Matters of Concern: What's in an Ecotopian Toolkit? Part III

In this series, four of the presenters for Ecotopian Toolkit for the Anthropocene reflect on a number of concerns that emerged from the conversations throughout the conference's three days. Representing different fields and academic disciplines, the four women offer various perspectives while pondering the following questions: what might an Ecotopian Toolkit look like? How do “we” build one? What tools might “we” want to include?


Artist rendering of Penrith Lakes, Sydney. Source: Daily Telegraph.

Artist rendering of Penrith Lakes, Sydney. Source: Daily Telegraph.

What's in an Ecotopian Toolkit?

By Jennifer Ferng

I was very impressed with the breadth of cross-disciplinary research represented at the Ecotopian Toolkit conference. I wanted to raise two concepts that might help us think through some of the diverse historical and theoretical contexts articulated by many of the conference participants.

The first concept is an idea borrowed from Science Technology Studies – that of, tinkering – detailed by Karin Knorr Cetina and highlights how technologies have been adjusted to fit the particular needs of users. Here it is not so much specific tools being proposed by participants that is important but how scholars, artists, and activists begin to make small or large improvements or adaptations to such tools that matter most. This could include artists or scholars making their tools fulfill the objectives of research or users making a tool work with their needs to solve daily problems.

The second concept is a notion of a public – while I think that most conventional definitions address the public as an audience for the dissemination of research, here at this conference, public engagement and/or participation with environmental thinking and/or environmental studies has been crucial. A public can be useful in understanding how a plurality of voices, opinions, and positions can counteract dominant power patterns (and counterpublics to provide space for marginalized views and disenfranchised participants).


Jennifer Ferng is Lecturer in Architecture at the University of Sydney. She received her PhD from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and holds professional degrees in design from Princeton University and Rice University.

Her talk, "Outback/City: Anthropocenic Tools for Penrith Lakes in Western Sydney" argued for architecture as a tool that connects the past histories of the site with present conservation plans and future use of the region as a tourist destination.

 

Matters of Concern: What's in an Ecotopian Toolkit Part II

In this series, four of the presenters for Ecotopian Toolkit for the Anthropocene reflect on a number of concerns that emerged from the conversations throughout the conference's three days. Representing different fields and academic disciplines, the four women offer various perspectives while pondering the following questions: what might an Ecotopian Toolkit look like? How do “we” build one? What tools might “we” want to include?


WHAT'S IN AN ECOTOPIAN TOOLKIT? 

BY JENNY PRICE

A “toolkit” of course brings to mind its predecessors—perhaps most notably, the Whole Earth Catalog. And while toolkits for tackling environmental problems have generally emphasized technology—what technology can we use and create (in the case of the Whole Earth Catalog, what low-tech technologies)—one of the most interesting things about the toolkit we’ve assembled at this shindig, I think, is the degree to which it does not showcase the importance of technology. It deposes it somewhat, really. Technologies are important, but they occupy a lesser place. They have less agency.

A lot of the proposed tools instead emphasize the importance of ideas and structures—of environment, economy, and so on—and how they reinforce one another. The tools target the assumptions we most take for granted, about our relationships with nature and one another, that fuel and will continue to fuel life in the Anthropocene. They ask what useful technologies might be, but they emphasize the greater importance of questions about who designs technologies, who uses them, why, who benefits, who doesn’t, and so on.

The toolkit de-emphasizes the “We” thinking of previous toolkits—and looks closely instead at “Who.”

On the whole, the toolkit also, really intriguingly, tends to de-emphasize innovation—and instead on insists on revealing what’s here, revealing what’s invisible, recovering, collecting, maintaining.

Take climate change, for example—and how fundamentally different these tools are from those that, say, James Hansen brought to the table: a carbon tax; “the market” as “not a myth” and “a scientific fact”; as well as new energy technologies. This toolkit arms us to understand how “the market” is not a “scientific fact,” that it is in fact a set of myths. It reveals the invisible myths and narratives that have helped make “the market” such a powerful idea and ultimately such a powerful driver of climate change. And by making the invisible visible, it can insist on new and less destructive narratives.

