Thinking Globally

A lecture-presentation by Paul N. Edwards (USA) on Computers, Networks, and the Construction of "Global" Spaces.

Thinking Globally

Cover of the 2001 publication, edited by Clark Miller and Paul N. Edwards

Dec 2003
16:00 to 18:00
location: Piet Zwart Institute, Overblaak 85, Rotterdam

This talk explored how information infrastructures underlie, and help to produce, concepts, ideologies, and critiques of globalization and global space(s). The chief example was climate change, a global political issue that would not exist without the global information infrastructure that produces data and knowledge about the planetary atmosphere. Also discussed was the World Wide Web and other kinds of global infrastructures, as they exist in both ideology and practice. This event was hosted by Media Design Research at the Piet Zwart Institute, the Institute for Postgraduate Studies and Research of the Willem de Kooning Academy Hogeschool Rotterdam. It was organized in collaboration with V2_Institute for the Unstable Media, Rotterdam.


Climate study infrastructures, modeling and globalization

A report by Sandra Fauconnier

Paul N. Edwards, Associate Professor of Information at the University of Michigan, has built up a diverse body of research since the mid-1990s. His general focus of interest is the interrelation of the history of information infrastructures with diverse (geo)political issues and histories and the general theme of globalization. From this perspective, Edwards has studied fields as diverse as Cold War politics, climate study and (in his current research) apartheid. His 1996 book The Closed World, for example, discusses the links between the development of computing, of American global power and of the history of subjectivity in science and culture.

In a precise, lively and well-illustrated presentation at the Piet Zwart Institute in Rotterdam (3 December 2003), Edwards gave an overview of his ideas on the relation between information infrastructures and globalization through the example of the historical development of climate study.

What is the origin of the concept of climate as a unified planetary system? And what is its relation to the globalization discourse? Edwards started explaining this by describing the concept of infrastructure (see Geoffrey C. Bowker and Susan Leigh Star: Sorting Things Out. Classification and its Consequences) as heterogeneous, embedded, transparent, embodied standards, which are learned and enduring in nature. Infrastructures, thus, are constitutional artifacts that shape behavior and support knowledge claims. As an example, Edwards described the history of the infrastructure designed for the study of global climate - how this infrastructure evolved from inaccurate, autonomous descriptions of local "climates" in the 17th and 18th Century, to an international, globalized, standardized and densely knitted system, supported by information technology, starting from the 1940s, with satellites as new, though sometimes contested, measuring instruments from the 1960s. The global climate research infrastructure became the world's oldest and largest dedicated information system. Edwards pointed out that such a typical knowledge and information structure is especially characterized by its transparent and standardized nature, and - because of its long history - by continuity and durability.

It is important to note that such a globalized and computerized system, for the first time, made it possible to build simulators and thus create models, usable for more or less trustworthy predictions. Output of these simulations becomes new data; missing information is added through interpolation. Climate change (e.g. caused by increasing CO2 levels) has become a global issue because of this evolution - here, globalization can be described as material and semiotic effect. Typically, in modern science, data is found in models and models create new data; in the past, mapping and tracking were the commonly used methods.

Sandra Fauconnier, 2003

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