New publication: Entangled Environments

I’m pleased to announce the publication of a new article called “Entangled Environments: Historians and Nature in the Nordic Countries.” The text was co-authored by Finn Arne Jørgensen, Unnur Birna Karlsdóttir, Erland Mårald, Bo Poulsen, and Tuomas Räsänen, and was published in Historisk Tidsskrift (Norway) no 1, 2013.

If you have access to the journal, you can download the article directly from Historisk Tidsskrift.

If you don’t have access, you can instead read the Nordic Environmental History Network parallel published version here.

Read more

On missing landscapes

I’ve lived in Northern Sweden for two years now, and I’m enjoying it for the most part. But I have to say that I miss Norwegian landscapes – the variety, and being able to see the sea and mountains at the same time. This part of Northern Sweden is flat and filled with industrial tree plantations. And mosquitos. It’s a good thing that it’s only a 7-8 hour drive over to visit family in Mosjøen, a small aluminum processing town, dramatically squeezed in under the mountains by the sea.

Water & mountain
Walking the dogs at night (22:15/10:15PM)

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”

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.

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.