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Dossiers
Authors
  • Lawrence Abu Hamdan
  • Babak Afrassiabi
    • Babak Afrassiabi is an artist who works both in Iran and the Netherlands. Since 2004, he has collaborated with Nasrin Tabatabai on various joint projects and the publication of the bilingual magazine Pages (Farsi and English). Their work seeks to articulate the undecidable space between art and its historical conditions, including the recurring question of the place of the archive in defining the juncture between politics, history, and the practice of art. The artists’ work has been presented internationally in various solo and group exhibitions and they have been tutors at the Jan Van Eyck Academie, Maastricht (2008–13), and Erg, école supérieure des arts, Brussels (2015–).
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      published contributions
  • S. Ayesha Hameed
    • Dr. S. Ayesha Hameed is a Lecturer in Visual Cultures and the Joint Programme Leader in Fine Art and History of Art Research Fellow in Forensic Architecture at Goldsmiths, London. She received her PhD in Social and Political Thought at York University, Canada in 2008
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      published contributions
  • Sammy Baloji
  • On Barak
    • On Barak is a social and cultural historian of science and technology in non-Western settings. He has been a senior lecturer in the Department of Middle Eastern and African History at Tel Aviv University since 2012. Prior to this, he was a member of the Princeton Society of Fellows. In 2009, Barak received a joint PhD in History and Middle Eastern Studies from New York University. His most recent book is On Time: Technology and Temporality in Modern Egypt (University of California Press, 2013), and his current publication project, Coalonialism: Energy and Empire before the Age of Oil, is funded by a European Union Marie Curie Award and an Israel Science Foundation Grant.
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      published contributions
  • Anil Bawa-Cavia
    • Anil Bawa-Cavia is a computer scientist with a background in machine learning. He runs STDIO, a speculative software studio. His practice engages with algorithms, protocols, encodings, and other software artifacts and his doctoral research at the Center for Advanced Spatial Analysis (CASA) at University College London was on complex networks in urbanism. He is a founding member of Call & Response, a sonic arts collective and gallery space in London, and a member of the New Centre for Research & Practice.
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      published contributions
  • Etienne Benson
  • Josh Berson
  • Jeremy Bolen
  • Axel Braun
    • Axel Braun studied photography at the Folkwang University of the Arts, Essen, and fine arts at the École nationale supérieure des Beaux-Arts de Paris. His artistic research deals with controversial infrastructure projects, tautology as an attempt to understand reality, and failed utopias in art and architecture. Currently, he is pursuing the long-term project Towards an Understanding of Anthropocene Landscapes. Recently exhibited works include Some Kind of Opposition (2016) at Galeria Centralis, Budapest, and Dragonflies drift downstream on a river (2015) at Kunstmuseum Bochum.
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      published contributions
  • Keith Breckenridge
  • François Bucher
    • s, focusing on ethical and aesthetic problems of cinema and television, and more recently on the image as an interdimensional field. His work has been exhibited at
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      published contributions
  • Lino Camprubí
  • Zachary Caple
  • Ele Carpenter
    • Dr. Ele Carpenter is a senior lecturer in curating at Goldsmiths, London. Her curatorial practice responds to interdisciplinary socio-political contexts such as the nuclear economy and the relationship between craft and code.
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      published contributions
  • Andrew Chubb
    • Andrew Chubb is a PhD candidate at the University of Western Australia conducting research on the relationship between Chinese public opinion and government policy in the South China Sea. His articles have appeared in the Journal of Contemporary China, Pacific Affairs, East Asia Forum, and Information, Communication & Society. His blog, South Sea Conversations (southseaconversations.wordpress.com), provides translations and analysis of Chinese discourse on the South and East China Sea issues.
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      published contributions
  • Louis Chude-Sokei
    • Louis Chude-Sokei is a writer and scholar currently teaching in the English Department at the University of Washington, Seattle. His academic interests range from West African, Caribbean, and American literary and cultural studies to a particular focus on sound, technology, and performance. His literary and public work focuses on immigration and black-on-black cultural contacts, conflicts, and exchanges. Chude-Sokei is the author of the award-winning book The Last “Darky”: Bert Williams, Black-on-Black Minstrelsy, and the African Diaspora (2006) and The Sound of Culture: Diaspora and Black Technopoetics (2016).
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      published contributions
  • Claire Colebrook
    • Claire Colebrook is a professor of English at Penn State University. Her areas of specialization are contemporary literature, visual culture, and theory and cultural studies. She has written articles on poetry, literary theory, queer theory, and contemporary culture. Colebrook is the co-editor of the series Critical Climate Change, published by Open Humanities Press, and a member of the advisory board of the Institute for Critical Climate Change. She recently completed two books on extinction for Open Humanities Press, Death of the PostHuman and Sex after Life (both 2014), and with Tom Cohen and J. Hillis Miller co-authored Twilight of the Anthropocene Idols (2016).
