Online Platforms and Citizen Science
Tuesday 30 March, 11:30 – 13:00
This session explores the knowledge production and activist potentials (and pitfalls) of online platforms.
Discussant: Prof Sandra Jasper, Humboldt-Universität Berlin
Katherine Samler, Helmholtz Institute for Functional Marine Biodiversity
Lily House-Peters, California State University:
As natural resource extraction moves into increasingly remote frontiers, rapidly evolving constellations of sensing systems and autonomous robots are being deployed in nascent smart mines to create digitally-mediated hyper-extraction landscapes. We argue this robotic revolution in the mining and mineral extraction industry is producing new digital ecologies, both on land and off-shore. The digitization of the Earth’s lithosphere at once serves to physically distance the miner from the mine, while simultaneously producing novel relations between humans and more-than-human matter via granular, multi-spectral, and richly textured information that streams from the mines. Thus, the mine is reconceived as a double treasure trove, where the seams of the earth are both ore and data rich. We aim to reveal the black-box relations of these digital encounters to theoretically interrogate emerging relations of abstraction, mediation, transmission, and the signal/noise dichotomy of technologically mediated, more-than-human networks. This research investigates two iron-rich sites targeted for robotic extraction — the sandy seafloors off New Zealand and the Pilbara of Western Australia — to understand the shifting affective, material, and discursive practices of extraction. Our analysis draws on theory from critical geography, new materialism, and media studies to explore these digitally sensed and augmented environments. The comparative findings across subaqueous and subterranean mediums illuminate the multiplicity and specificity of the human and more-than-human milieu in each site.
Dr. Lily House-Peters is an Assistant Professor of Geography at California State University, Long Beach (CSULB). I am a broadly trained environmental geographer whose research draws on theoretical, conceptual, and methodological insights from political ecology, sustainability science, queer theory and digital geography to examine the role of robotics, automation, and autonomous technologies in shaping our resource extraction futures.
Dr. Katherine Sammler is a human-environment geographer, with a background in atmospheric science and physics. We are the Lead of the Marine Political Ecology Research Collective at the Helmholtz-Institute for Functional Marine Biodiversity, a part of the Alfred Wegener Institute for Polar and Marine Research (AWI) and University of Oldenburg in Germany.
Matthew Varco, University of Manchester:
This paper explores how nature is being digitally re-signified and appropriated on Wotan.net*, a white-nationalist forum, self-styled as a ‘Germanic Online Community’. This troubling case study points to the agnostic potential of digital natures. Although much more-than-human literature emphasises the lively potential of ‘the encounter’, this case reminds us that the fascination with digital natures can take a multitude of political forms. With 8000 active members, discussions of nature on Wotan.net abound, especially in sections devoted to the ‘appreciation’ of ‘Germanic’ flora, fauna, and landscapes. These provide insight into how natural landscapes are connected with the supposed ‘ethnic character’ of a region. Far from mere mediations of existing nature, these images represent new ideological constructions, where Nordic and northern-European landscapes are venerated as pure, pristine and original. These racialised narratives around nature, in turn, perform the central ideological legwork of grounding a global white nationalism online. Alongside the racialised ideological constructions of nature on Wotan.net, I explore the range of affects which are invested in, and generated by, these digital natures. I argue that nostalgia, ecological anxiety, and a sense of (ethnic) community are all important factors in how these digital landscapes are constructed and understood. I show that the ‘pristine’ here is less connected with Romantic aesthetics, and more with nature’s perceived function of guaranteeing the stability and purity of a Volksgemeinschaft. Appreciation of ‘Nordic’ natures provides a contingent foundation for a digital pan-Germanic community which would otherwise struggle to obtain coherence.
* I use an amended name here to avoid publicising the forum in my research.
I am a PhD candidate at the University of Manchester, researching the political ecologies and geographies of eco-fascism, mainly in Europe and North America. I am interested in how particular visions of ‘the people’ and nature have come to be articulated across time and space, and more recently, online.
Anmol Chowdhury, National Institute of Advanced Studies:
Using videography and photography to capture animals has become a very common practice, even within field research. But seldom do we think about what becomes of the animal when behaviours and instances from their lives are captured and forever stored as evidence, even long after the animals have themselves died. In light of this, I ask the following questions. First, what happens with the animal, especially in terms of their agency, when humans use digital methods to study them? Second, does it afford the researcher with something that traditional methods have not been able to? And third, what kind of ethical concerns does performing digital ethnography with animals raise? By taking examples from my fieldwork with rhesus macaques (Macaca mulatta) in Delhi, India, this paper aims to discuss the possible advantages and disadvantages of using digital technologies while researching with animals, especially when trying to explore more-than-human geographies in the urban context.
Anmol Chowdhury is a doctoral student under the Urban Ecologies Project, funded by the European Research Council, anchored at National Institute of Advanced Studies in Bengaluru, India. Their current work focuses on exploring the everyday lives of rhesus macaques in the cities of Delhi and Guwahati, India.
Helen Verploegen, Radboud University:
We are increasingly experiencing our surroundings with the help of our phones and computers. Media scholar de Souza e Silva (2006; 2013) has argued that the experience of our environment has become ‘hybrid’ in light of our constant ability to share locations through location-aware mobile media. As we use Google Maps, Instagram or TripAdvisor, we share and consume information on our environment through tags and reviews. In doing so, the experience of our environment becomes a combination of digitally gained information and physical experience. As yet, this concept of hybrid space has only been applied to urban environments (e.g. Frith 2015; de Souza e Silva 2013; 2006). This triggers the question: how does the concept of hybrid space apply to experiences of nature? Increasing numbers of nature enthusiasts and/or citizen scientists share observations of flora and fauna through participatory digital platforms, such as eBird, iNaturalist or Observation.org. In this presentation, I will host a digital field trip through the most popular nature observation platform in the Netherlands: Waarneming.nl. By digitally travelling to several locations, it will become evident how users of this platform ‘read’ and ‘write’ information and thereby contribute to a hybrid experience of nature. During this field trip, the value of this digital information sharing in the context of biodiversity loss and extinction will be addressed. Platforms such as waarneming.nl arguably provide the opportunity to experience lost nature digitally, even when physical experience is no longer possible. Finally, this gives a chance to reflect on the productive or destructive consequences of this digital information for the ‘surveillance’ of more than human life (Adams 2019; Verma, van der Wal, and Fischer 2016; Bird Rose and Dooren 2011).
Helen Verploegen is a cultural studies graduate from the Radboud University (The Netherlands), specialised in the environmental humanities. Her research explores how -digital- media and technology influence the relationship between humans and the environment. She is especially interested in citizen science and the representation of biodiversity loss.
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