Other Interesting Technologies: STS Faculty Reflect

STS Faculty, Technology

This final entry in the series on interesting moments in science and technology features reflections from Paul Showler, Gerrit Scheepers, and Christy Tidwell on a wide range of topics: emotion detection technology, a method to provide easier access to clean water, and a scheme to farm hippos in the US. (For more thoughts on interesting science and technology from STS faculty, see previous posts on technologies of communication and technologies of destruction.)

Planting Seeds: Anchoring Ethics in the Dirt

Classes, Environment, teaching

By Christy Tidwell

My Environmental Ethics & STEM class asks big questions about knowledge, values, justice, and responsibility – both individual and systemic – related to environmental issues. Although I try to situate these conversations in specific, real-world examples, they can still sometimes seem abstract or beyond the scale of my students’ reach. They may wonder what they can do to address climate change, for instance, or to change corporate policy.

But they can, of course, make a difference, and we look for ways to identify the actions they can take (again, not just individually but within larger contexts). In the meantime, to help connect us more fully to the environment, this semester I asked my students to plant seeds and to do their best to grow them and keep them alive. It’s my hope that working to protect and nurture one small plant will give the class a personal connection that issues of pollution, plastics, or water rights may not always have.

STS Faculty Profile: Christy Tidwell

STS Faculty Profile

Christy Tidwell is Associate Professor of English & Humanities. You can learn more about her research and teaching at her website.

What’s your area of expertise? What do you primarily research and/or teach? And what drew you to this field?

I typically research and write about speculative fiction, environment, and gender. My dissertation was about feminist science fiction and feminist science, for instance, and since then I’ve co-edited and written for two books on speculative fiction and the environment: Gender and Environment in Science Fiction and Fear and Nature: Ecohorror Studies in the Anthropocene. I have an ongoing interest in dinosaurs in popular culture, especially as dinosaur stories relate to ideas about extinction, and I also sometimes write about Black film/media and disability.

In my work on science fiction – whether related to environmental issues, gender, race, or disability – I look at how we respond to the problems in the present and how we might imagine different possibilities in the future. In my work on horror – again, no matter which of these issues I’m addressing – I look at how our fears (for instance, fears of the natural world or fears for the natural world) shape our lives.

Kissing Robots: Can Technology Help Us Love?

design, Technology

By Christy Tidwell

On Valentine’s Day, talk of love and romance is everywhere. Some people celebrate it and some avoid it. Still others would like to celebrate but are separated from their loved ones. Long-distance relationships are hard, after all, so what if technology could help diminish that distance? Sure, we have phone calls, FaceTime, even emails or letters (if you’re particularly old-fashioned). But these methods of connection don’t include touch.

Lovotics, a multidisciplinary research project proposed by Dr. Hooman Samani of the University of Plymouth (UK), proposes to change this. It includes several applications:

  • Kissenger, a pair of robots designed to transfer a kiss over distance. Here, “the system takes the form of an artificial mouth that provides the convincing properties of the real kiss.”
  • Mini-Surrogate, a project to use miniature robots “as small cute, believable and acceptable surrogates of humans for telecommunication.” They are meant to “foster the illusion of presence.”
  • XOXO, a system that builds on Kissenger but also includes a “wearable hug reproducing jacket.”

It sounds like a potentially nice idea to help with long-distance relationships. When I raised this with students in my Humanities & Technology class last semester, however, they found it more disturbing than promising. Check out the video for the Kissenger for more detail.

Video demonstrating the Kissenger application.

For me, these ideas come with more questions than answers. How important is physical proximity for a meaningful relationship? What elements of touch are most important? Can those elements be replicated by something other-than-human? Even – what new relationships between human and nonhuman might be possible in the future?

I don’t have answers to these questions; in fact, I don’t think there is one right answer to them. But we should probably be asking them before we start creating technological solutions to problems that we don’t fully understand. Will having kissing robots lead to serious harm? Probably not. Will they help? We won’t know unless we ask questions about human emotions and psychology, bringing humanities and social sciences knowledge to bear on technological possibility.

Kissenger application. Photo credit: Ars Electronica.

