Digital Biosurveillance: How digital ecology is about capturing movement
by Erica von Essen, Stockholm University
Every year in April-May, Sweden is abuzz with The Great Moose Migration: a real-time sensing event that broadcasts moose movement and antics from a network of trail cameras in northern Sweden over the course of three weeks. For the past three years, this livestream has aired on public television (SVT), in a new ‘Slow-TV’ trend (Jørgensen, 2014). Viewers have tuned in for a variety of reasons: to see moose crossing streams; to enjoy the relaxing ‘forest ambience’ in the background while house cleaning; or to view unexpected species encounters, like capercaillie mating rituals or a reindeer curiously investigating the camera. Individual moose have gained micro-celebrity status from these feeds, being given nicknames, like ‘Joker’, who is also GPS-marked (Figure 1).
For me, the most fascinating aspect of The Great Moose Migration is not the feed itself, but the user community that has grown around it. The Facebook fan group ‘Those of us who like the Great Moose Migration’ is active not only through the livestream, but throughout the year. Members post highlights, add captions or annotations to screencaptures from the livestream (Figure 2), compete over ‘pic of the day’, post their own moose pictures, and alert one another to interesting happenings on the livestream. It is a virtual campfire of user-generated content I could spend a lifetime researching: there are memes, private pictures, remixes, organic conversations, and serious discussions regarding wildlife, ecology, land-use, and hunting (which is encouraged by Swedish moose management policies). While The Great Moose Migration is consumed by a diverse community, a majority of posts on the Facebook group are made by older people who navigate the group by making text posts with colourful backgrounds, emojis, and a lot of personal detail.
The Great Moose Migration and its Facebook followers bring to mind the Polar Bear Cam, which broadcasted polar bear migration in Churchill, Canada a few years ago. Here, too, multiple cameras were set up at several strategic migration locations, prime footage was editorially curated from the collected footage, and locals tuned in with great enthusiasm. Bear close-ups perhaps provided a sense of ‘intimacy without proximity’, in the words of Donna Haraway (Haraway, 2016, p. 79), and the polar bears’ occasionally anthropomorphic antics always rose to the top of the most popular videos on social media platforms, as is also the case with The Great Moose Migration. We may like the unfiltered livestream format of nature, where no heavy-handed editing has taken place, but internet culture reliably also filters eventful clips from the otherwise slow-moving feed to the top.
That we should favour events, action and movement, is no surprise. Much animal tourism, Clapperton Chakanetsa Mavhunga (2011) writes, is about seeing “the animal moving around, going through the kinetics of its everyday life.” (p.33) This seems to have carried over into digital media, too. In a workshop session on Ecologies of Gaming, Bill Adams, Chris Sandbrook, and Emma Tait presented Race the Wild, an application in which human movement data combined with animal movement data allows users to literally ‘race the wild’ by trying to outrun different species.
So, what does a digital lens on animal movements enable? Specifically, what does it produce in terms of power relations? On the work of Tim Cresswell (2010) on the study of mobilities to animals, Tim Hodgetts and Lorimer (2018) argue that whilst movement in biology denotes a shift in spatial coordinates, ‘mobility’ gestures towards the power and politics imbued in that movement. The digitalisation of animals’ movements on different scales has consequences for their governance, representation, and for human-animal encounters.
Knowing where wild animals are at all times – as dots on a GPS maps, as traces on trail cameras, and as figures on thermal imaging sensors – and especially how they move is an integral part of biopolitical governance (Figure 3). It enables a command-and-control approach to nature; one in which recording the movement of wildlife across road crossings, for example, is a way of rendering nonhuman life “trackable and manageable, and in doing so absorbs animal populations into systems of governmentality” (Parks, 2019, p. 149). Such surveillance is also often aimed at separating and organising the circulation of life into ‘good’ and ‘bad’ categories (Maye et al., 2012). Most often, the criteria for good and bad pertain to the productive as well as damaging economic potentials of different species (Shortall and Brown, 2020).
Surveillance can easily lead to the active use of power to control a given species, like when managers act upon data to correct circulations of wildlife. This frequently involves exerting sovereign power on populations, culling those that do not belong, those which become overabundant, or those which display invasive patterns of mobility (Reo and Ogden, 2018). Surveillance can also proceed from a basis of precarity and care for endangered species. But such surveillance usually results in necropolitical practices of violence anyway: removing threats to those species whose circulations one wishes to promote. This can be in the form of culling foxes that threaten endangered birds, or as is recently underway in Scandinavia: deterring golden eagles from predating on arctic foxes. As another Digital Ecologies presentation by Trishant Simlai informed us, this violence crosses the species barrier, too, when camera traps are used to track, monitor, and apprehend human poachers that trespass into protected reserves.