“The market,” like technology, has a lot less agency—than people—than in many previous toolkits.

What are these tools? They emphasize language, art, and projects that allow people to re-experience relationships with nature and one another.   They showcase the powers of play, laughter, storytelling, new-data-getting, and ways to find and use other and missing voices.

What tools are missing? This toolkit is rich and suggestive—but if you had to answer the question, “What’s not here?”…  well, what’s not here?  I’m sure we could answer that in useful and myriad ways, and just as one suggestion—I think we need more institutional tools. Which, again, pushes some against the WEC-style “all solutions are grassroots solutions” approach. As the artist Fritz Haeg emphasizes, “the best place to be radical is at the center,” and I heartily agree. I think the librarian tool-proposers demonstrated wonderfully why institutional change is so important, by showing us profoundly new ways that libraries are gathering and thinking about data and stories.

Finally, how do you create tools that can speak to the unconverted?—to the folks, just as one example, who insist that “the market” is a scientific fact?—rather than a very specific, historically situated set of stories and relationships and values. That is very difficult. And it might be the toolkit’s biggest challenge of all.


Jenny Price is a public writer, artist, & historian. In 2016-17, she is a Visiting Research Associate at the Sam Fox School of Design & Visual Arts at Washington University-St. Louis.

Price's presentation, “SHTEAM: AN ACRONYM FOR THE ANTHROPOCENE,” drew on the yiddish language and history to argue why the humanities are essential for challenges in and of the Anthropocene. 

Matters of Concern: What's in an Ecotopian Toolkit? Part I

In this series, four of the presenters for Ecotopian Toolkit for the Anthropocene reflect on a number of concerns that emerged from the conversations throughout the conference's three days. Representing different fields and academic disciplines, the four women offer various perspectives while pondering the following questions: what might an Ecotopian Toolkit look like? How do “we” build one? What tools might “we” want to include?


Photo Credit: Janette Kim

Photo Credit: Janette Kim

What's in an Ecotopian Toolkit? 

By Janette Kim

We were asked to consider what a toolkit might mean in the context of a book, so I did a quick Google Image search to remind myself how toolkits are set up. They're often red. They’re boxy, and have hinges. Many have foam inserts with little cut-out areas for each tool, in the shape of each object. Toolkits are often equipped with a glove to protect the user from the tools themselves, which might reference many of the points raised throughout this conference—that somewhere between the task at hand and an agent of some kind, then, lie question of the multiple “we’s” that leverage tools, the fashioning of costume as a rhetorical device, and the central role of maintenance in an ecotopian world. Toolkits also have handles. In other words, they’re mobile and un-sited, in a way that resonates with the territories described in the conference over the past couple of days: from gerrymandering and the role of the commons to the idea of adaptive governance.

Interestingly, toolkits have no instructions. (It would be absurd to imagine an instruction manual for a hammer, for example). This might suggest that they operate in undetermined ways, across narratives and ecotopian imaginaries. This might also suggest that tools tap into systems much larger than themselves; systems we have seen this weekend, such as currency, archives, and citizen science networks. In this sense, the toolkit is refreshingly very different from, say, a guidebook or a cookbook, as it lacks prescription or a didactic tone.

Perhaps one potential trap of the toolkit is its instrumentalist or solution-seeking overtone. In contrast, I’m especially interested in a theme that came up several times this week—the theme of erasure—that emerged through the idea of a living ruin, or the selective elimination of devices like the refrigerator as a thought experiment. At the same time, too, I find the reference of the toolkit a refreshingly tangible yet expansive; optimistic yet deadpan point of reference, and one I’ve enjoyed examining with you all at this extraordinary conference.


Janette Kim is our first contributor, whose paper “Win-win: Board Games for a Collective Future” shared interactive board games collectively created to consider questions of housing, urban planning, and social space during times of manmade climate change.

Janette is an architectural designer, researcher, and educator based in the San Francisco Bay Area. Janette is assistant professor of architecture and co-director of the Urban Works Agency at California College of the Arts,founding principal of the design practice All of the Above, and founding editor of ARPA Journal, a digital publication on applied research practices in architecture.

