Science Fiction Across Media: Alternative Histories, Alien Futures

Digital workshop poster

Together with Ursula Heise (whom I’d invited as a guest professor to Umeå University for a few months in 2011 and 2012), I arranged an international workshop exploring the complex representation of natural and technological ecologies in science fiction in and across its varied media, in HUMlab in April 2012. Science fiction is becoming a mainstream and increasingly popular genre in fiction and film, as demonstrated by recent novels by Kazuo Ishiguro, Michel Houellebecq, Junot Diaz and William Gibson as well as the global success of James Cameron’s Avatar. Yet science fiction is more than simple entertainment. The workshop considered science fiction as multi-medial explorations of alternative histories and alternative futures and invites scholars across the humanities to present their ongoing work on science fiction either in the form of full-length 20-minute papers, or as shorter papers on work in progress or mini-presentations on crucial concepts or ideas (8 minutes). The workshop took place in HUMlab, Umeå University’s digital humanities laboratory, and emphasized informal, yet critical discussion of papers and presentations.

From my own presentation, “Does the Empire Recycle”, on waste and recycling in the Star Wars movies.

Here is a list of the sessions and papers. Note that the keynotes were recorded and can be seen online:


Session 1 – Domesticating the future

  • Cynthia J. Miller, Emerson College: “Domesticating Space: Science Fiction Serials Come Home”
  • Ekaterina Kalemeneva, European University Institute at St. Petersburg: “City under the dome: from scientific fiction to the reality?”
  • Ingrid Wållgren, Lund University: “Freeze, wait, reanimate: An exploration of science fiction and science facts”

Session 2 – Don’t worry, it’s just the end of the world; and other dystopian futures

  • Camilla Ulleland Hoel, Norwegian University of Science and Technology: “The end of the world as defining moment of ethical action”
  • Andreas Nyström, Karlstad University: “Echoes of civilization’s past”
  • Asa Ekengren San Andres, “Neo-Luddism in the United States: Thinkers, Movements and Pop-Culture Against Technology”

Session 3 – Exploring future social orders

  • Mike Frangos, Umeå University: “The future is here; it’s just not evenly distributed yet”
  • Anna Åberg, Royal Institute of Technology: “Witnessing Our Energy Future”
  • Fredrik Andersson, Association of Swedish Higher Education: “Cyberbroke? – Dystopian and Utopian Visions of the Future Economy in Popular Culture”
  • Martin Hultman, Umeå University: “Terminator and Governator: Arnold Schwarzenegger and the question of ‘virtual’ and ‘real’ identities”

Session 4 – Other than human

Joe Trotta, University of Gothenburg: “Do linguists dream of electric sheep? A look at alien languages, future Englishes and linguists in Speculative Fiction”
  • Adam Dodd, University of Oslo: “The virtual reality of the UFO”
  • Henriette Cederlöf, Södertörn University: “The Strugatsky brothers’ unacknowledged meetings with the posthuman”

Session 5 – Future ecologies

  • Dolly Jørgensen, Umeå University: “What have whales done for me lately? Ecosystem services in science fiction”
  • Alexa Weik von Mossner, Rachel Carson Center: “Science Fiction and the Future of Ecological Citizenship”
  • Tony Thorström, Uppsala University: “Digitalised bodies and new technologies: reconfigurations of human ‘nature’ in the wake of the information revolution”
Finn Arne Jørgensen, Umeå University: “Does the Empire recycle? Waste and scrap recycling in the Star Wars movies”

Critically Making the Internet of Things

I was one of the speakers at the Critically Making the Internet of Things conference in HUMlab in December 2011. Just like at the Media Places conference in 2010, Patrik Svensson had succeeded in putting together a wonderful group of people, “researchers, entrepreneurs, artists and others to examine critically and engage creatively the idea of a world where everything is assumed to be connected, where objects such as cars and roads communicate and where the digital has moved outside of the computer.”

Patrik Svensson talking to Matt Ratto over Skype
Bruce Sterling was certainly the most famous of the participants.
Annotated Landscapes – my own talk
I moderated a session over at the new art campus

Media Places: From the Gardens of Versailles to Spatial Robots

Last week I attended an international conference on Media Places at HUMlab here at Umeå University, a conference that explored the “intersection of media, technology and place through bringing together cultural historians, architects, screen researchers, art and creative directors from digital media production industry, visualization experts, design researchers, sociologists, gender researchers, and game industry representatives.”

I was unfortunately unable to attend the evening sessions on Thursday and Friday, but there were plenty of insightful and fascinating presentations during the day. Chandra Mukerji, Professor of Communication and Science Studies at UC San Diego, gave a wonderful talk about the Gardens of Versailles as a media place. I really liked her focus on the built environment as sites of communication, and how she used the (arguably broad) idea of media places to explore the gardens. Jesus de Francisco from the advertising agency Motion Theory gave us a dazzling insight into their work on “Complex narratives and effects across media.” At the end of the talk he said that “our ads are claiming 30 seconds of your time that you’ll never get back, so we will try to give something meaningful in return.” I find it quite interesting to think about what this “meaning” can be – in his examples, we saw unexpected beauty and wonderful storytelling (see for instance their music video for Modest Mouse’s song Dashboard).

Jesus de Francisco at HUMlab

Simon Lindgren (@simon_lindgren), a professor of sociology at Umeå University then talked about “Media Places as Hybrid Practice,” a topic he explored by giving examples from his own research on online phenomena. His slides were great, a funky background picture with much detail. Somewhat distracting at times, however.

