Two Surprises (to me) in “New Directions” Envirotech Session at SHOT 2009

Very briefly (in a tweet or so) the six projects discussed involved the following: the architecture and politics of solar power homes (Daniel Barber); the engineering of a forest to influence climate-scale dynamics (Robert Gardner); designer drugs that are complicating the notion of clinical tests (Shera Moxley); food production and consumption (Nic Mink); sensing and the sense of place (Joy Parr); and opening the black box of the brain to better understand how historical actors experienced major changes in the sensory environment (Ed).

Here’s what I found surprising.  First, almost everybody punted on the question “What distinction do you make between what is technology and what is environment?”—which was one of the questions each participant had been asked to think about up front.  On one hand, punting on this question made perfect sense as each participant only had a few minutes to speak.  However, in the discussion that followed (which involved everybody, not just the official participants), it was suggested that this question is an old one for historians working at the intersection of technology and the environment and, perhaps, not as interesting as it once was. The public, someone else suggested, might be more interested in this question than scholars.  And that, I suppose, is the critical point: how most people view the distinction between technology and nature matters–and so it is probably still worth examining how that distinction has changed over time and varies from context to context.

Second, I was surprised at the level of interest on bodies and senses.  In four of the projects (senses, brain, food, and drugs), the human body emerged as an important part of the story.  One could also make a place for bodies in Daniel’s architecture-centered project as well.  I was surprised because I would have expected efforts to inform policy questions related to environmental sustainability to be more prominent, as in Robert’s project on the engineering of ecosystems and Daniel’s study of quixotic hopes surrounding solar power homes.

Others, however, noted that there were important public issues embedded in all of these projects. Joy’s work is
linked to environmental justices issues in 6 Canadian sites; Nic’s work potentially informs numerous food policy issues; Shera’s work raises questions about the power of pharmaceutical companies and the future of clinical trials; and Ed’s….is hard to put into words…but certainly was worthy of the session title, “taking risks.” Still others mentioned how this interest in bodies reminded them of other issues, such as the difference between monitoring the health of the environment versus monitoring the health of individual bodies.

In retrospect, the emphasis on bodies also probably made questions about the distinction between technology and nature more complicated that usual.  Shera noted that, in her case, the body could be viewed as the environment of interest, which forces one to see terms such as the “built environment” or even “remote sensing” in a new light.  In Ed’s and  Joy’s work, and potentially Nic’s, bodies are embedded in a world of smells, sounds, and tastes, all of which are being heavily influenced by technological change. To what degree does it matter if a smell, taste, or sound is natural or cultural?  That is one of the questions, I imagine, that their work is addressing.

Hugh Gorman