The Techno-Anthropological Laboratory (TANTLab) was founded in 2015 as a response to what we saw as a growing need to road test digital methods and its associated styles of analysis with non-university partners. Located as part of the Techno-Anthropology Research Group at the Department of Learning and Philosophy at the University of Aalborg in Copenhagen, and thus part of thriving research and educational programmes in STS, we had been developing an interest in digital methods over a period of five years. These methods were relatively new to STS, where they had been developed under headings like issue mapping and digital controversy analysis (Marres & Rogers 2005, Venturini 2010). At the same time, STS more broadly had been asking itself how it means business and what kinds of interventions it wants to make. Our intuition was that digital methods in STS were now coming sufficiently of age to answer some of these questions more directly and in practice.
From the very beginning we decided to signpost this mission with two words: laboratory and playground. We called ourselves TANTlab and we adopted the tagline The Techno-Anthropological playground. In the following we will try to convey our sense of what it means to be a laboratory-playground.
Labs and serious play
We live in the age of labs. For someone taking an outside look at Academia these days, it quite possibly seems as if we’ve all contracted a contagious case of ‘laborangitis’. A new lab springs to life almost on a weekly basis (Smith et al. 2013, Ehn et al. 2014). On the relatively small campus of Aalborg University Copenhagen, we can think of at least 6 entities that call themselves labs, including a biotech lab, a food lab and a lab for physical prototypes.
Visitors coming to the TANTlab are not greeted by classic lab equipment. We have no petri dishes or microscopes, no animal models or bunsen burners, and no strangely looking blackboxed pieces of equipment. The physical space of TANTlab is a relatively conventional place – a room with screens, tables and chairs. You will find students mingling with researchers, and academics mingling with practitioners. You will hear people claiming to be makers and doers first, and thinkers or critics second, people claiming to be designing things, prototyping things, exploring and experimenting with things, although often ‘digital’ things that are only visible on screens and on large print-outs attached to the walls.
When you walk down the hallway, you will see the lab’s tagline in bold print on the glass wall: the techno-anthropological playground. It is only fair to ask if it is all fun and games?
Our response is that laboratories are indeed serious business. But so are playgrounds. Anybody who remembers being 5 or sending their kids off to kindergarden for the first time will know this instinctively. The transition from playing on your own, or under the close supervision of an adult, to holding your own against peers your own size, age and ferocity is a tough and challenging experience. And it takes place on playgrounds.
At the techno-anthropology lab we contribute to a young degree programme – only 6 years of age, in the middle of kindergarden, in fact – and we face all sorts of formative playground trials all the time. Our students face them in the college bar late at night, or at the family dinner, talking to that friend or relative who got into anthropology proper or decided to become a doctor: ’So, what exactly is a ”techno-anthropologist”’? They face it at their job interviews and when they negotiate a semester project with a company or a public agency.
Our researchers face it when they justify themselves to their colleagues in more established disciplines. But they also, and increasingly, face it when they strive to translate the societal relevance of their findings and methods. And, not least, our collaborators and future employers face it when they have to decide if we are worth playing with?
An age old tactic of the playground is of course to rely on your friends and your older siblings, if you have any. At the techno-anthropology lab we draw inspiration and support from fields like Science and Technology Studies, Digital Methods and Co-Design.
The trouble with siblings, however, is that they are not always there. Try walking into a job interview and rely on Science and Technology Studies to cover your back. It’s not bullet proof.
We – students, researchers, collaborators – need to work actively with how we are playgrounding techno-anthropology. That is the idea of the techno-anthropology lab.
The benefits of playgrounds
Playgrounding, or playground design, is actually a sprawling professional field now. In a recent paper on ”The developmental benefits of playgrounds” Frost et al. note that:
“Among the benefits of unstructured outdoor play (…) are the abilities to make decisions, work and play within a community of others, and to try out ideas and explore the play environment. Also highlighted are the benefits of pretend play, which has recently been shown to further the development of brain synaptic connections. (…) “If children lack opportunities to pretend, their long-term capacities related to critical thinking, problem solving, and social functioning, as well as to academic areas such as literacy, mathematics, and science, may be diminished.” (Frost et al. 2004)
That is surely something worth striving for! As a collateral bonus, the authors add that:
“Besides the social and academic benefits of play, research indicates that children with play opportunities are not likely to be depressed and hostile and generally do not exhibit excessive fear, rage, and worry.” (ibid.)
What is not to like?
