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.

On personal maps

There has been some uproar the last few days about the spatial data embedded in the iPhone backups – which has been transmitted to Apple. Since Alexis Madrigal asked to see other people’s maps, out of curiosity, here’s mine. I used the free iPhone Tracker software made by Alasdair Allan and Pete Warden to generate these maps.

World Map

Here is my world map. As we can see, I spend most of my time in Northern Europe, but I’ve had several stops in the US. Of course, the data set is limited to the time since I bought my iPhone, which was about 8-9 months ago.

Looking closer at the US part, we see that I’ve been to Chicago, Seattle, Phoenix, and Santa Fe since buying my phone. Chicago sticks out as a pretty small dot – I have stopped at O’Hare a while flying to Phoenix and Seattle and must have turned on my phone. I did fly through Newark a few days ago, but must not have turned on the phone then, since it did not show on the map.

New Mexico

As we zoom in on New Mexico, we see clearly how the data points map out on a grid, and one might reasonably think that I did not physically go to all these locations. Supposedly, the iPhone found the location by triangulating to nearby cell phone towers. It seems like I spent much more time in Albuquerque (south) than in Santa Fe (north), which is not true at all. We flew to Albuquerque, but only spent one day there. The rest of the time we were in Santa Fe. One day we drove out to Bandelier National Monument, which we can also see to the northwest of the map.

Phoenix, AZ

Zooming in on Phoenix, we see two concentrations on the map. I assume the darkest dot is around the Wyndham Hotel, and going east we can see the results of our very interesting bus ride to the Phoenix Zoo (reminder to self: taking the bus in the US is something entirely different than in Northern Europe…) Further up we can see a big concentration of dots around Taliesin West. Interestingly, one can’t really see the drive out there.


Jumping over to Europe, we see much traveling back and forth between northern Norway and Sweden, and big dots for Stockholm and Oslo, and smaller dots for Roskilde and Florence.

Norway and Sweden

This is where it gets interesting. Here we see the results of our road trips between Umeå, Trondheim, and Mosjøen.

Finally, a zoomed in map of Umeå, the city I live in [sorry, this image got lost in a wordpress hack cleanup]. The grid is very obvious here, and the size of the dots do not accurately indicate where I’ve spent the most time (campus and my house). Instead, I think they must represent the cell phone antenna towers that register my phone the most often, and some of these must be bigger and more sensitive than others.

I like the stories that these maps tell. They also made me think of the way geotagging and mapping technologies have transformed our personal relationships to space. I wish that I had tagged every single one of the some 30,000 photos I have taken since I bought my first digital camera in the summer of 2004 (a Nikon D70, which I still use!) in time and space. I use Flickr and, increasingly, Picasaweb to share and make cloud backups of my photos, and both these services now have the option to display geotagged photos on maps. Flickr certainly seems like the best solution, since they can show all geotagged locations on a big map:

My Flickr map

Here the map becomes a real tool for exploring places.

Picasaweb, on the other hand, only gives a tiny, cursory option to see all photo locations on a tiny little map, To see more detail, you need to look at individual albums:

Picasaweb map of New Mexico

Here we see again a map from our New Mexico trip. Not all that different from the iPhone generated one above.

I think personal mapping like this is still somewhat underexplored. Most advanced smartphones automatically geotag photos taken with them now, and I see that some compact digital cameras have started getting built-in GPS receivers. What will happen when all photos we take are reliably geotagged? As the last few days’ Apple controversy has demonstrated, there will be some privacy issues, but I think it holds the potential for some real exciting personal mapping services.