Sebastian Vehlken

Virtual Ship-Bridges and Digital Dockyards: Digital Twins as Maritime Training and Construction Environments

"There is no doubt that the digital twin is the future" – such and similar claims from the field of engineering and scientific research & development certainly serve an epistemologically mostly uncritical and little reflected hype - and authors like Michael Batty have long since comprehensively deconstructed the clichédness of the digital twin concept. However, apart from epistemological discussions of model concepts, digital twins may well be understood as a form of intensification of older approaches: A digital twin includes both the hardware to acquire and process data and the software to represent and manipulate these data. Digital twins are more powerful than models and simulations because they leverage digital data streams to bridge the barrier between the physical entity and its representation.
In the fields of seafarer’s training and ship design and construction, the digital twin approach is increasingly coming into play: In the first case, the focus is on immersive real-time interaction and human-in-the-loop-structures. Simulations of this kind link the ship’s dynamics and its steering behavior to other elements of maritime infrastructures such as docks and cranes, and influence factors of the natural environment.
In the second case, strategies of 'predictive manufacturing' in ship design and construction promise great cost-saving potentials and optimized process management. The ability to use high-performance computing infrastructures in computer simulation models to calculate the hydrodynamic properties of full-size ships in great detail is already assessed as not less revolutionary than the advent of scale models and experimental procedures for ship design in the late 18th century, as described by Simon Schaffer and others.
My contribution deals with the phantasma of comprehensive computer control and controllability, which is revived in the concept of the Digital Twin, by means of these complementary examples from the field of maritime training and construction.

Sebastian Vehlken is professor of knowledge processes and digital media at the German Maritime Museum / Leibniz Institute of Maritime History in Bremerhaven and at Carl-von-Ossietzky University Oldenburg. His main areas of research are media history of digital media and computer simulation, material cultures, and oceans as spaces of knowledge.

Selected publications:

Vehlken, Sebastian (2019): Zootechnologies. A Media History of Swarm Research. Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press.

Vehlken, Sebastian (forthcoming): “Making Waves. Schiffe, Störung, Simulation.” In: Archiv für Mediengeschichte: Das Schiff, ed. by Bernhard Siegert/Joseph Vogl/Friedrich Balke.

Vehlken, Sebastian/Christina Vagt/Wolf Kittler (2021) (eds.): “Modelling the Pacific Ocean: Editorial.” In Modelling the Pacific Ocean. Media+Environment, April 2021,

Vehlken, Sebastian (2020): “Traffic Life. Temporal Dynamics and Regulatory Dimensions in Agent-Based Transport Simulations.” In: Mobilities 15/5, 725–739.

Vehlken, Sebastian (2019): “The Great Pacific Garbage Catch. Müll als Medium einer ‘Plastic Oceanography’.” In: Zeitschrift für Medienwissenschaft 23 (2020): Zirkulation, 84–97.

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