A bestial Brave New World is on the horizon: Some 50,000 creatures around the globe – including whales, leopards, flamingoes, bats and snails – are being equipped with digital tracking devices. The data gathered and studied by major scientific institutes about their behavior will not only aid in conservation efforts and warn us about tsunamis, earthquakes and volcanic eruptions, but radically transform our relationship to the natural world. With a broad cultural and historical lens, Animal Internet examines human ties with animals, from domestic pets to the soaring popularity of bird watching and kitten images on the Web. Will millennia of exploration soon be reduced to experiencing wilderness via smartphone? Contrary to pessimistic fears, author Alexander Pschera sees the Internet as creating a historic opportunity for a new dialogue between man and nature.
"Charts the new digital frontier in the human-animal relationship. Gone are the days of an untouched natural world. We have entered wilderness 2.0 [...] [An] intriguing book."
– The Washington Post
"Bold and fascinating [...] proposing that the Internet – and other digital technology – offers an opportunity to rediscover our animals as more than abstracted images but as autonomous individuals with inherent value. A truly thought-provoking book for animal lovers and technology enthusiasts alike."
– Kirkus Reviews
"At last, a convincing explanation for why waldrapps are on Twitter and quolls on Facebook. In beautiful, philosophical prose, Alexander Pschera even explains why cats rule the Internet. The first book that brings nature and technology together with animals as individuals and streams of big data alike."
– David Rothenberg, author of Bug Music and Survival of the Beautiful
"Humanized pets, industrialized meat, endless sad extinctions: Must our animal future be so bleak? Not according to Alexander Pschera, who envisions humans and wild animals interacting on matters like climate change and conservation through electronic tracking. A fascinating account full of novel and unexpected examples."
– Richard W. Bulliet, author of Hunters, Herders and Hamburgers: The Past and Future of Human-Animal Relationships and Professor of History Emeritus, Columbia University
"This surprising book offers a great shout-out to the next phase in our relationship with non-human beings: our brand-newly emerging recognition that they, too, are individuals, leading individual lives."
– Carl Safina, author of Beyond Words: What Animals Think and Feel and Song for the Blue Ocean
"Animal Internet is a most important book. This excellent work could be a strong catalyst for people to [...] become re-enchanted with all sorts of mysterious and fascinating animals, both local and distant. By shrinking the world it will bring humans and other animals together in a multitude of ways that only a few years ago were unimaginable."
– Marc Bekoff, University of Colorado, author of Rewilding Our Hearts: Building Pathways of Compassion and Coexistence
"An original book that goes against the trend to stubbornly keep nature and technology divided from one another."
– Der Spiegel
"Animal Internet is one of the most interesting books that I've read in recent years."
– Bavarian Radio
"What Pschera describes sounds futuristic but it's already widespread reality [...] Pschera's book is not just popular science: he describes not only the status quo, but also thinks about an ongoing transformation."
I started reading it thinking it would mostly deal with what the latest developments in animal telemetry are telling us about conservation, and what we can learn moving forward. With advances in technology, GPS units and tracking devices are now becoming so small that we can even attach them to insects. Scientists are uncovering a wealth of data about bird migrations, whale feeding patterns and many other behaviours that are normally unobservable to us. Instead, this book provides a philosophical blueprint for how technological advances could bring about a new way for humans to reconnect to animals.
Where wildlife conservation is concerned, Alexander Pschera falls in the camp that thinks “humans are here now, a lot of damage has already been done, and we can’t turn back time – so let’s be pragmatic”. Similar sentiments are borne out by recent books such as Inheritors of the Earth and Darwin Comes to Town.
In short, Pschera argues that in the last two centuries, humans have lost their connection to the natural world as a consequence of technological developments. Where animals were our beasts of burden, the Industrial Revolution made them superfluous. Increased urbanisation has marginalised nature and erased people’s connection to it. And yet, this bond persists. E.O. Wilson calls it biophilia, and Pat Shipman thinks there is a good evolutionary explanation for it (see The Animal Connection).
