Tirza Meyer joins OSEH as a Visiting Scholar with project on underwater technology

Oslo School of Environmental Humanities welcomes Tirza Meyer as a Visiting Scholar! Meyer joined OSEH in May 2020 and will stay until the end of this year. Her project Humanoid Oceans or an Ocean of Humanoids? examines the rise of autonomous underwater vehicles and explores the ambiguities that they bring with them.

Underwater, Diver, Vehicle

Photo: Geir Johnson, AUR-Lab, NTNU. Humans and their machines. A diver inspecting a Remotely Operated Vehicle (ROV) from NTNU's AUR-Lab before it is send on a research expedition to the Artic.

Humanoid Oceans or an Ocean of Humanoids?

On the one hand, autonomous underwater vehicles can be saviours of the ocean environment, but equally such technology can pose a serious threat to a fragile marine ecosystem that is already under pressure. The project develops a theory that the technology with which humans have gradually discovered the oceanic environment has undergone a profound transition. From enabling us to reach into the oceans and understand them, our technology has now reached a point where it has the potential to exhaust and destroy them.

Underwater technology has increasingly become our eyes, ears and even our hands in the deep oceans. Without the help of smart and independent machines, humankind would not have been able to access or understand these fascinating and under-researched marine environments. But as with the monster in Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, we have created something with great destructive potential. What the project calls an ‘ocean of humanoids’ could have a lasting impact on the future of the planet’s oceans.

The study follows the development of marine technology from simple research devices like the dredges that were used in the first oceanographic expeditions (Challenger, 1872–1876) all the way through to autonomous underwater vehicles (AUVs) or remotely operated vehicles (ROVs) that can roam the seas independently, collecting data and performing complicated tasks that have opened up the oceanic environment for human activity.

Humanoid Oceans or an Ocean of Humanoids seeks to explore several possible future scenarios of a world where the oceans are filled with autonomous technology. It looks at the origins and purposes of these machines, the tasks they have been set to carry out and the possible consequences of releasing swarms of ‘humanoid technologies’ to freely roam the oceans. This story will be integrated in a theoretical framework that seeks to give a new meaning to the term ‘humanoid’ – a definition that moves away from the general description of ‘having a human shape’ to ‘performing human tasks in environments hostile to humans’. ‘Humanoid’ is a central term in this study because it seeks to make human impact on the ocean visible by giving ocean technology in all its varieties and forms a human imprint. This theoretical approach highlights the fact that it is really humanity that roams the oceans with the help of technology.

The study aims to discuss the double-edged sword that underwater technology represents, and what this could mean for the oceanic ecosystem. For example, on the one hand, robots can collect vital information about the marine environment, but those same robots can also be used to uncover and exploit hidden marine mineral deposits and other resources. Several case studies will be conducted to explore how these possibilities and risks might be balanced, by looking at specific technological devices that are currently used to scan, sample or travel through oceanic environments for a variety of purposes. How we use the oceans now will have an impact on the oceanic environment of the future.


Portrait photo, Meyer

Tirza Meyer is a contemporary historian with an interest in the history of maritime law, ocean governance concepts, science and technology and human-ocean relations. She holds a Master’s Degree from the Norwegian University of Science and Technology in Trondheim (NTNU), Norway. In 2018, she finished her dissertation about Elisabeth Mann Borgese’s role as a key figure in negotiation processes at the United Nations Law of the Sea Convention (1973-1994). 

She is now working on a post-doctoral project with the title “Humanoid Oceans or an Ocean of Humanoids?” which is affiliated with the Humanities Ocean Initiative – NTNU Oceans Pilot on Ethical, Social and Cultural aspects of Ocean Research and Innovation. During her dissertation, Tirza Meyer has been a Visiting Scholar at the Faculty of Law at the University of New South Wales, Sydney and collaborated with the International Ocean Institute at the Dalhousie University in Halifax, Canada. In 2019, she started her work with the “Humanoid Ocean” project as a Visiting Scholar at the Rachel Carson Center for Environment and Society in Munich.

Tags: HF, IKOS, OSEH, Environmental Humanities, History, Technology
Published June 9, 2020 11:04 PM - Last modified June 10, 2020 3:41 PM