UCSB English Department / Literature.Culture.Media Center Talk 24th Feb 2009

I'm giving a talk about my research in the Literature.Culture.Media Center at the University of California Santa Barbara on Tuesday 24th February 2009, from 3.30pm-5.00pm.

When Geeks Go Camping: Cyberspace and the Outdoor Life
This talk examines the evolution of nature metaphors in computing and cyberspace via some examples of the influence of Californian outdoor life on computer culture in Silicon Valley and beyond. It is drawn from research for a book-length study, The Wild Surmise: Nature and Cyberspace, which discusses the many ways in which we use our experiences of nature to situate and comprehend our experiences of cyberspace.

More information on the UCSB English website.

Triangulating historical perspectives in Silicon Valley

Douglas Engelbart 2009Douglas Engelbart in his office at SRI, Menlo Park, 11th February 2009

I've just returned from a week in Silicon Valley, where I met many fascinating people – some old friends, some new acquaintances – and taken quite a few photos. This was just the first research trip, and there will be more. This time around, in date order, I met with Fred Turner, Rob Swigart, Andrea Saveri, Eugene Miya, Lee Felsenstein, other members of the Hackers Conference (see Flickr), Douglas Engelbart, Erik Davis, Stewart Brand, and Jim Fadiman. Amongst other places, I visited The Computer History Museum, Stanford Research Institute, Stanford University, and the nearby resort of Half Moon Bay in a quest to discover where geeks go at the weekends.

So many conversations. So many networks. I've learned a lot about the imperatives behind the early days of computer history and this week I'll be writing up my notes and triangulating the different perspectives in relation to my thesis that the California landscape was crucial in the formation of the concept of cyberspace.

If anyone thinks of people in California that I should be speaking to who are not on this list (and of course this is only the beginning) please do drop me a note.

Lonely Americans

I've been in California for three weeks now, and several people and books have already enriched my understanding of the relationship between technology, nature, and American culture. For example, loneliness had not been on my agenda, but some interesting readings have brought it into focus.

In 1980 Frederick W Turner wrote of his realisation that many people shared his own ignorance of the land and of how "a feeling of American loneliness began to insist upon itself, a crucial, profound estrangement of the inhabitants from their habitat …. it was as if those who had inherited the fruits of exploration and conquest had been left a troubled bequest, as if there were some unplacated, unmet spirit of place dividing them from an authentic and comforting possession here." (Turner, F.W. 1980 Beyond Geography: The Western Spirit against the Wilderness, New York: Viking p.5)

And loneliness afflicts not just the descendants of the invading colonisers, but also the invaded people themselves.  In Wild Hunger Bruce Wilshire quotes from a member of the Omaha Tribe who describes how in his youth the country was very beautiful, with many forms of life which were  "after their manner, walking, flying, leaping, running, playing all about… But now… sometimes I wake in the night, and I feel as though I should suffocate from the pressure of this awful… loneliness." (Wilshire, B. 1998 Wild Hunger: The Primal Roots of Modern Addiction, Maryland: Rowman and Littlefield p.15)

I wonder where such loneliness appears in the history of computing and the internet? I wonder whether it is soothed by social networking and the digital village?

Postscript: perhaps that question is answered in part by an article I discovered just a few hours after writing this entry. Not sure if I agree with all of it, but it certainly adds to the discussion: The End of Solitude: As everyone seeks more and broader connectivity, the still, small voice speaks only in silence by William Deresiewicz in The Chronicle of Higher Education. January 30th 2009

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