Native Science: Interconnection, Local Knowledge, & Memory

Native American, science

By Christy Tidwell

November is National Native American Heritage Month, a chance to acknowledge the history and living culture of Native American peoples. As a science, technology, and society program, this seems a good opportunity to discuss Native science, also called Indigenous science or Traditional Ecological Knowledge (TEK). As the varied names for this indicate, it’s not one monolithic entity but incorporates ideas from many perspectives. It is both traditional, building on Native peoples’ long histories of learning about and sharing knowledge, and contemporary, an ongoing part of living in and with the world.

What is Native Science?

Gregory Cajete (Santa Clara Pueblo) coined the term, and he describes Native science as “a metaphor for a wide range of tribal processes of perceiving, thinking, acting, and coming to know that have evolved through human experiences with the natural world.” Cajete says, “Native science is born of a lived and storied participation with the natural landscape. It is the collective heritage of human experience with the natural world” (2). In other words, Native science combines human and nonhuman and describes what humans know by relating to, communicating with, and experiencing the world. It is not a science based on laboratory experiments or anonymous review.

This contrasts with Western ideas of science by emphasizing connection rather than separation, relationships rather than objective distance. Native science sees people as part of the world they’re learning about, not outside it, and therefore people cannot be removed from scientific work. If you’ve been trained to think of science as necessarily objective and tainted by any hint of subjectivity or bias, this may sound unscientific. However, as Leila McNeill points out in a Lady Science interview, “It really just means that it’s grounded in this specific experience of this specific group of people in this specific place, which can actually give us better results than if we were looking at something that is looking at large, broad questions that they’re trying to apply to everything that just kind of obscures the particular.”

Environmental Literature & Culture: Spring 2022 Course


By Christy Tidwell

What is nature? What do you imagine when you think of nature? What are the qualities of nature (better yet, of Nature with a capital N)? 

Pause now and think about that for a minute. 


What is the image of Nature you hold in your mind? Picture it.

Photo by James Wheeler on Pexels.com

Did you imagine something like that? Maybe not that exact image, but something similar? If so, consider this response more fully. What are the qualities of this representation of nature? It’s beautiful. It has lots of elements of the natural world (I know, that seems circular, but stick with me), like trees, mountains, a lake. It’s pure and untouched. It’s wild. Notably, there are no humans in this image. 

Spooky Science at the Movies!: Week 5

Film, horror

By Christy Tidwell

This weekend is Halloween! To celebrate, I have two final movie recommendations to share. One is an all-time favorite of mine and probably no surprise to those who know me. The other is one of the scarier recent movies I’ve seen. Their premises are quite different, but both have science and technology at their core.

Classic Movie #5: Jurassic Park

Of course it’s Jurassic Park! Jurassic Park (1993, directed by Steven Spielberg) is an adventure movie featuring dinosaurs, a horror movie with terrifying monster attacks, and a science fiction movie that asks, “What if we could bring a creature back from extinction?” Jurassic Park is such a well-known part of US popular culture that it is a common reference point in discussions of scientific overreach and a familiar critique of the role of money in scientific research. “Spared no expense,” John Hammond (Richard Attenborough) repeats throughout – but the project still fails.

Jurassic Park is a reworking of Frankenstein with dinosaurs, and it is one of the best movies out there for raising important questions about scientific ethics while also being extraordinarily entertaining. If you haven’t seen it, now is the time! If you have already seen it, well, it’s always a good time to watch Jurassic Park again.

Official trailer for Jurassic Park (1993)

Contemporary Movie #5: Host

As Laura Kremmel noted in her recent post “High-Tech Spirits and Ghost Tours,” Host (2020, dir. Rob Savage) has been named as the scariest horror movie. It’s short (only 57 minutes!) and fun, but it definitely gets your heart pounding in that short running time. Host spends less time raising big issues about science than Jurassic Park and focuses more on scaring the audience, but the way it achieves its scares is worth noting from an STS perspective. Those scares are only possible through the technology of Zoom, and the audience’s ability to be scared by spirits via technology is a) definitely not new (as Laura Kremmel points out) and b) perhaps an indication of how mysterious the inner workings of these technologies are to most of us.

Official trailer for Host (2020)

Collected Movie Lists

This is the final entry in the series of STS-related horror movies for this season, so I’ll end by combining all the movies recommended and linking to the earlier posts.

