Owen Mundy is a professor of Digital Studies at Davidson College, currently working on his research in Berlin with the support of a DAAD Research Stay grant. His work investigates public space, information privacy, and big data. One of his many notable projects involved the mapping of one million images tagged with #cat using the locations users unknowingly uploaded in their metadata.
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So we asked Owen a few questions about his work and experience in Germany:
- When did you know that you wanted to be a Digital Studies professor?
Since the field is so new there are still various names about. Before coming to Davidson, I was tenured in the Department of Art @ Florida State in what we called "Digital Media." There are other names to describe the study of digital culture and its devices as well. I’ve been working in Photography for a very long time, which has always been a mechanical form of reproduction and creativity. I used to unload surveillance film on the flight deck of an aircraft carrier in the US Navy. Given how surveillance has emerged as a business model by Facebook and others, it was a natural shift for me to learn to make software and think about its cultural impact.
- What are you currently working on?
I’m here in Germany working on a project about the former GDR’s Ministry for State Security's (a.k.a. “Stasi”) inventions for tracking persons (cards, organizations systems) and postal control (automatic letter opening and closing machines) and exploring their relationship to current big data methods used, for example by Facebook or Google to analyze text for advertising, and certain governments for surveillance and censorship. Essentially, how how did the technological developments of the Stasi preempt Facebook, the NSA, and the world of Big Data? I have been working at the BStU (the organization that manages both the files on persons the Stasi collected, as well as all the boring technical documents the Stasi left) on the research. It is the technical documents that I’m interested in the most. I am working on an essay, making a short film, and producing a visualization about the similarities in their methods.
- What was the most ‘German’ experience you have had?
The most “German” experience I’ve had this time here depends on the city. As an avid cyclist, long bike rides through Grunewald (the forest west of Berlin) and swimming in the Krumme Lanke is the most meaningful to me. Though there are others that I could say are more stereotypical like visiting the Miniatur Wunderland and eating fish in Hamburg. I love how serious Germans are about taking Sundays off. We need that more in the US.
- What advice would you give to students who are thinking of working in your field?
Learn to program and make something fun AND meaningful with it. Think about both academic and non-academic audiences when you do. It will inform your understanding of the medium greatly.
- What advice would you give to students who are thinking of studying abroad in Germany?
Consider tapping into supportive organizations like the DAAD and the Fulbright. Invest time in learning the language. Once here get a bike and get outside the city. Explore all of Germany. Boat tours down the Rhine. Hiking in the Black Forest. Museums in Berlin. There is so much!
- Which pictures, plants or unusual objects are there in your office?
The reading room at the BStU is actually rather boring (and hot in the summer). But the Media Archaeology Fundus (MAF) in the basement of the Department for Musicology where I am hosted by Prof. Dr. Wolfgang Ernst of the Institute of Musicology and Media Studies at Humboldt University is a fascinating site for old media apparatuses and electronics. The stories these devices can tell about the history of communication and politics are quite impressive (see link for photos and video).
- Can you cook a German meal without a recipe? If so, which one?Well, both here and in the U.S. I often will pan fry Bratwurst or Nürnberg sausages and make Parsley Potatoes (Petersilienkartoffeln) (with skins on) and toss an Arugula salad with lemon vinaigrette. The brats are not technically from scratch, but it’s good and simple !
- How many cats do you have? 😉
None, my partner and daughter are allergic. Also, I’m typically more fond of dogs. 🙂
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