Skolar Award judge Jussi Parikka: “We have to be able to stomach complexity”

Like the eight Skolar Award finalists, jury member Jussi Parikka has carried out some out-of-the-box research ideas. Although initially many eyebrows were raised, eventually these ideas broke new ground.

Jussi Parikka

“I’m in awe,” says Jussi Parikka and starts laughing. The Skolar Award judge has been going through the competition’s finalists’ research ideas and it would be an understatement to say that he’s impressed.

Parikka is a professor of technological culture and aesthetics at the University of Southampton as well as the docent of digital culture theory at the University of Turku. He studies and teaches the interconnections of science, art, and technology. Parikka received his Ph.D. in cultural history and observes emerging technologies from a humanist perspective.

“I want to historicize artistic and scientific themes and phenomena that are usually considered new,” he explains. The method of analyzing, for example, modern technology through historical layers is in the center of media archeology, one of Parikka’s academic areas of expertise.

Most innovations have deep roots in the past, he says. For example, the Middle East in the 13th century had a rich technological culture that played a significant part in Europe’s adoption of radical automatic technologies, such as the clock. These alternative roots are still relevant to consider in today’s emerging technologies from robotics to AI.

Embracing complexity

Ever since his early days as a doctorate student, Parikka has embraced multidisciplinarity. To this day he aims to understand research themes and projects through wider contexts. One of his more outlandish (yet celebrated) research projects combined media studies with the behavior of insects. The end result was a book called Insect Media that uncovered how insect forms of social organization, such as hives and swarms, underlie modern media technologies and network society.

“A lot of people commented on how weird the idea was. But the book ended up winning the 2012 Anne Friedberg Award for Innovation Scholarship,” Parikka says.

It’s convenient for a Skolar Award judge to both value and execute out-of-the-box research ideas. In addition to academic oddities, Parikka appreciates complexity – and the ability to explain it. He’s intrigued by research ideas that embrace the intricacy of scientific subjects.

“We have to be able to stomach complexity because, with today’s wicked problems, we can’t afford not to. Science communication at its best helps wider audiences understand the incredibly challenging nature of science,” Parikka says.

The importance of asking “why”

When Parikka was younger, he worked as a journalist for a while. Although his career path eventually took him to the unmanned territories of research, Parikka learned something very valuable as a journalist: the art of asking questions. In hindsight, he wishes he would’ve knocked more on computer scientists’ or fellow historians’ office doors and asked what a certain equation or theory means.

“The most soothing realization for me has been that I don’t have to pretend to know everything. It’s very relieving that there’s always someone else who knows and you just have to ask,” he says.

The main question a researcher has to ask is why. Not all science needs to be functional, Parikka says, but a researcher needs to be able to communicate why an idea or theme important and why it needs to be turned into action. And whenever he can, Parikka is happy to help fellow scholars ask and answer.

“In my position, I can open up new worlds for other people and boost confidence. That’s a wonderful task.”

Jussi Parikka is one of the six members of Skolar Award stage jury. They will choose the finalists and the winner of Skolar Award.