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      published contributions
  • Ana Dana Beroš
    • chitect and curator focused on creating uncertain, fragile environments that catalyze social chan
    • 1
      published contributions
  • Rana Dasgupta
  • Filip De Boeck
    • Filip De Boeck is actively involved in teaching, promoting, coordinating and supervising research in and on Africa at the Institute for Anthropological research in Africa at the U
    • 1
      published contributions
  • Seth Denizen
    • Seth Denizen is a researcher and design practitioner trained in landscape architecture and evolutionary biology. Since completing research on the sexual behavior and evolutionary ecology of small Trinidadian fish, his work has focused on the aesthetics of scientific representation, madness, and public parks, the design of t
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      published contributions
  • Jonathan Donges
    • Jonathan Donges is a postdoctoral researcher who holds a joint position at the Stockholm Resilience Centre (as Stordalen Scholar) and the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research. He studies planetary boundaries and social dynamics in the Earth system from a complex dynamical system perspective. At Potsdam, he is Co-head of the flagship COPAN (Coevolutionary Pathways) project (www.pik-potsdam.de/copan). His published research includes work on complex network theory, dynamical systems theory, and time series analysis, with a focus on their application to our understanding of past and present climate variability and its interactions with humankind on planet Earth.
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      published contributions
  • Keller Easterling
  • David Edgerton
    • David Edgerton is Hans Rausing Professor of the History of Science and Technology and a professor of modern British history at King’s College London. After teaching at the University of Manchester, he became the founding director of the Centre for the History of Science, Technology and Medicine at Imperial College London (1993–2003), and moved along with the centre to King’s College London in August 2013. He is the author of many works, including The Shock of the Old: Technology and Global History since 1900 (2007), which argues for and exemplifies new ways of thinking about the material constitution of modernity.
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      published contributions
  • Technosphere Editorial
  • Sasha Engelmann
  • Eberhard Faust
  • Jennifer Gabrys
    • Jennifer Gabrys is Reader in the Department of Sociology at Goldsmiths, University of London, and Principal Investigator on the ERC-funded project, "Citizen Sense." Her publications include Digital Rubbish: A Natural History of Electronics (University of Michigan Press, 2011); and Program Earth: Environmental Sensing Technology and the Making of a Computational Planet (University of Minnesota Press, forthcoming).
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      published contributions
  • Elaine Gan
  • Oliver Gantner
  • Florian Goldmann
    • Florian Goldmann is a Berlin-based artist and a PhD candidate at the DFG Research Training Center Visibility and Visualisation – Hybrid Forms of Pictorial Knowledge as well as at the Brandenburg Center for Media Studies, both Potsdam University. His research focus is the utilization of models as a means of both commemorating and predicting catastrophe. In 2015, he took part in the Third UN World Conference on Disaster Risk Reduction (WCDRR) in Sendai, Japan. Goldmann is one of the founders of the research collective STRATAGRIDS and the author of Flexible Signposts to Coded Territories (2012), an analysis of football hooligan graffiti in Athens as a system of fluid signage.
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      published contributions
  • Johan Gärdebo
    • Johan Gärdebo is a PhD candidate at the Royal Institute of Technology affiliated to the Environmental Humanities Laboratory (EHL). H
    • 1
      published contributions
  • Orit Halpern
    • Orit Halpern is a Strategic Hire in Interactive Design and an associate professor in the Department of Sociology and Anthropology at Concordia University, Montreal. Her work bridges the histories of science, computing, and cybernetics with design and art practice. She is also a co-director of the Speculative Life Research Cluster, Montreal, a laboratory situated at the intersection of art and life sciences, architecture and design, and computational media (www.speculativelife.com). Her recent monograph, Beautiful Data (2015), is a history of interactivity, data visualization, and ubiquitous computing. www.orithalpern.net
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      published contributions
  • Gerda Heck
  • Carola Hein
    • Carola Hein is a professor of the history of architecture and urban planning in the Architecture Department at Delft University of Technology. She has published widely on topics in contemporary and historical architectural and urban planning, notably that of Europe and Japan. Her current research interests include transmission of architectural and urban ideas along international networks, focusing specifically on port cities, and the global architecture of oil. Her books include Port Cities: Dynamic Landscapes and Global Networks (2011), Cities, Autonomy, and Decentralization in Japan (2006), and The Capital of Europe: Architecture and Urban Planning for the European Union (2004).
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      published contributions
  • Julian Henriques
    • Julian Henriques is the convener of the MA in Script Writing and Director of the Topology Research Unit in the Department of Media and Communications at Goldsmiths, University of London. Prior to this, he ran the film and television department at the Caribbean Institute of Media and Communication (CARIMAC) at the University of the West Indies, Kingston, Jamaica. His credits as a writer and director include the reggae musical feature film Babymother (1998) and as a sound artist, Knots & Donuts, exhibited at Tate Modern in 2011. Henriques researches street cultures and technologies and his publications include Changing the Subject: Psychology, Social Regulation, and Subjectivity (1998), Sonic Bodies: Reggae Sound Systems, Performance Techniques, and Ways of Knowing (2011), and Sonic Media (forthcoming).
