Connectivity of green and blue infrastructures: living veins for biodiverse and healthy cities

Data, representation and personhood

It is easy to attribute all kinds of transformational social powers to our increasing technological capacities to sense, track and analyse.

As I have mentioned before, the Global Data Ecosystem is supposed to save nature, and this intersects with similar arguments about smart green cities. A recent opinion piece for the Guardian (https://www.theguardian.com/cities/2020/jan/17/the-case-for-cities-where-youre-the-sensor-not-the-thing-being-sensed?utm_source=newsletter&utm_medium=email&utm_campaign=the_cost_of_inaction&utm_term=2020-01-24) suggests that the multiplication of sensors in smart technologies and smart cities has the effect of reducing the persons who are being sensed to mere things: “just another thing to be sensed and acted upon from a distance, generally by unaccountable algorithms seeking to corral us into altering our conduct to maximise returns to their manufacturers’ shareholders.” The author asks, “why isn’t it creepy for you to know when the next bus is due, but it is creepy for the bus company to know that you’re waiting for a bus?” His answer seems to be that things, such as buses, don’t have a privacy interest, whereas people do. His proposed to solution is that smart cities and their smart technolgies should only collect information about things, and systematically fail to collect personally-identified information about people. This, he claims, is equivalent to people actively and autonomously sensing, and things being passively sensed. When you are waiting at the smart bus stop, the smart bus network knows that a human is at the bus stop, but not which human.

While trying to recall what the author’s argument was while writing the above paragraph, I had a clear image of the person, stripped of their identity, represented as an anonymous thing by the bus stop sensor. It is not clear to me that anonymity creates or preserves personhood.

First of all, as I noted previously (http://www.bioveins.eu/blog/surveillance-and-urban-nature) relations of care are fundamental to the perception of meaning, whether in the sense of having a meaningful role in society, a meaningful life, or perceiving meaning and patterns in the environments where we live. Relations of care recognise the personhood of others: they are perhaps the fundamental social act of creating persons. Yet caring for or about another person is not constrained by anonymity. Random acts of kindness are one of the redeeming features of urban life. A project like Humans of New York (https://www.humansofnewyork.com) shows how empathy and the act of listening can be very powerful without (or indeed because of not) knowing the identity or any other background information about the person being listened to. One of the fears associated with bureaucracies in general, and specifically the use of algorithms to target information and to allocate opportunities (e.g. access to loans), is that the individual person is reduced to a stereotype or a model, stripped of their narrative, their mitigating circumstances, their contradictory interests, their urgent and particular needs and desires. Real person-to-person emotional and social interaction, and the discretionary capacities of persons to care about and for other persons in spite of rules or algorithms is what “humanizes” such public and private services and makes them bearable. Discretionary care does not improve the representation of personhood in a database. It neither increases nor decreases the level of anonymity accorded to persons. Treating someone like a person, and their level of anonymity, are independent.

Secondly, there is no clear distinction between persons and things. As I argue here (https://aesengagement.wordpress.com/2019/09/10/things-that-are-not-alive-but-which-may-be-alive-in-a-certain-way-an-interdisciplinary-essay-on-a-relational-theory-of-life/), “How we interact with and come into relations with other things conditions what we know about them.” In that case I am talking about whether we consider things to be alive or not, but an argument about which things we consider to be persons would be very similar. Humans are quite adept at both treating things generally agreed to be persons as less than persons (“dehumanizing” them), and at treating both other biota and objects as persons or as having various attributes of personhood—for example, variations on animacy attribute not only the fact of being alive to other things, but implicate them in a sociality involving various kinds of interpersonal attention, care, communication, negotiation, etc.

From a different perspective, we should also note that the blurred line between person and thing is not uniquely human. The concept of Umwelt, or the environment as percieved with the sensory biases of particular species, helps us to understand how a person to one is a thing to another, and vice versa. The poor tick, who is always asked to perform at this juncture, will do: the tick perceives basically just three things about the external environment: gravity, warmth and butyric acid. The smell of butyric acid allows the tick to find a mammal to jump onto and eat from; the warmth is a proxy that suggests it is alive and has blood. The rabbit or horse in question is surely a person from its own perspective, or from the perspective of some other rabbits, horses, or humans, for example. For the tick, it is just a smell, a food source, a “thing”, a sensory input, a datapoint. This is no different from the experience of the smart bus stop. Nor is it very different from the passport control officer, who sees the identity document and a dossier of centralized information about every person who crosses the border, but may or may not amuse himself by chatting in a friendly manner with those people. The tick and the bus stop sensor do not have a lot of facultative control over what they treat as persons vs. things. The passport control officer has a small range of discretion in this area.

