Translated from the German by Elisabeth Lauffer
(Animal Internet: Nature and the Digital Revolution. New York, NY: New Vessel Press, 2016)
Recently I met someone online. He lives near Marcoola, Queensland, Australia, which is about an hour and a half north of Brisbane by car. On the evening of Valentine’s Day, my new friend made a trip to the ocean, more specifically, the Coral Sea, home of the Great Barrier Reef. I’d love to visit him some day, perhaps grab a cappuccino at his local coffee shop. My new friend, however, would not be allowed inside the Bulli Café. He’s a Black flying fox (Pteropus alecto) named F7.
I follow F7 via a mobile app called Animal Tracker. I first read about the app within Alexander Pschera’s nonfiction book, Animal Internet: Nature and the Digital Revolution, as translated from the German by Elisabeth Lauffer. In great detail, Animal Internet investigates the ways in which a wide-scale use of digital tracking devices will inform our understanding of and, therefore, our interactions with the natural world.
Pschera, an expert on the Internet, media, and philosophy, attentively contemplates and justly criticizes postmodernist efforts to go “back to nature.” He explores both the causes and effects of man’s severing from the natural world. He notes the ways in which the very attempts meant to protect the natural world actually harm our relationship with it and further distance us from it. Pschera analyzes this estrangement from a number of angles. For one, “A central problem stems from the fact that modern science and its teaching systematically undermine the value of the visible.” For example, “Instead of species identification, teaching now focuses almost exclusively on molecular biology and genetics.” Moreover, from schoolchildren on, we’ve been taught to look but not touch:
Hobbies that were once commonplace and established the very basis of a human interest in nature can now be considered criminal: foraging for mushrooms, picking flowers, catching and observing animals, filling butterfly display cases and curating insect collections. This all used to be a self-evident part of a creative way to make nature one’s own, a way for humans to immerse themselves in natural space.
In the vein of Hannah Arendt’s The Human Condition, Pschera reminds us of the dangers of this abstract relationship, or lack thereof, with the natural world. We’ve become grossly disconnected.
Pschera does not, however, advocate for the romanticized vision of “going back to nature,” an ineffective popular and political platform, one that, amongst accelerating rates of carbon dioxide emissions, deforestation, and species extinction, has proven not only impracticable but truly impossible. Pschera writes, “There is no way back to nature. What may well be possible, however, is that emergence of a new image of nature—an image that is concrete and stimulates the senses, that breaks through the abstraction.” This could be the premise for our new relationship with nature.
This is where F7 enters the picture. Pschera not only exposes the dangers of our current abstract view of the natural world. He insists that “‘Sustainability,’ ‘ecology,’ and ‘diversity’ are fighting words utterly lacking in real substance. They are the semantic holy cows of an over-civilized society,” which lend themselves to an intangible view of the natural world. These words lend themselves to an inaccessible nature, one that is defined by restrictions. Once “digital interfaces and spaces exist,” however, “animals will again integrate themselves into the world from which we have chased them.”
What will animals such as F7 teach us? Thanks to the interconnectivity of the Internet, tracking elephants in Sri Lanka, for example, might predict tsunamis. Perhaps you remember the 2009 L’Aquila earthquake in Italy, but how much attention did the “mass movement of toads” receive prior to the natural disaster? Moreover, according to pilot observations, tracking geese’s altitude could forecast large-scale avalanches. Outfitting other flying creatures, such as fruit bats, with tracking devices could predict and maybe even prevent deadly viral outbreaks. At present, for example, “the sole method for containing Ebola is military isolation of impacted areas. The fruit bats don’t let that stop them.”
In some parts of the world, this technology is already facilitating a peaceful coexistence between humans and their non-human neighbors. In Kenya, “particular problem elephants that are known for running riot in […] impoverished farmers’ fields are equipped with special units that […] will send a text message to the rangers, who can then quickly locate and redirect the animals.” These endangered creatures are extremely intelligent. In fact, through these interactions, they almost always learn to avoid these routes. Clearly, this is not only an example of humans observing non-human animals, but of two-way communications.
F7, my newest virtual friend, cannot send me a selfie via the iPhone 6. However, I check in on him every day. In fact, I visit Animal Tracker more often than Facebook, and I anxiously await an increasing number of opportunities to communicate through the greater Animal Internet. The system allows for the democratization of information as it’s tracked, transmitted, processed, formatted, and distributed. Even today, biologists, hobbyists, and schoolchildren alike can witness F7’s activity via Animal Tracker. Pschera asks, “What happens when wild animals start pinging us, and we are able to identify them as unique individuals with their own backstory?” As Pschera suggests, perhaps someday it will be difficult to remember life before the Animal Internet.
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Heather Lang is the Associate Poetry Editor and Managing Online Editor of The Literary Review.