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      published contributions
  • Hanna Husberg
    • Hanna Husberg is a Stockholm-based artist. She graduated from ENSB-A in Paris in 2007 and is currently a PhD in Practice candidate at the Academy of Fine Arts, Vienna.
    • 1
      published contributions
  • Erich Hörl
  • Timothy Johnson
  • Peter K. Haff
  • Bernd Kasparek
  • Laleh Khalili
  • Alexander Klose
    • Dr. Alexander Klose studied History, Law, Philosophy, Art, and Cultural Studies. From 2005-07 he held a scholarship at Bauhaus Universität Weimar for his PhD project on standardized containers used in transport as one of the leading material media in the 20th century. Between 2009 and 2014 he worked as a research associate and programme developer at Kulturstiftung des Bundes. In 2015 in the forefront of COP 21, he co-curated Blackmarket for Useful Knowledge and Non-Knowledge No. 18 – On Becoming Earthlings: 150 dialogues and exercises in shrinking and expanding the Human at Musée de l'Homme, Paris. His latest publication is: The Container Principle. How a box changes the way we think (2015).
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      published contributions
  • Karin Knorr Cetina
  • Scott Knowles
  • Nile Koetting
  • Nicole Koltick
    • Nicole Koltick is an assistant professor in the Westphal College of Media Arts & Design at Drexel University, Philadelphia. She is Founding Director of the Design Futures Lab at Westphal College, which is currently pursuing design research to stimulate debate on the potential implications of emerging technological and scientific developments within society. Koltick’s practice spans art, science, technology, design, and philosophy, and current work focuses on the philosophical, material, and relational implications of aesthetics as they intersect with emerging developments in computational creativity, artificially intelligent autonomous systems, robotics, and synthetic biological hybrids.
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      published contributions
  • Nik Kosmas
  • Matthijs Kouw
    • Matthijs Kouw joined the Rathenau Instituut, The Hague, in March 2016. He holds an MA in Philosophy and an MSc in Science and Technology Studies from the University of Amsterdam as well as a PhD from Maastricht University. In his PhD thesis, Kouw describes how and to what extent reliance on models can introduce vulnerabilities through the assumptions, uncertainties, and blind spots concomitant with modeling practice. He was employed as a postdoctoral researcher at the Netherlands Environmental Assessment Agency (PBL), during which time he acted as a member of the Dutch delegation for plenary sessions of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC).
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      published contributions
  • Matija Kralj
  • Lars Kulik
    • Lars Kulik studied biology at the Humboldt University of Berlin. He received his doctorate on the development of social behavior of rhesus monkeys at the University of Leipzig and the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology. He lives with his family in Berlin.
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      published contributions
  • Richard L. Hindle
    • Richard L. Hindle is an assistant professor of landscape architecture and environmental planning at the University of California, Berkeley. His current research focuses on patent innovation in landscape related technologies, from large-scale mappings of riverine and coastal systems to detailed historical studies on the antecedents of vegetated architecture. His work explores the potential of new technological narratives and material processes to reframe theory, practice, and the production of landscape. Recent works include the articles “Levees That Might Have Been” (2015), and “Infrastructures of Innovation” in Scaling Infrastructure (MIT Center for Advanced Urbanism, 2016), and the exhibition Geographies of Innovation at UC Berkeley (2015).
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      published contributions
  • Brian Larkin
  • John Law
    • hn Law was a professor of sociology at Keele University, Lancaster, and the Open University, Milton Keynes, and a co-director of the Economic and Social Researc
    • 1
      published contributions
  • Esther Leslie
    • t theories of aesthetics and culture, with a particular focus on the work of Walter Benjamin and Theodor Adorno. It deals with the poetics of science, European literary and visual modern
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      published contributions
  • S. Løchlann Jain
  • Donald MacKenzie
  • Chowra Makaremi
  • Annapurna Mamidipudi
  • Laura McLean
    • Laura McLean is a curator, artist, and writer based in London. She is a graduate of Goldsmiths College and Sydney College of the Arts, where she later lectured. She has also studied at Alberta College of Art and Design, and the Universität der Künste Berlin.
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      published contributions
  • Eden Medina
    • Eden Medina is an associate professor of informatics and computing, affiliated associate professor of law, and adjunct associate professor of history at Indiana University, Bloomington. Her research and teaching address the social, historical, and legal dimensions of our increasingly data-driven world, including the relationship of technology to human rights and free expression, the relationship between political innovation and technological innovation, and the ways that human and political values shape technological design. Medina’s writings also use science and technology as a way to broaden understandings of Latin American history and the geography of innovation. She is the author of Cybernetic Revolutionaries: Technology and Politics in Allende's Chile (2011) and the co-editor of Beyond Imported Magic: Essays on Science, Technology, and Society in Latin America (2014).
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      published contributions
  • Anne-Sophie Milon
    • Anne-Sophie Milon is an artist and a freelance illustrator and animator working and living in Bristol, UK. After completing two Masters in Art, she has recently concluded the program of experimentation in Art and Politics at SciencesPo (SPEAP) in Paris.
