Blog Post

Rethinking Landscapes in the Digital Age: Thoughts in their Infancy

 

I have become thoroughly convinced more than ever that landscapes are not simply topographical spaces. Shawn Graham wrote of landscapes that “one navigates space not with a two dimensional top-down mental map, but rather as a series of what-comes-next… navigating require[s] socializing, asking directions, paying attention to landmarks.” Landscapes are an experience and each of us shapes our own landscapes everyday, often without being conscious of the fact. Landscapes are thus a subjective and objective experience – that is, at one moment you are shaping your landscape in some way and in another, the actual land has been carved by those in the past to effect you and you are affecting it for future generations to experience. But are landscapes today solely topographical? In this digital age, I argue the undeniable fact that they are not.

If you haven’t already come across it in my other posts, I’ll say it here: I believe that simulations are a great tool for learning history. This is one of the many reasons I love the game Civilization. In this game your objective is to create a successful civilization and can dominate either militarily, economically, socially/culturally, etc. One of the major aspects of the game I realized when first playing it was that you are changing the land in different ways. If I want an economically sufficient civilization, I might dig mines. But those mines may have to one day change to produce arms and ammunition. The land is constantly carved up as the civilization progresses. Such is the way of reality.

Although Civilization represents one way simulations can deal with landscapes and/or students of historical and archaeological studies can learn about the temporality of landscape, it also offers a more meta-notion – the existence of a digital landscape. By this I do not mean simulations (though they would definitely play a role). I mean the very landscape that is zeros and ones. By the time I publish this post, I will have affected the digital landscape (i.e. the internet). In turn, I have been affected by all I have seen or read on the internet. This landscape is made up of blogs, media, social network posts, videos of cats, etc. It is a landscape that each and everyone of us (at least if you are reading this) interact with everyday (sometimes it is the only landscape we interact with in a day).

Digital or ‘physical’, we interact with landscapes in every moment and they are never the same. Change occurs from moment to moment. In one of the great tragedies of history, the intense subjectivity that is historical relativism causes landscapes to be forgotten or take on a very different meaning than they once had. The farmers fields of Western Europe come to my mind. To look at a heart-wrenching photograph of a soldier sitting in a trench years ago, torn up mud and bodies all around him. The land is almost unrecognisable  This must not even be a place, we think to ourselves. And then to view the same land 80 years later, green as can be and a farmer going about his day. Though he may dig up artefacts and the memory may be very much alive, he will never know the landscape the way that young soldier did, nor will the soldier know the beauty of those green farm fields.

Thus landscapes play to the tune of life. We are but a note in this passing symphony. But this is our note – our time. As I look outside of my window at the autos, streetlights, apartment buidlings I take a moment to reflect: this landscape is unlike anything anyone has ever seen, or ever will. And to wonder. The symphony is just beginning!

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11 comments

 

Hi Rob,

It seems we share a similar interest in landscapes. I’ve become very interested in the way that physical objects, boundaries, etc. effect cognition, social hierarchies, etc. I currently reside in Buffalo, a city infamous for its segregation. It’s a city where literally two sides of a single street can “belong” to two totally different socio-economic classes. Since moving here two years ago, I’ve become much more cognizant of the effects of the landscape on my own behavioral patterns and, more generally, my psyche. I used to take my surroundings for granted, but since my forays into speculative realist philosophy I’ve started looking at the world around me as something that shapes me as much as I do it.

However, I don’t totally share your sympathies with simulations like Civilization as teaching tools. What I dislike about the concept is the opacity of these games—a simulation, after all, operates under certain assumptions, i.e. the effects of certain actions are determined in advance, and these assumptions are not immediately apparent to the player. I think it’s really important to be careful about what we extrapolate, particularly about historical events, from simulations. That said, I wonder if you could explain further what connections you draw between a game like Civilization and the digital landscape. How would engaging with simulated landscapes help us reconceive the notion of a landscape made of 1s and 0s? And what relationship does this landscape have to terrestrial landscapes?

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Hi Heather,

Wonderful insights into the landscape you live in and its effects. Does the segregation have anything to do with .

