Lisa Messeri is an Assistant Professor of Anthropology at Yale University and the author of the book Placing Outer Space: An Earthly Ethnography of Other Worlds. I met her in her office in the Department of Anthropology, where we chatted about outer space, virtual reality, and television.
Allison Chu: Let’s start broadly. What are your research interests and how do they fit into the Sawyer Seminar Project?
Lisa Messeri: I’m an anthropologist of science and technology, and I’m interested in how scientific and technological ideas help us rethink what our place in the world is, either on Earth or in the universe. My first project dealt with planetary science. My current project deals with virtual reality and the digital space that technology brings us into. With regard to the Sawyer Seminar, which looks into into deeper histories of the current big data moment, my research is very committed to rejecting narratives of newness. So any time there is a claim that we’re in a new phase of science or technology, I’m always invested in trying to trace the histories, to understand how we have always been burdened by or thoughtful about questions of data and the way we live and deal with it.
AC: I saw on your website that you’re currently working on virtual reality (VR) and that you spent a year in Los Angeles (L.A.) for your research. What was that like?
LM: I went to L.A. because, speaking of alternative stories, I was interested in how innovators who aren’t in Silicon Valley—which is where some of the dominant stories about technology are taking shape—are thinking about the impact of emerging technology like virtual reality. So in L.A., as you might imagine from the entertainment industry, instead of conversations that are about how we can get the best hardware developed, which is very much a Silicon Valley story, there is a focus on how we deliver the best content for this existing technology. I was interested in how ideas about storytelling spur innovation and become innovative work for the people who live in L.A. and work in the tech scene there. I was also drawn to an interesting story about gender: a very vocal community advocating for women in VR. Women were the inevitable leaders of VR precisely because it falls between traditional entertainment and traditional tech, which are both male-dominated and have really set hierarchies. VR was imagined as a free space where unrepresented voices could potentially find representation.
AC: How did you get into virtual reality? What spurred this interest?
LM: [Laughs] That is always such a hard question! One follows one’s curiosity! In this case, it was really serendipitous. I was wrapping up my first project, which was on planetary scientists. In that earlier work, I was interested in how scientists changed how we think about the cosmos by transforming planets from objects into worlds. I was examining how their work with data is actually place-making, creating these rich worlds that our imaginations can inhabit or that we can imagine going to. And as I was looking for another project, I was thinking, “What’s another technology or science that’s shaping how we think about our place in the world or our place in the universe?” I was driving to work and listening to the TED talk radio hour and the topic just happened to be virtual reality. One of these virtual reality evangelists (this was about 2015) was talking about how VR fundamentally changes what it means to be in a place. And I was like, “Oh well, if I’m looking for something that’s about how technology changes what place means, this is it!” So I began looking at VR, and I thought I would have to go to San Francisco. I wasn’t too excited about that, because there are a lot of stories about Silicon Valley and I wasn’t sure if I had anything new to say about it. But as soon as I looked up the people who were most vocal about VR’s future, I was surprised to find that many of them were in Los Angeles. And then I thought, “Well, I’ve never lived in Los Angeles, that seems a lot more exciting!”
AC: That’s a great narrative. Where do you see this VR research going?
LM: Right now I’m working on a book about it that’s tentatively titled In the Land of the Unreal. It’s a book about fantasy and technology, and how a fantasy of place, like L.A., informs a fantasy of technology, like VR, that in turn informs a fantasy of sociality, and the idea that women can lead this space.
AC: That’s fascinating. I was poking around your website, and it seemed to me that a lot of your work involves distant or unfamiliar worlds informed by tech. So why leave the comfort of our world, our reality here?
LM: That’s such a human question. Why are we looking for other ways of being and other modes of embodiment? And I think that gets back at the context of the Sawyer Seminar. So the Sawyer Seminar is about how we live with uncertainty. One of the ways we live with uncertainty is through the collection and management of data—and more data than we can possibly ever comprehend—from specimen collections of the nineteenth century to the kinds of data tracking that our personal information goes through today. All of that is about supporting uncertainty and trying to come to grips with the messy world we live in, where we have a fantasy of being able to control and know it. But as historians of science and science studies scholars know, this is always just a fantasy; we don’t actually have this kind of control. So if a lot of what science and technology does regarding data management, among other things, is about this fantasy of control, then I think there’s something about these other worlds, be it planets or the digital, which again allow us to manifest some semblance of control but in worlds in which all of the rules are more tightly controlled. We can define what a planet is, we can define what a virtual space is, and it just heightens this narrative that we control our own fates and we control our own worlds. It’s scary to live not thinking that’s possible. That’s why I’m always compelled by and drawn to projects about the otherworldly: it’s through examining how scientists and innovators talk explicitly about the other-worldly that we also come to learn what they think about the worldly, which in many ways is much more difficult to get at.
AC: Last question—something that’s outside your work. Do you have any hobbies or interests that in a fun or weird way inform your work?
LM: Oh my gosh! Well, I watch a lot of television. I’m not going to call this a guilty pleasure, it’s simply a pleasure. I’ve always loved television, movies, books, and fiction, and even though my first project was about outer space, I never really got into science fiction with it. It didn’t come to bear on the argument, at least in how I was constructing it. But as someone who just loves media, it’s incredibly exciting to now have a project with virtual reality that brought me into the belly of the beast, into the world of storytellers who have really structured how I think about the world simply because of my media-consumptive habits.