    • 1
      published contributions
  • Gerald Nestler
    • Gerald Nestler is an artist and writer who combines theory and post-disciplinary conversation with video, installation, performance, text, code, graphics, sound, and speech. He explores what he calls the derivative condition of contemporary social relations and its paradigmatic financial models, operations, processes, narratives, and fictions. He is currently working on an “aesthetics of resolution” that maps counterfictions and counterimaginations for “renegade activism,” which revolves around the demonstration as a combined artistic, technological, social, and political practice. Nestler holds a practice-based PhD from the Centre for Research Architecture at Goldsmiths, University of London.
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      published contributions
  • Daniel Niles
    • terial, millenary and momentary—that their knowledge takes, and, finally, the significance of this experience to our understanding of t
    • 1
      published contributions
  • James P. M. Syvitski
    • James P. M. Syvitski is Executive Director of the Community Surface Dynamics Modeling System (CSDMS) at the University of Colorado Boulder. From 2011 to 2016, he chaired the International Council for Science’s International Geosphere-Biosphere Programme (IGBP), which provides essential scientific leadership and knowledge of the Earth system to help guide society toward a sustainable pathway during rapid global change. His specialty is the global flux of water and sediment (river and ocean borne) and its trends in the Anthropocene. He works at the forefront of computational geosciences, including sediment transport, land-ocean interactions, and Earth-surface dynamics.
    • 1
      published contributions
  • Luciana Parisi
    • Luciana Parisi is Reader in Cultural Theory, Chair of the PhD program in Cultural Studies, and Co-director of the Digital Culture Unit at Goldsmiths, University of London. Her research focuses on cybernetics, information theory and computation, complexity and evolutionary theories, and the technocapitalist investment in artificial intelligence, biotechnology, and nanotechnology. Her books include Abstract Sex: Philosophy, Biotechnology and the Mutations of Desire (2004) and Contagious Architecture: Computation, Aesthetics, and Space (2013). She is currently researching the history of automation and the philosophical consequences of logical thinking in machines.
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      published contributions
  • Lisa Parks
  • Matteo Pasquinelli
  • Sophia Roosth
    • t when researchers are building new biological systems in order to investigate how biology works. She holds a PhD from the Massachuse
    • 1
      published contributions
  • Arno Rosemarin
  • Kim Rygiel
    • f International Affairs in Waterloo, Canada. Her research focuses on border security, migration, and citizenship in North America and Europe. She investigates how citizens and non-citizens engage in citizenship practices and challenge notions
    • 1
      published contributions
  • Dorion Sagan
  • Isabelle Saint-Saëns
  • Birgit Schneider
  • Jens Soentgen
  • Lizzie Stark
    • Lizzie Stark is an author, journalist, and experience designer. She is the author of two books, Pandora’s DNA (2014), exploring so-called ‘breast cancer genes’ and her first book, Leaving Mundania (2012), which investigates the subculture of live action role play, or larp. Her journalism and essays have appeared in The Washington Post, the Daily Beast, The Today Show Website, io9, Fusion, the Philadelphia Inquirer and elsewhere. She holds an MS from the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism. She has organized numerous conventions and experiences across the US. Her most recent work is as a programming coordinator for Living Games Austin, and as co-editor and contributor for the #Feminism anthology, which collects 34 nano-games written by feminists from eleven countries.
    • 1
      published contributions
  • Lucy Suchman
    • ology of Science and Technology in the Department of Sociology at the University of Lancaster, UK. Her research interests within the field of feminist science and technology studies are focused on technological imaginaries and material practices
    • 1
      published contributions
  • Jenna Sutela
    • Jenna Sutela’s installations, texts, and sound performances seek to identify and react to precarious social and material moments, often in relation to technology. Most recently, she has been exploring exceedingly complex biological and computational systems, ultimately unknowable and always becoming something new. Her work has been presented, among other places, at the Institute of Contemporary Arts, London; Haus der Kulturen der Welt, Berlin; and the Museum of Contemporary Art Tokyo and her writing has been published by Fiktion, Harvard Design Magazine, and Sternberg Press.
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      published contributions
  • Bronislaw Szerszynski
    • Bronislaw Szerszynski is a Reader in Sociology at Lancaster University in the UK. Szerszynski’s work has developed across several themes, including the role of Western religious history in shaping contemporary understandings of technology and the environment—typified by his book Nature, Technology and the Sacred (Wiley-Blackwell, 2005).
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      published contributions
  • Elisa T. Bertuzzo
    • Elisa T. Bertuzzo studied comparative literature, sociology, communication, and media studies and holds a PhD in urban studies. She was a curator and project leader with Habitat Forum Berlin, including for the project Paradigmising Karail Basti (2010–16). Bridging discourses from the fields of cultural and urban studies, her research focuses on the everyday life facets of urbanization and settlement in South Asia. On that topic, she published Fragmented Dhaka: Analysing Everyday Life with Henri Lefebvre’s Theory of Production of Space (2009) and runs her multimedia project Archives of Movement (since 2012), which deals with the everyday life of temporary labor migrants in Bangladesh and India.