As for simulations as a teaching tool, I agree with you that they can seem very restrictive especially following such set laws. After all, many humans believe there is no doubt as to the existence of their agency. I guess my belief in these as tools (by this I would argue more for post-secondary research; after all, by this point one has more of a background of historical understanding and methodology) stems from my own personal beliefs. I largely have a very physicalist and structuralist view of our place in this universe. I'll spell this out a bit: First I believe that the universe itself operates from natural laws (though we give them this name - I don't believe they were 'preordained' in some sense). I also believe that the brain is basically an organic computer that operates in terms of logic. I do not mean to say that the universe is determined (after all, as far as, I know quantum physics has not yet settled this) but I do believe that human behaivour is in a large sense determined and that humans do not have any ounce of truly free will, and I think a lot of current neuroscientific research supports that notion. Although we are responsible for our actions (as no one else could have had them) we are not the conscious authors of our thoughts and actions ( but I do not mean to advocate for some sort of Cartesian dualism here). Thus I would argue that although reality is extremely complicated and our current simulations and models cannot reach such level of complexity, they represent a simplified version of reality. 

As for Civilization and the digital landscape, admittadly this was not the best connection I could have made. More so, they were semi-separate ideas I wished to somehow connect. Civilization itself though is a sort of mini-landscape - a simplified representation of the possible historical paths - where in one era you are, say, mining for coal, and the next you are building military bases in that exact same area. In fact, if I have time, I might revise this post to make that distinction clearer.

Anyways my thoughts are still developing but I'd love to hear more of your insights into simulations and the digital landscape.

Best,

Rob

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Hmm…I guess I don’t understand the connection you’re drawing between lack of agency and the ability of simulations to represent reality. Regardless of your personal beliefs about human nature, I’m not seeing how a physicalist perspective necessitates the accuracy of simulations. Could you explain this further? I’m very curious as to how you arrived at this conclusion.

In the interest of full disclosure, I’m the daughter of an operations analyst. It was my father’s job for most of his life to create computer models and simulations for the US military. He’ll be the first to tell you that simulations and reality rarely have a one-to-one correspondence—if they did, he essentially wouldn’t have had much of a career. He was often called in, even after he had retired, to try to figure out why two simulations of the same event or system weren’t producing the same result and which one was a better representation of the events likely to unfold. These simulations were designed for the purpose of making purchasing decisions of weapons systems—pretty high stakes stuff. Now, obviously at some point he would make a call and decide that one simulation was “good enough.” But when we’re talking about something like history, for example, the number of variables involved skyrockets. So I have a lot less faith in simulations as pedagogical tools when the simulation is of some sort of social system. There’s a lot of room for the creator’s politics to become reinscribed in the simulation without the user’s knowledge.

Have you read Ian Bogost’s “Unit Operations”? If so, I wonder what you think of his concept of “simulation fever” and how you would respond. Great discussion so far, I’m really enjoying this!

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That's a very interesting point. I might have spoke too soon. My physicalist perspective applies in a highly theoretical sense. It is a belief I formed (though one I obviously don't cling to very much) but not really based on empirical claims/evidence (mainly just a hunch I have had brewing in the back of my mind). I never really considered how simulations are applied in the real world (i.e. your dad's job). I still believe that simulations are good teaching tools though (if not only to reveal how they don't work in specific cases). What are your thoughts on that?

Anyways I apologize this reply is not more in depth as I am very busy right now. I will check out that article and respond later though, perhaps by a private message. And yes, it is a very interesting discussion. Next time I reply, hopefully I'll have more to say haha.

Best,

Rob 

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I think simulations can be great teaching tools, as long as they aren’t presented to students uncritically. In other words, I think it’s important that instructors push students to examine the assumptions and limitations of a given simulation. Your suggestion of using simulations to teach history raised a red flag for me (I should note here that by “simulations” I’m assuming that we’re both talking about educational games, since the example you gave was Civilization). I spent a summer doing research on these types of games and always had the same issue with them—namely, that they are inherently more indicative of our current attitudes and prejudices than they are instructive about the historical time period in question. I also question the notion of “playing history”; it has always struck me as highly problematic because these games often reduce the complexity of historical situations, and in certain cases might even dehumanize their subjects (e.g. games where players are asked to participate in a historical war simulation).

That said, I don’t think that, for instance, the print medium suffers any less from bias. The problem to me has more to do with transparency. Games have a greater tendency to obscure their logical underpinnings than print does because most users don’t have the requisite knowledge to understand what’s happening at the code level. This especially concerns me at the K-12 level when students lack the cognitive skills to think critically about simulations.

Where I do think educational games can be very successful is at representing systems on micro rather than macro levels. So, for example, while I think a game that claims to teach students what it was like to be an early American settler would be highly suspect in my eyes, a game that purports to teach students how a local agricultural economy functions could be very useful.

I feel like we’ve strayed pretty far from the topic of landscapes, but it’s been an interesting discussion nonetheless!

