An illustration of an eye ball on a phone screen.
Print zine imagery by Christopher Goggs

In the latest provocation for The Cost of Convenience, Brenda McNally explores how digital tools are reshaping socio-ecological relations.

Our daily lives are dominated by images.

Today, we live in, and through, digital media which are made consumer-friendly by prioritising the visual content.

Within this context, questions about what is made visible and how seeing, knowing and power are related, are essential to understanding the impacts of digital media on contemporary society.

However, these questions also apply to the use of digital participatory technologies which are fundamentally changing our way of seeing and encountering nature.

Citizen engagement with the climate and biodiversity crisis is considered essential to enabling the radical social transformations required to address these challenges in a democratic way.

These engagement processes are increasingly mediated, drawing on a range of digital participatory technologies, such as drone technology, AR/VR, geolocation platforms and visual apps to emotionally and experientially engage citizens through geometric abstraction of nature, place and landscape.

“What are the environmental impacts of this ‘extractive gaze’ and cartographication?”

While government and local authority actors understandably focus on the efficiency and effectiveness of these tools compared to traditional engagement initiatives, we must also ask how digital tools are reshaping socio-ecological relations.

For example, drone technology is increasingly deployed to engage citizens via film, documentary and advertising with nature and the environment.

However, these dramatic images also represent nature as geometric abstractions, thereby visually separating people from nature, and normalising existing unsustainable nature/society hierarchies.

Similarly, critics of participatory mapping technologies argue that these new ways of seeing radically change our experience of geographic knowledge from the God’s-eye view of the map to the embedded subjectivity of GPS.

In doing so, these visually spectacular renderings of nature subordinate the land to human purposes, perpetuating and justifying existing power relations.

This raises the question, what are the environmental impacts of this ‘extractive gaze’ and cartographication?

As digital participatory technologies increasingly dominate citizen engagement initiatives with environmental challenges, we need to ask: what is being prioritised and marginalised in these new nature/society encounters and with what future environmental impacts?

Most significantly,  how do we balance the need for increased, democratised participation, with the associated costs of data intensification and the normalisation of unsustainable socio-ecological relations?

Dr Brenda McNally, School of Architecture, Planning and Environmental Policy, University College Dublin

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