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      published contributions
  • Gregory T. Cushman
    • Gregory T. Cushman is Associate Professor of International Environmental History at the University of Kansas.
    • 1
      published contributions
  • Nasrin Tabatabai
    • Nasrin Tabatabai is an artist who works both in Iran and the Netherlands. Since 2004, she has collaborated with Babak Afrassiabi on various joint projects and the publication of the bilingual magazine Pages (Farsi and English). Their work seeks to articulate the undecidable space between art and its historical conditions, including the recurring question of the place of the archive in defining the juncture between politics, history, and the practice of art. The artists’ work has been presented internationally in various solo and group exhibitions and they have been tutors at the Jan Van Eyck Academie, Maastricht (2008–13), and Erg, école supérieure des arts, Brussels (2015–).
    • 1
      published contributions
  • Katerina Teaiwa
    • Dr. Katerina Teaiwa is Associate Professor at the Department of Gender, Media and Cultural Studies, School of Culture, History & Language and the president of the Australian Association for Pacific Studies. Her main area of research looks at the histories of phosphate mining in the central Pacific. Her work does not only span academic research, publications, and lectures, but also manifests itself in other formats within the arts and popular culture. Her work has inspired a permanent exhibition at the Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa, which tells the story of Pacific phosphate mining through Banaban dance. In 2015, she published „Consuming Ocean Island: Stories of People and Phosphate from Banaba“, Indiana University Press. She is currently working with visual artist Yuki Kihara on a multimedia exhibition for Carriageworks in Sydney.
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      published contributions
  • Jol Thomson
  • Claire Tolan
  • John Tresch
  • Etienne Turpin
    • Etienne Turpin is a philosopher, Founding Director of anexact office, and a research scientist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), Cambridge, where he coordinates the Humanitarian Infrastructures Group and co-directs the PetaBencana.id disaster mapping project for the Urban Risk Lab. He is the editor of Architecture in the Anthropocene: Encounters Among Design, Deep Tim
    • 1
      published contributions
  • Asonseh Ukah
    • Asonzeh Ukah is a sociologist and historian of religion. He joined the University of Cape Town in 2013 and previously taught at the University of Bayreuth (2005–13), where he also earned a doctorate and habilitation in history of religions. His research interests include religious urbanism, the sociology of Pentecostalism, and religion and media. He is Director of the Research Institute on Christianity and Society in Africa (RICSA), University of Cape Town, and Affiliated Senior Fellow of Bayreuth International Graduate School of African Studies (BIGSAS), University of Bayreuth. He is the author of A New Paradigm of Pentecostal Power (2008) and Bourdieu in Africa (edited with Magnus Echtler, 2016).
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      published contributions
  • Underworlds
  • Sebastian Vehlken
    • Sebastian Vehlken is a media theorist and cultural historian at Leuphana University Lüneburg and Permanent Senior Fellow at the Institute for Advanced Study on Media Cultures of Computer Simulation (MECS). From 2013 to 2017, he worked as MECS Junior Director, and in 2015–16, he was a visiting professor at Humboldt-Universität Berlin, the University of Vienna, and Leuphana. His areas of interest include the theory and history of computer simulation and digital media, the media history of swarm intelligence, and the epistemology of think tanks. His current research project, Plutonium Worlds, explores the application of computer simulations in West German fast breeder reactor programs.
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      published contributions
  • Vladimir Vernadsky
  • Davor Vidas
    • Davor Vidas is a research professor in international law and Director of the Law of the Sea Programme at the Fridtjof Nansen Institute, Lysaker, Norway. He is Chair of the Committee on International Law and Sea Level Rise and a member of the Anthropocene Working Group. Vidas has been involved in international law research for over thirty years, focusing since 2009 on implications of the Anthropocene for the development of international law. Among his books are The World Ocean in Globalisation (2011) and Law, Technology and Science for Oceans in Globalisation (2010). He is the editor-in-chief of the book series Anthropocene (Skolska knjiga, Zagreb), launched in 2017.
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      published contributions
  • Hannes Wiedemann
    • Hannes Wiedemann is a Berlin-based photographer. He studied at the Ostkreuz School of Photography, Berlin. For his project Grinders (2015–16), he followed the American bodyhacking community, a small group of people across the United States working out of garages and basements to become real cyborgs. Recent exhibitions include NEW PHOTOGRAPHY II (2017) at Gallery ALAN, Istanbul, and HUMAN UPGRADE, with Susanna Hertrich (2016), at Schader-Stiftung Gallery, Hessisches Landesmuseum, Darmstadt. www.hanneswiedemann.com
    • 1
      published contributions
  • Cary Wolfe
    • Cary Wolfe is Bruce and Elizabeth Dunlevie Professor of English and Founding Director of 3CT: Center for Critical and Cultural Theory at Rice University, Houston. He is the author of What Is Posthumanism? (2010), a book that weaves together principal concerns of his work: animal studies, system theory, pragmatism, and post-structuralism. It is part of the series Posthumanities, for which he serves as Founding Editor at the University of Minnesota Press. His most recent publication is Before the Law: Humans and Other Animals in Biopolitical Frame (2013) and earlier books and edited collections include Animal Rites: American Culture, The Discourse of Species, and Posthumanist Theory (2003) and Zoontologies: The Question of the Animal (2003).