Ecologies of Data Part IV: Data Maintenance

Ecologies of Data Part IV: Data Maintenance

In the final contribution to "Ecologies of Data," Mashinka Firunts explores the labor, gendered politics, and affective registers of data maintenance. Firunts asks, "What does the labor of data maintenance look like? How can we visualize what may appear as invisible work?" 

Assembling an #EcotopianToolkit

Assembling an #EcotopianToolkit

A year ago, we asked what tools we need and require in the #Anthropocene, the proposed name for geological epoch when humans are the most potent force in shaping the earth's systems. Throughout the past three days, artists, activists, academics, and professionals, traveled to #Philadelphia to think and imagine together how an #EcotopianToolkit might look and feel. This first attempt at archiving our conversations may prompt their future continuations...

Ecologies of Data Part III: Circulating Significance in Civic Hacking

In the third contribution to "Ecologies of Data," Etienne Benson ruminates on his research efforts to track federal permits given to American trophy hunters of polar bears in Canada. In Benson's consideration of why, and moreover how, to build Data Refuge, he argues that the translation of environmental data into other formats and media is vital to make data meaningful to diverse communities. Catch up on "Ecologies of Data": Intro, Part I, Part II

Circulating Significance in Civic Hacking

By Etienne Benson

Like the proverbial shark, data dies when it stops moving. Or to use a more familiar metaphor: data refuges are only as good as the paths that lead into and out of them. One of the basic tasks of data rescue is thus to ensure that the data are preserved in a way that allows them to participate in a broader ecosystem of tools, practices, institutions, and projects. Often this requires the construction of tools of translation that allow data to circulate and to become meaningful in domains other than the one in which they were originally produced and preserved. Here I want to describe one such translation effort and some of the lessons I learned from it.

A few years ago I became interested in a peculiar form of government data—namely, federal notices about permit applications for the “taking” of endangered species and marine mammals in the United States. Since the early 1970s, such “takes,” which include killing, injuring, or harassing members of protected species and populations, have been prohibited by the U.S. Endangered Species Act (ESA) and Marine Mammal Protection Act (MMPA). However, because some forms of scientific research, conservation, and education involve prohibited activities—such as the attachment of radiotracking tags, the extraction of tissue samples, or the display of animals in zoos and aquariums—the laws include procedures for issuing permits after proposals have been reviewed by experts and the public. To inform the interested public of pending applications, notices are published in the Federal Register, a regulatory publication established during the New Deal that has been available online since the mid-1990s. The development of this permitting system was a contentious process shaped by the emerging environmental, animal rights, and indigenous rights movements and by public pressures for government transparency in the wake of the Pentagon Papers and the Watergate scandal.

Figure 1: A biologist labeling blood samples taken from a tranquilized polar bear. Source: U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

Figure 1: A biologist labeling blood samples taken from a tranquilized polar bear. Source: U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

As with much government-produced data, however, there is a great deal of translation to be done before they can be used in ways other than those for which they were originally intended.

Permit application notices are not the sort of “environmental data” that we usually think of when we hear the term—that is, they are not data that represent the state of the physical world around us or its effects on our health and well-being. Nonetheless, as a historian of science, I see these notices as a form of environmental data that illuminate the history of efforts to understand and conserve endangered species and those efforts’ ongoing legacies today. Such data offer a rich, if partial, view of research and conservation activities that require interaction with or proximity to individual members of protected species. As with much government-produced data, however, there is a great deal of translation to be done before they can be used in ways other than those for which they were originally intended. Often formulated in idiosyncratic bureaucratese and buried amid tens of thousands of other regulatory rules and notices, they are public without necessarily being publicly accessible.

Figure 2: Volumes of the print version of the Federal Register, which runs to tens of thousands of pages each year. Source: Office of the Federal Register. 

Figure 2: Volumes of the print version of the Federal Register, which runs to tens of thousands of pages each year. Source: Office of the Federal Register. 