Classic movies:

  1. Frankenstein (1931)
  2. Godzilla (1954)
  3. Phase IV (1974)
  4. The Fly (1986)
  5. Jurassic Park (1993)

Contemporary movies:

  1. Saint Maud (2019)
  2. Crawl (2019)
  3. In the Earth (2020)
  4. Annihilation (2018)
  5. Host (2020)

Happy Halloween, and happy viewing!

Spooky Science at the Movies!: Week 4

Film, horror

By Christy Tidwell

There’s just a week and a half left before Halloween, but there’s still time for more spooky movies! This week’s classic and contemporary movie recommendations prominently feature scientists and scientific research, highlighting the risks of scientific experimentation and exploration (especially when done outside the bounds of formal research contexts) as well as the limits of scientific knowledge.

Classic Movie #4: The Fly

David Cronenberg’s 1986 remake of The Fly is a classic of body horror. Its central premise is that a human (Seth Brundle, played by Jeff Goldblum) merges with a fly and becomes a horrifying human-fly mutant: Brundlefly. This transformation emphasizes bodily mutation through both the intimate horror of things like losing fingernails (as gruesomely shown in the bathroom scene) and the ultimate form of Brundlefly, so dramatically changed that it no longer has a recognizably human face.

The Fly is also another horror film about mad science (following in the footsteps of Frankenstein, recommended during Week 1). It’s not just that a human merges with a fly, after all, but that a scientist conducts experiments on himself that go very wrong. The film dramatizes what can happen when scientists abandon the norms and regulations of scientific practice. If you can’t get funding through traditional means, how far are you willing to go for your research? Are you willing to experiment on yourself? Although historically there have been quite a few scientists willing to do this, The Fly serves as a cautionary tale indicating that this will not always work out. Some renegade scientists might get to be Humphry Davy (who experimented with nitrous oxide and discovered its use as an anesthetic – without killing himself!), but others are Seth Brundle/Brundlefly.

Poster for The Fly (1986)

Contemporary Movie #4: Annihilation

Alex Garland’s Annihilation (2018, an adaptation of Jeff VanderMeer’s 2014 novel of the same name) also follows a scientist, a biologist (Natalie Portman). She is on an expedition with an anthropologist, a psychologist, a surveyor, and a linguist (all women) into a mysterious environmental disaster zone known as the Shimmer. The Shimmer doesn’t follow the familiar rules of nature and ever stranger things happen to and around the group of explorers. Without giving too much away (since the movie is still relatively recent), I can say that Annihilation centers both scientific exploration and environmental issues, which connects it nicely to the STS degree.

Where The Fly endorses traditional science by showing the awful consequences of going outside its boundaries, Annihilation takes a different approach, illustrating the limits of scientific knowledge. The team of women in Annihilation are overwhelmed by the world within the Shimmer, ultimately unable to study it objectively and changed by it instead. In both films, scientists are unable to remain completely separate from what they study.

Trailer for Annihilation (2018)

For more recommendations, check out earlier entries in this series: Week 1, Week 2, and Week 3!

Spooky Science at the Movies!: Week 3

Environment, Film, horror

By Christy Tidwell

This week’s recommendations stick with the emphasis on ecohorror introduced last week. Instead of presenting monsters like Godzilla or crocodiles, though, these two films find both wonder and horror in exploring the agency of the nonhuman world. How do other species communicate? How do they act upon us and shape our actions?

Spooky Science at the Movies!: Week 2

Environment, Film, horror, Humanities

By Christy Tidwell

Horror movies are often defined by their monsters. Sometimes these monsters are terrifying beasts that give us nightmares (like Guillermo del Toro’s Pale Man from Pan’s Labyrinth or Pennywise from Stephen King’s It), sometimes they’re kind of silly (like the rampaging rabbits in Night of the Lepus), and sometimes they’re surprisingly sympathetic (like Frankenstein’s Creature).

In any case, monsters demonstrate something about both the world we live in and what we fear. In the 1950s, people feared nuclear war; now, we fear climate change. The two horror movies I’m recommending for this week directly address those fears, presenting viewers with monsters that embody the harm of nuclear warfare/testing in one case and that are the direct result of climate change’s superstorms and unpredictable weather patterns in the other.