, designers were also craftsmen, and they typically spread ideas orally and learned their trade through apprenticeships. The idea of the architect as a professional wielding specialized drawings is a product of new professional organizations and curricula, like that at the École des Beaux Arts, founded in the 19th century. As Michael Guggenheim argues, throughout much of history, “people could invent products at home, or produce ad-hoc solutions to practical problems…with a piece of wood and some nails. The problem,” he says, “is rather, that there are few historical sources and…little historical interest in these processes, since they do not lend themselves to the writing of histories.”[1]

Recognizing this long history of prototypes to the prototype serves not only to remind us of the historical specificity of our contemporary metaphors, like the city-as-software, but also to highlight the way those metaphors shape particular urban practices and epistemologies and politics. Those metaphors also determine how knowledges are documented and transformed into historical sources for future archival researchers – and into manuals and “instructables” for contemporary practitioners. If a city is a computer, and if its urban practices are executed like software, the archive of those urban intelligences is more likely to adopt a computational logic, too.

The Ciudad Escuela web platform invites free culture projects to “open the ‘sources’ of their own technical, legal, pedagogical, associative and political capacities,” to render them legible through those “multi-layered…iconographic techniques” we discussed earlier. They’re encouraged to “legitimize their practices vis-à-vis local authorities and neighboring communities” by “explicating and standardizing [their] tacit urban knowledge,” and by “verifying” their skills with Mozilla’s Open Badges technology. But what does it mean to tie legitimation to standardization? What happens when particular cultures – embodied, situated, perhaps performative or oral, or governed by codes of privacy – translate their knowledge into the archival logics of the web and the credentialing economies of civic tech. Do we restrict what constitutes urban knowledge and its “repertoire” if it has to make itself iconographic: YouTube-able, diagram-able, data-visualizable?[2]

I’d encourage us to also think recursively about the technological metaphors we use to make sense of things like urban cultures, or to explain the methods and media we employ as scholars and practitioners. Those metaphors embody epistemologies and politics that recursively reinscribe themselves in the archive. If culture is software, our cultural institutions and infrastructures – from universities to urban “laboratories” – seem like computers. And any knowledges that happen to be in the wrong file format just might not compute.

[1] Free urban culture has been around for quite some time, too: consider the centuries’-long history of public libraries, mechanics’ institutions, athenaeums – many of which promoted the democratization of productive knowledge, itself a prototype for “maker culture.”

[2] We’ve come to recognize that universal transparency and openness are not universal goods – particularly for vulnerable populations, indigenous groups, and marginalized communities. Visibility, openness can offer legitimation, but it can also invite exploitation.