Book review – Animal Internet: Nature and the Digital Revolution

This book is translated from the German Das Internet der Tiere, published in 2014. 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.

Animal Internet

Animal Internet: Nature and the Digital Revolution“, written by Alexander Pschera, published by New Vessel Press in April 2016 (paperback, 215 pages)

Where wildlife conservation is concerned, Alexander Pschera clearly 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 Thomas’s Inheritors of the Earth: How Nature is Thriving in an Age of Extinction and Schilthuizen’s Darwin Comes to Town: How the Urban Jungle Drives Evolution.

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 (see Farewell to the Horse: The Final Century of Our Relationship for an example of how this played out for horses). Increased urbanisation has marginalised nature and erased people’s connection to it. And yet, this bond persists. E.O. Wilson calls it biophilia (see Biophilia: The Human Bond with Other Species), and Pat Shipman thinks there is a good evolutionary explanation for it (see The Animal Connection: A New Perspective on What Makes Us Human).

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! As prominent bloggers and YouTubers have observed, 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 (see Pariser’s The Filter Bubble: What The Internet Is Hiding From You) 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. I have found, for example, Mark Manson’s blog post Everything Is Fucked and I’m Pretty Sure It’s the Internet’s Fault or CGP Grey’s video This Video Will Make You Angry instructive in that respect.

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: And Other Adventures in Animal Neuroscience, 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?:smart? The Mammal Behind the Myth, Gregg makes a convincing case that those who believe we just need to crack the code of animal language have it wrong.

“the animal internet will expose us to seemingly banal images of animals doing their daily things […] In today’s saturated media environment I wonder how long it will take for the novelty of this to wear off”

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.

Disclosure: The publisher provided a review copy of this book. The opinion expressed here is my own, however.

Animal Internet paperback or ebook

Other recommended books mentioned in this review:



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