Objects of Amplification: Icebergs, Northern History, and their Emerging Media Environments 

By Rafico Ruiz

Icebergs at present are living a second life on screens. While they are without a doubt one of the natural world’s most amenably photogenic objects, icebergs, amongst a raft of other natural phenomena, are increasingly subject to parametric modeling applications. As I outline in a recent article in a wonderfully-curated issue of The Journal of Northern Studies on northern environmental history, the purpose of this telegenic life on screens is largely confined to determining how, and under what conditions, icebergs can be made a source of potable water for the planet. While this is a practice with a rather long history, going back millennia to indigenous forms of water provision, for metropolitan, Western social formations it dates back to the middle of the nineteenth century and the early industrialization of converting icebergs into water destined for human purposes (Cruikshank 2005; Gosnell 2005; Pyne 1986). Icebergs, and the potential they hold as a source of water for the dry and drought-ridden regions of the world, constitute a little-known touchstone in historical and contemporary debates on the ethical and ecological limits of the extractive industries. As I contend in the article, to understand how icebergs are conceived as emergent commodities across our global imaginaries of resource extraction requires us to know how and why they are appearing on screens—in what could be thought of as media environments in their own right.

Fig 1

In my understanding of the concept, “media environments” are co-implicated in the production of many important environmental issues that revolve around institutional and corporate decision-making, the impacts of emerging and contentious resource industries, as well as anthropogenic environmental change. In contexts wherein data sets, modeling, and “parametrization” often narrow the group of actors involved in making decisions that affect environmental outcomes (Edwards 2001: 64), models and model-making processes are mobile forms of semiosis that can be historicized across scales of decision making that are not always “global” nor “environmental,” but corporation- and institution-specific. As some of the historical episodes I recount in the article show, such models deploy visualization and projection in order to mobilize public opinion, further geopolitical interests, or raise funds for schemes on the borderlands of ethical and ecological responsibility.

Fig 2It is productive to think about icebergs as newly central nodes across “media environments” that subtend and support emergent extractive resource industries. From the screens tracking the locations and movements of North Atlantic icebergs via satellite technologies to the modeling softwares forecasting and simulating the transportation of icebergs to the drought prone regions of the world, much of my research tries to situate emergent natural resources such as icebergs within the disciplinary concerns of media theorists and environmental historians. Icebergs and their trade as twenty-first commodities are produced in and by highly-mediated predictive and virtual environments. This situation prompts a reconceptualized understanding of “the environment” that extends its boundaries to include the media technologies that re-present and mediate its proximities, distances, and temporal registers. A focus on the role of communication media in making icebergs available as commodities suggests that there really is no such thing as a “natural” resource prior to mediation. “Control of information technology,” as Jody Berland writes, “shapes the parameters of communication, knowledge, and memory, and determines the proximity to and nature of power itself” (2009: 76-77). The demands of our ongoing engagement with natural resources also drive developments in techniques and media of communication that become central to the organization and extension of social power in general.

Where such approaches to northern environmental history perhaps meet is around the question of appropriate and contestable representation. Recognizing that the mere act of “rendering” is both a contentious process and practice in making out icebergs as emergent resources is a necessary first step, and one that equally implicates assumptions around water scarcity, the ownership of natural resources, and the ecological effects of large-scale iceberg harvesting. For environmental historians, these visual, discursive, and broadly “cultural” concerns have, of late, begun to be foregrounded through recent scholarship, that Finis Dunaway (2005; 2010; 2015), Gregg Mitman (1999), and others have characterized as exemplifying a “cultural turn” in the discipline. Yet, as David Biggs (2014), Mark Carey (2007; 2010), and others have noted, the question of the politics and the power relationships underpinning visualization as a set of practices and simulated environments as products have not been fully or adequately addressed. One way of starting to address these emerging, largely visual (and virtual) environments is by coming to understand the particular media technologies through which they are co-created, as the human beings and the social relationships underlying this production should not be pushed aside in any privileging of “visuality” as a scholarly mode of analysis. As the media theorist Friedrich Kittler puts it, “media determine our situation” (1999: xxxix). It is incumbent on historians, environmental and otherwise, to come to recognize how the media we deploy and read through to engage with the past are available for reflexive engagement.

Fig 3In this reading, ice is not a material nor a natural process nor a state of water, it is a series of evolving relationships that hold the potential to be made. The Arctic and the Antarctic are vast deposits of phenomenal and human history that are constantly being assembled and reassembled. Most scholars would agree that we should not take the politics and power-dynamics of our objects of study for granted, and yet little attention has been paid to the ways in which digital representational tools construct northern environments (and their phenomena) for the purpose of specific activities. It is through these very interfaces that certain iterations of icebergs get “made.” Human-environment relations are inherently worked through at these interfaces, where mediated environments come into being, so it follows that we should come to know the (institutional, corporate, communicative, and ecological) processes of becoming that underpin them. Environmental historians are particularly well-placed to read through these layers of signification, to take them apart and reassemble them in ways that tell context-responsive stories that can address our emergent here and now of water scarcity, definitive anthropogenic environmental change, and a neoliberal expansion of the boundaries of resource extraction, particularly at the Poles (Carey 2010: 166).

It would seem that media environments take their diverse points of departure through interfaces that look to the future, such as forecasted melt rates and predicted transportation routes. Yet the choice of what parameters and characteristics to employ within a media environment is far from self-evident. Analyzing why icebergs have been represented on screens in the way they have reveals much about the people who construct the representations in addition to the icebergs being represented. Much as Paul Edwards provides “the climate” with its data-driven past (2010), so too can icebergs extend their reach back to past modes of calculation, epistemologies of extraction, and practices of visualization. “Modern 4D assimilation systems,” as Edwards writes, “literally synthesize global data, constrained but not determined by observations” (2010: 433). The drive to generate truly accurate global data, derived and adopted from the established practices of meteorologists and their associated institutional settings (Harper 2008: 226), can, in part, be read through the current, largely corporate efforts to forecast the potential tow-paths of North Atlantic icebergs. In my JNS article, I show how the creation of icebergs as phenomena open to potential commercial exploitation is linked to their representation as media objects with controllable, predictable characteristics. Icebergs, to follow Julie Cruikshank, can be objects of amplification for environmental historians; that is both very concrete and measurable markers (or predictive models) of anthropogenic environmental change, and equally mobile, metaphorical, and generative emblems of the meeting point between a warming atmosphere and ice.


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Featured Image: “Iceberg 2 1997 08 07” by Ansgar Walk – photo taken by Ansgar Walk. Licensed under CC BY-SA 2.5 via Wikimedia Commons.

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