Design, as a discipline, is all-too-often expected to offer practicable, marketable solutions – especially in the context of climate change. I’m more interested in the role design can play outside of commercial contexts: as a research tool, or a tool to expand imaginations. In a world already flooded with ‘stuff,’ and in the face of problems as knotty as the global climate crisis, there must be room for more experimental, interdisciplinary, and open-ended design approaches, and for design outcomes which prioritize bringing about shifts in behaviors and value systems over generating profit.
In line with this, my contribution to Eco-Scenarios: Performing “Scale Critique” – the recent workshop at THE NEW INSTITUTE– explored the role of (and possibilities for) remote sensing technologies in shaping our relationship to planetary ecologies, drawing on excerpts from my ongoing research project NO_POLE.
What role does remote sensing imagery play in regions otherwise inaccessible to humans? How are these digital ‘scenes’ and ‘scenarios’ of ecologies constructed, and by whom? What new kinds of environmental narratives could they inspire?
Over the past decades, particularly from the 1970s onwards, more and more of the planet has been wired up, forming what journalist Neil Gross calls “the Earth’s electronic skin”. The Arctic Ocean for example – which is where my research is sited – has become an intricate landscape of sensing instruments and infrastructures. Polar-orbiting satellites track icebergs and observe wildlife; airguns trace undersea topographies; biochemical sensors float in the drift ice; radar stations collect atmospheric data; and hydrophones listen for underwater sounds. Even narwhals are recruited as remote sensors: fitted with radio transmitters to collect data from beneath the ice sheets, in areas otherwise impossible for researchers to access. Increasingly, we navigate the region through senses other than our own.
Tasked with siphoning data from their surroundings and transmitting digital fragments of the Arctic Ocean across the globe, the instruments are able to shape imaginaries of a region few will ever encounter in person. Maps, models, and surveys pieced together from pixels and data effectively become placeholders for the physical landscape and stage-sets for international decision-making: steering conservation strategies, climate policy, economic activity, and geopolitical affairs.
However, no matter how much data is collected – the polar ecologies are too complex to be captured by abstract digital models, and too vast to be stored on computer servers and silicone chips. The production of remote sensing imagery demands calculated decision-making: what data is worth recording, and what should be left out? How is data tidied, processed and interpolated?
As a result, remote sensing imagery of the far north is never neutral or objective, but rather shaped by the agendas of those producing the images – by extractive industries and nation states. Skewed by a focus on trade, resource extraction, territorial expansion, and a computable systems view of ecologies: these are the versions of the Arctic Ocean we see.