It’s 2021 and the New Zealand sheep population is dwindling. In an attempt to boost sheep numbers, New Zealand launches the National PermaLamb Programme. Transgenic research is integrated with DNA techniques to produce a hybrid huntaway dog and merino sheep.
PermaLamb is implanted with networked identification, location and sensor technologies, producing petabytes throughout its lifetime. Within days, #PermaLamb will provide “invaluable environmental data” and real-time tracking data straight to your phone.
While I would happily sign up to own a PermaLamb, this is merely part of an imaginary future portrayed in “Counting Sheep: NZ Merino in an Internet of Things”. The research project showcases fantastical futures, inspired by data generated from connected farm devices around New Zealand.
Despite its playful attitude, the project provides real insight and a commentary into how we conceptualise the relationship between animals, ethics and the internet of things.
The project demonstrates our different attitude towards data generated from humans and animals. Animal data is shared freely and playfully. Human data is imbued with notions of privacy, security and consent.
This stance towards animal generated data increases the amount of data available and accessible for behaviour modelling, which in turn can be fed into understanding human behaviour in urban settings. Urban specialist and author of Where the Animals Go describes how high resolution tracking of baboon decision making can be used to model human movement in a busy city. So we can learn more about animals, their environment, and of course, ourselves.
Take a look at the internet’s Crittercam, where a live stream camera is strapped onto wildlife, promising the chance to “solve scientific mysteries” through accessing the “private lives of animals”. Crittercam gives access to the animal world without our presence disturbing it, but what mystery do we want to solve? Discourse on animals’ private world often visualises an untouched and mysterious natural world, compared to artificial, knowable and urbane society. Connected animals may offer a tangible bridge to cross this romanticised binary.
CONNECTED ANIMALS + AGENCY
There is no ethical question posed on entering the private lives of animals. We feel no qualms about transforming animals from analogue to digital beings.
To date, we have conceptualised the internet of living things in terms of human agency. We talk about protecting, monitoring and using connected animals, and emphasis a higher moral good.
But this is only one side of the story. We cannot denote agency so simplistically. So what language shall we use to denote this hybrid agency showcased in the internet of living things? And how do we avoid reifying subject / object / living / non-living categories?
Donna Harroway, Bruno Latour, Gilles Deleuze, all attempt to understand life as “a process of becoming through knotty assemblages of humans, other species, and things” (Ogden, Hall & Tanita, 2013). Perhaps we can understand this by contemplating the component parts of connected animals that together constitute a new and complex whole.
The internet of living things untethers our isolated attention on human agency, shifting it towards the agency of animals themselves. Take, for instance, transponders fixed onto cow collars and combined with automated milking machines which reveals that cows prefer to be milked around six times a day rather than twice. The internet of things complicates notions of agency; it emphasises the perspective and desires of animals themselves. On a fantastical note, the question therefore remains; what would PermaLamb themselves envisage for their own fantasy future?
Guo S, Qiang M, Luan X et al. (2015) The application of the Internet of Things to animal ecology. Integrative Zoology 10, 572–8
Ogden, Laura, Hall, Billy, Tanito, Kimiko, (2013) Animals, Plants, People, and Things, A review of Multispecies Ethnography, Environment and Society: Advances in Research, 4 (2013): 5–24, Berghahn Books, doi:10.3167/ares.2013.040102
Swyngedouw, Erik (1996) The city as a hybrid: On nature, society and cyborg urbanization, Capitalism Nature Socialism, 7:2, 65-80, DOI: 10.1080/10455759609358679