Eugene Thacker on Thu, 28 Jan 1999 09:17:22 +0100 (CET)

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<nettime> [techne]W3LAB

greetings nettimers - below is a short essay for a current online show
which i am organizing....

> **************************************************
> [techne]W3LAB: works-in-progress/works-in-process
> An online group exhibit of presented
> in conjunction with the "New World (dis)Orders" conference
> at Rutgers University, Feb. 18-19th, 1999.
> **************************************************

../(Cultural) Science Experiments: A Preface

Eugene Thacker []

"We mean to approach scientific method as integrated into patterns of
--Steven Shapin and Simon Schaffer, "Leviathan and the Air-Pump"

The past year or so has shown a steadily growing interest in ""
and projects for the Web (e.g., Port: Navigating Digital Culture,
Digital Studies: Being in Cyberspace, Beyond Interface, Some of My
Favourite Websites Are Art). Each of these shows has not only attempted
to ask what is at stake in making "," but they have also shown an
acute awareness of being involved in a technological medium which is
still very much under development. It is within this context that the
W3LAB, presented through [techne], attempts to continue the dialog
concerning the production of cultural, technical, and political activity
on the Web.

The laboratory is a site, a space configuring certain kinds of
activities, generating particular forms of knowledge, situated within a
range of scientific, social, political, and institutional contexts. The
lab is a site that is also a context; the possibility for putting into
practice a variety of questions is also materialized in this context.
This online node of works for the Web--let's call them "projects,"
"research," "experiments"--this online node focuses on the kinds of
practices that are formed when (net)art, theory, performance, techniques
and technical knowledge, and digital technologies intersect and
crystallize around questions of experiment: How are the rapidly
developing computer and communications-based technologies of the
Internet and Web challenging, changing, and more importantly producing
different types of activities that frustrate the boundaries of what may
be considered "art," "theory," "science," "communication," and
"politics"? The [techne]W3LAB is an attempt to gather a group of
projects which in different ways address the question of what it means
to participate in digital culture--here every choice in programming,
image-processing, hypertextual linking, and webcasting bears some
proximity to this question.

In their book "Leviathan and the Air-Pump: Hobbes, Boyle, and the
Experimental Life," Steven Shapin and Simon Schaffer offer a critical
history of the development of scientific method, focusing on the
controversies surrounding Robert Boyle's outlines of scientific
experimentation and Thomas Hobbes' critiques of Boyle's claims. Central
to Shapin and Schaffer's inquiry is utilizing the "stranger's
perspective" (as opposed to the implicit agreement upon assumptions in
the "member's perspective") to ask how scientific method emerged as a
major paradigm of scientific and technical research during the 17th and
18th centuries:

"...important to our project is an examination of method understood as
real practical activity. For example, we shall devote much attention to
such questions as: How is an experimental matter of fact actually
produced? What are the practical criteria for judging experimental
success or failure? How, and to what extent, are experiments actually
replicated, and what is it that enables replication to take place? How
is the experimental boundary between fact and theory actually managed?"

In other words, Shapin and Schaffer's project is more than a dismissal
of scientific method as internally fraught with epistemological problems
(something simultaneously highlighted by anti-science contingents and
early-century physics research). Rather, they want to ask about the
boundaries that define not only a given discipline, but a grouping of
accepted practices and modes of thinking and questioning which has one
historical emergence-point in the late 17th century with Boyle's
experiments with the air pump. One of the points of Shapin and
Schaffer's book, as with any critical work on the history of science, is
that a demonizing of the science-technology complex, as well as its
face-value acceptance, are both reductive models for asking questions
concerning how scientific practice is generated and enframed in a given
social-cultural instance.

In looking at the fundamental premises of scientific method, Shapin and
Schaffer outline "three technologies" which comprise Boyle's notion of
experimental method: (1) a material technology (for Boyle, the
development and production of the air pump apparatus), (2) a linguistic
technology (for 17th century science, the simultaneous invisibility and
authority of the scientist-as-observer), and (3) a social technology
(the development of a scientific community, guilds, and university
affiliations in the production of a legitimacy for modern science).
These three technologies hold also, in a different historical and social
context, for discussion concerning the Internet and Web: A material
technology composed of the hardware and software components of the Net
itself, combined with a proliferation of applications, browsers,
plug-ins, interfaces, and viruses; a linguistic technology of
information dissemination dispersed across a field including print media
(e.g., digital arts magazines, learn-Java-in-30-seconds books), email
and mailing lists, newsgroups, and exhibitions both physical and
virtual; and a social technology framing issues such as censorship and
copyright, the integration of commerce and net-based services,
information regulation and distribution, the software and computer
industries' relation to labor, globalization, and media restructuration.

The projects gathered in the W3LAB, all undertaken specifically for the
Web, represent a wide variety of approaches to these issues, and the
ways in which the notion of mediation (denoting a given degree of
separation, buffering, distance) is rapidly becoming an intimate
environment for digital culture. That is, in contrast to the dual
transparency of the experimental life and the transparency of the
technological apparatus (a methodological and political paradigm still
with us today, as exemplified by the Human Genome Project's large-scale
anonymity), these projects each undertake, in different ways and through
different strategies, a paradoxical *re-materialization of the digital*.
This re-materialization is an engagement with a range of different
issues in relation to the Web: As a networking technology, it is an
inquiry into the often invisible underworkings of how the Web and
cyberspace generally operate as actual technologies involving
programming, data transmission, data packets, and information gathering.
As a social technology, it means situating interactive social
environments such as MUDs or CU-SeeMe, information services such as
search engines or Web browsers, and issues pertaining to the
commercialization, regulation, and media mythologizing of the Web, as
well as what happens when the "neutrality" of these media intersect with
and inform questions of gender, cultural specificity, and economic
imperative. As an aesthetic and cultural technology, it means addressing
issues of the work of art, narrative, the authorial subject, the
intersection of the aesthetic and the technical, and the disillusions of

One of the primary inquiries undertaken in this show is the ways in
which the already troubling and historically-dense category of art (and
alongside this, may be significantly reconfigured. In a medium
such as the Web, where, again, technique, technology, cultural context,
communication, and aesthetics intersect, new "patterns of activity" will
hopefully necessitate new discursive forms.

> **************************************************
> [techne]W3LAB: works-in-progress/works-in-process
> An online group exhibit of presented
> in conjunction with the "New World (dis)Orders" conference
> at Rutgers University, Feb. 18-19th, 1999.
> **************************************************
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