Instrumentalizing Care: The Automation of Ecological Restoration

Authors: Laura Martin*, Williams College
Topics: Environment, Anthropocene, Biogeography
Keywords: technology, conservation, automation, robots, STS, repair, restoration, nature
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


In a 2017 paper, Brad Cantrell, Erle Ellis, and I asked whether semi-autonomous technologies could be used to sustain the autonomy of nonhuman species and ecological processes. Our concerns were philosophical: What do we desire of ‘wild’ places? Who decides how to curate wildness? What is the role of the human designer in developing artificial intelligences that interact with and reshape nature? In this paper I expand upon these questions to consider the automation of ecological care. Drones, sensors, satellites, and machine learning are playing an increasing role in conservation and restoration. I contend that automation, which presents as revolutionary – an upheaval to who is doing work and how work is being done – is at the same time deeply conservative. To automate a process is to in some way standardize it. As feminist science studies scholars Aryn Martin et al. remind us, “practices of care are always shot through with asymmetrical power relations.” What modes of interacting with the non-human world are we standardizing when we automate restoration? Does the automation of care devalue human care? Who and what will receive care, and who and what will administer it?

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