Friday, 2 June 2017

Diane Michelfelder: Are we smart enough to design ‘smart’ cities with attention to the interests of urban wildlife?

To celebrate the tracks on technology and the city at CEPE/ETHICOMP and SPT 2017, we will publish a series of interviews. The first interview is with Dr. Diane Michelfelder. She will be presenting her paper titled ‘Urban Landscapes and the Techno-Animal Condition’ as part of the Technology and the City special track as SPT 2017. The interview has been conducted in May 2017 by Taylor Stone, one of the co-organizers of the “Technology and the City” track at SPT.

Can you tell us about yourself? Who is Diane Michelfelder?

By trade, I am a philosopher. Specifically, I am professor of philosophy at Macalester College, a liberal arts college in Minnesota. Much of my research, as well as my teaching, takes place at the intersection of 20th century European philosophy and the philosophy of technology. When I was in graduate school, I never gave a thought to the philosophy of technology. But, when I came out of graduate school and got my first job, it was at Cal Poly, so a natural spot for that interest to develop. I had the good fortune while there to participate in a National Endowment for the Humanities Summer Institute at Penn State, directed by Carl Mitcham and Leonard Waks on “Rethinking Technology: The Philosophy of Technology since World War II.” As the familiar expression goes, that changed everything. It led to my becoming very involved in the Society for Philosophy and Technology. I was SPT president from 2007-2009, and since 2014 I’ve been the Editor-in-Chief of SPT’s journal, Techné: Research in Philosophy and Technology, along with Neelke Doorn of TU-Delft. I am also quite active in fPET, the Forum for Philosophy, Engineering, and Philosophy, an informal society which I helped organize and which meets in alternate years to SPT.

What brought you to ‘the city’ as a research topic?

Good question. One strand of my interest in “the city” as a research topic, especially when it comes to matters such as the Internet of Things, self-driving vehicles, and the goods they promote, is tied to the philosophy of technology. But I’m also interested in the city from another perspective. Once I lived in a small rural town with no stores and no postal delivery service. It did though have lots of wildlife, and for some reason—maybe I really missed living in an urban environment?—I got to thinking about ethical issues related to urban animals, particularly about what kinds of responsibilities we have toward them. While these two strands of interest might seem quite different from one another, I think they have something in common. As cities become “smarter” by becoming more driven by algorithmic representations, some values become more pronounced and cultivated, while others become at risk of getting passed over and ignored. It’s the latter that I’m interested in the most. I have a recent paper, “Risk, Disequilibrium, and Virtue” about this, in Technology in Society. It’s the same with urban wildlife. They are the Instagrams of the animal world—here one moment and gone the next. They are also not easily amenable to being categorized, and so as a result they’ve tended to slip under the radar of philosophical inquiry.

Your forthcoming paper at SPT 2017 – ‘Urban Landscapes and the Techno-Animal Condition’  – will focus on how technological artifacts reinforce perceptions of wildlife as non-human ‘Others.’ Can you elaborate on how technologies perpetuate and/or reinforce such perceptions? What sorts of ethical concerns, both salient and obscure, do you see arising from this?

There are multiple ways in which technologies act to reinforce the perception of wildlife as non-human others. For example, think of the popularity of webcams found across the US that are focused on the nests of breeding pairs of urban eagles. The hatching, feeding, and fledgling of the baby birds has become a kind of public spectacle; we eagerly click on our tablets or iPhones to watch them but do not necessarily draw closer to them, and vice-versa, through this activity. Images from trail cams arguably “otherize” wildlife even more than webcams, as they capture an animal’s movements in black and white, which makes a creature such as a cougar appear to be more sinister than it actually is. Technologies like these, launched with good intentions, can also work to feed the perception that urban wildlife are little more than pests to be relocated or eradicated. Probably the poster child for this was the initial 2002 rollout of Toronto’s “green bins”, which, for the city’s raccoons, amounted to having a food truck located at every household intended just for them. But urban wildlife corridors, constructed with the best of intentions so that animals can move and forage freely, can also “otherwise” wildlife by keeping them apart and invisible from human city dwellers.

Have you encountered any urban designs, artifacts, or policies that promote and facilitate positive interactions between humans and wildlife, and that can be seen as an example of best practice?

One of the developments I find promising has to do with changing perceptions and policies in the US regarding feral cats. An organization that comes to mind here is Alley Cat Allies. ACA accepts as a basic premise that we have positive moral responsibilities toward feral cats, including giving them protective shelters so they can better survive during the winter. City officials in Atlantic City, New Jersey, for example, turned to ACA to control the populations of cat colonies through trap-neuter-release rather than by exterminating the cats as though they were pests. Since these cats congregate under the iconic boardwalk in Atlantic City, they are routinely seen by tourists, who in turn have the opportunity to learn more about the work of the ACA. More recently, some city humane shelters are adopting out feral cats as “working cats” who have “jobs” controlling rodent populations in technological habitats such as warehouses and the like. And building urban parks along abandoned railroad tracks is a great way of bringing people, wildlife, technology, and nature together. The High Line in New York really stands out here, but there are others like it as well.

