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A Multitude of Critical Perspectives: An Interview with Professor Colin Milburn

UC Davis STS Undergraduate Intern Alexis Caligiuri speaks with Professor Milburn about the role of games in society and how STS can help us understand these relationships

Alexis Caligiuri (AC): What is STS to you?

Professor Colin Milburn (CM): STS is a multidisciplinary field that looks at the cultural and historical dimensions of science and technology. It looks at science and technology as they are practiced, as well as their impacts on everyday life. What I find most appealing about STS is the way that it brings many different types of humanities and social science disciplines together to work on the much larger problem of the cultural aspects of science. It involves thinking about history in relation to philosophy in relation to anthropology and sociology, literary studies, cultural studies, visual studies and so forth. For me, this is one of the most exciting things that STS does: it draws all these fields together to help us better understand the roles that science and technology play in our increasingly high-tech world.

AC: What are you working on right now?

CM: I have just finished a book about the impact of videogame culture on the research practices of the molecular sciences, primarily nanotechnology and molecular biology. I’m very interested in understanding videogames as a transformative force in the world today and trying to appreciate how they affect everything from the entertainment industry to economic development, and to science and technological issues.

Together with a number of colleagues at UC Davis, as well as our collaborators in the IMMERSe Network, I’ve been working on a few large-scale projects that are designed to address a whole range of issues impacted by the spread of gamer culture. Everything from the relationship of video games to artistic practice and production, to video games and literature, video games and politics, and of course scientific research, games for health, and so forth.

The Humanities Innovation Lab is also interested in making video games, designing games for educational purposes, research purposes—smart games. We’re exploring the significance of gamification: the trend of applying game-like structures to tasks or situations that had not traditionally been understood as game-like, such as work or school. What does it mean that we see so much effort now focused on turning so many everyday activities into game scenarios? But also: can that be done more effectively, in a smarter or more critical way?

AC: That is super interesting! What intrigued you about videogames that would make you want to research them?

CM: About 14 years ago, I had been working quite extensively on the history of nanotechnology and one of my friends told me: “Oh, if you’re really interested in the cultural history of nanotechnology, you should really be looking at videogames.” Because the representation of nano is quite extensive in video games. I was quite intrigued to hear this and I started looking into it. Sure enough, there are lots and lots of videogames dealing with nanotechnology, from the US, Europe, Japan, everywhere.

When I first started getting serious about researching games – this was around 2001 – I was really struck by how sophisticated they had become, not just in terms of their technical capabilities, but more the complex storytelling, the richness of narratives and characterization, and the range of contemporary and historical issues that they were tackling as a medium. And on top of all this, they can be super fun.

Around the same time, the economic market for the games industry began to escalate dramatically-- to the point where now it is often claimed that the videogame industry has greater proceeds, faster profit, than Hollywood. The scale of videogames, in terms of cultural impact, is huge and getting bigger. So I really starting thinking that STS scholars should understand about how this technology—because it is a technology as much as it is a form of art and entertainment—is changing the world in many ways.

AC: That’s really interesting—it sounds fun!

CM: It’s fun. I often get a tickle when I think that I get to play videogames for my job. But I think there is increasingly a necessity to look at such things in a really serious way – but still, never forgetting that these things are supposed to be fun, for pleasure.

AC: Are you teaching or planning on teaching any interesting STS classes?

CM: Right now [Fall Quarter 2013] I’m teaching the science fiction class, STS 173, which is about the history of science fiction as a literary genre and a cinematic genre; but it’s also concerned with the relationship that science fiction has with real science and the intersections, the cross traffic, between fictional speculations and experimental research. Next quarter [Winter Quarter 2014] I’ll be running a PhD seminar on video games and digital culture. We’ll be looking at some STS methods that pertain to games and gamification. Next year [2014-2015], I’ll be teaching the STS “Writing Science” course, STS 164, which is about the history of scientific writing, and the role that texts play in shaping scientific knowledge.

AC: What draws you to STS? You mentioned earlier that a colleague had suggested video games as a way of viewing nanotechnology culture, but that seems to indicate you were already looking for nanotechnology culture. What brought you in that direction?

CM: Well I’ve been interested for most of my life in scientific culture. The more I studied it from a technical perspective, the more I also realized the value of looking at it from the perspective of the humanities and social sciences. And I have to trace my involvement back quite early to my university education. I’d been training as a molecular biologist but also working as a student of comparative literature. And my long abiding interest was trying to merge my affections for both science and literature. At some point I became aware that STS was a field where one could also do literary studies of science, rhetoric of science—researching the function of language and texts in the production of experimental knowledge. So the more I looked into STS, the more I realized that this was an area of scholarship that brought together the things that I really loved most, which were science and literature, and I could productively study both through the lens of STS. And that’s what really started to move me in that direction. I decided to do two PhD programs—one in the history of science, and one in English literature—because I wanted to bring together the perspectives of literary analysis and textual criticism with historical and cultural studies of science. STS is a field that lets you do that, and it thrives on our ability to bring a multitude of important critical perspectives to scientific issues. I love this about STS.

AC: So I also saw that you were involved with the KeckCAVES project?

CM: I work with some colleagues there.

AC: I was wondering if you could tell me a bit about that?

CM: The KeckCAVES is a data visualization space, a research space, open in principle to any number of scientific disciplines, but originally implemented for geological research (Center for Active Visualization in the Earth Sciences) and the physical sciences. There’s also been an interest in brining researchers and practitioners from other disciplines, as well, including artists, humanists, and social scientists. What might come of such collaborations?

It’s been very exciting to be working with our colleagues in geology, computer science, and physics. And we are inspired by the possibilities that new visualization technologies, such as 3D virtual reality—not only in the CAVES but increasingly in consumer-level products such as 3D television, or even the new Oculus Rift” head-mounted VR display (that is primarily aimed at videogame application but is also quite usable for scientific data visualization). I like to think about the broader implications of these new technologies, in particular imagining ways that this technology can help us as STS scholars do the work that we want to do, to think about using these tools for research and also disseminating that research. I like to think about those possibilities.

AC: So, what do you mean by data visualization?

CM: Many scientific disciplines need to compile lots of information, often vast quantities. How to analyze and assess or make conclusions about that data, about those piles of numbers, is a methodological issue that different disciplines have taken different approaches to. One thing that data visualization affords is the ability to use human visual capacities and cognition to navigate, organize and maneuver through vast quantities of information, using our intuitive, bodily capacities to engage with three-dimensional graphics to help understand the meaning of that data.

AC: That is so awesome!

CM: Do you have an interest in data visualization?

AC: Well it certainly shows up in science fiction enough, such as in the Iron Man films, and Star Trek…

CM: That’s true, I agree with you. In science fiction robust technologies of data visualization appeared long before they appeared in the real world, and there’s good evidence that the way some of these technologies developed, they were in some cases inspired by or in dialogue with the science fictional representations. There’s been a long history of cross-pollination between technical development and science fiction, especially around the issues of virtual reality and data visualization. Mark Pesce (2), who is the inventor of VRML, the Virtual Reality Mark-Up Language, has often claimed that science fiction has been the most important source of inspiration for people in computer science. It’s perhaps a bold generalization—but in a number of cases, there’s definitely something to it.

AC: What an interesting field of study! Thank you so much for sharing your work with the blog and thank you for your time.


(1)   More information on Colin Milburn

(2)   More information on Mark Pesce