That data from surveillance is used to inform disciplinary actions to correct for good and bad forms of mobility among wild animals is not particularly new. We know this through Etienne Benson’s work, which traced biosurveillance back to the Cold War ‘Military-Industrial-Ecological Complex’ (Benson, 2010). Here, aspirations to “keep a round-the-clock vigil on animals, no matter where they wander on land, sea or air” began to be voiced (Benson, 2010, p. 213, emphasis added). But three things are new as of 2021. (Doherty et al., 2021), with the displacement of natural habitats, climate change, human disturbances on ecology, the accidental spread of invasive species, and increased global trade. There is hence that much more to keep track of. Second, the scale at which this surveillance of wild animal movement can be captured has improved exponentially, both in terms of tracking microbial movement in wildlife (as wild boar monitoring of African Swine Fever in Europe testifies), fitting individual animals with durable transmitter microchips, and macro levels of capturing flows of populations via satellite imagery. Third, the general public has become enrolled in this real-time surveillance, either as producers of wildlife movement data for science through citizen sensing initiatives, or as consumers of wildlife movement for entertainment – great species migrations, to name one example.
By far the most ground-breaking response to finding and correcting errant animal mobilities in the 21st century is the use of next-generation-monitoring (Gabrys et al., 2016), as our Digital Ecologies keynote speaker noted in one of her papers. Next generation monitoring entails the direct, remote nudging of wild animals on the basis of surveillance. These interventions include cues, repellents and deterrents acting upon wild animals in an automated way that bypass the intermediate processing stage where scientists sit down and analyse the data and decide on an intervention. Next-generation monitoring cuts at the core of wild animal movement by directly triggering a feedback mechanism. An example of this could be to deter a wild animal from a place it shouldn’t be using a smart collar or virtual fence that is coupled with the recording device, or in the many experimental ways in which deterrents are now used to mitigate wildlife-traffic collisions at crossings (Parks, 2019; Seiler and Olsson, 2017) . These new technologies draw surveillance into a biopolitical apparatus and employs them in a disciplinary capacity. What this means for wild animals, moreover, is that is has never been so easy to be at the wrong place at the wrong time. Hence, we may speculate that, more so than ever before, “survival of an animal species depends entirely on the management of its mobility” (Mavhunga, 2011, p. 37). That is, is its mobility economically profitable, in terms of dispersing seeds, terraforming the landscape, or generating energy? Is its mobility commodifiable to livestream as a spectacle? Or is it errant and risky? Digital technologies for surveillance now allow us to track and predict this, and also to promote or cut such movements off.
With these cynical thoughts on how biosurveillance is about capturing and controlling animal mobility, I also want to conclude by pointing to its emancipatory potential. The Great Moose Migration began as the work of hunters and foresters mapping moose movements to inform cull quotas for the subsequent hunting season. But its participants are now the general public, and there is nothing biopolitical about their enjoyment of the livestream. Instead, it has provided a basis for reflexive discussions on wildlife ethics, animal subjectivity, the place of hunting in modern society, and for subversive memes on moose resistance that potentially challenge the biopower of hunters and foresters. More than that, as these viewing events still see the animals as relatively passive (and unaware of cameras), we should also consider how mobility and mapping by wild animals in the 21st century can be empowering. In various bird tracking apps, users report that it is as if “It’s the birds that are writing these blogs and making the maps with the aid of technology. They’re out there doing their things, and without any physical input from us” (Verma et al., 2016, p.83). This may be seen as a form of ‘mapping on our own terms’, or ‘counter-mapping’, previously extended mostly to human migrants and subalterns (Casas-Cortes et al., 2017). Here, animals can use their bodies and movements to counter-map and tell stories, free from narration and editing by nature documentary filmmakers.
Mobility and movement provide compelling analytics for apprehending digital ecologies, and wildlife surveillance. Here I have considered how they may become the basis for 1) care: promoting the increased distribution of a protected species, 2) commodification: in the form of livestreams for the public; and (3) control: in the form of culling or nudging errant animal or species mobilities. I concluded by suggesting animal mobility can also be used as a form of counter-mapping and resistance by animals themselves, something which needs to be further explored with device-specific affordances in the future.
Benson, E., 2010. Wired Wilderness: Technologies of Tracking and the Making of Modern Wildlife. Johns Hopkins University Press.
Casas-Cortes, M., Cobarrubias, S., Heller, C., Pezzani, L., 2017. Clashing cartographies, migrating maps: Mapping and the politics of mobility at the external borders of E.U.rope. ACME 16, 1-33.
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Verma, A., van der Wal, R., Fischer, A., 2016. Imagining wildlife: New technologies and animal censuses, maps and museums. Geoforum 75, 75-86.
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