Empathy machines? Political ecologies of the interspecies internet

Authors: Karen Bakker*, University of British Columbia
Topics: Environment, Cyberinfrastructure
Keywords: political ecology, technology, post-humanism, non-human rights
Session Type: Paper
Day: 4/7/2019
Start / End Time: 9:55 AM / 11:35 AM
Room: Balcony B, Marriott, Mezzanine Level
Presentation File: No File Uploaded


Smart earth technologies—hardware (e.g. drones, sensors, satellites) and software (e.g. VR/AR, AI, machine learning)—are creating new forms of governance, work/labour, and relationalities in fields as diverse as conservation, hazard response, resource management. This paper provides an overview of the Smart Earth landscape through analyzing a database of 2000 technologies assembled and categorized by the author. The paper then explores one subset of innovations: empathy technologies. These technologies (and associated governance techniques) seek to deepen affective connection and communication with non-humans; in so doing, they blur the boundaries between the digital and the biotic, and between the human and non-human. The paper queries the definitions of empathy deployed through these innovations, and then explores the biopolitical aspects of these technologies through two case studies: virtual reality "field trips", and cyberplant communication apps. How might these technologies counter (or deepen) our collective suppression of biophilia, and reduce (or heighten) the dissociative patterns rooted in Ecological Anxiety Disorder (Robbins and Moore 2013). The paper concludes with an exploration of the parallels between debates in computational ecology and political ecology: in both disciplines, and in simultaneously overlapping yet incommensurable ways, researchers are exploring affective connections with non-humans (whether animals, plants, AI, or robots), and developing new paradigms for non-human rights and relationships.

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