Envisioning Umwelt

This class will use contemporary technologies including microscopy, photography, 3d scanning, 3d modeling, AR, VR, machine learning, and many other technological sensing apparatuses, to translate other organism’s umwelts to human senses.

Imagine you had an eye on each foot. What would the world look like from that vantage point? What kind of picture would your brain make as your 2 feet crossed each other and pointed in opposite directions? We can do more than imagine, and strap some cameras to our feet and use software to synthesize a new kind of picture. Can an experiment like this help us understand how starfish see the world? After all starfish have eyes on the ends of all five of their legs. 

In recent years, we have discovered all kinds of ways in which animals sense the world, many completely differently than humans. We’ve discovered that plants can hear the sound of water, that pollinators see dazzling flowers in colors beyond human perception, that birds sense magnetic fields and  always know where north and south are.  We are realizing that life perceives in ways we have just begun to imagine. The term umwelt is used to characterize the unique ways in which organisms experience the world. An organism’s umwelt involves their sensory perceptions and the model they create of the world. Ours is not the only umwelt - not the only way to sense  and model and be in the word. 

During this same span of recent discoveries, technology has expanded the range of human senses in many surprising ways. We can see from a bird's eye view, and beyond to satellite pictures. We can sense infrared and ultraviolet light. We can scan, record, translate and map a dazzling array of molecules, particles and waves, all thanks to our technologies. And while these technologies often shape the world and our relationship to the planet in many unfortunate and possibly life ending ways, they have also helped us observe the world more closely. How could we use and shape technologies to bring us closer to the more than human world?

Through readings, lectures, field trips and student projects, this class will be a critical re-imagining of contemporary technologies and a radical re-thinking of more-than-human senses.The goal of the class and student projects is to spark curiosity, wonder, kinship, and most importantly a sense of humility for our place in a vast and complex world, a large part of which lies beyond human senses. How could we imagine radical new ways of perceiving our planet? And in doing so, how might we decenter humans’ umwelt, and become more attuned and open to more than human ways of seeing the world?

Envisioning Umwelt course description