Networking Nature: Tracking Terra, Sensing the Sea, Atmo-structures

Networking Nature: Tracking Terra, Sensing the Sea, Atmo-structures

Lately, when I have the pleasure of walking in the stacks of a regal, well-stocked, old library, and am in a devious mood, I imagine I am an alien roaming the halls of some temple of speciesism. I roll my eyes and mutter, “wow, another book by a human about a human’s perspective on something.” My alien observation describes all of human art, invention, science, and literature. More humans talking about humans and human’s views on other. Trapped in all-too-human languages, sensual orientations, corporeal habits, graphic representations, and data visualizations–can we expect to do more, to ever transcend anthropocentrism?

I’ve been provoked to write about the relationship between networks and “community empowerment” and “human rights” but my and your community–our kin as Donna Haraway would say–does not stop with our species. Humans are infrastructure for non-human networking. Our bodies are homes for trillions of foreign organisms, and we are locked-in to a dependence with millions of other species. 

The consensus in anthropology, media studies, and STS is that technological others have agency but sometimes remain unconvinced about the rights of sentient others. Do animals have rights to communicate? Do they network? Have infrastructure? Must humans facilitate animal communication by subsidizing insect internets, albatros broadband, coral connectivity? What is our ethical position to these others?

The truth is that animals evolved to communicate via chemical, aquatic, terrestrial, atmospheric, and acoustic bioinfrastructure (Puig de la Bellacasa 2013). Cetaceans use reverberating channels to communicate in the sea, pollen and spiders are carried by the wind to distance continents, soils store and transmit information across terrain. We enact a type of cultural misappropriation on the species level when adopting metaphors for human infrastructure without empirical and materialist understanding of how bioinfrastructures–“webs,” “viruses,” and “rhizomes”–function.

The earth, air, and water has long been both inhibitors and activators of human communication. Smoke, flags, mirrors, horses, and humans carried messages. Telegraph wires crisscrossed countries before darting under the seas, connecting continents. Exploitation of the lower range of the electromagnetic spectrum provided atmospheric radio transmission. Today a race is on by SpaceX and others to network the near earth orbits. Thus a stratigraphically-planned privatization of the communicative capabilities of the elements is underway. 

In 2017, we used atmospheric remote sensors to investigate one such human exploitation of the terrestrial and oceanic realms to create an undersea fibre optical cable, and produced the following 18-minute documentary, Points of Presence:

Animals have bioinfrastructures as humans too use the elements to communicate. Humans also network nature, building deeper into the ecologies and bodies of animals information infrastructures. New technologies–wave sensors bob on the on the sea, solar-powered cell-phones in rain forests listen for illegal logging, and conservation drones fly above the canopy counting orang-utans–fill in the missing, yet-documented spaces. Some call this Program Earth (Gabrys 2016), not the internet of things but the internet of nature (Haggerty and Trottier 2015), and planetary-scale computation (Bratton 2015). A suite of remote sensing and actuator technologies make this possible. I am going to dwell on one atmo-infrastructure for networking nature, the conservation drone.

Conservation Drones as a Sovereign Network

Conservation drones are used to identify endangered coral reefs (Hamylton 2017), orcas (Durban et al. 2015), sea turtles (Schofield et al. 2017), penguins (Ratcliffe et al. 2015), rhinoceros (Mulero-Pázmány et al. 2014), and other threatened species (Wich and Koh 2018). Despite these scientists’ claimed benefits, many are not convinced that networking nature with intelligent drones is ultimately beneficial. Others claim that the “vertical” viewpoint has been democratized by drones with empowering results for activism (Walker 2018). Conservation drones have been theorized as problematic for privacy, data security, the fear they might produce in locals (Sandbrook 2015), and the impacts they have on wildlife (Mulero-Pazmany et al. 2017). But we need to ask if these slight human problems are acceptable costs associated with animal network sovereignty?

Let’s be clear. We live in a time of environmental crisis: 75% of the earth and 66% of the sea is severely degraded, threatening 1 million species with extinction (Diaz et al. 2019). By 2050 the ocean ecosystem may collapse (Nagelkerken and Connell 2015). To avert existential disaster, human technological response must occur immediately. However, scholars debate the consequences of creating the computational planet. On the one hand, are scholars who are critical of networking nature. Some argue that this is resulting in “environmentality”–an approach to bureaucratically governing nature (Luke 1995) and the “militarization of conservation” (Duffy et al. 2019). On the other hand, scholars argue that networking nature is necessary for species’ survival: “wildlife has no chance to be conserved and maintained without the helping hand of man” (van den Belt 2007). What becomes of nature in this speculative future?

Today, the orthodoxy in the disciplines of anthropology, media studies, and science and technology studies (STS) is that neither nature nor culture exist independent of each other. These disciplines argue that nature-culture duality is an artifact of an 18th-century humanism that positioned culture and humans as above nature. But now culture and nature are united. We have “naturecultures” (Latimer and Miele 2013), the “humanimal” (Bradoitti 2019), and earlier the “cyborg” (Haraway 1985). Object oriented ontology argues for a “flat ontology” that does not privilege humans. Environmental humanities claims that our “multispecies futures” depend upon non-anthropocentric relationships with other species. Abstractly these theories are correct, humans and other species are interwoven in surprising, complex, and often fatal ways.

In light of this continuing revelation, what is needed are studies that show specifically how instruments, technological practices, social constraints, and species co-create nature-culture interdependencies. This approach will advance our understanding of how and in what manners nature and culture permeate each other. 

Bioinfrastructures function in the absence of human intervention, providing models for truly sustainable media. Networking nature via drones or other elevated, embedded, or miniaturized remote sensors embodies the convergence of nature/culture long articulated by indigenous, feminist, and new materialist scholars. In a world falling apart, the monitoring, management, and ultimately, artificial selection of nature/culture will more deeply fuse nature/culture. But, thankfully, this computationalization of nature will never be complete. Breaks, faults, crashes, collisions, and entropy will create ruptures in any network.

STS scholar Steven Jackson’s “broken world thinking” (2013: 221) provides an apt framework with which to approach the ethics of working on networks of nature and the entanglement of endangered species and uses of drones to stop their extinction. His “ethics of repair” asks us to commit to care for a world falling apart (2013: 232). Imperfect technologies like conservation drones and the damaged environment–this is what remains for our rebuilding. 

Towards understanding the contingencies of infrastructuring nature I produced in 2019 the 45-minute experimental documentary, Crash Theory. It investigates the entanglements of disintegrating ecologies, tumbling drones, and human interventions. It provides a first-person account of drones monitoring erupting volcanoes, palm oil plantations, and coral reefs in Indonesia; marauding elephants in Sri Lanka; starving orcas in the United States; rhinos in the United Kingdom; and internet infrastructure in Iceland. It asks: What is the relationship between life, loss, and survival technologies?

Please view Crash Theory here: