Category: Life

Asian American Arcade Exhibit Open

“Asian American Arcade”

Last week, a special exhibit devoted to the “interplay between video games and Asian Pacific American Experience” (as stated on the call for art) opened at the Wing Luke Museum of the Asian Pacific American Experience in Seattle, WA. My brother, Edmond Chang (Ph.D. candidate, UW English), served on the community advisory committee that helped put this exhibit together and also designed a short live-action roleplaying/alternate-reality game for the exhibit opening last Thursday night.

The exhibition features, among others, Jenova Chen and his work on games like Flower. When I interviewed Jenova in 2010, he described his own experience moving from Shanghai to California as a driving impetus for Flower‘s bucolic imagery and the game’s thoughtful consideration of the relationship between urban and rural landscapes.

The exhibit is open until June 17. Please check it out!

Visualizing Data

Good word is in! I’ll be co-chairing and presenting on a panel at this year’s Society for Cinema and Media Studies conference in Boston (March 21-25, 2012), with my colleague Kris Fallon from UC Berkeley’s Film and Media Department. Kris and I brought these papers together in an attempt to get at the growing transition from “optical” and photorealistic media toward “nonoptical” and interactive media. At the core of all the panelists’ concerns are issues surrounding how we convert or interpret data into forms amenable to handling and understanding, and how such practices exert both rhetorical and epistemological effects on data that in and of itself is neither objective nor sufficient.

Wednesday, March 21, 2012 02:00PM-03:45PM (Session C)

C1: Scaling Data’s Many Faces: Data Mining, Information Visualization, and Other Non-optical Vistas
Room: Alcott
Chair: Kristopher Fallon (University of California, Berkeley)
Co-Chair: Alenda Chang (University of California, Berkeley)

Kristopher Fallon (University of California, Berkeley), “The Optic-less Unconscious: Data Journalism and the Quest for Visible Evidence”
Alenda Chang (University of California, Berkeley), “Exponential Vision and the Powers of Ten”
David Bering-Porter (Brown University), “Screening the Genome: Visualization, Speculation, and Uncanny Vitality”
Lyn Goeringer (University of Rhode Island), “Emote = Ping : Data Mining Emotion as Conceptual Art Practice”

Here’s the abstract for my particular talk:

In 1977, Charles and Ray Eames released the short film Powers of Ten, which uses the mathematical and visual framing of a geometric progression to take viewers on a journey from macrocosm to microcosm in just over nine minutes. Touted as surpassing the static image in its presentation of movement between scales, Powers of Ten was itself the inspiration for another qualitative leap in the visualization of scientific information—the evolutionary video game Spore (2008). In Spore, players develop from unicellular organisms adrift in primordial oceans to terrestrial creatures that eventually pursue social organization, progressing from tribal communities to city-states to sophisticated spacefaring civilizations.

Meanwhile, Lorraine Daston and Peter Galison have articulated the history of science as a series of overlapping visual epistemes, beginning with truth-to-nature, proceeding through mechanical objectivity, and ending with trained judgment in the era of nanotechnology. Given the close ties between documentary and scientific ethos, what do we make of an educational science film like Powers of Ten, in which the images are often imaginative composites based on real data, or a game like Spore, where interaction replaces viewing as the dominant perceptual mode?

As Daston and Galison begin to suggest, and as Colin Milburn elaborates in his recent treatise on nanovision, the extension of scientific sight into the subatomic realm promised by Powers of Ten has been fulfilled in unexpected ways—bypassing optics in favor of proprioceptive intimacy, a kind of touching-seeing or Deleuzian haptic vision exemplified by the images produced by scanning tunneling microscopes (STMs). The strange reversals of nonoptical molecular imaging (not to mention the artful depiction of data garnered outside the visible spectrum at the macrocosmic scales of radio, ultraviolet, and infrared astronomy) offer one reading of the transmedia journey from book to film to game that describes Spore’s revival of Powers of Ten. At such scales, and as the cinematic medium evolves into the algorithmic, visualization becomes fabrication, and seeing cannot take place without doing, with important ramifications for the politicization of science.


So, please stop by if you’re attending or presenting at SCMS. We’d love your feedback!

Engaging the Digital We

I’m currently enjoying a day at “The Digital We” one-day symposium here at Berkeley (subtitled “Apps for Citizenship, Health, and City Life from the Social Apps Lab at CITRIS Berkeley”). Particular points of interest have been Chris Kelty’s presentation on applying ecological models to Internet participation, based on his work in the Center for Society and Genetics at UCLA (see “Birds of the Internet” and Two Bits: The Cultural Significance of Free Software) and the showcase of “serious” games under development at the new Social Apps Lab, including Dengue Torpedo, City Sandbox, and Pathways (now called Equimano).

Also included: a brief peek at a new game, at present called Pwning Asthma, which will help people learn about the risk factors and triggers for asthma. I recently joined the development team for this project, so expect future updates (we’re conducting our first official location research in the Central Valley agricultural city of Fresno in early January).

Presenting at Marxism and New Media Conference

I’ll be presenting some of my work on farm games and labor at the Marxism and New Media Conference being held at Duke University on January 20 and 21, 2012. The keynote speaker line-up looks amazing, though of course it doesn’t hurt that all three have done significant work on games and/or digital practice: Alex Galloway (NYU), Ricardo Dominguez (UCSD), and McKenzie Wark (The New School).

My thanks to good friends Zach Blas and Melody Jue for inviting me to participate.


More Reasons to Love ASLE

I was already a fan of ASLE (AZ-lee) before I attended the ninth biennial conference this year in Bloomington, Indiana. After all, one of my very first conference experiences took place in Chichester, England in 2004 with a tiny group of ASLE-UK academics, poets, and environmentalists. At that time, I was busy getting the word out that nature documentary was a genre worth studying in terms of its visual and masking rhetorics, and my best buddy at the conference turned out to be a German graduate student working on Margaret Atwood’s Oryx and Crake (I’ll never think of pork in the same way again).

Years later, a couple of veteran SLS and ASLE members approached me after my talk at SLSA 2009 in Atlanta and encouraged me to bring the work to the next U.S. ASLE, at that point nearly two years away. While my co-panelist lovingly described player agency and creativity in Quake through mastery of a semi-hack “strafe” jump for our miniscule audience, I felt a growing dread that my own topic, the representation of scientific principles in digital gameplay (using Will Wright’s game Spore and the evolution vs. intelligent design framework), would seem esoteric at best. So ASLE Pauline, thank you! I was secretly relieved that someone, anyone, actually wanted to hear more.

And that brings me to this year’s ASLE, from which I have just returned, laden down with evidence of the association’s goodwill. Still somewhat concerned that my emphasis on technology would rub the naturalist bent of the core ASLE constituency the wrong way, I was surprised and flattered to receive both a Graduate Travel Award and the Graduate Student Paper Award for best scholarly paper. Though I didn’t get to meet all of them or shake their hands, I’d like to thank paper judges C.A. Cranston, Carmen Flys-Junquera, and Greg Garrard, as well as Awards coordinator Tom Lynch, and the Travel Awards Committee members (Annie Ingram, Sarah Jaquette Ray, Tom Hillard, and Chia-ju Chang). And of course, managing director Amy McIntyre, without whose gentle hint I may have missed the award presentation entirely, and president Ursula Heise.

As if all this was not enough, I was blessed to room with and present alongside Melody Jue of Duke, who spoke about Google Ocean and the experience of diving, and who has given me a long list of wonderful marine-related must-reads. My colleague Danielle Christianson of UC Berkeley was unable to attend at the last minute, but we presented her work on imaging a forest transect in Sequoia and I am always grateful to bend a working ecologist’s ear. Last but not least, I was thankful to share that Birch dorm quad with Katrina Dodson of UC Berkeley, as well, for Katrina was the incredibly open-minded guest editor of the Qui Parle special issue on ecocriticism that just came out featuring a sample of my work on games as environmental objects. It was rewarding for me to see Katrina acknowledged for all her grueling work on that issue, a true labor of love, and I hope that the issue and my own writing make their way into classrooms and instigate new pedagogical approaches.

So as I sit here at my desk in a miasma of toner-scented air, having just printed out a stack of final papers to grade, I am already looking back fondly on the events of the past week and looking forward to the next installment!

Coming Up: Designed Environments Panel at ASLE

If you’re interested in the digital mediation of nature and planning on attending this year’s Association for the Study of Literature and the Environment (ASLE) conference at Indiana University in Bloomington, come check out the following panel that I put together and say hello:

G13. Designed Environments: Public Landscapes, Digital Ecologies, and the Visualization of Complexity
(Traditional Panel/Scholarly; Stream 11)

Friday, June 24, 2011

8:30 – 10:00AM


Alenda Chang, Rhetoric, University of California, Berkeley, “Your Cow is 90% Ready: Back to the Virtual Farm”

Danielle Svehla Christianson, Energy and Resources Group, University of California, Berkeley, “Seeing the forest for the trees: Using digital environments in ecological science and education”

Melody Jue, Literature, Duke University, “Google Oceans: Virtually Representing Ocean Space”

Panel Description:

Conventional environmentalism and what Lawrence Buell has described as “first-wave ecocriticism” have generally been susceptible to criticisms that what counts as “nature” or “natural” has tended to exclude designed landscapes as well as modes of mediated interaction that purportedly detract from direct experience of the natural world. However, as populations continue to shift toward urban centers and modern media gain unprecedented entry into everyday life, it seems increasingly vital to turn our attention to nature as a mediated experience, whether that mediation takes the form of the city skyline, the public park, climate models, Google Earth, or popular game environments.

