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Planetary Voyeurism

Authors: Douglas Robb*, University of British Columbia, Karen Bakker, University of British Columbia
Topics: Anthropocene, Environmental Perception, Landscape
Keywords: planetary voyeurism, visualization, digital technology, Anthropocene
Session Type: Paper
Day: 4/6/2020
Start / End Time: 8:00 AM / 9:15 AM
Room: Virtual Track 1
Presentation File: No File Uploaded


This paper develops the concept of “planetary voyeurism” to describe contemporary ways of depicting the Anthropocene through digital visual technologies. Over the past decade, technologies such as satellites, drones, and distributed environmental sensing networks, combined with ever-cheaper cloud-based computing, have enabled geographers and designers to “see” environmental change on a planetary scale. An unprecedented amount of geodata is now available, at rapidly decreasing cost. These data have facilitated a broad range of innovative visualization techniques to represent complex patterns of human impact upon Earth. These visualizations have, in turn, enabled new modes of environmental governance, financial investment, and landscape intervention. Yet by visualizing Earth, which perspectives do we privilege, and what perceptions and actions do these visualizations enable? Planetary voyeurism queries the desire to render the Anthropocene visible in order to exert control over increasingly precarious global environmental systems. This paper cautions that technologically-mediated ways of seeing and perceiving global environmental change—while certainly valuable and informative—often arise from and/or produce an unintended voyeurism that obscures the intimate and variegated dimensions of the Anthropocene. Planetary voyeurism draws together recent scholarship on digital technologies of environmental perception, more-than-human geographies, and design theory to critique the voyeuristic tendencies of Anthropocene visualizations. The purpose of this paper is not to eschew digital visual technologies, but rather to expose their inherent speciesism and anthropocentric gaze. This paper seeks to advance new modes of multi-sensory perception that can deepen our engagement and empathy with the more-than-human world.

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