The crux of the matter seems to be that good playgrounds have to be thought through. A little bit of playground history is instructive here. The idea originated in Germany in the mid 1800s but only spread at the beginning of the 20th century. Here is what president Roosevelt had to say about the matter in 1907:
“City streets are unsatisfactory playgrounds for children because of the danger, because most good games are against the law, because they are too hot in summer, and because in crowded sections of the city they are apt to be schools of crime. Neither do small back yards nor ornamental grass plots meet the needs of any but the very small children. Older children who would play vigorous games must have places especially set aside for them; and, since play is a fundamental need, playgrounds should be provided for every child as much as schools.”
You will notice that there is a classic dilemma lurking between the lines: How do you design something that is supposed to afford games, that are vigorous and likely to be against the law? Can you even design play?
Actually, we have quite a tradition for it in Denmark. The landscape architect Carl Theodor Sørensen pioneered the concept of the adventure playground, or junk playground, in the 1940’s. He wanted to create imaginative environments, building on the pragmatist ideals of John Dewey. As pointed out by Kozlovsky, in a paper from 2008, it was the imagination of the child, not the architect, what Dewey would have called inquiry, that was supposed to unfold. We believe that is a good ideal to adhere to for a playground.
Carl Theodor Sørensen later said that: “of all the things I have helped to realise, the junk playground is the ugliest; yet for me it is the best and most beautiful of my works.” (Kozlovsky 2008: 7)
It seems essential that playgrounding is about coming out. That it is about doing things with others, rather than on your own. At the lab we are trying to do that with our students, for instance, making sure not only that they work problem based – or simply with other people’s problems – in concrete collaborations every semester, but also that this work is sign posted on our website as part of building a techno-anthropological identity.
And of course, when you play, you get invited home on play dates. We see this as a great opportunity. One of the things we did was to assist the municipality of Aalborg in developing a Facebook driven vision for the future of their schools. Going to other people’s locations and work spheres means learning to play by other people’s rules while honing and fine tuning your own position. The learning potentials are enormous, we think.
Often times, and again this is conveniently equivalent to actual playgrounds, this learning involves the simultaneous development of our imagination and our motor skills. At the techno-anthropology lab we work with a range of cutting edge techniques for harvesting and analysing large amounts of digital online traces. That is an ongoing process of acquiring tools and skills, while constantly maintaining a critical and imaginative perspective on their potential applications. And that is best done in a lab setting. It is together with other people’s problems, so to speak, that the strengths and weaknesses of new methods can crystallize.
Styles of play
On playgrounds, including ours, certain styles of play tend to emerge over time. Sometimes these styles are clearly demarcated. Kids who play football would NEVER join the roleplay with their younger siblings. In our case, the emerging styles of play overlap both in terms of participants, tools and ideas. And yet we can distinguish at least four different genres.
This game explores how traditional ethnographic approaches such as interviews and participant observation can be enriched or challenged in conversation with analysis and visualization of large datasets, and vice versa.
Participatory Data Design
This game explores how digital methods can enter into collaboration with actors who are already substantially engaged in particular fields or issues. We engage the actors, whom we call issues experts, to understand the problem of the field, and together we explore. Instead of just looking at data together, we take inspiration from participatory design methods and pursue the idea that decisions about datafication, filtering, analysis and visualization are never ‘just’ technical but more often where the scope and limitations of the project is laid down and blackboxed. We work actively with the data sprint format to facilitate participation in the early stages of a data project.
Media publics and democracy
This game is about assisting democracy. It presumes that new media has a variety of consequences for democratic practice and the formation of public opinion, some of which are adverse. The game is about providing meaningful interventions. It necessitates an ongoing discussion about normative commitments to particular styles of public deliberation and the goods that result from such commitments.
Critical metrics in organizations
This is a valuation game. It is about providing alternative metrics to help organizations make the quality of their activities visible in new ways. It draws on valuation studies and the sociology of markets to assert that the perception of quality depends on the devices available to perform it. Under an evidence based policy paradigm, to be critical can arguably be done at a distance or in proximity with the business of doing evidence (cf. Latour 2005; Birkbak et al.). This game pursues the latter option and embeds with the organization to do evidence in new ways.
Snapshots from the playground
In the following texts we present a set of case examples that illustrate the diversity of play from our first two years of operation. We have selected them to provide a tangible idea of what our playgrounding looks like in practice – the collaborators we engage with, the digital tools we deploy, and the emerging styles of play.