Visiting UVA and the Scholars’ Lab

Beautiful Alderman Library, where Scholars’ Lab is located

I’ve spent the last week on the beautiful grounds of University of Virginia, where I’ve visited Scholars’ Lab and given two talks (one for the brand new Engineering and Society department and one for the Scholars’ Lab). This is all part of what I call my great digital environmental humanities tour, where I plan to visit quite a few digital humanities centers of the next year and a half. The UVA visit is the first one, and in the spring I plan to go to Stanford and UCLA. It’s all generously funded by the internationalization funding that came with my wonderful tenure-track job in Umeå.

The gate to one of the gardens around The Lawn

One of the reasons why I’m enjoying this stay so much is that I have a long-standing connection to UVA. I lived here for a year, in 2005-2006, with my wife, who got her PhD from here. We even got married in one of Thomas Jefferson’s gardens. During this year, I was a visiting researcher in what was then the STS department, working on my dissertation and generally having a great time. I haven’t been back since Dolly defended her PhD in 2008, so a visit was much overdue.

I met with the environmental history grad students in the Sally Brown Reading Room, where we had a very good discussion of the state of Nordic environmental history
The Scholars’ Lab

The Scholars’ Lab is a wonderful place, and I’m very grateful for the opportunity to connect with the people here. It is one of the most outspoken proponents of digital research and scholarship in the US, under the leadership of Bethany Nowviskie. The lab faculty and staff has developed software applications like Neatline (which I’ll talk about shortly). The lab provides space for students and faculty to meet and work, with plenty of computer equipment. It also hosts a speaker series (where I gave a talk) and arranges workshops on a number of topics. In other words, the lab’s mission is very similar to HUMlab’s.

My desk was located right next to the Scholars’ Lab’s Makerbot – “The Replicator”

I was also curious to hear more about the Praxis Program, which “realigns graduate methodological training with the demands of the humanities in the digital age.” The library has had a graduate fellowship in the digital humanities for six years, and the Praxis Program is an attempt to take this training even further. The Praxis Program is in many ways a digital apprenticeship, where six graduate students gets to work with the Scholars’ Lab team to design and build a digital research tool. The tool is not the goal, however – instead, the Praxis Program aims to develop transferable skills such as coding, planning, project management, teamwork, and so on, with the goal of creating “scholars comfortable designing effective user experiences, writing and working with open source code, engaging broad audiences, managing teams and budgets, and theorizing their work within the rich tradition of humanities computing.” I believe this is something that we should really try to implement in our own graduate students in Sweden, both on Masters and Doctoral levels.


My main reason to come to the Scholars’ Lab, however, was to do some work on setting up a pilot project website using Neatline, a software application developed by the lab to let scholars “tell stories with maps and timelines.” I have done much thinking about the mediation of places and of ideas of nature (partly through my affiliation with the Media Places project), and I think digital tools like Neatline can be quite helpful in visualizing and analyzing the way narratives and knowledge about both abstract and concrete places and spaces are mediated and distributed in different configurations over time. I only had time to do some initial work on the actual website, but I got the chance to discuss my ideas and the possibilities and limitations in Neatline with the developers.

I have forever joined the group of Scholars’ Lab fellows and friends on the lab’s Wii.

I have three more days in the US, most of which I’ll spend in the Washington, DC area. On Sunday there are museums to visit – the National Museum of American History was closed for renovations last time I was here, in 2008, and it has some quite nice history of technology exhibits from what I hear. The American Art Museum has an exhibit on “The Art of Video Games” that looks absolutely fabulous. The National Book Festival is also on this weekend, so I will certainly take a walk along the Mall to see what’s happening.

On Monday I will go out to George Mason University to visit the Roy Rosenzweig Center for History and New Media – I visited there for two weeks in 2008, so they are old friends. On Tuesday, I will visit the Library of Congress, where another friend will show me the ropes. I hope to find some useful material for one or two of my ongoing research projects.

Virginia skies

Sometime during this stay I might stop at the National Geographic Museum to look at George Steinmetz’ desert photos. I am certainly going to Sushi Taro for some of the best sushi in the world, and very possibly to Smoke and Barrel for some fine and rare beers. Plenty to do, in other words.

Launching Ant, Spider, Bee

Together with two colleagues at the Rachel Carson Center in Munich, I have started a website dedicated to exploring the digital environmental humanities, Ant, Spider, Bee.

