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Scientist portrait: Prof. Dr. Jan Müggenburg - "The little spark of optimism"

2023-01-23 Jan Müggenburg has been a full professor for Digital Cultures at the Institute for Culture and Aesthetics of Digital Media (ICAM) since autumn 2022. As a research assistant, he helped to establish the ICAM and the then new Bachelor's programme "Major Digital Media" at Leuphana College from 2010 onwards. As part of the new professorship, he now heads this degree programme and is the spokesperson for the Centre for Digital Cultures (CDC). His current research focuses on media technology barriers within digital cultures, especially from the perspective of people with disabilities.

Porträt von Jan Müggenburg ©Leuphana/Marie Meyer
"I found it unsatisfying to chase after current phenomena and come up with superficial interpretations without really understanding where certain developments actually come from," says Jan Müggenburg.

Jan Müggenburg has been a full professor for Digital Cultures at Leuphana University since October 2022. After moving from the University of Vienna to Leuphana University as a research assistant in 2010, he contributed to the establishment of the Institute for Culture and Aesthetics of Digital Media (ICAM) as well as the Bachelor's programme "Major Digital Media". The history of the computer has been the focus of his research ever since his master's thesis at the Ruhr University Bochum. For some years now, the media scientist has been concentrating especially on the perspective of users with disabilities - a "hitherto largely neglected part of computer history", says Müggenburg. As the father of a severely disabled son, he incorporates his own experience of disability into his projects.

What is socially perceived as a disability in the first place is changing, not least with technological progress. "One often encounters the popular narrative that modern technology will overcome disability or sooner or later abolish it altogether. Such promises naturally raise all kinds of questions from the perspective of media and cultural studies," says Müggenburg. On the one hand, they contradict the experience of people with disabilities, for whom, for example, technological progress creates new barriers at the workplace: "Technologies that were developed to enable digital participation can mean new barriers for disabled users," says Müggenburg, "on the other hand, the question arises whether disability must be understood at all as a deficit that must be fundamentally remedied." The attempt to "solve" the "problem of disability" through technology denies the experience of disability its meaning and value.

This new research perspective, says Jan Müggenburg, has helped him to think in a new and original way about questions that have long preoccupied him - especially when it comes to combining media studies and philosophical topics. The 45-year-old studied both film and television studies and philosophy in Bochum. In a current essay, Müggenburg deals with eye-tracking technology: cameras that analyse eye movements and translate them into input signals for computer operation. The technology started out as passive eye tracking and has been used in advertising psychology, for example. In the 1980s, it was then further developed in the field of AAC specifically for people with disabilities: from a passive technology to an active means for alternative computer operation ("eye control"). In the meantime, says Müggenburg, the technology has advanced so far that it could become a standard interface for computer operation in the next few years - for example in the field of virtual reality applications. Both the fascination for the history of the development of such technologies and the interest in philosophical questions that go hand in hand with technical progress drive Jan Müggenburg in his research: How, for example, does the relationship between humans and technology change when we can control our high-tech environments through the tiniest eye movements?

Jan Müggenburg already realised during his studies that a look into the past is indispensable for a better understanding of the present. The rapid development of technical progress continually raises supposedly new questions that are hotly debated in the arts pages, for example. But many of these questions had already been asked - and answered - long ago in the course of the history of technology: "I found it unsatisfactory to chase after current phenomena and wring superficial interpretations out of them without really understanding where certain developments actually come from," says Müggenburg. After his master's thesis, the media scientist devoted himself to his doctoral project on the "Biological Computer Laboratory" in a graduate college at the University of Vienna from 2006 onwards and found out that artificial intelligence - both then and now - is closely linked to the question of human perception. The laboratory at the University of Illinois began experimenting with so-called biological computers as early as the 1960s, in the context of cybernetics and modelled on nature. "That's where they coined the term bionics, which we still use today," he explains. The machines that emerged from the experiments were supposed to be far ahead of the technical state of the art at the time. But: "Some of these biological computers did not actually do what their designers claimed they could do," says Müggenburg, "they merely gave the impression that they could. They were designed to be perceived as intelligent by humans. This is also true of today's AI research." Whether the machines are really intelligent or not: much more important, he says, is whether they are perceived to be intelligent. "You can create this perception with all kinds of rhetorical and technical means," says Müggenburg.

What exactly such means can be and how to use them is what students learn - among many other contents - in the Bachelor's programme Digital Media. Jan Müggenburg is the programme director of the major. At the end of their studies, its graduates should have two things to take with them: Both a well-founded and reflected understanding of the history and present of digital cultures and the creative "tools of the trade" to make a positive contribution to that world themselves. "I hope that through the course we make a difference in that the students know that what they are doing has a history and is embedded in complex social contexts. These are insights that you don't get in a pure computer science degree," says Müggenburg. The media scientist pleads for "that little spark of optimism" when it comes to shaping the digital world in the future. "By now it should be clear to everyone that digital media will not automatically lead us to a new heyday of democracy, as many still predicted in the 1990s," says Müggenburg. He hopes that students will nevertheless not retreat into the purely humanities-analytical, capitalism- and technology-critical corner, where one has the means to recognise problems in the digital world, but not the means to change anything about them. Instead, he hopes that they will combine both skills after graduation and thus actively contribute to making digital cultures at least a bit more liveable space than they are right now - as reflective leaders in the media world who are sensitive to the history of digital cultures.


  • Prof. Dr. Jan Müggenburg