During 2012 I have found myself attending a number of events dedicated to the role of new technology in conservation. I have an interest in this area because of some recent work on computer games and conservation, and on community-based monitoring of natural resources. At these events I have heard about an extraordinary range of gadgets and gizmos, ranging from satellite technologies right down to devices so small that they can be sprayed. The great majority of these devices seem to be targeted at monitoring – that is ongoing recording of biodiversity data, including population size, individual species movement, body temperature, weight, depth beneath the seas, or any number of other variables.
Confronted with all these new opportunities for monitoring, I find myself torn between conflicting emotions. On the one hand, I am really excited by how clever some of the gadgets are, and by all the things we might learn about nature through their deployment. I am, after all, a young(ish) man with a smartphone in my pocket and a slightly unhealthy interest in consumer electronics. On the other hand, I find myself quite unsettled by the implications of all this monitoring for our relationship with the natural world, and with each other. In a future blog post I intend to write something about how the development and deployment of new monitoring technologies raise political questions about how much we trust those who collect and hold the data. In this piece, I want to focus on a more basic concern, which is that all this monitoring may in some sense diminish the nature that we cherish.
My gut feeling is that a lot of the monitoring programmes that are being developed today are driven more by what new technologies can do than by the questions they can help us to answer. I have no problem with using technologies to help us to answer important questions about basic biology or conservation – for example changes in the population of an endangered species. However, when monitoring is used to give us constant access to the world of wild species, simply because we can, it starts to feel more like stalking than studying. We are familiar with the idea that our research should follow good ethical practice when it comes to human subjects or animal welfare. I wonder if we should extend the scope of research ethics to include some concept of a right to privacy for the species we study (an idea brilliantly satirised here). This could perhaps be breakable only in cases of overwhelming public interest, as with human celebrities, which in this case would mean the interest of the whole species.
Beyond the question of ethics, isn’t there also a certain value, and perhaps even beauty, in knowing that there are species and ecosystems out there just getting on with it, beyond our view? Robert MacFarlane makes the case for the value of unknown nature far more eloquently than I can in his wonderful book The Wild Places (2007). He writes:
“Wild animals, like wild places, are invaluable to us precisely because they are not us. They are uncompromisingly different. The paths they follow, the impulses that guide them, are of other orders. The seal’s holding gaze, before it flukes to push another tunnel through the sea, the hare’s run, the hawk’s high gyres: such things are wild. Seeing them, you are made briefly aware of a world at work around and beside our own, a world operating in patterns and purposes that you do not share. These are creatures, you realise, that live by voices inaudible to you.” (p.307)
A big-brother regime of constant biodiversity monitoring, from camera traps, listening devices, drones and satellites, will make us more than briefly aware of this other world. Indeed, we will likely be able to track the hare’s run from a satellite, or watch the hawk’s flight on a live webcam. The information we gain might help us to understand wild species, and in some cases it might help us to conserve them. However, I fear that the all-seeing eye of such a monitoring regime would render nature less wild, less mysterious and, eventually, boring. Isn’t there a risk that in our enthusiasm to monitor the death of nature, we end up monitoring nature to death?