Animal Network Sovereignty

Published on August 14th, 2019

Animal Network Sovereignty

Adam Fish

Lately, when I have the pleasure of walking in the stacks of a regal, well-stocked, old library, and am in a satirical 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 others. 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, albatross 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.1  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, 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 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 Earth2, not the internet of things but the internet of nature3, and planetary-scale computation.4 This is tracking terra, sensing the sea, and atmo-structures. 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 reefs5, orcas6, sea turtles7,penguins8, rhinoceros9, and other threatened species.10 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.11 Conservation drones have been theorized as problematic for privacy, data security, the fear they might produce in locals12, and the impacts they have on wildlife.13 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.14 By 2050 the ocean ecosystem may collapse.15 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”16 –an approach to bureaucratically governing nature and the “militarization of conservation.”17 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.”18 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 point out 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”19, the “humanimal”20, and earlier the “cyborg.”21 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”22 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. 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:

1  María Puigde la Bellacasa, “Encountering Bioinfrastructure: Ecological Struggles and the Sciences of Soil,” Social Epistemology 28, no. 1, (2017): 26-40, 10.1080/02691728.2013.862879

2 Jennifer Gabrys, Program Earth: Environmental Sensing Technology and the Making of a Computational Planet (University of Minnesota Press, 2016)

3 Haggerty, Kevin, and Daniel Trottier. “Surveillance and/of Nature: Monitoring Beyond the Human,” Society & Animals 23, no. 4 (2015): 400–420.

4 Benjamin H. Bratton. The Stack: On Software and Sovereignty. (Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 2016).

5 S. M. Hamylton, “Mapping coral reef environments: A review of historical methods, recent advances and future opportunities,” Progress in Physical Geography: Earth and Environment 41, no. 6 (2017): 803–833.

6 M. A., Smultea, Fertl, D., Bacon, C. E., Moore, M. R., James, V. R., & Würsig, B.  “Cetacean mother-calf behavior observed from a small aircraft off Southern California,” Animal Behavior and Cognition 4, no. 1 (2017): 1–23. doi: 10.12966/abc.01.02.2017

7 Gail Schofield, Kostas A. Katselidis, Martin K. S. Lilley, Richard D. Reina, Graeme C. Hays

“Detecting elusive aspects of wildlife ecology using drones: New insights on the mating dynamics and operational sex ratios of sea turtles” Functional Ecology (2017).

8 Norman Ratcliffe, Damien Guihen, Jeremy Robst, Sarah Crofts, Andrew Stanworth, Peter Enderlein, “A Protocol for the aerial survey of penguin colonies using UAVs,” Journal of Unmanned Vehicle Systems, 3, no. 3 (2015): 95-101.

9 M. Mulero-Pázmány, Stolper R, van Essen LD, Negro JJ, Sassen T, “Remotely Piloted Aircraft Systems as a Rhinoceros Anti-Poaching Tool in Africa,” PLoS ONE 9, no. 1(2014): e83873.

10 Serge A. Wich and Lian Pin Koh, Conservation Drones: Mapping and Monitoring Biodiversity, (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2018).

11 Janet Walker, “Standing with Standing Rock,” Media Fields Journal, 13 (2018).

12 C. Sandbrook, “The social implications of using drones for biodiversity conservation,” Ambio 44 (2015): 636-647.

13 N. Rebolo-Ifrán, Graña Grilli, M., & Lambertucci, S. “Drones as a Threat to Wildlife: YouTube Complements Science in Providing Evidence about Their Effect.” Environmental Conservation, 1-6(n.d.). doi:10.1017/S0376892919000080

14 United Nations, The IPBES Global Assessment on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services, UN.

15 Ivan Nagelkerken, Sean D. Connell “Elevated CO2 modifies ocean ecosystem functioning. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 112, no. 43, (2015): 13272-13277; DOI: 10.1073/pnas.1510856112

16 Timothy W. Luke, “On Environmentality: Geo-Power and Eco-Knowledge in the Discourses of Contemporary Environmentalism,” Cultural Critique No. 31, The Politics of Systems and Environments, Part II (Autumn, 1995), pp. 57-81.

17 Rosaleen Duffy.We Need to Talk About Militarisation of Conservation.” The Green European, (2017).

18 Henk van den Belt, “Networking nature, or serengeti behind the dikes,” History and Technology, 20 no. 3 (2004)311-333, DOI: 10.1080/0734151042000287023

19 J. Latimer, & Miele, M. “Naturecultures? Science, Affect and the Non-human,” Theory, Culture and Society, 30 (2013): 33-50.

20 Rosi Braidotti. “A Theoretical Framework for the Critical Posthumanities.” Theory, Culture & Society, (May 2018). doi:10.1177/0263276418771486.

21 D. Haraway “A Cyborg Manifesto: Science, Technology, and Socialist-Feminism in the Late 20th Century.” In: Weiss J., Nolan J., Hunsinger J., Trifonas P. (eds) The International Handbook of Virtual Learning Environments. (Springer, Dordrecht 2006)

22 Steven J. Jackson, “Rethinking Repair.” Gillespie, Tarleton et al., editors. Media Technologies: Essays on Communication, Materiality, and Society, (2014).

Bio:Adam Fish is a Scientia Fellow in the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences, School of Arts and Media, at the University of New South Wales, Sydney, Australia and a senior research fellow at the Weizenbaum Institute for the Networked Society at the Technischen Universität Berlin, Germany.

He is a cultural anthropologist, documentary video producer, and interdisciplinary scholar who works across social science, computer engineering, environmental science, and the visual arts. Dr. Fish employs ethnographic, participatory, and creative methods to examine the social, political, and ecological influences of new technologies.

He has authored three books including: Hacker States (2020 MIT Press, with Luca Follis), about how state hacking impacts democracy; Technoliberalism (Palgrave Macmillan 2017), an ethnography of the politics of internet and television convergence in Hollywood and Silicon Valley; and After the Internet (Polity, 2017, with Ramesh Srinivasan), which reimagines the internet from the perspective of grassroots activists, citizens, and hackers on the margins of political and economic power.

His fourth book, Drone Justice, will be published by MIT Press in 2021 and investigates how drones transform the ecologies and inhabitants of the Earth.