Our panel brings together diverse perspectives—environmental design, game studies, economics, ecology and marine biology, and science education—in an attempt to trouble the often assumed divisions between the natural and the technological (what we could also call the real and the virtual). Chang’s work reveals how the issue of right environmental relations can arise even in the unlikely realms of online gaming, particularly the recent spate of “farm” simulation games. Christianson’s work speaks to how technological visualizations may overlay reality in ways that make it easier, not harder, to understand the complexities of ecological interdependence. And Jue’s work explores the increasing “digitalization” of the world’s oceans through a detailed consideration of Google Ocean.

Our work deliberately juxtaposes these various analog and digital natures in order to demonstrate their often uneasy but just as often gratifying complementarity—the virtuality inherent to the real and reality’s subsistence in the virtual.

My reading for the past few weeks has been heavy on subjects fairly foreign to me, but which seem critical to better understanding farm games: agricultural history and to a lesser extent agricultural economics. I’ve tried to cast a wide net, reading authors ranging from those who believe modern industrial agriculture represents “an outstanding, and somewhat neglected, success story” (Giovanni Federico, in the tellingly named Feeding the World) to those who see contemporary agribusiness as delivering a monopolistic deathblow to ancient and inherently anti-consumerist forms of peasant culture (John Berger in Pig Earth).

I’m just about finished with historian Paul Conkin’s semi-autobiographical volume, A Revolution Down on the Farm: The Transformation of American Agriculture since 1929, which gives a reasonably balanced account of agriculture’s many shifts over the last eighty-plus years. While Conkin’s exhaustive attention to improvements in farm technology as well as changes in American farm policy (from the Depression-era and New Deal years of Hoover and FDR through more recent administrations) can leave your brain reeling, his methodical coverage is leavened by recollections of his early years on an eastern Tennessee farm and his piquant observations about what alterations the decades have wrought in his semi-rural hometown.

While Conkin clearly celebrates many of the massive gains in production efficiency enabled by tractors, combines, rural electrification, “chemical inputs” like synthetic fertilizers and herbicides, and selective breeding, he also acknowledges histories of exclusion based on race or socioeconomic status, describing the large commercial farmers of today as a small but politically powerful group reminiscent of an elite oligarchy. Conkin’s work is particularly relevant given recent, high-profile Congressional debate over settlements for black farmers who have experienced both outright and systemically embedded discrimination at the behest of our own federal government.

Yet conservatives are anxious to paint this most recent settlement, a follow-up to 1999’s Pigford v. Glickman, as an unmerited handout to yet another special interest group clamoring for government dollars. Articles like’s “Black Farmer Mega-Settlement Clears Way for Discrimination Claims by Women, Hispanics” make the political right’s distaste for past injustices eminently clear. Fox describes the sum in question as “a whopping $4.6 billion,” though only $1.2 billion will go to black farmers (American Indians are also recognized in the claim), and to put things in proper perspective, a September report from the Congressional Research Service estimates that we have spent approximately “$1.121 trillion for military operations, base security, reconstruction, foreign aid, embassy costs, and veterans’ health care” for our post-9/11 involvement in Iraq, Afghanistan, and other bastions of “terror.” Beside that, $1.2 billion seems like a hill of beans.

But as to the issue of merit, let’s get Conkin’s perspective… a long quote, but worth the time:

“Race is now a prominent issue in farm politics. This is a bit ironic, because the concern for African Americans, in particular, comes much too late. Most blacks have long since departed agriculture. Many reasons lay behind their exodus, but one was the unfair treatment they received from the federal government, beginning with the Morrill Act of 1862. In the South, they were excluded from the large, segregated land-grant colleges and had to make do with small, underfunded, academically inferior agricultural and mechanical schools for blacks. The outreach programs from the land-grant institutions also discriminated against blacks, with only a few black extension agents to serve their needs. Beginning in the New Deal, despite a long and bitter controversy in the Department of Agriculture, both sharecroppers in general and black sharecroppers in particular rarely received their legal share of payments to farmers. African American farm owners were rarely represented at all in the local committee system that determined allotments.”

While the concept of farm allotments is far too complex to fully explain here, suffice it to say that for much of the past century, federally established and monitored allotments (and related quotas and pricing and financial support mechanisms) determined what and how much farmers could grow. Farms were initially assessed as having a “base” or “base acreage” determined by previous production and area already under cultivation, and this base became the basis for all sorts of regulation and monetary incentives down the line–a higher base meant greater potential profit, favoring established large landholders and those with the capital to amass more land (a property’s base evaluation went with it upon sale). Though this may all sound a little murky, Conkin describes the procedure of establishing base acreage as “the foundation of an enduring aristocracy” akin to “primogeniture and entail laws in Europe.” From the get-go, then, modern American farm policy enshrined inequality, and only recently have attempts been made to narrow the gap between large and small farming operations.

