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Knowing Nature Through Technology, Part II
Alex Steffen, 18 Aug 04

The good folks over at PlaNetwork have gotten up the first issue of their new Journal, and it's full of provocative and interesting stuff. Take, for instance, Earth as A Lens: Global Collaboration, GeoCommunication, and The Birth of EcoSentience, which takes the rise of ubiquitous computing and global sensing as opportunity to explore Bucky Fuller's World Game and Geoscope concepts and the evolution of "3D Geobrowsers," programs which allow the user to view any portion of the Earth and examine changes in its systems:

"3D Geobrowsers might even be thought of as an entirely new genre of media. These rich, sophisticated interfaces make it possible to seamlessly navigate vast bodies of realtime Earth data intuitively, as well as carry out scenarios and simulations for global problem-solving.

The author goes on to posit that these technologies will birth "EcoSentience," which is where the piece goes flying off the tracks of coherence, at least to me ("EcoSentience means environmental awareness arising from deep self-awareness, a contemplation of the whole picture of information comprising reality of oneself in the world around one, a continuous loop of subjectivity, objectivity, and reflexivity...").

But there is a worthwhile point here. Planetary science -- the observation of (and, presumably, eventually, intervention in) extremely large-scale systems through projects like Aura, GEOSS and the Large-scale Biosphere-Atmosphere Experiment in Amazonia -- is changing the way we understand the planet's largest-scale workings.

Meanwhile, UbiComp, genetics and evolutionary computer models are beginning changing the way we understand the workings of the tiniest components of ecosystems. A while back I wrote about how we might come to know more about natural systems by monitoring them with sensors. Wired ran a great story about how one such system is changing the study of a reclusive seabird:

"This place is Great Duck Island, a 89-hectare arc of land off the coast of Maine with no year-round inhabitants and a summer population numbering in the single digits. It’s served by solar panels that light up a handful of buildings, crude roads navigable only by tractor, and a boat that floats you to Bar Harbor in an hour and a half. There’s no running water. On a clear day, you can see Mount Desert Rock, the most remote lighthouse on the East Coast.

"I’ve come here to watch ornithologist [John] Anderson and three Berkeley computer engineers install an early version of a wireless sensor network. This technology, made possible by the shrinking of the microchip and advances in radio science, is the next step toward pervasive computing. Cheap, mobile, and highly scalable, it’s the best hope for dispersing information in a range of environments—office towers, vineyards, hospitals, caves, kitchens, battlefields, even the nesting grounds of birds.

"It’s those nesting grounds, rugged and isolated, that make Great Duck an ideal test bed for [a project which] aims to monitor the habitat of the Leach’s storm petrel, a seabird whose lifestyle, including its preference for nesting in arm-length burrows, has made it nearly impossible to study. The tech team so far has deployed 190 devices, each the size of a shotglass, some inside the petrels’ burrows and others just outside the entrances. The little instruments, called nodes or motes, house tiny sensors that monitor barometric pressure, humidity, solar radiation, and temperature. (By watching for temperature spikes inside a burrow, researchers can determine when a petrel is present.) The motes report the readings to a gateway node, sometimes passing the data among themselves, à la bucket brigade, bridging distances of up to 300 meters."


There are a ton of these kinds of projects going on right now, some based mostly on monitoring systems, some trying to find ways to incorporate human observations, like Cybertracker and eBird.

The convergence of these inquiries into the mind-blowingly massive and the brain-bogglingly minute is becoming one of the most powerful tools in our workchest for building a bright green future. And with the furnace of Moore's law heating it up, and sensors and networks and satellites all getting cheaper and better and smaller, our ability to sense what's happening on the planet around us is only going to get much more powerful.

The idea of wiring the planet offends some people's sensibilities. To some, it betokens a lack of reverance for wild nature. Some even seem to think that knowing more about nature is somehow transgressive. It seems to me that the opposite is true, that destroying things in ignorance is profoundly worse, and that anyone whose sympathy with nature is based on nature's unknowable-ness has housed their faith in a home of straw, and the wind is picking up.

It is not at all difficult to imagine the day when the entire planet is, to varying degrees, a smart place. When salmon runs and rainforests and the atmosphere itself speak to us, in a sense, through our instruments.

But will we know what to listen for? That strikes me as a whole different question. Science, despite its aspirations to the contrary, is a cultural endeavor. Data are never value-free. How might we develop a culture of planetary science that is most inclined to make wise choices, choices which can then best inform our societal choices about how to best act to preserve, protect, restore and recreate natural systems?

It may be that what we need are more big-systems thinkers who have served apprenticeships with nature, who've come to understand the intangible qualities of specific places and the implications of Gary Snyder's line, “we could live on this planet without tools or clothes!" People who know a specific piece of nature as reality, as a system exceeding the sum of its parts, as the territory, not just the map. People who get what N. Scott Momaday was talking about when he wrote:

"Once in his life a man (sic) ought to concentrate his mind on the remembered earth. He ought to give himself up to a particular landscape in his experience; to look at it from as many angles as he can, to wonder upon it, to dwell on it. He ought to imagine that he touches it with his hands at every season and listens to the sounds that are made upon it. He ought to imagine the creatures there and all the faintest motions of the wind. He ought to recollect the glare of the moon and the colors of dawn and dusk."

Maybe what we'll need is people who understand that planetary management is both a science, and an art.

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fits nicely with Sterling's recent piece talking about being able to see the toxins in our bodies, in our homes, in our environment using augmented reality and body scans - the notion that, if we could see the consequences of our choice, we'd choose differently

if we felt the earth itself as our body or as continuous with it, how would we act? if we knew it as sacred, as alive, as intelligent.

i really believe that some peoples have seen and experienced their lives that way - not just the idea, but the direct perception, of the interconnectedness of all life

Posted by: Vinay on 18 Aug 04

This 'ecosentience' idea reads very similar in both language and intent to 'deep ecology,' but with a technophilic twist -- kinda "jacking in" to the biosphere rather than cyberspace. (Wow, did I feel old typing that last sentence.)

"Deep ecology is founded on two basic principles: one is a scientific insight into the interrelatedness of all systems of life on Earth, together with the idea that anthropocentrism - human-centeredness - is a misguided way of seeing things. Deep ecologists say that an ecocentric attitude is more consistent with the truth about the nature of life on Earth. Instead of regarding humans as something completely unique or chosen by God, they see us as integral threads in the fabric of life. They believe we need to develop a less dominating and aggressive posture towards the Earth if we and the planet are to survive.

"The second component of deep ecology is what Arnie Naess calls the need for human self-realization. Instead of identifying with our egos or our immediate families, we would learn to identify with trees and animals and plants, indeed the whole ecosphere. This would involve a pretty radical change of consciousness, but it would make our behavior more consistent with what science tells us is necessary for the well-being of life on Earth. We just wouldn't do certain things that damage the planet, just as you wouldn't cut off your own finger."

From a 1989 interview with Michael Zimmerman by our own Alan AtKisson, in In Context magazine:

Posted by: Emily Gertz on 19 Aug 04



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