What My Dissertation Is About
NB: This abstract was most recently updated in November 2020. I keep it regularly updated as my project progresses. Check the revision history for this page (linked at the bottom) if you’re interested in past iterations.
Over the past few weeks I’ve been applying for a flurry of dissertation completion fellowships. One of the great tragedies of the contemporary academy is that so much of our intellectual energy and labor goes not to the actual work of doing our research, but rather composing and recomposing meta-texts that describe our research such that we might secure funding or gainful employment through which to actually do the work itself. This is, of course, tiresome. And I can only imagine for those slogging away at the job market and/or well into their careers in various fashions the whole thing rapidly becomes an exercise in tedium. In this way, I’m lucky that I’m early enough in my career that this exercise still retains some usefulness viz. clarifying my thinking, communicating my research to a broad audience, etc. so on and so forth.
And so in the spirit of “well, I wrote it, and I might as well use it for something rather than filing all that labor away in the pit of my laptop forever,” I thought I’d share a recent abstract that I prepared that describes, in exactly five hundred words, what I think my dissertation is about as of c.
mid-February 2020 late November 2020.
My dissertation, “Atmospheric Media: Computation and the Environmental Imagination,” combines media studies, digital humanities, and the environmental humanities to explore how artists, technologists, and critics imagine digital media in terms of atmospheres, both literal and otherwise. An under-theorized term in media studies, “atmosphere” has material and cultural nuances: our personal data live in the cloud; online and offline social climates blur; and our devices are implicated in a crisis that destabilizes the skies themselves. Drawing on diverse print, visual, and digital cultures—from circuit diagrams to electronic literature, SEC filings to historical weather diaries, speculative fiction to machine learning programs—my dissertation argues that these shifting atmospheric metaphors reveal how deeply computing and the air we breathe are intertwined. For example, the “cloud” of cloud computing becomes far less metaphorical in light of its material impacts on the planet, as well as more subtle questions of how it regulates our ability to analyze environments more generally.
In his 2015 book The Marvelous Clouds, media theorist John Durham Peters inverts the idea of thinking media as environments for cultural production, asking us to think of environments themselves as media. “Atmospheric Media” expands this idea to argue that atmospheres are not always already media objects, but rather must be imagined as media through various cultural techniques, technologies, and practices. Through diverse methods, from experiments in sentiment analysis to fieldwork in Virginia’s “Data Center Alley,” I argue that these practices constitute a new discursive category within media studies that I call “atmospheric media.” These are media that not only analyze atmospheres, as in the big data of computational weather forecasting, but also produce atmospheres that condition cultural understandings of the environment. My dissertation’s primary contribution is then to argue that these new kinds of media objects structure our imagination of the environment in unprecedented ways.
My first chapter explores the role of air conditioning in data centers, arguing that air conditioning technologies mitigate against data’s inevitable thermal collapse. Through a close reading of the data center company Equinix’s corporate and technical practices, I demonstrate how air conditioning permits a fragile alliance between ideas of the internet’s sustainability and its security. My second chapter turns to “weather interfaces,” technologies for analyzing, representing, and predicting the weather. I trace the role meteorological technologies play in the work of contemporary media artists such as J.R. Carpenter, Johanna Drucker, and Trevor Paglen, for whom such technologies evince blurring boundaries between planetary environments and their computational models. I turn to more intimate scale in my third chapter, which explores the toxic entanglement of the human breath with digital media. Across examples ranging from the science fiction short stories of Ted Chiang to contemporary 3D printing, I demonstrate how computation relies on material and conceptual practices that exhaust the breath, rendering the body a new frontier for environmental exploitation. Finally, in my more experimental fourth chapter, I engage sentiment analysis, technologies for algorithmically classifying the emotional “atmosphere” of written texts. I combine written text with my own programming to explore how sentiment analysis constitutes a new surveillance of feeling, particularly on social media platforms.
“Atmospheric Media” argues that media studies’ new environmental orientation must combine attention to media’s technical qualities with their cultural work. Like atmospheres, media are expansive, quietly structuring new qualities of life. In its attention to atmosphere, my dissertation reveals our how media are fully environmental.