Cans Recycled: The Visual Power of Invisible Things

Cans Recycled. Image used with kind permission of Jostein Skeidsvoll

This weekend I visited Lilla Galleriet in Umeå, where photographer Jostein Skeidsvoll opened his exhibit on “Cans Recycled: The Visual Power of Invisible Things”. I saw the advertisement in the newspaper and was intrigued by his description of how he was suddenly captured by the hidden beauty of a crushed beverage can. He had spent the last year taking pictures of crushed empty cans that he had found as litter. I met Jostein at the gallery and it turned out that he was a fellow Norwegian! So we had a long and interesting conversation in Norwegian about beverage container recycling, garbage as art, and on being a Norwegian in Sweden. I bought a print of the picture above – the colors are much more vibrant in the real print. I liked the colors and composition of this particular picture, and also that it was the only one of his pictures where you could see the “Pant” or deposit symbol, indicating that if the can’s original consumer had returned it in a reverse vending machine, he or she would have gotten a 50 öre deposit back and the can would have been recycled to get new life, most likely as a new can. But instead, the can became trash until Jostein saw its beauty and turned it into art. There are many ways to appreciate trash!

Postdoc in history of science, technology, and/or environment

The Faculty of Humanities at Umeå University just advertised four 2-year postdoctoral positions within the faculty’s strong research areas. I work for one of these areas – Umeå Studies in Science, Technology, and Environment – and would like to encourage potential candidates with a background in history of science, technology, and/or environment to apply for these positions.

The job advertisement is unfortunately only available in Swedish at the moment, which is somewhat unfortunate and does not really reflect the strong international character of many of the strong research areas at the faculty. I have provided a rough translation of the essentials below – I’m sure an official translation will follow in not too long. Let me repeat: this is not in any way an official translation, so please refer to the university’s website for this.

  • The Faculty of Humanities are hiring four postdocs as part of a strategic development program for the humanities.
  • To qualify, you need to have defended your PhD no more than three years before the deadline and not have been a postdoc or “forskerassistent” (a Swedish academic position) before.
  • Your application need to include a complete CV, a list of publications, and a 5-8 page research plan.
  • For official information about the history of science, technology, and environment position, contact my colleague Jenny Eklöf,, tel +46 (0)90-786 54 56 (see the official announcement if you are interested in any of the other strong research areas – you need to indicate in the application which of the six areas you apply for).

Umeå Studies in Science, Technology, and Environment is a dynamic and internationally oriented research group that is very interested in recruiting more postdocs. The core group includes six tenured or tenure-track faculty members and several postdocs and PhD students. We run several large research projects with external funding and are actively seeking new and interesting research partners and projects. We also have a bi-weekly research seminar and guest lecture series. Feel free to contact me or any of my colleagues to discuss potential ideas!

The university has a very good digital humanities lab (HUMlab) with which we have a very good relationship, and I would be particularly excited to see someone combine digital humanities and history of science, technology, and environment for a postdoctoral project.

I can also point out that Umeå is not a bad place to be a postdoc – in 2010, Umeå University was ranked the 4th best workplace outside the US for postdocs by The Scientist. This was for the life sciences, though many of the same reasons apply for the humanities as well.

The original announcement text can be found here:

Technological infrastructures, green energy, and consumer choices

Last night David Roberts (@drgrist) tweeted “We think of solar, wind, & geothermal as power generation. Instead we should think of them as energy infrastructure. Discuss.” Even though this was right before my bedtime, I replied that “As a historian of tech & environment, I would say that we should think of all energy in terms of infrastructure of prod. and use.” He followed up by asking “What would that mean in terms of policy?” While I made an attempt to reply on Twitter this morning, I think I need to write something more extensive to come up with a proper answer.

Historians of technology have done much excellent work on energy infrastructures and technological change, notably Thomas P. Hughes, but I would also like to mention Arne Kaijser (professor at Sweden’s Royal Institute of Technology and former president of the Society for the History of Technology). We can learn much from the studies that have been done in this field

First, solar, wind, and geothermal energy can’t be discussed as if they were freestanding energy sources; we need to see them as alternatives to an established and entrenched energy system. Such systems do not change without resistance – political, cultural, material, or organizational. Hughes calls this momentum, we can also call it a combination of vested interests and the obduracy of the built environment. Fossil fuels are extremely entrenched, which is why it is so hard to transition to renewable energy sources. This not just due to ill will from the oil companies’ side. Past energy choices are built into our everyday lives, our cities, our transport infrastructure – everything. Changing the energy infrastructure of a city – a nation of cities – is no small task. Alexis Madrigal argued something along the same lines a few weeks ago, when he said that “your city – pretty much wherever it is – was built for a climate that it may no longer have.” “Cities will have to get less efficient and more resilient. Redundancies will have to be built into systems that previously seemed to work just fine. This is how climate change will cost us all money.” Green energy infrastructures should certainly be part of this discussion.

Second, we need to think of energy not just in terms of production (though it certainly matters) but also of consumption, of the actual situations where consumers, corporations, and others make their specific energy choices. This is also a mode of analysis that comes from the history of technology. Ruth Schwartz Cowan called this the consumption junction, “the place and time at which the consumer makes choices between competing technologies.” From this point of view it is possible to see all the different factors that influence consumer choice at specific points in time. (Cowan, 263)

I have thought much about this in writing my own book on the infrastructure of beverage container recycling – one of the most common environmentalist actions people do in the Western world. In other words, how can our understanding of technological change help us understand – and support – environmental actions?

Just like energy, the choice to recycle should not be understood simply as an individual action, but needs to be seen as part of a larger socio-technical infrastructure. People will generally not recycle when it is inconvenient and where the effect is hard to see. Why recycle an empty bottle when there is no deposit and the recycling station is in an out-of-the-way location? Some people have enough ideological motivation to do so, but the recycling rate is never very high in such systems. Other places, however, where most beverage containers carry a deposit and are returned at the point of purchase, in reverse vending machines in grocery stores, reach extremely high recycling rates (90-99%, depending on material type, in Norway and Sweden).

So to come back to Cowan’s point and look at the consumption junction: Why choose green energy if it is more difficult and more expensive? Why drive an electric car if you can’t find charging stations when you need it? When you’re just trying to get through the day, getting the kids to and from daycare, through the daily commute, going to the grocery store, in the famous “time squeeze“, why should you (or how can you possibly) go out of your way to be green? Offering environmentally friendly products, services, and infrastructures for such situations should be a great business opportunity. And policy should support it in any possible way.

Cowan, Ruth Schwarz, “The Consumption Junction: A Proposal for Research Strategies in the Sociology of Technology” in Wiebe E. Bijker, Thomas P. Hughes, and Trevor J. Pinch. The Social Construction of Technological Systems. New Directions in the Sociology and History of Technology. (Cambridge: MIT Press, 1987), 261-280.

Hughes, Thomas P, Networks of Power. Electrification in Western Society, 1880-1930 (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1983)

Jørgensen, Finn Arne, Making a Green Machine. The Infrastructure of Beverage Container Recycling (New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 2011)

My book is now on Amazon!

Reworking my dissertation into a real book, published with a real, international university press, has been a long and sometimes frustrating process, but it is very satisfying to pass all the little milestones leading up to the actual publication. Today I discovered that the book is now listed on Amazon, so it is possible to preorder it here: Making a Green Machine: The Infrastructure of Beverage Container Recycling (I will get a referral bonus if you purchase it through this link!)

One step closer, in other words… The actual publication date is June 20, 2011 – hopefully everything will proceed on schedule. I still need to go through the final page proofs and make an index, which should happen not too long after the new year.

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