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The Ocean’s ‘Digital Twin’? Marine Environmental Data Through Time

Sabine Höhler, Susanna Lidström and Tirza Meyer from the Mediated Planet project at the Division will present in the WASP-HS seminar series #frAIday, organized by Umeå University. In their presentation they aim to sketch the history of opening the ‘black box’ of the ocean.

Seminar poster.

The Ocean’s ‘Digital Twin’? Marine Environmental Data Through Time

Sabine Höhler, Susanna Lidström, and Tirza Meyer

Division of History of Science, Technology and Environment, KTH Royal Institute of Technology Stockholm

Much hope is tied to the creation of a digital twin of the ocean based on an ever more extensive body of ocean data. Representing the ocean in the digital space is a way of analyzing and modeling the ocean in a ‘laboratory’ setting. Studying the ocean stripped from its natural complexity, so the idea, can better inform and instruct humans on how to interact with the ocean environment. Our twentieth century understanding of the ocean as a central ecosystem in the planetary environment would not have been possible without long-term information gathering. However, also ocean data generation is a messy and contested process. Its history is even more important to study since we ‘know’ the ocean mostly in mediated ways. We observe the ocean almost exclusively through scientific instruments, and we formulate ocean policies, legislation, and development goals based on data and increasingly on digital information. That this data has a history makes the past, present, and future of the digital ocean not just a scientific but a political issue.

Our presentation aims to sketch the history of opening the ‘black box’ of the ocean. We use examples of the Challenger expedition in the 1870s, of satellite oceanography in the 1990s, and of present-day autonomous ocean sensor systems. We ask how the specific tools and the information they generated mobilized different understandings of the ocean as resource and territory, as climate moderator and as carbon sink. Dredges, satellites and deep-ocean floats created new ocean knowledges, politics, and also new ontologies. No matter how inclusive, refined, and versatile the databases are, so our argument, the digital ocean will not be a simple 1:1 representation or “twin”. While the data corpus may be quite functional to model ocean behavior, it will always rest on selections serving particular purposes and interest

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