Issue 1/2018, 3. Volume Page 31–51
An ethnography of work on the medium
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When research and development engineers attempt to influence the development of the computational medium by establishing concepts, finding new technical solutions and carrying out social experiments, they perform work on the medium (Arbeit am Medium). This paper analyzes an endeavor of this kind. It is based on ethnographic fieldwork conducted by the author between 2015 and 2017 in the “Dynamic Medium Group,” an influential research collective based in the San Francisco Bay area. The research group, working under the lead of engineer Bret Victor, focuses on establishing the conceptual and technical foundations for a new “dynamic spatial medium.” This paper explores some of the stances (including those of an autonomous form of engineering), ideas (including those rooted in media history and media theory) and forms of sense-making (including imaginaries of making history) at play in this type of endeavor. It highlights the types of conflicts and fault lines that emerged during the attempt to realize the project and how it was finally stabilized. This moment of stabilization emerged by focusing on a very complex prototype: Dynamicland, which is a hybrid of space and computer that links objects, things and people in new ways. The group built this prototype to explore the potential characteristics of a future medium. The members of the research group see Dynamicland as a prototype “from the future”: A future imagined by them and made possible through their work on the medium.
engineering, media, digital media, computer, ethnography