Tuesday, February 19

UCLA professor and pioneer of media archaeology reflects on sharing work abroad


Erkki Huhtamo, a professor at UCLA's department of design media arts, gave a series of lectures throughout Japan entitled "Media, Transportations, and the Challenges of Posthuman Culture." (Courtesy of University of Tsukuba)

Erkki Huhtamo, a professor at UCLA's department of design media arts, gave a series of lectures throughout Japan entitled "Media, Transportations, and the Challenges of Posthuman Culture." (Courtesy of University of Tsukuba)


A manually driven car may be as antiquated as a landline telephone in the future, Erkki Huhtamo said.

Huhtamo is a professor at UCLA’s department of design media arts and a founder of the field of media archaeology, the discipline that seeks to understand new and emerging media through examination of the past. He has curated a number of art and design exhibitions, and was once an adviser on an episode of the television show “Storage Wars.” He recently gave a series of lectures at several universities in Japan titled, “Media, Transportations, and the Challenges of Posthuman Culture.” Huhtamo recently spoke with the Daily Bruin about the nature of evolving methods of transportation, and how technology both to serves and distracts the modern human.

Daily Bruin: What inspired you to do a lecture tour in Japan? What did you discuss?

Erkki Huhtamo: One of the reasons for this kind of lecture tour is the fact that in 2015, I published a monograph – a book about media archaeology – that I wrote for Japanese readers. It was obviously translated, as I’m not able to write in Japanese myself. The title of the book in English is “Media Archaeology: Dialogues between the Past, Present and Future.” This book has been adapted quite widely at the universities in Japan as a textbook, and since I’ve been active in Japan in various media roles for quite a long time, it’s created a demand for these kinds of lectures.

But I did not simply want to speak about what I already wrote in this book. I talked about my current research, my new interest in which I was looking at relationships between systems of transportation, media culture and the idea of the posthuman, which is a hot topic today among media scholars.

DB: What examples of media culture relations might residents of Los Angeles or UCLA students be familiar with?

EH: Think about a simple media machine like a film projector, a video camera or even a smartphone. These devices have certain ways of sensing and recording the world, often sending out information. Self-driving cars actually need to be media machines to function. This means that it is provided with all kinds of sensors including LIDAR – which is a kind of panoramic sensing system – radars and other devices that at any moment create an idea or mapping of the surroundings around the car. But the self-driving car also sends out that information to computer databanks at any moment, which put on various layers of mapping from the immediate surroundings all the way to a kind of global mapping of where that car is situated.

And the important point here is the mobilities, the idea of things in motion and media culture are merging with each other. Of course, mobilities also have to do with smartphone users walking on UCLA’s campus while texting or riding a Bird scooter and doing the same thing, so it exists on many different levels. But these were the kinds of things that I was talking about in my Japanese lectures.

DB: What about the cultural effects of the convergence between media and transportation?

EH: I’m always conscious of the cultural effects of these things. Obviously, anything gets a meaning within wide and broad context. There are cultural differences, and I think these cultural differences are really important to take into account. In my lectures, I also talked about the planned application of self-driving cars to the ride-hailing systems. These days, we have people driving Lyft or Uber cars, but we also know that Uber’s dream is to get rid of these drivers.

I’m waiting for the time when Uber is going to be fully self-driving. This is, of course, already happening with the Waymo system, which is the Google self-driving car.

In Japan, for example, the need for this kind of service is different in the sense that Japanese people are served by an extremely dense and effective railway network. Even an idea of last-mile mobility by means of e-scooters probably would get a different response in those cities where people don’t need to walk long distances between railway or subway stations and their destination.

DB: How much have cultural or language differences affected how you communicate with audiences around the globe?

EH: If my students ask me, “Well, professor, I have a little bit of extra time, how do you think I should spend it during my studies?” And I have a clear answer, my first answer: “Learn a language.” Learn an extra language – whatever language you’re interested in. Second point: go and take a course on the history of philosophy. These two things apply to anybody. The more languages we know, the more opportunities we have to understand worlds and focus our lives and research. I am fluent in many languages, and this is essential for my work in media archaeology. I don’t see it as an excuse to leave out certain important elements because I do not master the language.

The problem is that the Japanese language is so complicated that I am able to master it on a very superficial level. It’s not enough really to do research on the Japanese culture as much as I want to. This also means that we are, in a certain way, limited by the range of languages and cultures. If I think about doing my life over again I probably would take Japanese and Chinese language seriously. But it was not such an issue at that age.

DB: Do you come away with a better sense of the culture where you’re speaking?

EH: When I do these kinds of lecture tours, it is, of course, always a learning experience: learning from the people listening to me, learning from the discussions, but also learning from what every city has to offer from its media culture. Of course, these are the kinds of things that interest me as a media archeologist. It always goes both ways: contributing something, but also getting something in return.

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  • Kathy Riley

    Amen to his thoughts about learning languages. I’m volunteering for a research project in retirement that requires me to read Latin records from the 1780s and apply my knowledge of Italian, French and Greek to records written by native English speakers. They wrote what they heard, not spelled as it is today. The principals in the project are fluent mainly in English and Spanish, so my language skills have enabled me to do research they could not have done. Besides, learning about other cultures is wonderful, especially through their languages.