Science and Methods
Friday 29th July, 2022, 10:40 – 12:00
In this session, participants discuss the role of digital methods in science and how they impact understandings of nature.
Discussant: Adam Searle
Thomas Fry, University of Cambridge
This paper outlines the conceptual foundations, applied practise and analytical productivity of a novel digital method in animal geographies and multispecies studies: digital etho-ethnographic citizen science. Developed as part of an interdisciplinary project on urban ecologies, the method uses remotely triggered camera traps to record video footage of the behaviour of Red Foxes in residential gardens, allotments and council estates in inner-city London. Unlike more established forms of digital wildlife surveillance and citizen science, often premised on the extraction of data for use in population-level inference, this is a participatory approach to the ethnographic study of individual animals. It works with local residents to develop research questions and digitally track the mobilities, ethologies and social dynamics of fox families in the spaces they share with research participants. The paper outlines three ways camera traps, when deployed as critical ethnographic method rather than extractive and abstractive tool, can use digital data to produce novel understandings of nonhuman worlds. Firstly, integration with other critical social methods can situate ethological data within wider political ecological structures; secondly, it amplifies, affirms and digitises vernacular knowledges of urban fox ethologies; thirdly, it produces personal, action-oriented knowledge relevant to the lives of participants, with both practical utility and sociocultural resonance. The paper then discusses some distinctive challenges of an etho-ethnographic approach to digital data: the practical and epistemological hurdles of managing and analysing digital data, and the ethico-political complexities of how accessing the private lives of foxes can alter the sociomaterial relations between foxes and people.
Thomas Fry conducts interdisciplinary work on novel ecological change and its social and political character, including rewilding, species introductions, and resurgent wildlife populations, in both rural and urban areas in the global North and South.
Sergio Santiago Renteria Aguilar, The University of Western Australia
Tracing the production of animal sounds has long been used for scientific purposes in the field of bioacoustics. It allows us to refine our understanding of the behaviour and welfare of animal populations through the non-invasive use of sound technologies. Increasingly, aural pattern recognition tasks are being automated in what is known as machine listening. While this has enabled the modelling of increasingly large sonic ecologies, the history and implications of automation in this domain remain understudied. By weaving the development of musical transcription and whistling imitation of bird sounds with the history of machine listening in ecology, I argue that automation is not prompting new listening practices, but instead abstracting and standardising pre-existing human aural labour at scale. Machine listening automates the auscultation of ecological bodies by algorithmically processing their voices according to particular objectives. What are the consequences of this practice, given the integrity of ecologies cannot be fully recovered from their sounds? I address this question through an arts-based methodology centered on the computational reconstruction of bird sounds. The data I use for this practice is drawn from a transdisciplinary collaboration with behavioural ecologists studying the vocal complexity of Western Australian Magpies. Ultimately, my aim is not to attain scientifically accurate recreations of animal voices and soundscapes, but to research the ecocritical and aesthetic potential of reanimating audible bodies with machines.
Santiago Renteria is a transdisciplinary researcher working at the intersection of artificial intelligence, music and biology.
Jenny Dodsworth, University of Oxford
The notion of the shadow provides an apt metaphor for analyses and interrogations of colour, brightness, influence, and visibility. Shadow landscapes is a term first outlined by Bryant et al as a way to understand rural ‘in-between places’, which are ‘neither densely populated nor pure wilderness’ (2011, p. 460). Digital shadows were first conceptualised by Graham (2013, 2014) as the ‘virtual layers of the city’ which augment, as digital dimensions of the urban, our experiences of spaces and places through data which is increasingly accessible through common mobile devices. In this paper, I develop and deploy innovative and experimental digital methods and materials, from across three chapters of my doctoral thesis, to explore why and how farmers’ images of the Lake District National Park are rendered less visible than others on visual social media. A multiple platform photovoice (Wang, 1997) method was developed and utilised as a participatory approach to data collection. I utilised the automated synchronising capacity of Apple iCloud, alongside geodata and the annotating capabilities of multiple smart-device applications (including the Instagram app itself) to enable image generation between and from @fellsfarmers. Then, utilising and expanding upon cultural analytics methods developed by Lev Manovich et al (Manovich, 2009, 2012; Software Studies Initiative, 2015), I visualise images from @fellsfarmers and compare them to both a year of public online #lakedistrict images from Instagram, and the curated accounts of influential #lakedistrict Instagrammers. Employing a conceptual approach I call digital textures, the paper illustrates how @fellsfarmers’ images are conceptually and literally either ‘overshadowed’ or fall ‘in-between’ existing online #lakedistricts. A focus on local traditions, routine farming practices and permeations of modern technology in @fellsfarmers creates a rural everyday (Shirley, 2015) which manifests in digital ‘fell-farmscapes’ that are less affectively compelling and algorithmically effective than the #lakedistrict idylls which currently exist on Instagram. On Instagram, then, @fellsfarmers persist in the mountain’s digital shadow. This paper aims to offer both novel analyses of digital landscapes on Instagram, and a demonstration of how innovative digital methods may be developed and deployed in practice to understand how particular perceptions of place are unevenly manifest on social media.
Jenny Dodsworth’s research interests are focused around digital media, political ecology, and perceptions of more-than-human rural landscapes. Her thesis focuses on digital identities in, and imaginations of, the Lake District National Park within the social media platform Instagram. She also works as an RA for the European research project contracts2.0, which aims to develop novel contract-based approaches to incentivise farmers for the increased provision of environmental public goods. Jenny is also a member of the Digital Ecologies research group.
Liliana Bounegru, King’s College London
Gabriele Colombo, King’s College London
Jonathan Gray, King’s College London
How can digital methods (Rogers, 2013, 2019; Marres, 2017) help to situate and support forest ecosystem restoration efforts? This presentation will explore the role of digital methods in a interdisciplinary forest ecosystem restoration project in 12 sites across 13 countries. We look at how digital materials from the web and social media can be repurposed in order to surface actors, issues, practices, settings and forms of participation associated with sites where restoration is taking place. Our presentation will look at what we have learned from site-based, practice-based and issue-based mapping approaches, which may help to understand the broader societal settings in which restoration is being undertaken. It examines critical, creative and participatory approaches to incorporating digital material into elicitation devices, from community-based listening (following our “listening to forests” project) to scraping and re-compositing audiovisual material (Figure 2, Figure 3). How might this make a difference to forest restoration work? Thinking along with Anna Tsing’s work on forest management as an “anti-politics machine”, converting “social issues into technical ones” (Tsing, 2011), we conclude by examining the prospects of digital methods contributing to “reconsideration machines” (Saunders, 2021) for doing restoration and composing forest life differently – including through trans-disciplinary “arts of noticing” (Tsing, 2015), attending to marginalised communities and issues (Rogers, 2019, and supporting collective learning around restoration areas as test sites (Marres & Stark, 2020) for the reconfiguration of forest-society relations.
Liliana Bounegru’s work covers new media, digital culture, digital journalism, data journalism and digital methods, and develops digital methods to trace the circulation of political misinformation, junk news, memes and trolling practices online.
Gabriele Colombo’s research and teaching activities focus on the design of visual tools in support of digital social research, and on the design of novel strategies for the communication, exploration, analysis and valorisation of collections of images and videos.
Jonathan Gray’s current research focuses on the politics and social life of public data.
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