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Erica von Essen, Lara Tickle and Anke Fischer Title :The Virtual Animal: What does Digital Technology Mean for Animal Justice?

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10:30 AM, Sunday 20 Jun 2021 (30 minutes)
  Virtual session
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The Virtual Animal: What does Digital Technology Mean for Animal Justice?


Erica von Essen

Lara Tickle

Anke Fischer

The reach of digital technology into animal lives has enabled remote relations of intimacy between humans and non-human animals. This relation is championed as less invasive, more sustainable, and better informed than physical encounters with animals, who may experience stress from repeat tourism and visitor pressure. Nevertheless, the turn toward monetizing biosurveillance, though digital walkalongs with animals, 24h nest cams, or virtual feeding sessions with wildlife, also engenders new risks that have not yet been problematized in relation to animal justice and dignity. The covid-19 lockdown saw a rapid rise in digitally mediated interactions with animals, but the replacement of physical encounters with virtual ones – something which animals struggle to understand – imparted fundamental differences in the human-animal relation and, according to some news media, was a source of anxiety for some socially conditioned animals habituated to human presence.

In the following paper, we take a critical and forward-oriented look at the evolving forms of digital technologies to replace, complement, or parallel live encounters with animals. We review emerging media, platforms and apps that offer virtual animal encounters on the basis of (1) what these require of the animals; (2) what the type of engagement offered is; and (3) what implications these have on animal justice and dignity, human-animal relations, and the future of commercial biosurveillance.

Drawing from the fields of ecoinformatics, biopolitics and citizen science, our point of departure is to examine what aspects of animality are drawn into these livestreams for tourists. We ask: is the source of these virtual animals’ live footage from cameras mounted directly in animal dens, are they indices, artefacts or sounds, as in some forms of tracking tourism, or are they transmissions from geolocators, thermal cameras and audio sensors? Finally, we discuss the source of this ‘raw data’ in terms of originating from zoos, being a byproduct of the biosurveillance of wildlife managers, or from citizens’ own backyard cameras.

Our paper raises broader questions about the ‘Brave New World’ of animal tourism, its pseudo-physicality, the mediated gaze it implies, avatars, smartphone technology and increasingly elaborate regimes of biosurveillance. It also considers the agency of animals in authoring their own narratives in tourism, as livestreams have been said to be less curated footage to fit into an ideological frame and more on the animals’ own terms. Here, we conclude with examples of animals disobeying, sabotaging or manipulating the technology that aims to capture their lives for tourists and visitors.

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