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      published contributions
  • Andrew Yang
  • Jan Zalasiewicz
    • Dr. Jan Zalasiewicz is Professor of Palaeobiology at the University of Leicester and Chair of the Anthropocene Working Group of the International Commission on Stratigraphy. A field geologist, paleontologist, and stratigrapher, he teaches and publishes on geology and earth history, in particular on fossil ecosystems and environments that span over half a billion years of geological time.
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      published contributions
  • Anna Zett
  • Sander van der Leeuw
    • ionships, and complex systems theory. He investigates the preconditions for and the practices and role of invention, sustainability, and innovation in societies. He has done
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      published contributions
  • Liv Østmo
    • Liv Østmo is one of the founders and current Dean of the Sámi University of Applied Sciences, Kautokeino, Norway, where she researches and lectures on the subject of multicultural understanding. For the last eight years, Østmo has worked with traditional Sámi knowledge and she is currently working on putting the finishing touches on a methodology book about the documentation of this knowledge.
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      published contributions
Taipei, Taiwan © Daniel Niles, 2017

The Material Order

Do cultural ideas order our material worlds and technologies, or is it the other way around? In their conversation, archaeologist and sustainability scientist Sander van der Leeuw and human-environmental geographer Daniel Niles discuss how the technosphere is to be seen in the context of a long-term coevolution of spatial organization, language, and other forms of information processing that simplify the environment for the sake of complexifying societies.
Daniel Niles: I want to ask you about how we understand the quality of things in the context of the technosphere. Because you and I are interested in material culture, even in the context of all these pervasive technological systems in which we’re embedded and which seem so important at the large scale, we still interact with things in the everyday world and we say that those things are important to how we understand and act in our world.
So the question is really: Why? How can we understand the significance of everyday things and materials given the scope and scale of technological systems in our contemporary time?
  • Sander van der Leeuw: Well, let me give you an evolutionary perspective. I think our technological world basically reflects a very long-term set of basic conceptions about the organization of the world around us. That set of conceptions has been modified over time, either by amplification or in the margin. I think our current ideas about technology are incredibly path dependent. If you take a coevolutionary perspective on humans, their material world, and their ideas, you see that the material world is a component in human information processing. And you see that the material world therefore takes on an increasingly important role through time, because it actually takes away a lot of the repetitive decision-making that has to be done if you were to simply operate without all the tools and things we have created around us. So the material world simplifies and structures our world. At the same time, I do believe that in our time we are still ruled by a set of world-view dimensions that is probably several millennia years old. We have played with this set, and amplified it through time, and also found it difficult at times and had to change it in certain ways to deal with particular problems. In addressing those issues, we may indeed have solved some immediate problem, but only to create longer-term issues that we then had to start dealing with.
Daniel: Are you thinking in terms of past environmental constraints?
  • Sander: Environmental problems but also more mundane technological challenges addressed by the benches on which we’re sitting, the potted plants around. Everything, our whole technological world. Here we are in a Western universe and everything in most buildings is in straight lines. If you go to Papua New Guinea, many buildings are round. If you go to the settlements of the Mayan people in the Yucatan, they are in ellipses. The basic spatial conceptions—the house, or the way that you organize an agricultural field, and everything else—these dimensions rule, to a very large extent, how our technologies actually evolve.
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Traditional Maya house, Mexico. © Tobias1983, 2008

Daniel: Do you think that those different basic line forms are linked to people’s conceptions of what, I’m tempted to say, are the agencies or active properties of the world?
  • Sander: Yes, but not only the active properties or agencies; also the order of the world. I’ll tell you a story. I had a colleague when I was still in Holland and he was at Cambridge. He did a piece of research on burial customs over several centuries in a tiny community where there wouldn’t be more deaths than maybe six or so per century. He found that despite this small number of deaths, the burial customs remained stable over that whole period. So he wondered how it was that they were not forgotten. And the only solution that you can come up with is that other parts of the ideational world of that group created a thought framework that was expressed at very many different scales, in very many different parts of their everyday life, and that those ingrained patterns allowed them to actually reconstitute the burial customs.
Daniel: Something that I think is really interesting here is that when you start thinking seriously about material culture or materials, they can be seen essentially as instantiations of patterns of ideas. In this sense, the more deeply you think about material culture, the less unique material culture seems to be as an element of the ideational world.
  • Sander: I firmly believe that ideas far outlive any particular kind of technology. That idea begins to coincide with the work of W. Brian Arthur, whose book The Nature of Technology: What It Is and How It Evolves completely upset the worldview of economists—Arthur is an engineer and also an economist—by arguing that it’s actually technology that determines the economy, rather than the economy that determines technology. I believe that he is right. I think the foundations of our spatial organization, of our thought categorization, and so on, are partly anchored in language, and this of course already gives them a continuity. But I think that the deeper continuities even go beyond that, into people’s ideas about the order of the world.
