Lets Make the Petrified World Speak, Sing, Perhaps Dance

In his fantastic The Once and Future World (2013), Canadian author J.B. MacKinnon notes that one of the considerable challenges facing pro-environmental action results from what biologist Daniel Pauly calls the “shifting baseline syndrome.” Simply stated, each generation takes the present situation as the baseline from which change can be gauged. Thus, writes MacKinnon, “The way you see the natural world around you determines much about the kind of world you are willing to live with” (MacKinnon, p.37). It it is in this sense that “Memory conspires against nature” (ibid., p.21).

I was recently reminded of MacKinnon’s association of memory with the capacity for transformative action while reading Herbert Marcuse’s last major work, The Aesthetic Dimension (1978). There, among other observations about art’s essence vis-a-vis social relations, Marcuse argues that much of art’s revolutionary potential is premised in its ability to remind us of our frustrated dreams, hopes and desires; to remind us that the existing reality is only one of many possible realities. He writes:

Art breaks open a dimension inaccessible to other experience, a dimension in which human beings, nature, and things no longer stand under the law of the established reality principle. Subjects and objects encounter the appearance of that autonomy which is denied them in their society. The encounter with the truth of art happens in the estranging language and images which make perceptible, visible, and audible that which is no longer, or not yet, perceived, said, and heard in everyday life. (Marcuse, p.72)

Marcuse adds that if, as Horkheimer and Adorno famously wrote in The Dialectic of Enlightenment, “All reification is a forgetting”, then “Art fights reification by making the petrified world speak, sing, perhaps dance” (Marcuse, p.73).

landlords game
(the original version of the board game monopoly was designed by Elizabeth Phillips to illustrate “the problems associated with concentrating land in private monopolies.” source) 

Seeking a method to evoke political awakenings, Walter Benjamin articulated a similar idea, what he called “dialectical images.” In his unfinished opus later published as The Arcades Project (1999), Benjamin explains that dialectical images “carry over the principle of montage into history” by evoking “flash-like” moments of understanding: stirring constellations in which utopian hopes are juxtaposed with their frustrated (un)realization to produce an “awakening of a not-yet-conscious knowledge of what has been” (Benjamin, p.461; p.458). By the way they embody multiplicities and produce a play in conjecture, we may say that dialectical images anticipate what Deleuze & Guattari would later call “lines of flight.”

But is the capacity to create dialectical images exclusive to artistic vocabularies and techniques, or could they be produced by other means? Can digital media, for instance, provide the conditions for overcoming the forgetting MacKinnon laments, evoking the historico-political awakening Benjamin yearns for?

While perhaps a bit too literal, digital dialectic images may be instantiated by virtual reality (VR) technology. The Owl, for instance, is a VR viewer that allows users to dynamically looks at different renditions of a single geographic location. Peering into a device shaped like one of those nickel-operated binoculars you find overlooking tourist attractions, users can see how a place looked like in the past or how it may look like in the future, and compare it to the present. This has practical applications for urban design – especially in the context of public engagement on potential development proposals – but perhaps it can be used more expressively, in more provocative ways.

(rising water levels in Marin County seen through Owl. source)

Sustainability in an Imaginary World

The latest issue of the ACM’s journal Interactions features a short article I wrote that describes my postdoc project. Here’s the first paragraph:

What if our environmental crisis is as much a failure of our imagination as it is a moment of reckoning with the material consequences of modernity? What would technologically mediated public engagement with sustainability look like, if instead of discussing gallons of fuel or water consumed, carbon dioxide parts-per-million, or dollars spent and saved, we collectively explored visions of possible futures? These are the questions that motivate Sustainability in an Imaginary World, an interdisciplinary project funded by a three-year Insight Grant from the Canadian Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council (SSHRC). Initiated a year and a half ago, the project involves faculty members and students from The University of British Columbia’s arts, design, and social science communities, including theater, visual arts, sustainability, scenario analysis, and human-computer interaction. What we are building together is an interactive multimedia experience.

If all goes well, the installation will be open to the public in January, 2016.

… and More on Maps

In a previous post on maps I mentioned that Napoleon has commissioned a “bad smell” map of Egypt in an attempt to safeguard his troops from malaria. I first came across this tidbit in an episode of James Burke’s Connections, but others mention it too:

Pamela Dalton mentions the map in an article (warning: pdf) in the Journal of Cosmetic Science, referencing J. Christopher Herold’s Bonaparte in Egypt (1962). Yet a Google Books search of Herold’s text yielded nothing (although it could be due to missing pages in the digitized copy).

Gubler & Wilson mention the map in a book chapter from 2005, but with no reference or attribution.

The map is also mentioned here, and here, but again, with no references. Strange. Very strange.


(Serrement de nez – Serment de Ney / Je jure que ça sent la violette (pun: the pinching of the nose – Ney’s declaration / I swear I can smell violets) by Lacroix, 1805. See original here)

I was pulled back into this wild-goose chase of Napoleon’s alleged map after coming across a recent Big Data glorification piece in The Atlantic‘s Citylab. The piece describes the creation of urban smellscapes from various social media feeds by researchers from Cambridge.

The method is worth recounting: first the scientists went on several “smellwalks” that resulted in a set of olfactory keywords. Those keywords were then used to retrieve geo-tagged social media data (from Twitter, Flickr and Instagram) and create smell maps of Barcelona and London.

Here’s the one for Barcelona:

barcelona smellmap

(source: Quercia, Schifanella, Aiello and McLean. click to embiggen)

And here’s the one for London:

london smellmap

(source: Quercia, Schifanella, Aiello and McLean. click to embiggen)

After all the heavy data lifting the researchers discovered a pattern: “good” smells are often clustered around green spaces (like parks), while “bad” smells often line major traffic routes. And this led them to conclude that

[…] there is a high correlation between areas with poor air quality and the areas in which social media users detected emissions smells like “gasoline,” “dusty,” “exhaust,” and “car.” Conversely, air pollutants were less present in areas where social media users detected nature smells: “floral,” “lavender,” “grass,” and “sulphur.” The human nose is a powerful thing.

No kidding Colombo!


COCE 2015 (now with link to presentation)

Screen Shot 2015-06-05 at 4.54.18 PM

I’ll be in Boulder, Colorado next week to present at the biennial Conference on Communication and the Environment. My paper offers a critique of the way environmental communication approaches new media, and suggests an alternative based in phenomenology. Here’s the abstract:

This paper discusses the scholarly treatment of new, interactive media for environmental communication. Noting that environmental communication tends to approach new media primarily based on the latter’s informational, discursive and organizational uses, it is argued that since this approach neglects both the origins of new media in social processes of design, and the kind of experiences they evoke, it risks reducing new media to their functionality. In response, the paper suggests that environmental communication would benefit from analyses of the mediating capacities of new media – the way they modulate users’ perception of the world, themselves and others; promote certain understandings of human-environment relations; and, consequently, enable or foreclose different paths of action on the environment. This alternative approach is briefly demonstrated by three cases: BreezeOmeter (mobile app), Owl (augmented reality viewer), and Futura (tabletop game).

Hit me up if you’re attending!

[update: my presentation starts at 59:26]