Another creative use of technology with regard to urban wildlife is its use in just figuring out where wildlife are actually hanging out. That’s the aim of Chicago’s Lincoln Park Zoo’s Urban Wildlife Conservation Program, which just a few months ago went national in scope. It uses motion cameras and audio equipment set up in and around Chicago to do a “wildlife scan” four times a year lasting for eight months each; they have over a million images which citizen scientists can identify online. Imagine the maps that could be created from this big data set! Just making urban wildlife more visible by such means could contribute to individuals and communities assuming positive responsibilities for their well-being.

Central to your paper is the role of technologies in human-wildlife relations. How has the philosophy of technology engaged with animal and wildlife issues to date? Do you see a gap here, or need for further work by philosophers of technology?

More generally, your paper can be seen as a work of both philosophy of technology and environmental philosophy. What opportunities and challenges do you see for interaction between these fields of research? And, how do you see city-focused research contributing to (or hindering) their interaction?

From their beginning in the 1970s, inquiry in the philosophy of technology and environmental ethics developed along two separate tracks. Apart from raising questions about our relations to animals in the context of agriculture and biotechnology (I’m thinking primarily of Paul Thompson’s work here, of course), the philosophy of technology has understandably tended to take engineered objects themselves as its main focus of consideration, whether epistemological or ethical, and conceded interest in animals to other disciplines. Even when its investigations have expanded to look at issues related to the environment, such as the relation between technologically intensive ways of living and climate change, animals have been neglected. One philosopher of technology who is interested in expanding philosophy of technology’s tent of inquiry to include thinking about animals is Ashley Shew Heflin. Ashley wants to shift our perceptions to give animals their due as tool-users and to show how including animals within the “tent” can make a difference for understanding what it is to be homo faber. But to go back to your question about whether there’s a gap in current philosophy of technology with respect to animals, the answer is: Absolutely yes. I hope the approach I’m taking of adopting the city as a starting point in thinking about our ethical responsibilities toward urban wildlife would be a step toward addressing that gap as well as helping to bridge the fields of philosophy of technology and environmental ethics themselves.

Besides your own work, what readings would you recommend for someone interested in the relationship between cities, technologies, and urban wildlife?

Sure, I have a few suggestions. Clare Palmer’s seminal article Placing Animals in Urban Environmental Ethics (2003) is a must-read, along with her 2010 book Animal Ethics in Context. Sue Donaldson’s and Will Kymlicka’s Zoopolis, their thoughtful and provocative study aimed at developing a theory of animal “citizenship” is another key work. I’ve certainly been inspired by (as well as critical of) their view that urban wildlife are “liminal creatures”—neither truly wild or truly domesticated—and what follows from that with respect to what we owe them. Erin Luther’s Tales of Cruelty and Belonging: In Search of An Ethic for Urban Human-Wildlife Relations (2013) — which takes an incident involving Toronto’s raccoons as its point of departure — and Thom van Dooren’s and Deborah Bird Rose’s Storied Places in a Multi-Species City (2012) are also well worth reading. Both of these papers take seriously the idea that urban areas offer the possibility of “shared places” within which humans and wildlife can fruitfully coexist. From a “feet/paws” in the field research angle, there’s a lot of interesting work being done by the Center for Urban Resilience.

What recommendations do you have for either urban designers or citizens regarding how to engage with urban wildlife?

Riffing on the title of the most recent book by Frans de Waal, Are We Smart Enough to Know How Smart Animals Are?, I wonder: Are we smart enough to design “smart” cities with attention not only to the interests of their human inhabitants but of urban wildlife as well? In the rush to make cities “smarter”, I worry they may end up being less hospitable and less friendly to urban wildlife than they already are. So for urban planners, policy makers, and all others involved in creating the AI-driven elements of these cities of the future, I’d recommend being vigilant to make sure that designs work to promote the interests of both human and non-human animals who inhabit these spaces. Recently I read, for instance, that the sensors on Google’s self-driving cars can’t detect a squirrel crossing the street in front of it, and so wouldn’t slow up to avoid it. That’s simply not acceptable. On a more positive note, I also saw while on a recent test drive in San Francisco at night a self-driving Chevy Bolt appeared to slow down for an animal crossing the road. What sort of animal? You guessed it… it was a raccoon.

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