Why, then, are characters like Congresswoman Michele Bachmann (R-Minnesota) alleging fraud in this settlement case, because the number of claimants exceeds the number of black farmers? Didn’t we just read that bit from Conkin on the “exodus” of African Americans from farming due to institutionalized discrimination? And why are others complaining that such settlements are paving the way for other suits, like those currently in progress for female and Hispanic farm workers, as if those groups, given the changing workforce, aren’t similarly entitled to air their grievances and receive better compensation for supporting our nation’s food economy?

I leave you with Stephen Colbert’s testimony to a Congressional subcommittee in September, on behalf of migrant farm workers and their largely unrecognized and under-appreciated labor. Having spent a day in their shoes, Colbert describes the work as “really, really hard,” and admits “At this point, I break into a cold sweat at the sight of a salad bar.” Not too far off base!

Someone Had a Bad Day

Brian and I ran across this sad, little sprawl of books while we were grabbing brunch in Cole Valley. I wonder what might motivate someone to chuck the self-help books, financial advice, and programming manuals all in one go… but I’ll let you construct your own narratives. Thanks to Brian for the iPhone photo, and look at those snazzy shoes!

Gilding the Golden State

Ahh, northern California. I love your sunshine, your moderate temperatures, your coastal scenery, your redwoods, your year-round produce. But like most ersatz Californians, even as I am reveling in your glories, I have to work to forget the fault lines running below me and the wildfires that regularly blaze across the countryside, and I try not to let the massive depletion of underground aquifers by agricultural irrigation operations stop me from enjoying my wine, peaches, apples, almonds, tomatoes and, well… need I go on?

On a related note, Brian and I made a Friday afternoon foray to the recently re-opened San Pablo Dam reservoir, which had been closed for some time as the East Bay Municipal Utility District (otherwise known as EBMUD) made structural upgrades to the dam (this after a 2004 study revealed that earthquake damage could lead to dam “slumping” and downstream flood damage to nearby communities). We used to see the reservoir in its drained state from our hikes in the Berkeley hills, so it was something of a pleasant surprise to witness it restored to normal capacity–a blue, sunlit gem nestled away in the dry hills behind Richmond and El Cerrito, insulated from the cold fog covering San Francisco and Berkeley by a wall of inland heat. I admit, I enjoyed the irony and the intimacy of recreation hiking in the oak scrub around an artificial body of water that contains some portion of my drinking water (most of Berkeley’s drinking water comes from the Mokelumne River, but I assume much of it gets stored in San Pablo reservoir). As I dutifully obeyed the signs prohibiting swimming or wading, took note of the suggested safe intake of reservoir-caught fish (many species contain high amounts of chemicals and are therefore unsafe for pregnant women or repeated consumption), and watched a white pelican urinate into the water as he soared past, I thought to myself: being a Californian sure is complicated.

The problem is, I’ve read the work of John McPhee (The Control of Nature, Encounters with the Archdruid, Assembling California, etc.) and Marc Reisner (Cadillac Desert: The American West and Its Disappearing Water and A Dangerous Place: California’s Unsettling Fate), and I’m all too aware of the forced prosperity of the Golden State: how this semi-desert terrain that was never meant to support gold-hungry, real-estate hungry, sun-worshipping hordes became the major megapolitan areas of San Francisco and Los Angeles through the relentless draining of the Sierras and the damming of waterways literally thousands of miles away.

Awwww, shoot.

It’s not quite enough to make the sunshine today seem sinister, but I admit that a kind of geographical blindness seems to set in after only a few years of living in this apparent paradise. I’m no Mary Austin, after all. I’m still defined by the habitats of my youth in that I can only recognize the trees, flowers, and animals common to suburban Maryland. It has taken me years to begin recognizing manzanitas, madrones, lupines, and poppies; “chaparral” has only recently entered my vocabulary. But I’m trying. I suppose I’m a bit of a cognitivist, because I’d like to see not only the beauty of dramatic coastlines, old- and new-growth forests, and the riverine, but also the geologic, meteorological, and human-driven processes that led to their (de)formation. Recognizing the imprint of a receding glacier, the tinder-box quality of a drought, the rains likely to encourage edible mushrooms… would all be welcome reminders that California will change, with or without me.

Virtual Homesteading

How ironic that I used to work at a web design company but have yet to create my own space on the web!  More information to come on my current research, activities, and other shenanigans.