In the meantime, a conservation movement has developed that tries to protect nature by keeping humans and wildlife separated. Pschera is unabashedly critical of this philosophy, arguing that it only has served to further estrange humans from nature. Its desire to go “back to nature” is both naïve and utopian, and Pschera considers this way of thinking an idealized cultural construct that gets in the way of effective conservation. Instead, we have replaced genuine experience of nature with totemized versions in the form of pets and zoos, and we experience nature vicariously through images and cinematic natural history documentaries. That’s all fair enough, and I readily agree with his observation (p. 79) that:“naturalists of the twenty-first century are tasked with mediating between the poles of an overly romanticized vision of nature, on one end, and the destructive force of modernity, on the other, and to search for a balance between the two”
The solution, perhaps paradoxically, lies in technology. Pschera envisions the animal internet, where data and video feeds from large numbers of tagged animals are made publicly available through smartphone apps and social media (already, you can befriend wildlife on Facebook). These interactions will bring wild animals back into people’s lives and will forge new emotional connections. It will get us involved and dispel fears and misconceptions where for example reintroduced predators such as wolves are concerned.
It is a thought-provoking idea, and I can see how a new generation growing up in cities, already familiar with smartphones and social media, could become more aware of nature this way. But Pschera strikes me as very optimistic, and there are a number of things in this book that trouble me.
Pschera asserts that “social media provides us with a picture of society as it truly is” and that “those who want to hold tight to their ideological perspectives need to work a lot harder at it” (p. 45). On the contrary, I would argue, this is not at all how social media work. The algorithms suggesting content to you based on what you like only serve to reinforce what you already believe, leading to so-called filter bubbles and echo chambers. And anyone with zany (flat-earthers) or unsavoury (right-wing extremists) ideas can now easily and readily find communities of like-minded individuals.
Pschera rails against scientists who warn against anthropomorphism and anthropocentrism. But his hopeful speculation that think tanks like I2I could develop interfaces for humans and other species such as dolphins to one day talk to each other exactly shows the danger of this thinking. In his book What It’s Like to Be a Dog, neuroscientist Berns, in my opinion, makes a convincing case that it is unlikely that we will ever have meaningful conversation across species barriers. Non-human brains just do not function in a comparable fashion, and animals lack many of the higher-level conceptualisation and abstraction necessary to have even a basic grammar. And in Are Dolphins Really Smart?, Gregg makes a convincing case that those who believe we just need to crack the code of animal language have it wrong.
There are plenty of troubling ethical implications as well, the most serious being the risk that poachers would be only all too keen to get access to location data of threatened species. Pschera considers this but thinks that examples have so far shown that the visibility of these animals on the public radar offers them protection. Perhaps, but many animals do not travel alone, and it could expose animal groups with tagged individuals in it to new dangers.
And rather than the high-definition footage of nature documentaries, the animal internet will expose us to seemingly banal images of animals doing their daily things. Pschera asserts that “These different pictures do not elicit boredom, however; rather, they will create a new authenticity of natural awareness” (p. 162). Really? In today’s saturated media environment I wonder how long it will take for the novelty of this to wear off, and whether we can really entrance a new generation with it.
Finally, to claim that continued species extinction despite larger and more numerous protected areas shows that sustainability is the wrong strategy” (p. 166) and that the answer lies in forging new connections, seems to be missing the point entirely. I would argue that human overpopulation is the root cause for continued extinction, and the idea that the animal internet can turn this ship around seems utopian.
Animal Internet is a thought-provoking read. Pschera regularly wanders off into philosophical territory where he loses me a bit. I think the ideas he outlines are interesting, although I am sceptical on various points and perhaps less optimistic than he is. Still, I do agree with him on other points, and it will be interesting to see if the ongoing developments to bring animals closer to humans through technology bear fruit and can make a change. The proof of its effectiveness will be in the proverbial pudding.
Alexander Pschera, born in 1964, has published several books on the Internet and media. He studied German, music and philosophy at Heidelberg University. He lives near Munich where he writes for the German magazine Cicero as well as for German radio.
Elisabeth Lauffer is the recipient of the 2014 Gutekunst Translation Prize. After graduating from Wesleyan University she lived in Berlin and then obtained a master's in education from Harvard. She now lives in Vermont, where she is the Assistant Director of the Middlebury-Monterey Language Academy.