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Center for New Media boots up
Opening event focuses on French philosopher whose writings on the body and perception shed light on the digital age

| 16 September 2004

Digital technology — which has brought us e-mail, cell phones, wired and wireless computing, and countless other products and services — is likely to affect society, and perhaps even nature, in ways we cannot yet imagine. So say scholars from a wide range of disciplines, who are joining forces through the Center for New Media to try to understand better the implications of the revolution based on 0s and 1s.

Like a handful of breakthroughs before it — writing, the printing press, the automobile — digital technology “has tremendous power to effect change,” says Architecture Professor Yehuda Kalay, CNM director. “So we’d better find out what it means.” Yet it’s clear, he says, that “no one discipline alone can do justice to the subject.” Computer science, for example, “can put together all these devices, but it can’t necessarily deal with the human, cultural, and social impacts of technology.”

CNM is one of several new interdisciplinary initiatives that the campus is supporting, with the goal of facilitating fruitful scholarly collaborations on areas of emerging interest. (The others focus on nanotechnology, computational biology, global metropolitan studies, and the environment.) Each initiative is receiving matching seed funds for three years and money for departments to hire senior faculty. The faculty positions are permanent; the initiatives themselves are subject to review, although the hope is that they will become self-sufficient, through fundraising and other efforts, by the end of the start-up period.

The center is currently offering its first class, the undergraduate course “Foundations of American Cybercultures,” taught by faculty from art practice, women’s studies, and the Berkeley Art Museum. And it’s collaborating with the Library to create a New Media Commons — complete with a seminar room and high-end digital-editing suites — set to open in Moffitt Library next spring.

The initiative is also sponsoring a full schedule of events from now through April 2005. First up is next week’s symposium on Maurice Merleau-Ponty (1908-61), a French philosopher who wrote about embodiment and perception, foreshadowing issues of keen interest to those involved in analyzing new media and their increasingly sophisticated ways of mediating our perceptions of the world.

When playing a videogame or watching special effects in a movie theater, Kalay says, “we’re tricked into believing we are part of the action — that we’re actually riding in a car chase or flying in an airplane.” To understand the implications of digitally mediated experience, “we need to go back to philosophy.”

“Philosophers have, from the beginning, 2,500 years ago, neglected the body or treated it as just another object,” notes philosopher Hubert Dreyfus, a professor in the graduate school. “Merleau-Ponty is the first to try to work out the way the body gives us direct access to the world.”

The Center for New Media’s opening symposium, Sept. 20 to 22, will feature two leading interpreters of Merleau-Ponty’s work, Sean Kelley of Princeton and Taylor Carman of Barnard-Columbia. The visiting scholars will lecture daily, from 4 to 5:30 p.m, at the Townsend Center for the Humanities; Kelly will speak, as well, at 7:30 p.m. Monday in 160 Kroeber Hall. The symposium is co-sponsored by the Center for New Media, the Department of Philosophy, and the Townsend Center.

CNM lectures scheduled throughout the rest of the academic year feature visiting guests from as far away as New York and Thailand (including musician David Byrne, of Talking Heads fame, on March 7). For information on the center, next week’s symposium, and CNM events for the coming academic year, see cnm.berkeley.edu.