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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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Working as a doctoral student in the Nuclearwaters-Project (ERC Consolidator Grant, PI Per Högselius), I focus on the nuclear history of Eastern Europe, especially on the territory of the former Soviet Union and its successor states. Furthermore, I investigate expert cultures in nuclear discourses, with a special interest in water-related issues in nuclear power plant decision-making. In addition, I am intrigued by the entanglement of the commercial, scientific and political interests concerning nuclear technologies, with its sometimes harsh consequences on human societies and the environment. Recently this interest has extended to energy systems as a whole in Eastern Europe, including fossil fuels and renewables. Questions of transition within international energy systems in the face of the climate crisis and recent political developments become more important, as my work progresses.