Imagine that you are shown a spectacular photograph of a magnificent scene from nature, one that is unfamiliar to you. Can you distinguish which parts have been digitally processed? How do we perceive the natural environment as filtered by means of digital technology? Studying nature might seem a far cry from HUMlab’s activities, but digital technology plays a major role in how people perceive and interpret nature.
Finn Arne Jørgensen (left) is Associate Professor of History of Technology and Environment at the Department of Historical, Philosophical and Religious Studies at Umeå University. He is a researcher in the field of Digital Environmental Humanities and an affiliated researcher at HUMlab.
“Humanistic researchers have an important task in trying to increase digital literacy, in other words our ability to interpret and recognise material that has been produced or processed digitally. One example is pictures of the earth. We have all seen pictures of the earth taken from space – a beautiful blue planet with distinguishable continents and clouds. Many of us almost certainly believe we are looking at a photograph, that this is what earth looks like, whereas in actual fact what we are seeing is a visualisation of data collected from satellites. This visualisation often leaves out data showing the vast amount of objects, satellites, space junk and other stuff surrounding the earth. People have a doctored image of the earth without realising what enormous consequences this can have, for example in the climate debate,” says Finn Arne Jørgensen.
Experiencing ‘real’ nature
In his research, Finn Arne Jørgensen is looking at how digital technology affects our way of looking at and relating to nature.
“A lot of people have this notion that they want to experience ‘real’ nature, and that if they use technology to experience nature then this is not a genuine natural experience. But the fact is that nowadays, we never head out into nature without various technical aids: we might be wearing waterproof shoes on our feet, or a jacket that protects us from the wind. We can sleep in functional tents and lightres using matches or lighters. These types of analogue technology are a natural element of being in the forest and countryside, and they are not seen as obstacles to ‘real’ natural experiences. But digital technology is often regarded this way.”
HUMlab has advanced equipment that can be used for alternative visualisations of nature, by means of which scientists can investigate how our view of nature changes when it is shown to us in different ways. This also calls into question the image of nature as an unspoilt other.
“We cannot say today that any part of the natural world remains untouched; all the world’s eco-systems are affected by humans. This is what the relatively new concept of an anthropocene era focuses upon. The few remaining undisturbed natural places are to a large degree so because people actively monitor and protect them. It is therefore very important to investigate how new technology relates to nature. How is it used? Who uses it? Who does not use it? Digital technology and how it works is so much more than the technical definitions of it,” says Finn Arne.
Technology that excludes and includes
Another area that HUMlab’s researchers are interested in is how digital technology can affect political decisions. One such example is GIS technology and how it relates to the mining industry and reindeer husbandry. The industries are represented in a GIS system that then generates data for politicians who are to make decisions. The design of the sys-tem, what it includes and whose perspective it represents is therefore crucial to the future development of the natural environment and the mountain world.
“Humanists are really needed here to carry out critical research into how ‘the digital’ functions in interaction with nature,” says Finn Arne.
“This is a broad and largely unexplored field where Umeå University has come a long way. Places like HUMlab become incredibly important meeting places for building up such a new field of research. Helping researchers come together enables not only more research but also completely new perspectives in the research.”