The natural sciences have made unparalleled advances, among other things through working systematically on experimentation and doing so in the controlled environment that we call the laboratory. The cultural scientists have declared in their programmes that this is nothing they are interested in. They cannot make laboratory experiments. Humanists in particular study what is uniquely human and a diversity of distinctive artefacts. But modern information technology has perhaps changed science’s basic conditions and created possibilities to rejuvenate the humanities. Why not play with the idea of a culture laboratory?
Janlert, Lars-Erik and Jonsson, Kjell (2000),”Kulturlaboratoriet” (“The Culture Laboratory”) in Tvärsnitt, 22(1), 54-61
When the article “The Culture Laboratory” was published in Tvärsnitt in 2000, the University Board had decided the same year to set up HUMlab as a formal unit.
“I was the first chair of HUMlab’s steering committee in 2000 and the decision to form HUMlab had been preceded by years of intense effort,” says Kjell Jonsson.
A language lab turned into HUMlab
In the mid-1990s, the Faculty of Arts at Umeå University wished to modernise its language lab. The machines in the lab, which was mainly used by linguistics researchers and students, were aged and the intention was to buy new, more modern computers. This work led to a faculty committee producing a concept for a multimedia lab, although the resultant external application did not render any funding. Torbjörn Johansson, a researcher in mathematics but at the time employed at the university’s IT unit, was appointed project leader for a renewed effort.
“I began my assignment by going round and talking to employees at the Faculty of Arts to find out what was needed in the way of IT. I soon realised that it would not be easy to secure external funding just to buy new computers; we would also need to build up some kinds of activities to use the equipment for. My discussions with, among others, Kjell Jonsson and Lars-Erik Janlert, a researcher in computer science who was also very interested in humanistic subjects, awakened thoughts of why only the natural sciences and technical subjects should have advanced IT. Would it not be possible to also combine the humanities and culture with interactivity and digital technology?”
When Torbjörn had drawn up a proposal for how the new IT lab, known by the working name of ‘HUMlab’, would function, the board of the faculty needed to decide whether they wanted to back the project or not. This was during a period when the faculty’s financial outlook was bleak and the new lab venture would represent a sizeable item in the faculty’s budget.”It was an incredibly exciting vote! When all the members had voted, the result was a tie and the decision was made by the chair of the board, Professor Lars-Erik Edlund, using his casting vote. He voted for the new lab and I naturally think it was a very wise decision – both for the faculty’s development and for the development of the university in general.”
Advanced digital technology for humanists
When the faculty had taken the decision to establish HUMlab, work then began to set it up. After suitable premises had been found in the basement of the university library, advanced technical equipment and software were purchased.
“We received funding from the Kempe Foundation, which was crucial for HUMlab to begin operating,” continues Torbjörn. “We also fought to purchase advanced technology, some of the best computers that money could buy. It sounds crazy today, but why the lab should need an internet connection was actually questioned. The doubters asked me: ‘Why should humanists have such advanced equipment? They’ll never use the capacity!’ I replied then, and have continued to claim, that humanists cannot know what technology they need if they are never allowed to test it. We did not know exactly what IT was needed in the humanities, but we thought that the only way to find out was to try things out.”
“It was difficult to get people to come to the lab in the beginning so we began a kind of missionary effort. Several of us went round telling people in the other departments at the faculty about HUMlab and tried to explain why our activities were interesting,” says Kjell Jonsson.
“In fact, I think attitudes changed already then,” Torbjörn adds. “People became more open to the idea of a humanistic technical lab.”
Visions that stand fast
Torbjörn Johansson became the first director of HUMlab, but handed over the reins to Patrik Svensson already in 2000. HUMlab’s reputation quickly spread around the world, partly due to many international contacts in the research community.
“I was very interested in Artificial Life, a branch of research that is based on biology and philosophy and where the idea is to study systems of artificial life with biological systems as the starting point. I came into contact with Christopher Langton and Glen Ropella at the Santa Fe Institute, who were prominent figures in the development of this particular branch of research, very early on.”
“Many of the visions we had for our activities were the same then as today,” Kjell says. “We wanted to explore how digital technology can be used to develop humanistic research, test how to use making in research and how to explore technology with a distinctly concrete perspective. What also became clear when we set up HUMlab was that creative processes do not begin by themselves just because we had bought advanced technology. Good personnel and support from the rest of the university are also needed.”
“If you want to initiate creative processes, it is important that people with different kinds of competence are allowed to work together,” continues Torbjörn. “One mistake that is often made when it comes to technology is that a person with no technical competence orders what they want from an engineer or technician. This does not produce good results; you have to give people the opportunity to meet and work together – researchers, developers, designers and artists, among others. I think another important reason for HUMlab’s success is that we always dared to believe in the project, even when other people did not. We dared to stick our necks out. I think that you need to have visions that you hardly believe in yourself to begin with. If you just continue working towards your goal, you will ultimately come to believe it is possible and then it is possible.”
Kjell Jonsson is Professor of History of Science and Ideas at Umeå University. Between 2010-2013 he was the Pro-Vice-Chancellor at Umeå University, 2006-2010 he was the Library Director of the Umeå University Library.
Torbjörn Johansson is a researcher in Mathematics and was the first director of HUMlab. He was also the director of the Interactive Institute’s TOOLS Studio in Umeå 2000-2005. He is currently part-owner of the company Innovation Impact.