Here is our text welcoming new readers to the website:

Welcome to this new website dedicated to exploring the digital environmental humanities! Digital access to sources, new research techniques, innovative approaches to spatial, temporal and textual analyses, and digital publishing formats are changing the way the humanities are practiced. We believe that the environmental humanities stand to benefit greatly from these new ways of connecting contemporary issues and historical analyses, researchers and the public, potentially increasing the visibility of research and enhancing its impact.

With this blog, we aim to create a discussion platform about how digital technologies may enhance research, teaching, and outreach in the environmental humanities while maintaining (or working to transform) academic standards and expectations. Further questions we want to answer in the long-term include: How can digital projects represent environmental stories and engage broader publics in their interpretation? How can digital tools and projects strengthen collaborative networks among not only practitioners of the environmental humanities, but also involving public and private institutions such as libraries, broadcasters, publishers, and the media? What structural, methodological, and representational challenges and opportunities do digital tools and projects present?

At the same time our aim is to create a space for outreach, in which innovative uses of digital tools and practices in the environmental humanities may be showcased and discussed, as to inform practitioners in the humanities at large about new ways to narrate and possibly inspire a constant flow and reuse of ideas and best practices, within and between disciplines. Among the kind of content we plan to feature there are profiles of relevant projects and tools, guest comments on particular issues, curated lists of resources in the field, and overviews of general trends in the digital environmental humanities.

We have chosen to do a soft launch of the website during ASEH 2012 in Madison, Wisconsin, where there will actually be several panels dedicated to digital environmental history. As you can see, we don’t have too many posts yet, but this will change. Our goal is to have a new commissioned article posted every two weeks, plus more frequent updates from “The Spider”, which posts links to interesting texts, tools, websites, and discussions elsewhere on the web. This will of course be difficult without contributions from all the people doing interesting work out there, so please get in touch with us if you want to participate in this ongoing discussion on digital environmental humanities!

A few words about the website’s name, “Ant, Spider, Bee” – we were inspired by Francis Bacon’s words that “the men of experiment are like the ant, they only collect and use; the reasoners resemble spiders, who make cobwebs out of their own substance. But the bee takes a middle course: it gathers its material from the flowers of the garden and of the field, but transforms and digests it by a power of its own.” The Ant, the Spider, and the Bee represent different ways of engaging in the production of knowledge, and we believe that there’s need for all modes in the exploration of what the digital environmental humanities can do for us.

Finally, we encourage all our readers to follow @antspiderbee on Twitter and to subscribe to our Facebook page.

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

Slow Entertainment

Hurtigruten comes to my hometown Sortland, June 20, 3:30am. Midnight sun to the right.

I have come to the conclusion that I like my entertainment slow. I generally don’t watch TV, but the last few days I have been glued to the TV, watching the 8048-minute long live broadcast of Hurtigruten sailing from Bergen to Kirkenes, along the Norwegian coast. As you might expect, the show is very slow – we get to see the view from the ship, mixed in with interviews and commentaries onboard the ship, all in realtime. The TV station NRK2 shows everything live (and I get it through my cable TV here in Sweden), and a website shows the video stream with a good map and other information (more on the website below).

The show has been a big hit in Norway – some 1.3 million people (of Norway’s roughly 5 million people) watched the show Thursday and Friday, which are quite impressive numbers, and I expect the weekend ratings will be even higher. The hashtag #hurtigruten has been quite active on Twitter as well. I’m not surprised that people are watching the show, but it’s been even more interesting to see all the people that show up along the coast, waving from land, cruising around in boats, and also the huge crowds at all the stops. The small places are generally the ones with the most people. My hometown Sortland (with 10,000 inhabitants), for instance, had more people show up at 3:30 at night than Trondheim (with 175,000 people) had in the middle of day. It seems like the experience of the show took people somewhat by surprise – the premise sounds quite ludicrous, like watching paint dry on live TV, but people took a look out of pure curiosity and then found it hard to stop. Twitter is full of people who seemed unable to turn off the TV and go to bed at night as Hurtigruten sailed through Vesterålen in the midnight sun.

I think there are many reasons why the Hurtigruten show stuck a chord in Norway. One of them has to do with history and nature. The infrastructural role of Hurtigruten as a critical means of transportation is long past. Once upon a time it was essential for bringing people, mail, and goods in a reliable way along the coast. It still brings cargo and people, of course, but today there are many other options available. Like many old technologies, Hurtigruten has found new life in new roles. More than anything else, Hurtigruten is a tourist ship now. But I think the show also demonstrates that Hurtigruten has become a part of the cultural landscape of coastal Norway and a way of experiencing and taking part in nature.

