Professor Bowker’s Research as a CAS Fellow Tackles Timely Issues

February 11, 2019

The Centre for Advanced Study (CAS) in Oslo, Norway has brought together a group of Fellows to collaborate on a novel project, “In Sync: How Synchronisation and Mediation Produce Collective Times, Then and Now.” As explained in the project abstract:

Synchronised collective actions and experiences include political elections, sports events, demonstrations, parades, as well as other public rituals or performances…. But these synchronised collective times do not exist in and by themselves. They are always the result of work, and this work crucially involves and employs a wide range of communicative genres carried by different media.

For example, one area that the project explores is how modern media creates real-time events. “How does breaking news get choreographed into a coherent narrative?” asks Geoffrey C. Bowker, Donald Bren Professor in Information and Computer Sciences and one of 15 CAS Fellows working on the In Sync project. Yet to better understand today’s collective experiences, the researchers are also considering how such experiences were organized and presented in the past.

“The In Sync project is looking at the development of the encyclopedia form in the 18th century and of chronological tables at that time to create a ‘synchronized’ world history, which brought universal knowledge and a single timeline to the development of humanity,” explains Bowker. The researchers — from institutions in Denmark, Germany, Lebanon, Norway, Sweden, the United Kingdom and the U.S. — are studying how such synchronization requires adjusting different and often conflicting time frames and temporal regimes.

“Thinking about time may seem abstruse,” says Bowker, “but it is only through rethinking time that we can address the central issues of our epoch.”

Rethinking Time
Bowker’s own research for the project considers how computers have introduced new temporalities. “High speed trades can be made in the time that it takes a photon to travel 90 feet,” he notes. “The fundamental question for me has been the interplay of the multiple temporal scales — I’ve been exploring especially ways in which computer temporality, while so much faster, resonates with medium- to long-term scales.

Geoffrey Bowker at a lunch seminar at the Centre for Advanced Study (CAS), where he and a few other members of the In Sync project spoke about their research. (Photo credit: Camilla K. Elmar/CAS).

Understanding longer-term scales is no small task. “We as a society do not know politically or socially how to address changes that are happening over the timescale of 40 or 400 years — about the best we can do is five-year plans,” he explains. “Dealing with a range of temporal scales is both incredibly interesting intellectually and a matter of pressing concern.”

Fortunately, CAS has provided the perfect setting to delve into such issues. “For years now, I have been trying to bring together my interest in media theory with my background in informatics and my training as a historiographer,” notes Bowker. “In Oslo, I have found the ideal community to help me think through these issues.”

Impacting Society
The In Sync project, which spans the 2018-19 academic year, brings together researchers from the humanities, social sciences, and media and information science. Bridging the divide between the sciences and humanities is critical to reaching beyond the walls of academia to address real-world problems, such as climate change and biodiversity — two topics of interest to Bowker

In a CAS podcast with Espen Ytreberg, one of the In Sync project leads, Bowker explains that “we’re very, very good at understanding disasters in the media [such as] huge tidal waves or nuclear disasters.” However, the media struggles to define “slow” disasters — ones that occur over a month or two, such as the flooding of the Mississippi River, or over decades, such as climate change. “When is it a crisis in environmental change? How many lives need to be shortened for us to say, ‘this is an emergency?’” Referring to work by Michelle Bastian, he explains that the problem is that our “human” time is out of sync with “natural” time (what’s going on in nature).

Better aligning the two will require not only revising our temporal thinking but also creating novel communicative genres. “We need to develop long-term forms of engagement where we can work alongside scientists and policy-makers together in new kinds of academic forms and using new kinds of expressive media…. to reach larger audiences.”

Thus, this multinational, multidisciplinary team will ensure their academic findings are “in sync” with real-world issues, influencing practical stakeholders and broadly impacting society because, as Bowker asserts, “we do need to be addressing some of these very important issues right now.”

Shani Murray