Daniel: What does this mean for the technosphere if you have a comprehensive view of technology today? If technology is so pervasive in structuring the material environment, are you putting technology in the driver’s seat?
  • Sander: Well, I don’t think technology is fully in the driver’s seat in general, but it is in the driver’s seat when it comes to our relationship to the material world. Yes, I think there is a whole different domain that also has its own path-dependent development, which is the societal domain and our social relations. There may also be relationships between technology and social relations that are important.
  • One of the things that we’re seeing right now with the information technology revolution is that this relationship between the social and the technological is beginning to play a greater role, because social relations are—just like technology—basically information relations. But they play out in a different domain; they are not limited in the social sphere by the same kinds of constraints that you have for the material world. I think there may be links between them, but I do believe that you have to consider the social domain as different from the environmental domain and from the material domain. I think that we see over the long term that as people complexify their society, they simplify their environment. And they do that, for example, by creating an agricultural field and investing in the environment to get a yield. That field is basically homogeneous, except in cases where you have a kind of polyculture, or a complex system. But the agricultural field does become a space that is, to an extent, controllable, because diversity is limited. At the same time, as human groups grow—and the transition to agriculture is part of a transition to a growing group—social problems become more and more difficult to solve.
  • So I think there is an exchange in which our information processing simplifies the environment and so facilitates the flux of energy into society. That flux is compensated for by a flux of organization outward from society into the environment.
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Rice paddies in Yunnan, China © Daniel Niles, 2014

Daniel: Which now is essentially the technosphere?
  • Sander: Yes, yes that’s right. And that is also what the Anthropocene is all about.
Daniel: In that sense, though, one of the things that I think about these days is how we distinguish the qualities of things, in the sense that they are representational of this information that is being externalized into the environment. Closer attention to the physical qualities of things should allow us to make important decisions about the environments in which we live. And I have to admit that although I can think of nice examples that exist on a relatively small scale—for example, the idea of relocalization of food—there is something substantial about even the conceptual problem of localization that we are still trying to grapple with. But when it really comes to the large flux of organization that is globalization, the Anthropocene, the technosphere … these endeavors don’t quite seem equivalent.
  • Sander: Well, I think that is related, for example, to the transformation during the 1830–40s in Britain. Until that point, the economy served the society, but then it switched to the situation in which the society serves the economy. A number of simplified economic dynamics have actually taken control of society, and those dynamics are basically the roots of our capitalist system. Once you begin to look at it like that, the capitalist system is no longer an inevitable thing. And the continued innovation of the technosphere is not necessary to the future but rather actually a historical choice that we have made. We can make another choice and I think that is really important. In all of this, one of the fundamental issues is that of values. I argue in my forthcoming book that globalization over the last century and a half—it has been going on much longer than that which we typically call globalization—has imposed on many high-dimensional cultures a really lowest common denominator, which is money and material value. So we have seen shifts from societies in which people could, on the one hand, identify with the society but also distinguish themselves within the society along a very large range of dimensions, to a system where there is only one dimension that still counts. And that single value (money), internationally and in particular in the United States, is a major factor in the world today. It is, in my opinion, one of the factors behind the populist revolt that we’re are seeing right now. I think there is an identity crisis in which people don’t feel that they are being valued anymore in their own societies. So for me it is the takeover of society by the economy that is at the root of that whole story.
Daniel: And this absence of deeper value is part of the reason why the material cultural complex here in the United States—the same big box stores, sidewalk pavements, chain retailers, products that are seconds away from disposal—seems so empty. It seems so very thin. When I said previously it doesn’t seem that the material culture realm is quite equivalent to the technospheric realm, that’s a bit of a false comparison, because I do think—and you mentioned Papua New Guinea and other places—that in fact there are many examples of much more closely linked material social and environmental complexes. And there should be within those, not just metaphorical examples, but actually real ways in which people find themselves embedded in tangible and positive social-technical-environmental relationships.
  • Sander: Absolutely, and one of the really important parts of that is that a lot of those relationships are actually dematerialized. A lot of those relationships are things in and of the mind. I would argue—and I have argued for a long time, but for a long time against everybody else—that what you actually see is a sort of an externalization of our value set. So we have gone from moral, ethical, and other internalized values to values that are externalized, that are extensions of our possessions, that are part of our status and stuff like that, but that otherwise are totally empty.
Daniel: This is the dilemma of how to regrasp the sense of value.
  • Sander: Yes, you’re absolutely right. That is why I’m so impressed by Japan, because I think Japan is the only modernized culture that has really retained a number of its original social values. That is why community is so important there. Japan is quite unique. There are many studies about how acculturation happens, but Japan is one of those cultures that has retained its own identity and that has adapted parts of external trappings, partly under American pressure, that sort of give it its industrial splendor. But the underlying culture in Japan is very, very different from anywhere else. And I think we need more of those kinds of contexts. That’s why I think maybe it’s actually a blessing that the Japanese population is going down, because it might actually allow Japan to become more introverted again, playing less of a huge role on the world stage and at the same time grounding itself better in its own environment, etc. But this may currently be very controversial for the Japanese.