Simon Lindgren at HUMlab

The second day of the conference started in the best possible way, with a talk by Lynn Spigel (a professor at Northwestern University) on smart homes, an old obsession of mine that I really enjoy to teach. Like many of the creators of smart homes, she focused on media and media technologies, whereas I like to look at the actual work that takes place in homes. Nevertheless, a great talk that gave me several good ideas for new things to include in my smart home lecture, such as the awesome “Leave it to Roll-oh” video. Miles Kemp, an architect at Variate Labs, gave an interesting talk about interactive architecture, where buildings and data meet. I liked his research into buildings and materials that could change their configuration – in many ways explorations into what kinds of architecture nanotechnology might one day make possible.

The talk I had looked the most forward to was given by Zephyr Frank, a historian at Stanford’s Spatial History Project. He discussed examples of various ways of exploring historical data visually, in maps and in other visualizations. Since I’m planning to involve spatial analysis into several of my upcoming research projects, I was very keen to learn more from him. The connections that HUMlab and I are developing with Stanford through the Media Places and other projects are very promising – I hope to be able to spend a few weeks at Stanford, perhaps next fall, to learn more and to get some input and ideas for how to properly deal with am incredibly rich historical dataset I have. His presentation was followed by another forms of maps, when indie games developer Nicklas “Nifflas” Nygren and his “Knytt” game. I haven’t tried the game, though I’m a huge fan of another Swedish indie game, Minecraft (in which place is also incredibly important). His presentation was interesting enough – the best part was his use of the multiple big screens in HUMlab to literally walk us through his game map.

The last “standard” talk that I saw the second day was Carter Emmart‘s “The Universe as Media Place,” on the Hayden Planetarium (where he’s Director of Astrovisualization) and their work on reenvisioning the role of planetaria and especially what digital technologies can do here. I’m going to New York in April and hope I can find the time to stop by the planetarium then!

On Saturday, Erica Robles, from New York University,  held a really fascinating talk about the Crystal Cathedral and American megachurches as media places. I have several times mused upon consumer culture, American mobility, and the professionalization of the American church, and in my opinion, their most prominent feature is to provide an “instant community” in a hyper-mobile society. Robles’ presentation was solidly grounded in a historical study of one particular church, the Crystal Cathedral, in Orange County, California. It made me want to go there to take a look at the church myself, and that says something! Mats Deutschmann, Jenna Ng, and Jim Barrett, all from Umeå University, presented their research on Second Life, an online world I have to admit I have never tried. I am somewhat impressed by the creativity and effort some people put into it, and I am curious about its potential as a pedagogical learning space for online courses.

Lisa Swanstrom – she certainly had the most beautiful slides!

Mike Frangos, a postdoc at Umeå University, discussed the way social media relates to different media archives in his talk – it will be interesting to see where this project leads. Lisa Swanstrom, another Umeå University postdoc who just left here to start a tenure track job in the US, gave a wonderful presentation of her upcoming book on “Green Mansions, Pixel Forests: Simulating Nature and Provoking Environmentalism.” She took on the 1990s interpretation that digital worlds require us to give up the physical bodies. I found her discussion of productive engagements with the natural world through simulations extremely interesting, and wish I could have talked more to her before she left for the US. But alas… Jeffrey Sconce‘s talk on delusional media, technology-induced psychiatric conditions, and “targeted individuals” (google it!) was both enjoying and somewhat disturbing. People are weird. That sometimes makes for great research projects!

Finally, at the very end, during lunch, Jennie Olofsson from Luleå University of Technology gave a mix of a performance and an academic talk during lunch, demonstrating some of the capabilities of HUMlab’s most massive high-tech screen combined with a motion sensor. She controlled her slides – displayed on a giant rotating cube – by moving back and forth in the room, and controlled her video clips by jumping. Somewhat gimmicky, for sure, but quite enjoyable too. And her project – and dissertation – sounds great, on welding robots, space, and gender.

HUMlab director Patrik Svensson wrapping up the conference

The conference as a whole can be dissected and evaluated in many ways. Patrik Svensson – who organized the conference – wrote a blog post about the use of spaces and screens at the conference, which had some interesting reflections on the lab as a media place. This is certainly one way of doing it, and HUMlab is certainly a very impressive space. I want to highlight two other aspects that I found interesting. The first one is the mix of practitioners (architects, designers, business) and analysts (scholars) that was present. I see this as the main strength of the conference, the way it managed to get these different groups talking to each other and interacting. The second is a broader reflection on what makes a conference work as a place for interaction, discussion, and reflection.  This was particularly well reflected in the two discussion workshops. Both were on quite broad topics – “Material culture of media places” and “Knowledge production as media place.” Patrik had asked me to convene the “knowledge production” session, and while we had a nice discussion, I found it quite difficult to really get to the core of the topic. “Media places” works well as a broad, over-arching topic that can get people talking together, but it’s somewhat hard to do something specific with it; it simply means too much and too little at the same time. From what I saw, the “material culture” session managed to get many more of the practitioners, so it seemed like they had a more productive discussion. But I could be wrong – it would be interesting to hear from someone who were there! I would have preferred more narrow and well-defined discussion topics, or perhaps some clearer output goals. I also thought there was a bit too little time for discussion after the papers – personally, I much prefer the smaller workshop style where each paper gets considerable time for discussion and feedback. I mostly go to the larger conferences (such as SHOT, ASEH, and ESEH) to meet people, since the sessions themselves tend to get somewhat hurried.

But all in all, a remarkably successful and enjoyable conference. Congratulations and thanks to HUMlab for the fantastic job they did!

Finally, I liked that the conference had an official twitter hashtag announced at the opening. More conferences need to do this!

The HUMlab Twitter screen