Reflections on 5 Years of Ethnography Around the Ocean Observatories Initiative
Forthcoming (2018) feature for a Special Issue of Oceanography Magazine
Stephanie B. Steinhardt
Media and Information
Michigan State University
Oceanographers often equate their next research venture to “dreaming up” (participant quotation) or to the start of their ideas as “not fettered by reality” (Robbins, 2012). There is an imaginative fantastical fervor that runs through most dialogs about the oceans. Our futures of seafloor-walking robots and new lifeforms of the ocean captivate the imagination of children and adults alike, permeate our artistic fictions (in film, and in television) and capture our most integral scientific budgets and policies. In some sense, these visions are built into the very fabric of what it means to be American (think: aquariums, Jaws, Titanic). Out of this fantastically-infused world of seafaring and adventure, where depictions of the past are equal parts Jules Verne and Jules Jaffe, grew the OOI.
What lies underneath the grand fictions and discoveries of ocean science are complex human stories, spanning further than the ways we have advanced our computational capacities. Instead, what appears most significant are the personal experiences of science and what development means for the future of science in a concrete and pragmatic way, how those fictions become reality. What comes alive in the vision of the OOI is a hospitable hope for a future in which our oceans come into view as central to understanding the way the world works, opening society’s collective imagination for the mysteries below the waves and encouraging anyone with interest to participate in making those discoveries. The effort at once attempts to draw new knowledge about life and our planet as well as encourage a broad scale intrigue with the sea. The OOI is an effort to open doors to the new technologically enabled possibilities of ocean science, to open new questions and introduce new people through the infrastructure’s promised incoming wealth of data. Through ethnographic work for over fives years, I have come to learn that typically for an observatory, five to ten years are needed from initial planning to fruition: this takes dedication (and a degree of stubbornness!) to persevere through all the obstacles and challenges, many of which are not technical.