[Traveling Through Underwater Internet Cables (and Other Adventures)

Researchers are using the Web to make the environmental humanities more accessible

When Henry Thoreau wrote Walden that he “went into the forest to live on purpose,” he certainly had no idea how to read Walden it could intentionally look like it was 150 years later: in Digital Thoreau you can see Thoreau's edits to the seven existing manuscript versions of the book and add your own notes, links and interpretations. A collaborative project between SUNY-Geneseo, The Thoreau Society, and The Walden Woods Project, this fluid text edition is an online, environmentally relevant work developed by traditionally print scholars.

When we think of the kind of research that humanities and social scientists do, we usually think of the old school: perhaps leafing through correspondence in dusty archives, conducting ethnographies in a remote location, or reading books with a pen in hand. All these methods remain true. However, museums, libraries and academics are in the midst of a digital revolution, using all kinds of electronic tools to ask different types of research questions and new ways of presenting their materials and findings online. Instead of writing an academic article hidden behind a paywall, researchers can create online exhibits, create network visualizations, or map geospatial data.

The subjects of these projects are truly remarkable, ranging from the digitization of the world's oldest map to the emergence of a distinct Western Hemisphere to an online public archive documenting the scope and impact of the New Deal on American lives and landscapes. It is important to note that this digital shift did not come without controversy. Its critics wonder if the importance of reading and writing is downplayed, and if the push for humanities to learn code is a ploy by the increasingly corporate university.

Environmental studies, already at the intersection between the natural sciences and culture, is a rich field in which digital scholarship can take shape. Below is a list of notable digital projects, created by geographers, historians, scientists, students, libraries and museums, covering a wide range of topics and methodologies that researchers use to assess our relationship with the natural world.

Enchant the desert

The Grand Canyon is one of the most popular parks in the United States, with approximately 4.5 million visitors annually. How the Grand Canyon came to be seen and understood as THE The Grand Canyon today, a striking symbol of the American West? Enchant the desert, the first “born digital” academic monograph, attempts to answer this question through a rich cultural and historical analysis of 43 landscape photographs included in Henry Peabody's slide show from around 1905. Peabody was a prominent commercial photographer who was the first to use electricity lights his slides. Western promoters paid Peabody to take photographs of the vast western frontier, which were shown as audio-visual slideshows across the United States to impress viewers. His photographs of the Grand Canyon guided the National Park Service decades later on where to develop hiking trails and viewpoints. As you browse the photos in Peabody's slideshow with its original audio, you are also invited to view alternative spatial reconstructions of the canyon made possible by mapping software. Along with rich visuals, you can learn about the history of Grand Canyon place names, Native American settlement and culture, and tourism. Like many digital humanities projects, Enchant the desert it was a team effort, crediting the planning, mapping and field expedition teams led by Nicholas Bauch, now a professor of geohumanities at the University of Oklahoma (formerly Stanford University).


Superficially is an interactive journey that takes the user through the underwater fiber optic cables that ensure your phone calls, text messages and emails can be received around the world, from the United States to Europe, through Asia and beyond. The project is a digital companion to the book The undersea network by Nicole Starosielski, a professor at New York University, who examines the political and technological history of the environments these cables occupy. In Superficially, you are a token that travels across the ocean network, hopping between nodes as you learn about the businesses, ecologies, and cultures associated with each place you visit. A hub explains that construction of the oldest cable station in California was delayed because its habitat was the same as that of the endangered Point Arena mountain beaver. Complete with a video tutorial explaining how to use the site, Superficially strongly reminds us that the Internet and all things digital have a strong material and physical presence in our environment, on land and underwater.

Invisible Constraints: Life and Work at Seabrook Farms

In lieu of final papers, students in Rutgers University's fall 2015 course, “Public Histories of Detention and Mass Incarceration,” created a digital exhibit to highlight a forgotten aspect of Jersey, New York's past. Invisible limitations shows how Seabrook Farms, the largest food company in the United States in the 1950s, employed approximately 2,500 American citizens and immigrants of Japanese descent who were imprisoned during World War II solely because of their ancestry. The report details the history of the working conditions and social life of Japanese prisoners in an industrial city. Most notably, Rutgers students wrote essays analyzing personal accounts of the experiences of Seabrook Farms workers, collected in the early 1990s. full first-person accounts are also online. The exhibit is part of a national effort to document local stories of incarceration, funded by the Humanities Action Lab.

Borders in the heart of the country

What is the Midwest? Chicago's Newberry Library attempts to answer that question by curating its comprehensive collection of local photographs, maps, and essays that explain how the Midwest has been perceived over the past 200 years. As its name suggests, the exhibition traces how the American Midwest evolved from a frontier region of conflict between Europeans and Native Americans to its emergence as the heart of modern industrial agriculture and manufacturing. He argues that the most contemporary understanding of the word “heartland”—that of small rural town dwellers representing the moral and political high ground—is an emotional and timeless representation of a region that has instead been shaped by the forces of globalization. and capitalism. The exhibit includes photo galleries about food, agriculture and community, as well as the history of Midwest waterways.

Imagine the California Delta as it once was

The Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta, where two of California's largest rivers meet the Pacific Ocean, is the largest estuary on the West Coast: the delta covers 738,000 acres of raised islands and 700 miles of wetlands and winding channels. Since the area was settled 200 years ago, the landscape has been reshaped by marshy swamps at the center of the state's water system. The environmental costs of these changes are severe, with the loss of riparian forests, large mammals and declining fish populations. In a unique collaboration between the San Francisco Estuary Institute, the Bill Lane Center for the American West at Stanford, and KQED, researchers undertook a complex reconstruction of the Delta ecosystem, using more than 3,000 historical sources from 40 different archives. and institutions, including original navigational charts, government surveys, plans, photographs, and even newspapers. You can see some of these springs in the exhibition and walk the ecological delta through time. By engaging in what is called historical ecology, scientists today can better plan conservation efforts by knowing how the Delta ecosystem once thrived. That resource has become even more urgent as local water districts decide how to proceed with a controversial Delta Tunnel construction project just approved by federal fisheries agencies.

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