Tuesday, April 26, 2016

Animal Internet could help species survive

Winnipeg Free Press—PRINT EDITION
Reviewed by Ariel Gordon

My smartphone pings. My sister has texted me, reminding me that I’m supposed to make a salad for our family dinner this weekend.

Another ping — this time from my electric car, letting me know it’s fully charged.

I could go to the store for lettuce, but instead I spend the time watching a peregrine falcon nest on the roof of the Radisson Hotel via webcam. I’ve been binge-watching the chicks since they hatched.

So far, according to Munich-based writer Alexander Pschera, I’ve just accessed three different Internets: Human, Internet-of-Things and Animal.

Pschera has written several books about the Internet and media in his native German, but Animal Internet is the first one released in translation in North America.

There are a few facts that underlie Pschera’s examination of the Animal Internet. The first is that according to the World Wildlife Fund, Earth has lost half of its animals in the last 40 years. The second is that the average American child spends over 50 hours per week on electronic devices and less than an hour outside.

To Pschera, those are the results of ecology. He believes that attempts to protect endangered animals by separating them from people has only distanced us from the natural world and hasn’t slowed the rate of species loss. And the Human Internet has only widened the gap between people and nature.

"But I watch kitten videos and look at pictures of wild animals on a regular basis," one could protest.

Pschera counters that images of something are not the same as the thing itself.

"Over the last two hundred years, the real animals have been replaced by likenesses. The process is dialectical: the further we distance ourselves from nature, the more we produce, reproduce, and disseminate images of animals — all without moving a single step closer to nature in the process."

What’s needed, Pschera says, is direct access, either in person or online, via the Animal Internet.

Pschera thinks that being able to watch a peregrine webcam or "follow" a wolf on Facebook will allow people to connect with animals in a way that nature documentaries and information-dense signage at provincial parks can’t. "Seeing creates knowledge and knowledge leads to action," he writes.

His logic is that interest in a single wolf leads to affection for wolves in general, which leads to advocacy that will protect wolves and the ecosystems they need to survive.

Pschera also believes that gathering data on hitherto-unstudied species, particularly migratory animals, will enable us to better plan for their protection.

But what are the ethics of the Animal Internet?

Pschera claims that there are currently nearly 50,000 wild migratory animals equipped with GPS units. Will having a large population of plugged-in animals enable us to better predict and therefore protect against natural disasters like earthquakes or avalanches? Perhaps. But does having a better early-warning system justify capturing and attaching sensors to ever-increasing numbers of wild animals?

Also, how will we go about monitoring the wealth of information created by the Animal Internet? Pschera says a global monitoring system is needed and quotes German scientist Martin Wikelski, who is attempting to partner with the European and German space administrations to implement this idea.

Are there dangers inherent in the Animal Internet? Yes. For instance, poachers could use the information provided to them by GPS units to more easily find their prey. And allowing people into land trusts and conservation areas might result in paved strips in the wilderness blanketed with discarded Tim Hortons cups.

Is the Animal Internet the answer to our environmental problems and increasing use of the Human Internet? It’s hard to say.

What is certain is that Pschera is an interesting guide to the issues — technological, scientific and philosophical — that derive from such radical thinking.

Ariel Gordon is a Winnipeg writer.

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