The medialab has lost its inventor. The death of Bruno Latour fills us and all those who have participated in the life of the medialab for nearly 15 years with great sadness. His passing leaves us an intellectual legacy and a scientific project: that of probing the links between science, technology and society, of exploring different social universes with the most innovative digital methods and of disseminating research by opening it to all possible forms of public participation.
The birth of the medialab
The way in which Bruno Latour gave birth to the Medialab at Sciences Po is not at all academic. When he was appointed as Scientific Director of our institution, he initiated an ambitious policy to transform research. Among many other creations such as the School of Political Arts (SPEAP) or the controversy mapping courses of the FORCCAST program, the medialab is one innovation Bruno Latour was most proud of. He established a small team dedicated to pedagogical innovation, to the dialogue between different sciences and to the development of computational tools, especially those focusing on the visualization of digital networks.
Navigating digital worlds
When Bruno Latour had the idea of the medialab in 2008, he had only a distant knowledge of digital worlds. His intuition was not to follow the fashion by encouraging a new wave of the modernization process. Rather, his idea came from his long association with the sciences, where fields of investigation, instruments and knowledge production are intimately linked. Ultimately, digital devices become ways to link, translate and transform information, actors and issues, all at the same time. Inspired by Gabriel Tarde, Bruno looked at digital social networks as one of the multiple forms that our societies take when they are "assembled" - or "composed", a word he cherished - in new devices. The digital, as Bruno repeated, is an instrument, like the microscope for the biologist or the boat for the oceanographer. It is an instrument that invites us to watch society form and unfold in ever new shapes that he immediately perceived as new objects for the social sciences. If Bruno paid so much attention to digital methods and to their capacity of representation, it is also because they illustrate the intellectual impetus that animated all his work: to interpret society, science, politics, law or technology not from above, through abstract concepts or fetishized categories, but rather to describe with thorough attention the operations through which we transform things and beings and give them existence. This was Bruno Latour's lesson to the researchers of the medialab: neither taking a micro approach and look at society in minuscule, nor following a macro discourse to interpret the world through unquestioned generalities, but to follow as closely as possible how we read and develop descriptions and interpretations of the world from the micro to the macro level. This research program culminated in a manifesto article co-authored with members of the medialab: "The whole is always smaller than its parts. A digital experiment based on Gabriel Tarde" published in the British Journal of Sociology. To follow its mission, he imagined a deeply interdisciplinary project, creating a research space that could accommodate the most flexible and least hierarchical synergies possible between engineers, researchers, and designers. For Bruno, the inquiry approach was the absolute priority of the social sciences. The requirement of description still motivated his last projects, emphasizing the way our basis of existence depends on a multitude of other entities, elements, living and non-living beings. To describe and to qualify, and to do so in an almost obsessive fashion, was for him, as it has also become for us, the main way to understand and alter reality.
"For 50 years, I've been doing nothing but qualifying different modes of existence"
The medialab was also home to the intellectual adventure of the AIME (An Inquiry Into Modes of Existence) project. A collective rewriting of his most ambitious work, An Inquiry into Modes of Existence, the project proposed to expand and systematize his anthropology of the Moderns. Gathering on a website case studies, workshops, experiments, and digital objects, the AIME project has become a virtual laboratory, a huge collective enterprise.
Bruno Latour has always sought to take social sciences out of scientific journals and colloquiums and bring them to the theater, museums, or into settings that allow the public to take active part. The intellectual space opened up by the AIME project has also fed the realization of exhibitions at the ZKM (Zentrum für Kunst und Medien) in Karlsruhe: Reset Modernity! and Critical Zones. Together with the medialab, he has conducted a series of interventions that seek to give form and offer new points of support in a world shaken by the ecological crisis. Designers and engineers from the medialab accompanied this process of invention in order to create strange, unusual objects, whose usefulness remained to be tested, but whose strength lay in their ability to be claimed by the world and to be tested.
A pedagogy of investigation
Pedagogy has always been an integral part of Bruno’s research project. Inquiry and description served as central theme for him. Bruno was extremely generous and inspired young researchers as well as undergraduate and high school students by his talks, as in 2016 at the Germain Tillion high school in Le Bourget.
In 2007, he introduced at Sciences Po the course on Mapping of Controversies that he had first developed at the Ecole des Mines.
By associating students to original pedagogical experiences combining social sciences, design, and digital data mapping, he shaped the very spirit of what he would instill in the medialab with great humility, he often said that his pedagogical innovations had been conceived by the students themselves! His initiatives in this area have found their way into Sciences Po, in the form of major compulsory courses from the Collège Universitaire onwards, or in the form of interdisciplinary curricula that he always strongly encouraged, as well as in many institutions that have taken up his pedagogical formula of controversy analysis.
Bruno disliked petty polemics, but his big laugh could be provocative and mischievous. He loved nothing more than precise descriptions. He developed his research so widely that the influence of his work is felt in the various disciplines of the social sciences as well as in the exact sciences, in the world of art, among activists and far beyond. His curiosity was insatiable but never superficial, driven by the desire to understand the complexity of the multiple assemblages that, for better or for worse, we have composed to make our world, the one that in his last works he called "terrestrial".
Bruno also taught us something essential about the academic profession: it requires method, patience, and rigor, but it must also be imaginative, audacious, and joyful. Bruno's thinking flees classification, he loved to turn questions upside down to imbue them with unexpected meaning, he could talk for hours about activities or objects that we didn't pay attention to. Bruno taught us that we could think about, with, and through objects - a key, a speed bump, a replica of a work of art - and the digital was one of those objects that could set us in motion.
Bruno also inspired us in the way he personally engaged in our research. Attentive to our own, unique approaches, he contributed to the rereading of our texts and to the testing of our tools, and always knew the most unconventional references to recommend. He was a source of inspiration and through his mind, he pushed us to take risks, to be intellectually daring, and ultimately to build on our failures.
Thank you Bruno.