English-language trailer for the Hurtigruten show.

What can we say about this new genre of travel TV? Is it really a form of Baudrillardian simulacra, of mediated consumer culture imitating the real world? What is the relationship between the experience of being aboard Hurtigruten, experiencing nature first-hand, and watching it on TV? Right now I think of it as a form of augmented reality, a communal experience that adds to the physical experience. It may be mediated, but there is also something profound and tremendously powerful at work here (I hesitate to call it authentic, but perhaps I should).

The Hurtigruten show is a fantastic experience, culturally immersive and able to bring the entire country together in a way that few other TV programs have. But it is important to note that it is without the instant gratification of so much contemporary entertainment. In a way, it can be compared to the slow food movement. It is slow entertainment, meant to be stretched out and savored. In fact, I have seen several comment that NRK should go even slower, take out the interviews and documentaries, and just stick with the slowly changing landscapes as the ship progresses along the coast. I agree wholeheartedly.

Digital technologies and mediated environments

Now, in order to justify watching this show at work (and then taking the time to write a blog post about it) I want to highlight some possible lessons for environmental historians, digital humanists, and others in academia.

The Hurtigruten video feed and map interface running on my office computer

The last year I have been thinking much about the intersections between environmental history and the digital humanities. In what ways can digital technologies help us think about and analyze historical environments in new ways? How can we understand the new forms of storytelling that arise around mapping technologies (which I briefly blogged about before)? I’m involved in large a collaborative project between Umeå University and Stanford University project called Media Places, where we wish to explore the notion of mediated places in a broad sense. I want to use this project as a platform to look at the creation and mediation of natural sites and environments, and the Hurtigruten show seems to me a good example of this.

NRK's website for the Hurtigruten show

I think the website that NRK made for the show represents a great model for visualizing travel. As we see above, the site has three main elements: 1) a zoomable map with a red line marking the progress of Hurtigruten and markers for all the stops along the way. 2) a video window showing a live or archived video stream. Clicking anywhere along the red line on the map will show you the video for that spot. 3) a info window that shows you information about Hurtigruten, radar data, links to torrent downloads of raw video data in full HD (CC-licensed), and a link to a 3D view in Google Earth.

Zoomed in map showing the course of Hurtigruten outside Sortland. Every dot on the red line represents a data point that one can click to view the video stream from there.

Using Google Maps, NRK has created a nice interface for following a journey in time and space. Two years ago I presented a paper at the American Society for Environmental History conference where I attempted to recreate the strenuous and time-consuming journey from Bergen to the Vøringsfossen waterfall in the late 1800s, one of the big, scenic tourist attractions at the time. If I had more experience with the Google Maps API I could probably create a website that would trace this journey and visualize it. Using layers, I could compare the route and speed for different points in time, such as 1900, 1950, and 2000, to get a feeling of the changing experience of space and distance. I think we have much to do in exploring other forms of narratives, of presenting and analyzing environmental history.

Hurtigruten leaving Bergen, linked to 3D view in Google Earth.

On the fringes of commercial services

We have several examples of similar experiments in mapping and storytelling. First, we have the predecessor to the Hurtigruten show, when NRK followed the Bergensbanen railroad from Oslo to Bergen, in realtime. After the show, NRK released a torrent with a 246 GB HD file (!), or a compressed 720p file at 22GB (which is still big enough to make things complicated) and encouraged mashups. 1.2 million Norwegians watched parts of the show, which was later released as a DVD.

Bergenbanen at Finse (where the Hoth scenes of The Empire Strikes Back were shot)

Second, Google also made a railroad visualization, in a slightly different way, for the Transsiberian Railroad from Moscow to Vladivostok.

Google's Transsiberian Railroad, Moscow – Vladivostok.

Third, many may know Google and NORAD’s Santa Tracker, which tracks Santa flying across the globe at Christmas.

The Santa Tracker

I think we are going to see many more such forays into hybrid narratives, using maps, video, text, and social networking. I am excited to see that public and commercial companies like NRK and Google exploring crazy ideas like the Hurtigruten show, that does not seem to have any immediate commercial appeal. And I’m curious to see how we in academia can learn from and refine what they are doing.

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