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Agnieszka Kurant - Animal Internet

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ANIMAL INTERNET

Changes in global labor force via extra-regulatory platforms are paired with a paradigm shift in the human understanding of nature. Near-total colonization of nature prompts the emergence of virtual heterotopias such as the extraterritorial phenomenon of what scientists refer to as the “Animal Internet.”

Some 50,000 creatures around the globe — including whales, leopards, flamingoes, bats, and snails — are equipped with digital tracking devices and can be followed on animal tracker apps. Data about their behavior is gathered and studied by major scientific institutes, and may revolutionize our relationship with the natural world by helping us predict and prevent phenomena such as volcanic eruptions or epidemics. Elephants in Sri Lanka could warn us about future tsunamis; toads can anticipate earthquakes such as the one in L’Aquila in Italy in 2009; tracking geese’s altitude could forecast large-scale avalanches; and an Ebola epidemic could be predicted by fruit bats.

With the ascendance of the animal internet, hundreds of thousands of people around the world started experiencing nature in a different way, virtually, in front of their computer screens. Webcams installed by scientists in jungles, plains, and savannas capture the behavior of completely unaware wild animals. These animals have parallel lives, one in their natural habitat and one in the human network, in which they have names, Facebook pages, and thousands of followers. This produces a hybrid, augmented reality, in which animals are perceived not as abstracted images but as autonomous individuals with inherent value and their own backstories. What happens when one day they start pinging us?

Drawing upon these phenomena, I imagined a collective Tamagotchi — a form hovering between nature and culture. Tamagotchis, developed in Japan in 1996, are egg-shaped, hand-held, digital toys imitating live organisms. They must be regularly nourished, pet, and walked. There have been seventy-six million Tamagotchis sold to date — a nation’s worth. I imagined what would happen if all the Tamagotchi owners together took care of just one single Tamagotchi, an artificial collective organism such as a slime mold. This organism, like a dispersed society, would be powered by the decisions and actions of thousands of people around the world. Social movement could be rendered as the physical movement and behavior of this hybrid creature. Since the late 1960s, economists and social scientists have used computer simulations of societies or groups of people to analyze socioeconomic phenomena and observe agent-based complex system behavior, which allows for testing social theories on a large scale. In the early 1990s at the Santa Fe Institute, Robert Axtell and Joshua Epstein used emergent processes seen in coral reefs and flocks of birds to grow a simple artificial society in which little hunter-gatherer creatures moved around a landscape, finding, storing, and consuming sugar, the only resource available.

In collaboration with a team of scientists, engineers, and designers at MIT, I developed a project drawing on the artificial society experiments and the phenomenon of collective intelligence organisms.4Animal Internetconsists of a series of artificial animals, operated by the decisions and actions of thousands of people around the world. These works are based on animatronic mechanisms covered with fur to emulate mammalian life. They are placed in terrariums with artificial landscapes that include real plants and rocks, built especially for the webcams to resemble nature; they can be accessed and watched only through these webcams. My piece juxtaposes two existing and widely accessible broadcasts from online webcams — one of a wild tiger in the jungle and one of a polar bear in the Arctic, both filmed unbeknownst to them — with two webcam videos of artificial animals.

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