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Canaries in the Clouds

Overture: A Thornbill's Tale

  • Dec 02 2019
  • Boaz Levin and Vera Tollmann

As far as we know, the King Island Brown Thornbill may already be extinct; if not, its extinction is imminent. The likelihood of its permanent disappearance during the next two decades is estimated to be as high as 94%, lending it the dubious honor of leading the grim list of Australian species under threat of extinction (1). What do such numbers tell us about the potential for the species’ survival in facing global warming?  As we write this, more than fifty bushfires are burning in Tasmania—neighboring the Thornbill’s habitat on King Island—and ravaging 99,000 hectares of land in the past month (2). Events of this magnitude are hard to grasp: extreme and alarming, but also abstract and somewhat removed by proximity, but also comprehension – from our lives. How can we act? These exceptionally large fires were caused by a drought and an extreme heatwave that hit this summer in Australia, a country at the forefront of inconvenient truths.  

The Thornbill, also called the Acanthiza pusilla archibaldi, is a bird without a lobby. Roughly ten centimetres in length, it is a small fowl with a long thorn-shaped bill (hence its name), a russet forehead with indistinct pale scalloping, red eyes, olive-brown upper parts, a greyish tail marked by a dark band near the end and off-white underparts with dark streaks on its chin, throat and breast. It has been described invariably as ‘unremarkable’ and ‘not sexy’, lacking the ‘marketability’ of other endangered species being sent off as iconic ambassadors onto our touch screens (3). It is, however,  a skilled mimic, with a ‘rich, musical warble’ of a call. Adult Thornbills are known to mimic the calls of other species and, sensing approaching danger, they simulate a chorus of different alarm calls (4). Recently the Thornbill seems to have inadvertently emulated the role of another bird: it has been called the 'canary in the coal mine' of the Holocene extinction, the ongoing eradication of species during the current epoch as a result of human activity (5). Like canaries employed in coal mines as early warning systems to detect the presence of carbon monoxide, the Thornbill's imminent disappearance is an alert to the deadly effects of carbon emissions on a planetary scale.  

The canary’s fate is emblematic of what has been called the Anthropocene, a term used to describe 'humanity’s catastrophic effects on the planet’s physical and biochemical systems'. Or, more specifically, the ‘Capitalocene’—referring to the symbiotic relation between ecological destruction and capitalist expansion, starting from the fifteenth century with seafaring; a term we’ve chosen to use as a framework throughout this essay to describe our current age (6). The canary is a bird, named after an island, named for its dogs: Canariae insulae (‘islands of the dogs’). Being named after what is commonly considered to be the earliest domesticated species will turn into a self-fulfilling prophecy. The canary with which we are familiar today—the proverbial canary, whose tweet, tweet tweet song, gave its name to the mid-nineteenth century verb designating the generic chirp or song of a bird, as well as to Warner Bros ever-evasive ‘Tweety’—is itself a domesticated form of its wild Island-dwelling ancestor. Its domestication is the result of European colonisation and centuries of biotechnological manipulation, meticulous breeding and training. Its ancestor: Serinus canaria, the wild or Atlantic Canary, is a yellow-green small perching bird, part of the finch family, distinguishable for the male’s crystalline song. Its ‘discovery’ in the early fifteenth century by European colonists, who were enamored by its call and vivid colors, coincided with the beginning of the European world-economy, and led to it being imported to Europe in large numbers (7). The Canary Islands, known by the Romans as ‘the fortunate isles’ for their fertile volcanic soil and moderate weather, would become ‘laboratories for a new kind of European imperialism’. The Guanches, their native population, were the first people to suffer the fatal consequences of imperialist expansion (8). The bird’s import to Europe also signaled the dawn of the epoch-making ‘Columbian exchange’, as Old World diseases, animals, and crops flowed into the Americas, and New World crops, such as potatoes and maize, flowed into the Old World with the advent of European imperialism (9). It was the beginning of a capitalist world-ecology—the joining of ‘power, nature, and accumulation in a dialectical and unstable unity’marking the emergence of the Capitalocene (10).

