Modeling the Pacific
Oceanic Research in Science, Technology, and the Humanities Interdisciplinary Conference at UCSB (10.-12. October 2019)
This interdisciplinary conference on Modeling the Pacific pursues two main objectives: 1. To discuss the history and function of measuring and modeling techniques for the scientific study of oceans, in general, and of the Pacific Ocean, in particular, and to make the results of this discussion accessible to a broader public. 2. To connect the scientific mode of dealing with oceans and marine life with approaches from history, media and literary studies. We suggest to address the Pacific Ocean as a scientific object studied with empirical, mathematical, and computational methods and as a geographic space of cultural and literary knowledge described in qualitative, cultural, and environmental terms.
Oceanography is a relatively young science and technological developments generally led (rather than followed) new ideas (Munk, 2000). Over the last decade or two, what once was a “data-poor science” has become “big data science,” and oceans—and this could be perceived as one of our main theses for the conference— have been defined by radically new techniques, images, and imaginaries. We are interested in the technical aspects of measuring a range of invisible processes in a formerly ‘vast, pathless, and formless ocean’ through technologies such as probes, drifters, robots, and acoustics, microwave-based scanning methods, and satellites. How are these data—with regard to macro-systemic interrelationships—processed and (re-)presented in mathematical and software models and simulations? While oceanography understands itself mainly as an observatory discipline, computer- based simulations that couple atmosphere and oceans have had a decisive influence on climate projections and policy making. Since the 1990s, coral reefs play an increasing role as paleoclimate ‘archive’, while at the same time being at risk of dying out due to increased ocean temperatures and acidity. The Pacific, so it seems, is not only in the process of losing important ecosystems, but also its archive. Thus, the future and past of oceans seem to be correlated differently than those of land. And because this correlation and the insight into the interdependency between human driven climate change, oceans, and draughts is mainly derived from computer modeling techniques, we need to understand the logics of these models as well. How can scientists decide if paleoclimatic reconstruction events should be ascribed to human factors or to internal climate variability (Stevenson et al, 2018)? How can we understand the interdependency between the Pacific Ocean, which encompasses one third of the earth’s waterbody, global climate, and human affairs? And how can we link the scientific modeling of this interdependency to historic and narratological accounts from this region?
Geographically, the Pacific Ocean borders on three continents: Australia, Asia, and the Americas, and it has been up until today the center stage of geopolitical interests and conflicts, cold and hot wars. Because of its dimension and location, the Pacific is not just an object of scientific research, but also a central figure of global history, world literature, and postcolonial theory. While European historiographies that developed in relation to the Mediterranean Sea and the Atlantic Ocean (Braudel, 2000) did not acknowledge their colonial legacy in the Pacific for a long time, world history today does not only address both colonial and native Pacific history, it also stresses the influence Pacific history with its particular emphases on anthropology actually had on European approaches (Bashford, 2018). While
history looks at past narratives and structures, ecocriticism, and literary theory engage with poetry, novels, and art from Australia, New Zealand, Hawaii, and other ocean sites, to understand how imaginative accounts of present life and future living in the Pacific are affected by environmental loss (Shewry, 2015). While it is certainly of interest to understand how computational media have influenced the way science investigates the ocean, the study of oceanography we propose might also lead to a more comprehensive account of the networked power of computational and natural media (Jue, 2018).
Thus, we propose to address the Pacific both as a global agent and as a multitude of local and heterogeneous living environments and historiographies. The conference seeks to assess not only to what extent the development of models and simulations may have given rise to a scientific ‘new ocean world picture’. It also sets out to analyze how such developments are initiated and shaped by novel political, economic, and cultural interests (e.g., geostrategy, resource allocation, bio-medical research, etc.). In these ways, the occupation with the Pacific opens up (and ties together) peculiar perspectives on a whole range of forms of knowledge which operate on the scale of global interactions. The conference explores scientific as well as governmental modes and techniques of ‘controlling’ the Pacific Ocean – as the epitome of the unknowable object or space on this planet.
It is our intent to initiate a dialogue between scholars from the sciences and the humanities based on the following (and similar) questions: What methods and techniques are being used to study the Pacific Ocean? What is the role of simulation techniques in oceanography, climatology, marine ecology, and other sciences? And in which ways does the Pacific fulfill a particular function within the context of such approaches? What are the wider social and political implications of these methods? What are the cultural imaginaries which are specifically tied to the Pacific Ocean? What are historical and contemporary techniques or regimes of cooperation or confrontation (e.g., economically, military, political, migratory...) which are bound to and played out on its vastness and in its depths? What were possible implications of ‘Pacific president’ Barack Obama’s and his administration’s ‘pivot to Asia’, and how are these contradicted by current policies? What distinguishes Pacific from Atlantic relationships? To what extend does the history of oceanography and marine science provide concepts and terms which are fundamental for current debates around ‘the anthropocene’ or ‘media ecologies’?
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