In the mid-1990s, the MMPA’s process for issuing permits to “take” marine mammals was amended for a new and somewhat surprising purpose: to encourage American sport hunters to kill Canadian polar bears.

In the hope of making such data meaningful in a new context and for new purposes, and as a way of teaching myself something about the possibilities and limits of civic hacking, I developed a web app called TrophySource to visualize data extracted from a particularly interesting variety of permit notice. In the mid-1990s, the MMPA’s process for issuing permits to “take” marine mammals was amended for a new and somewhat surprising purpose: to encourage American sport hunters to kill Canadian polar bears. As enacted in 1972, the MMPA had prohibited the import of most marine mammal parts, including polar bear skins, skulls, and claws. In the meantime, Canadian polar bear populations had been thriving, Inuit communities had developed lucrative guide operations serving non-indigenous trophy hunters, and American hunters had grown increasingly frustrated at being locked out of the Canadian hunt. In 1994, responding to these opportunities and pressures, the U.S. Congress amended the MMPA to allow sport hunters to be issued permits to import trophies from Canada, with the understanding that the money they spent in Canada would go partly toward maintaining its world-class polar bear research and conservation system.  

Figure 3: Notices of permit application for polar bear trophy imports. Source: Federal Register, Vol. 73, No. 92, Monday, May 12, 2008, p. 27005

 

From 1997 to 2008, more than 900 permits were issued to American hunters from every state except Hawaii to import the trophies of polar bears harvested from approved Canadian populations. Because it was framed as a conservation measure and implemented under the procedures established to allow “taking” under both the ESA and MMPA, the permitting process nominally involved the same public notice in the Federal Register, the same expert review, and the same 30-day public comment period as a scientist’s study or a zoo’s captive breeding program. An accident of the way the trophy import program was shoehorned into an existing legislative framework, the “public” nature of this procedure was largely pro forma. As far as I know, there were no public hearings held about individual permit applications, and few if any applications were rejected during the eleven years that the program was in operation.

 

Nonetheless, this legislative quirk meant that significant data about permit applicants—including their names, towns, and the source populations from which they had acquired their trophies—had become public information. Collecting and visualizing it, I thought, might tell me something about the kinds of people who hunted polar bears while serving to call attention to the complex and contradictory ways in which trophy hunting was linked to conservation programs.

Manually downloading the relevant notices would have been straightforward if time-consuming, but I wanted to see if a more automated approach was feasible. Luckily, a web interface and easy-to-use API had been developed as part of the Federal Register 2.0 project, which was launched in 2010 as part of the U.S. National Archives’ Open Government Plan. This API vastly simplified the process of accessing the hundreds of polar bear permit applications scattered throughout tens of thousands of pages of regulatory notices; it is especially useful for tracking regulatory developments as they occur, although in the case of polar bear trophy permits all the relevant notices had already been published. Using this API, I wrote a small program in Python to download all the polar bear permit notifications and to parse out the hunters’ names and towns of residence, the dates of application and permit issuance, and the polar bear populations from which the trophies came. On the basis of that data, and with the help of open-source toolkits such as the Leaflet mapping library, I wrote a short program in Javascript that made it possible to visualize and explore all 900-plus applications on an interactive map of North America. 

Figure 4: A screenshot of the TrophySource web app. Source: Author

Figure 4: A screenshot of the TrophySource web app. Source: Author

While the web site that resulted accomplished the technical goals I had set out for myself, the project had some serious limitations as an exercise in civic hacking. For one thing, by the time I began working on it, the import program was no longer active, having been rendered moot by the listing of the polar bear as “threatened” under the ESA in 2008 due to the threat of anthropogenic climate change. Even if the program had still been in operation, however, it is not clear what a geographical visualization of the data could have been used for, beyond simply informing the public about the number and general location of American polar bear hunters. Deeper connections to ongoing issues of advocacy and public awareness were missing. Moreover, from a scholarly standpoint, while there was a certain interest in seeing where polar bear hunters lived, the only clear patterns that emerged were ones that would have been easy to confirm without such a tool. It did not surprise me, for example, to find that virtually all polar bear trophy hunters have typically male names. I am quite sure that there are more interesting patterns to be found, but the data available from the Federal Register alone did make them visible. Among other hypotheses, my hunch that Texas would pan out to be the preferred habitat of the American polar bear hunter did not pan out.

