Issue #025 Published: 26-07-2019 // Written by: Rosie Fawbert Mills

The Digital Age in the Anthropozoic era

Through TV and cinema screens, in magazines and newspapers and event photographs from space, we know.  Walking along a road in a city, town or the countryside, we know.  There is enough proof that we have had - and always will have - a huge and often devastating effect on the natural world.

In the late 1800s a phrase was born: Anthropocene. Italian geologist Stoppani reportedly coined it in an acknowledgement that humans were increasingly having an influence on the ‘Earth’s systems’. The Anthropozoic era is ‘the current geological age defined by human activity having the greatest impact on the climate and environment.’ This is our era. This is our now.

Local Amsterdam venue OT301 hosted a discussion in March with Geologist and artist Brian Holmes: “Watershed Maps: Ecological Struggles in the Americas”. An evening involving art, the representation of pollution and environmental damage and political mobilization in the Anthropocene.  His work includes maps that challenge perspectives as he tries to fuse together the abstract and tangible into something that can form the basis of cultural collectivism.  ‘Living Rivers’ shows the ‘black snake’ oil pipeline through Illinois and other artworks change state boundaries into areas called mega regions: ‘Cascadia’, in the USA or Europe. He says we’re in a post-natural world that includes humans and all their manifestations. ‘Eco-socialism’ is the future: humans working with nature. Otherwise, with foreboding he warned that, “the Earth will not last or the Earth won’t take it any more”.

This isn’t groundbreaking news. In 2014, The Guardian published satellite images of the dried up Aral Sea Basin - the outcome of over production in cotton due to increasing demand. Writer, Transy Hoskins, blames “the fashion industry” as being “linked to the environmental devastation in the Central Asian inland sea”(1). The producer and consumer need to equally take a look in the mirror (or their wardrobe) and take responsibility for the damaging effects fashions are having on our world.

Fortunately, there are movements promoting change: encouraging up-cycled, second hand fashion and the reusing material.  Scientists abundant, environmentalists and activists are all reaching out to the public and to politicians globally to listen and act.
Amsterdam Alternative, Extinction Rebellion and others are spreading the message.  Popular British presenter David Attenborough has taken to the public stage to hammer home the message about ACTING NOW to protect what’s left of the natural world (ok, rather than ‘hammer’ he sort of gently serenades us with a sad soliloquy).  The serene but serious tone of Attenborough is being relied on as a spokesman to relay the truth to the public. He claims: “We are, quite frankly, wiping out entire ecosystems without even noticing”. Blue Planet II was watched by millions; it was credited with highlighting the issue of plastic pollution and pushing it up the political agenda.

Conversely, critics of Attenborough claim that documentaries like this dodge the more fundamental problems like industrial fishing and overconsumption. One such critic, George Monbiot, states: “By downplaying our environmental crisis, the presenter’s BBC films have generated complacency, confusion and ignorance.” He even goes so far as accusing “Attenborough’s environmentalism [of having a] coherent theme, it is shifting the blame”(2). Can you blame a person for trying? According to Monbiot, you can.
But how might the digital world and new digital age play a part in this Anthropocene?

Consider the use of the internet - the old, beep beep beep routers and modems are gathering dust, relics of a not-to-distant past. Now you can access infinite possibilities from the flick of a finger, a tap of a tablet and from the comfort of your phone, which conveniently fits in your pocket. The first computer - catchily named ENIAC - is a far cry from the adept, sleek and shiny handsets we have today(3).  Who’d have imagined that in post-World War 1946?  Orwell or Asimov perhaps.

Marshall McLuhan cited that all digital items are ‘bodily extensions’ due to the increasing use of media as central to human life; it has taken a ‘mediality’: existing as the place in the middle of or in between all things.  The innovation, interaction and immersive world that the digital age has to offer its users promises of a future of development. Clever technology creates an illusion of control, power and progress which we are increasingly dependent on. However, according to weforum.org, “reaching the most disadvantaged and truly transforming their circumstances requires a significant shift in mindset.” With ongoing hacking scandals we might (rightly) worry about the dependency on digital systems.
Most people have access to the internet and immeasurable mounds of information but are we able to deal with this information correctly?

We are not predetermined, genetically, to read. We are genetically programmed to be able to and to want to communicate, orally or otherwise but to read we have to be taught. M. Wolf, in her book ‘Proust and the Squid: The Story and Science of the Reading Brain’ (2008), describes the “Google universe” that her children, and all of humanity’s children, are growing up in: “Will the constructive component at the heart of reading begin to change and potentially atrophy as we shift to computer-presented text, in which massive amounts of information appear instantaneously?” She also wonders whether the old and the new can exist harmoniously side by side: “can we preserve the constructive dimension of reading in our children alongside their growing abilities to perform multiple tasks and to integrate ever expanding amounts of information?”

In the meantime, if we can use our technological know-how to reduce the negative impact of humanity on the climate and environment, I am all for it. Otherwise we’ll need to coin a new name for the ‘post-geological world defined by humanity’s ultimate destruction of the Earth’s systems’.

1. www.theguardian.com/sustainable-business/sustainable-fashion-blog/2014/oct/01/cotton-production-linked-to-images-of-the-dried-up-aral-sea-basin
2. David Attenborough has betrayed the living world he loves, The Guardian Online 7 Nov 2018
3. For more on technological advancements: pwc.nl

Photo: AA-IS