Written by Michael Hockenhull, Lab Manager.
There are many laboratories at the IT-University of Copenhagen. PITlab, IxD Lab, InterMedia Lab, REAL Lab – and also ETHOS Lab, of course. It is easy to see why a guest at the university may find it difficult to gain an overview of what labs there are and what they do, especially given the multitude of acronyms used.
This is not just an issue for outsiders, however. I often encounter students and staff who are unsure of how many labs we have, and what they do. Perhaps this isn’t surprising – even though the ITU is a relatively small institution, it still houses over 2.000 students and hundreds of staff. Everyone can’t know everything.
The amount of labs should still spur some reflection, I think. Why so many labs? Wouldn’t it be easier to have just one or two? Such ideas of course sound like institutional suicide coming from a lab manager, and it should be no secret that I think it is great that the ITU has many labs.
If one dives deeper into the labs here, it becomes apparent that an important reason for having many labs is that they simply do different things. IxD lab stands for interaction design lab, and they have a focus on, you guessed it, designing different interaction settings and exploring materials and their affordances for this kind of work. The “REAL” in REAL lab stands for “Robotics, Evolution and Art Laboratory”. That may not make you wiser, but they do interesting things with DNA-printers and robots.
Labs are spaces for experimentation, and luckily the leadership at ITU thinks it’s a good idea to encourage experimentation. Having many labs means many experiments going in different directions – hopefully. Which brings me to the point of this reflection: What about ETHOS Lab? What do we experiment with, what do we do?
For me, this is actually an open question. I know it still sound like I’m edging ETHOS Lab off a cliff, painting a portrait of a lab without a clear purpose. However, ETHOS Lab is a new lab and we are based in an interdisciplinary area that makes it difficult to decide our purpose a priori. Instead, we are taking our time and building up the lab’s identity through its activities.
Over the summer we spent some time coming up with a better description of what ETHOS Lab is all about, and I think this illustrates my point quite well:
“ETHOS Lab is a place of collaboration, and thus does not have a single unified purpose other than to explore and experiment. Our research group is purposefully eclectic, and is unified by shared interests in data, methods and relations more than anything else. For this reason the lab is also host to a number of different research interests, and we are always open to new suggestions.”
I am however starting to see an angle which I personally think ETHOS Lab should explore: that of being a data laboratory. Our research group is composed mainly of social scientists and anthropologists, and my own background is in the humanities. But we are rapidly moving into the age of computational sociology, digital humanities and what I’ll call electronic anthropology, for lack of a better term. Digital technology is becoming ubiquitous – which is also why part of the ETHOS acronym stands for “Techno-Humanities”.
What is shared by both the old and new traditions is an interest in the empirical. STS (Science and Technology Studies) has always been a strongly empirical programme, and sociology and anthropology both work via data collection. Where I think ETHOS Lab has a very important contribution to give is in understanding what data is and how it can be used in research. Data is not just ‘big data’ – but on the other hand it isn’t only ‘thick data’ either.
Thick data has been championed as a necessary tonic for the heady brew which is big data. Yet this pair of concepts seems to reify data into a pair of opposites, and is definitely not productive or representative of data as a whole.
I believe that it is interesting to interrogate data as a broad category, which forms the basis of scientific work in all manner of discipline, from physics to philosophy (yes, even here!), and especially in the topics of digital methods and ethnography. Data is one of the things that unites us as sciences, and ETHOS Lab is a privileged site in which to interrogate how digital, ethnographic, small, thick, thin and big data relate.
In line with this, we will also soon be starting a research project into the topic of data, and the processes by which data becomes meaningful, valuable and useful – to individuals, to organizations and to companies. I look forward to exploring these topics together with the lab staff over the next coming months.