Why do some projects in civic hacking fail while others thrive? I have found some conceptual resources for answering this question in the work of Bruno Latour, particularly a 1995 article initially published in the journal Common Knowledge under the impish title “The ‘Pedofil’ of Boa Vista.” Later republished as “Circulating Reference,” the article traced the transformation of soil samples into scientific facts by a team of Brazilian and French scientists. The “pedofil” in question was the perverse nickname given by the soil scientists (a.k.a. pedologists) to an instrument known as a Topofil, which allowed them to precisely measure distances in the field. For Latour, the significance of the “pedofil” was that it was one of a series of devices and practices that bridged the gap between the particularities of fieldwork and the disembodied facts that would later circulate through the scientific community and beyond. They were what ultimately brought words and things into relation—not through a sudden leap over an ontological abyss, Latour argued, but through the circulation of reference along a chain of careful and partial transformations. If any one of the links in the chain failed—if, for instance, the logbook that told scientists where and when a soil sample had been collected was lost—the data would lose its value, becoming once again what it had been at the beginning: just dirt.

Just as chains of reference give scientists confidence that the numbers and images they are manipulating in the laboratory will tell them something about the world, these devices and practices give members of the public ways of making data meaningful in their own lives.

Something similar happens or, just as often, fails to happen when a dataset is “made public,” or when a new app based on open government data is developed. Behind the dataset lie the chains of reference described by Latour, which assure users that it accurately represents something in the world—for example, that the notice of a permit issued to a polar bear trophy hunter published in the Federal Register ultimately tells us something about the death of a bear. To believe this, we need to have faith in the techniques and institutions that link bears, guides, hunters, customs agents, environmental NGOs, federal regulators, scientific advisors, and many other actors of diverse kinds. But simply ensuring the integrity of that chain is not enough to make the data accessible and meaningful to a broader public. “In front” of the dataset, so to speak, lie not chains of reference, but chains of significance, comprised of series of mediating devices, practices, and institutions that make it possible for people to care about the data in particular ways and for particular purposes. This does not happen by itself; for the dataset to become a matter of public concern, a new assemblage of mediating devices and practices must be constructed. Just as chains of reference give scientists confidence that the numbers and images they are manipulating in the laboratory will tell them something about the world, these devices and practices give members of the public ways of making data meaningful in their own lives. 

The success of such projects depends on recognizing that a piece of code, no matter how sophisticated, is at best only a single link in a longer and more complex chain of significance, and that the real test of success is not whether the data is represented accurately or even beautifully, but whether it becomes capable of circulating in ways that bridge the gap between data and matters of public concern.

Ultimately, this is the main lesson I learned from my foray into civic hacking: that the success of such projects depends on recognizing that a piece of code, no matter how sophisticated, is at best only a single link in a longer and more complex chain of significance, and that the real test of success is not whether the data is represented accurately or even beautifully, but whether it becomes capable of circulating in ways that bridge the gap between data and matters of public concern. This happens, as Latour’s work on facts suggests, not through a single cynicism-defying leap, but rather through the patient construction of tools and practices that make data progressively more meaningful to more people as one moves along the chain. Data that are both true and meaningful require building and maintaining the chains that extend in both directions—those going back toward the world they are intended to represent, and those going forward toward the people who might use them to make a better world.

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Etienne Benson is an Assistant Professor in the Department of History and Sociology of Science interested in the history of ecology, environmentalism, and human-animal relationships. He has been a postdoctoral fellow at the Harvard University Center for the Environment, a research scholar at the Max Planck Institute for the History of Science in Berlin, and a visiting scholar at the Rachel Carson Center in Munich. He teaches courses on environmental history and the history of science and technology. Check out his work at http://etiennebenson.com.