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Militarization and Digital Media: Thinking and Tinkering in the Humanities

The University of California Humanities Research Institute (UCHRI) working group on War, Security, and Digital Media kicked off this past weekend (October 14-15) with a two-day symposium co-sponsored by the UC Davis Science and Technology Studies (STS) program, ModLab, and the Mellon Initiative in Digital Cultures. Events and activities over both days provided a generative space for graduate students and faculty from UC Davis and Santa Cruz to learn about each others’ work, investigating the interrelations of war, security and digital technologies.

The events’ organizers “broadly conceptualize the mediations of warfare and security as dynamic, contingent processes that occur between vectors such as institutions, topographies, architectures, and bodies.” Consequently, the weekend’s program included a broad array of topics and formats, stimulating engagement across disciplines to think address the “corporeal, affective, political, and spatial ramifications of these unfolding enactments.”

Saturday afternoon began with an open space for participants to introduce their own research and engagements with digital media and militarization. A workshop followed, led by Anjali Nath, assistant professor in American Studies here at Davis about Freedom of Information Act Requests. This is a process Nath has engaged with in her own research, and participants learned about filing requests and discussed issues of censorship and secrecy. This was followed by graduate student writing workshops, in which participants discussed each other’s pre-circulated works-in-progress and offered supportive feedback.

Diana Pardo Pedraza’s work on landmines in Colombia was the first topic of Sunday’s program. Pardo Pedraza, a Ph.D. candidate in the Cultural Studies graduate group, conducted fieldwork on humanitarian de-mining in the context of the nascent peace process in Colombia, and the group read a draft of one chapter of her dissertation in a “Food for Thought” format, taking her work as a starting point for discussions about humanitarianism, ethics, visualizations and violence.

This was followed by a workshop on “wearables”, or wearable technologies, by Assistant Professor in Cinema and Digital Media and faculty member at the Modlab Kris Fallon and Jordan Carroll, a postdoc in the English department also affiliated with Modlab.

The event culminated in a closing panel with Davis Professors Caren Kaplan (American Studies), Tim Lenoir (Cinema and Digital Media) and Stavros Vougioukas (Biological and Agricultural Engineering). Vougioukas opened with a discussion of his lab’s work in innovating robotics to aid in the harvest of fruits and vegetables, a traditionally labor-intensive undertaking which has been notoriously difficult to automate. His talk centered around the question: how can robots help?

This material paired well with Professor Lenoir’s subsequent talk about the Revolution in Military Affairs and the many technological innovations attendant upon this paradigm shift- many of which are now ubiquitous, like deep neural networks; promising, like self-driving cars; or deeply disturbing, like human enhancement for mercenary soldiers. Military investment has driven a great deal of innovations with applications in civil life, troubling the distinction between militarized and non-militarized technologies. Professor Kaplan further troubled this distinction with a talk on the many uses of drones. Whether used for entertainment, food delivery, or news coverage, she points out the technology’s foundational link to weaponization and violence.

Throughout the symposium, participants grappled with the flexible line between militarized and non-militarized life and technology. How are we, as scholars, to engage with and navigate a world saturated with both violence and promise? What can we tell each other about productive ways to use legal procedures and technological objects of the militarized state, and what are some of the ways we can approach them as objects of research?

In bringing together a range of academics, thinkers, doers, activists and artists in this supportive and interdisciplinary setting to tinker and play with digital technologies and theoretical concepts, the symposium opened up a space for intellectual engagement both challenging and productive.

This page was last updated: July 26, 2018



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