Daniel: Yes, Japan is such an interesting example because right away, as essentially a modern person, you confront this modernity in a completely different form. And it’s very disconcerting and fascinating at the same time, and one of the immediate ways you sense that is just walking in its streets.
  • Sander: Indeed, you’re right.
Daniel: Westerners, when you see them walking, they’re kind of awkward. They tend to fall off curbs and bump themselves on little bumps and can’t quite figure out the doors or the stairways or which way is this or the other.
  • Sander: So what does that say? It says that Japan has its own spatial organization, which is not shared by any of the other Western cultures, even though in some places cities have been adapted quite a bit. But if you take a more traditional view, like you have in Kyoto and in smaller places, you realize that the whole spatial setup is very fundamentally different.
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Osaka, Japan © Daniel Niles, 2017

Daniel: It’s very different, and here we come back around because that, in turn, has to do with what the French would call people’s body techniques. And there you begin to see that the spatial organization, the body techniques, and the material culture are linked in very tight ways, all of which in Japan are equally foreign to us.
  • Sander: Yes. Now let me sort of launch a word that you may have used in the past but likely not in this context. Early on, people like André Leroi-Gourhan began working on the relationship between language, materiality, and what I would call the technosphere. They coined this word, “tendance.” To translate it basically from French to English, it is simply “tendency,” but it is a concept that from a different thought-world captures the idea of path dependency. It is basically the idea that through everything, through the wild growth and whatever else you have in the technosphere, a set of principles is maintained. In this view, we should move from studying change, which we have done for the last two and a half centuries, to a study of what creates stability, so that we can actually understand how those two interact. The idea of tendance gets at the underlying stability at the level of the second-order dynamics, which we don’t find in first-order societal dynamics. Most people only study the first-order dynamics and the short-term, and therefore miss these second-order dynamics.
Daniel: Do you think that when it comes to this technosphere discussion, and this new realm of social media and exchange, that we are emerging into what is essentially a new field of second-order dynamics?
  • Sander: Well, yes. I do believe that the revolution in information technology is creating a new second-order dynamic. I think that it is absolutely fair to say that. But I have no idea what that dynamic will look like, because we’re only in the beginning of an evolution that will take at least a century, if not more, and which is going to fundamentally upset all our apple carts and transform our social organization. For the moment I only see us moving to a relatively chaotic phase; the crystallization that forms out of that chaotic phase will take a long time.
Daniel: Let me give one little example that links this discussion of body techniques and spatial sense and second-order dynamics that just occurred to me: I was riding on a city bus about a month ago in Kyoto, and I looked out and saw that there were these construction workers repaving the sidewalks. The sidewalks we always walk, and that are so particular, but that we never really pay attention to. They just are there. But I saw the technique that this man used to smooth out the pavement. Once the concrete had been poured, he had his trowel and was smoothing the sidewalk in this very expert manner into this perfectly flat surface. In order to do that he was sprawled out, his legs wide open, down on one knee with his other leg offset. His center of gravity was down low and his upper body was leaning way over. He was making this maneuver that I realized instantly was essential to the making of the sidewalks in Kyoto, and so to an important part of the urban environment. But it was a maneuver that would be totally out of the question for any construction worker in the United States.
  • Sander: Absolutely.
Daniel: Those guys are so huge, they can barely tie their shoes.
  • Sander: Exactly.
Daniel: Then I realized, wow, the architects, the city planners, they all know that these construction workers can get down and sprawl themselves and by force of their bodies fulfill the orders. In that sense, these gestures are implicit in the blueprints, and embedded in the city itself.
  • Sander: So what would a Westerner do? He or she would invent a big long piece of wood on a stick and would work with that. In that case, technology substitutes for some of the very intensive information-processing technique used by the man in Kyoto, heavily simplifying the technique that people in the United States use. That’s a fantastic example and also relates to one of the really interesting things about Japanese urban agriculture, for example, which has techniques that no one in another part of the world would still dream of using. I think these techniques are fundamental for Japan.
Daniel: Japan is an interesting example, but it’s certainly not the only one.
  • Sander: No.
Daniel: But it helps somehow because of the thickness of the complex that has survived through time. But I think once you grasp these things there, they become much more evident in other places.
  • Sander: I totally agree. For me, other places where I’ve been and seen this sort of thing in operation are the Middle East, Mexico, the Philippines, and Papua New Guinea. I’ve told you probably a number of times the story about trying to tell our Papua friend Meyana that he could try and make a profit on the things that he was selling in his shop rather than sell them away at the cost price and then ask us for new money to stock up the store. I spent twenty-four hours with a calculator to see if I could get him to understand the principle of profit, but there was no way. For him, the profit in having the store is a social profit. It gives him status in the tribe, which he doesn’t have by lineage or anything else. For him, the store is a really important part of his social life, but it has nothing to do with how you buy or sell the objects in it!
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Street scene in Osaka, Japan © Daniel Niles, 2017

This text is a transcribed and edited conversation the two authors held in November 2017.