-Heather

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No you're right on topic. That's very interesting. I agree with you 100% that we project the present on the past. I guess my belief that we don't have free will goes two ways: it could, as I have mentioned, help us better predict simulations but, and the more likely that you mentioned, it seems that our subconscious biases greatly affect our historical studies. It seems so obvious now but I guess I just needed to put the pieces together. 

What do you think of simulations from something like NetLogo? It's a neat little website with many different simulations. They are all quite simplistic but very interesting and you can even design your own. 

Would you give credence to the view that in the future when our technology is much more advanced (hopefully) that simulations will get closer to the truth. Sort of like an assymtpotic relationship - never reaching the 'truth' but getting as close as possible in some degree or another.

Also, would you then agree that simulations are good teaching tools in the post-secondary culture, hwere they would be viewed critically? I don't think I made that clear in my original post but that was around what I was getting at.

Once again, awesome conversation and I look forward to hearing what you think.

Best, 

Rob

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Hi again Rob,

I had never heard of NetLogo before, but it seems like a really neat tool to play around with. I'm already imagining an assignment where I might ask my composition students to create a simulation of some sort and write a critical essay about it ;)  I would have to test it out before I could offer you an informed opinion about it though.

Another thing you might be interested in reading is Katherine Hayles' book How We Became Posthuman. You might not want to read the whole book (and it's pretty long), but there's an interesting chapter in there about Artificial Life simulations that you might want to take a look at at some point. She writes a really good analysis of the problems associated with trying to represent the evolution of life in the form of cybernetic simulations.

In answer to your question about technology, I do think that greater processing speeds will of course improve computer simulations, but I don't think that the fundamental problem of simulation will ever change. That is, simulations are by their very nature representations of real phenomena, and representations are always hermeneutic. In that sense, the image of an asymptote is probably a pretty apt one.

As I wrote in my response to Erica, I don't think simulations should be rejected wholesale as teaching tools for K-12. What I object to are simulation-based games for children that deal with subject matter that deals in assumptions that can't be directly tested in reality. For post-secondary education, I think that doing something like designing a historical simulation (rather than just observing or playing one) might be a really interesting way of teaching critical thinking skills.

Best,

Heather

 

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I'll check that specific chapter out. Your last paragraph really speaks to me too. I completely agree and I guess to refine my view after this discussion, I would agree with your caution.

And as for the aymptotic relationship, I guess that's what I was trying to get at all along, I just didn't have the thought fully formed. I would agree with you too that we have a very long way to go before simulations reach some sort of significant asymptote. 

I really appreciate all of your ideas too because it really helped me to invert my own views on a subject not too many talk about, and to refine it to become more realistic.

Really enjoying this discussion.

Best,

Rob

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Heather, can I ask you to clarify a few of the things you said in your comment? This isn't at all my field -- I'm a microbiologist/compositionist -- so I very well may simply lack the background for this conversation. But it would seem to me that games are much more transparent than books in terms of their "logical underpinnings." Does anyone really need to look at video game code -- or to understand anything about code -- to be able to think about the assumptions of a game? My gut reaction is to think that games might be more transparent than books, if not in terms of the research behind their construction, then in terms of the way they present themselves to (academically) younger consumers. I'd hope that the acting out of assumptions in a game setting would tend to encourage more critical thinking about those actions versus reading text out of a book where the tendency is often to assume that the book is correct and move on. 

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Erika,

Awesome insights. I think you brought up a great point. My only problem would be introducing them to younger people - they would definitely be more engaged but the ability to think critically is not as developed at those ages. I think it is possible but would have to be done with great care to ensure them that these simulations are not 100% accurate and that they are lacking. Maybe the high school to post-secondary range is the best or were you thinking younger?

Best,

Rob

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Hi Erika,

In response to your question, "Does anyone really need to look at video game code -- or to understand anything about code -- to be able to think about the assumptions of a game?" I would say not necessarily, but I also don't think that younger children have the critical thinking skills or the maturity to question the assumptions implicit in certain kinds of simulations. Note that I'm not objecting wholesale to the use of gaming in education--not at all, in fact. But I do have issues with the notion of using simulations to teach subjects where direct, real-world observation of the problem is impossible (i.e. historical simulations). Simulations are just that--simulations. They cannott be uncritically assumed to represent reality. Hence my problem with using games to teach children about history. Like I said in my previous post, I think simulations are great for helping us understand certain kinds of problems, and the smaller and more closed those problems are the greater the likelihood that an accurate simulation is possible. But when you're talking about something like the history of a nation or region, for example, there are simply too many factors and contingencies for me to accept simulations as reliable teaching tools. I hope that helps clarify my position.

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