In any ecological system, everything alive both senses and is sensed. If you can sense things in the environment, you may be a person from some perspective or other. If you are being sensed, you may be being understood as a thing by someone else. This is not inherently bad. Your thingness allows others to interact with you given their perceptual capacities and the extent to which your impingement on or constitution of their world is interesting to them.

Emanuele Coccia, in his contribution to our symposium round table (http://www.bioveins.eu/blog/greening-cities-symposium-what-happened), suggested that by giving legal statutes of personhood to other living beings we can reformulate our relationship to nature (he has written about this elsewhere, see e.g. https://aoc.media/opinion/2019/10/01/les-arbres-disent-nous/?fbclid=IwAR2RCMogGYqQCFV_f5ql2xF77WMmUV7vd7rSAxK6tm0hS8zlZMc8dNExQMQ). Some rivers around the world have been given legal personhood, similar to the personhood of corporations. There are, of course, biosemiotic and communication issues here: rivers with juridical personhood are represented by human caretakers who must interpret the rivers’ narratives, their mitigating circumstances, their contradictory interests, their urgent and particular needs and desires. Bruno Latour in particular has written about such issues, suggesting that a politics (an allocation of powers to decide) that includes other species and things must be based on a process of scientific mediation, in which scientific data about nonhumans is communicated by scientist spokespersons to the political domain (Latour 2004). This merges very nicely with a smart city idea: plants, nonhuman animals, fungi and bacteria must be sensed by an extensive and multimodal array of monitoring equipment so that their identities, dynamics and needs can be processed and relayed into a communicable format for political representation. Here, being sensed creates personhood.

The International Panel on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES) process certainly claims to work in this Latourian way: nature is mediated as data, and data is collated and mediated as some kind of formal decision-making process. However, it is not clear to me that personhood enters into or ripples out from such a political system at all: the scientist spokespersons are already persons and the personhood of the nonhumans is not, per se, as I established above, a thing that is captured or mediated by data. Personhood, in my understanding, is constituted in parallel to data about identity and other characteristics of the individual. In fact, the tick’s (supposed) representation of the horse as a “thing” does not, in itself, prevent the tick from also simultaneously understanding the horse as a person. If something is indeed preventing such an understanding, it is the poverty of means for the horse and tick to be persons to one another: body heat and butyric acid emission are not things that the horse can manipulate to attempt to have social relations with the tick. The classic Umwelt story does not relate on what basis ticks have social relations, but assuming that they do have social relations with one another, and that these are not mediated by butyric acid, body heat or gravity, the social worlds and capacities for mutual (or one-way) constitution of personhood of horses and ticks do not intersect.

I am more interested in the micro-politics of discretionary actions that make human and livable our bureaucracies and other technologies of control and decision-making. At the interpersonal behavioural level at which humans are made and recognised, I think we are all more like the tick than like the IPBES. This is true whether we are interacting with an urban tree that is mediated by smart sensors or our own sensory capacities. In short, I doubt that the massification of environmental monitoring will significantly alter our relationship to nature at the level of attributing, ocasionally or always, personhood to other beings in and outside of cities. I also doubt that extending legal statuses to nonhumans will have any particular effect on their personhood, since this can only operate through representations of the same kinds that enter into all bureacracies and are in themselves depersonalizing (no matter how rich in information) rather than the reverse. For me, the problem lies in rethinking the forms and mediations of our interactions—the practices by which we gather knowledge, the practices by which we integrate and act on it. We need algorithms and decision-making processes that are permeable to person-creating or person-recognising interactions.

Cited:
Latour, B. 2004. Politiques de la nature: comment faire entrer les sciences en démocratie. La découverte.

--Meredith Root-Bernstein, 26-1-2020

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