Canaries were presented by explorers as gifts to the court of Castille, and soon to the rulers of France. From there, the birds were exchanged and bred among nobility, with women said to have carried them as accessories perched on their fingers. The following centuries saw a dramatic increase in the fowl’s import to Europe, and by the nineteenth century there was something of a canary craze in Britain and Germany, with its breeding becoming prevalent predominantly among the working class. The bird became a source of supplementary income in times of economic stress, or as one author put it, a hobby which combines both ‘profit and pleasure’(11). By the late nineteenth century, the international canary-market was booming (12). While the export enterprise relied on training birds to sing and entertain people in their private homes, the network of trade routes could be described as a ‘hybrid geography interweaving people, organisms, and machines’ (13). Following experiments conducted in the 1890s by Scottish physiologist John Scott Haldane, mines started stationing canaries in their safety lamp cabin, from where they were taken underground to perform as sentinel animals. By the 1920s The US Bureau of Mines regularly employed canaries on their safety and rescue teams, with the ‘hero-birds’ of the Division of Mine Safety Cars considered ‘among the most important employees of the bureau’(14). Besides being small and light, and therefore portable, canaries have a high basal metabolic rate, which means they exhibit symptoms of poisoning before gas levels become critical for humans. As the Sacramento Union newspaper reported, ‘in the presence of small amounts of carbon monoxide [the canary] gasps visibly, ruffles up its wings, flutters, and, if sufficient of the deadly gases are present, quickly drops from its perch unconscious and seemingly lifeless’. This deadly use of canaries would continue late into the twentieth century, ending in the UK in 1986, when they were replaced by automatic detectors.  

Thus the canary—a bird named after the domesticated canine, which spread with the rise of the European war-capitalism, bred to achieve perfect color and pitch, through speculative cycles of boom and bust, and eventually employed in the toxic catacombs of fossil fuel extraction—sings the song of the Capitalocene. And now, the King Island Thornbill joins its chorus. 

Visualisation by Blair Burke (Art Processors) of the critically endangered King Island Brown Thornbill bird from Tasmania, which is projected to become extinct within the next twenty years


Mines and Clouds

A Thornbill in a canary cage is the first thing one encounters upon entering Mine, Simon Denny’s solo exhibition at the Museum of Old and New Art (MONA) in Tasmania. More accurately, one encounters an empty cage—fully equipped and meticulously configured to host a living canary—and in it appears a fluttering life-size animation of the endangered bird. This bird is only visible through the ‘O’, Mona’s digital curatorial device (hosted by a provided iPod or an app on the user’s own iPhone).The O is filled with information selected and designed by the artist, turning the show into a carefully choreographed double space—both physical and virtual—of objects and augmented reality. A clawed mechanical arm is attached to the cage, and various graphic elements, notation and labels protrude from it.When looking through the O, different infographics pop up on the screen. The cage, we learn, is a life-sized 3D reproduction of an image taken from a patent filed by Amazon, invented and designed to house human warehouse workers interacting with heavy machinery—an uncanny illustration of a dystopian future for the interface between worker and machine. Tweets relating to contested mining operations in Australia run across the screen. The virtual presence of this additional layer turns the objects in the exhibition space into interfaces and the museum into a platform. As we shall explain in this essay, the Thornbill in a canary cage becomes a tangible way of perceiving the radically intangible logic of extraction on a planetary scale. 

The exhibition is introduced with a research diagram created by Kate Crawford and Vladan Joler titled ‘Anatomy of an AI System’, created to accompany an essay by the same name (both featured in this volume). The wall-sized map outlines the entire process of producing Amazon’s AI-powered voice assistant Echo Dot, an inconspicuous cylinder-shaped ‘smart’ home appliance. In dizzying detail, Crawford and Joler chart the data, labour and resources used for its production, maintenance, distribution and use: from rare earth mines, through to an array of labour processes and global supply chains, and, finally, to people’s homes, and simultaneously to the immense and ubiquitous data centres of the so-called ‘cloud’. Their diagram introduces the central challenge addressed by the exhibition, that of thinking and representing labour, resources, and extraction together, rather than as disparate and unrelated processes in a vast and intricate global economy. 

Where Crawford and Joler disassemble the black box, Denny unearths a composite vision of our dystopian present through the image of the mine: mines for the extraction of valuable minerals or other geological materials, and data mines, where human action is surveilled, aggregated, processed, and ultimately monetised—literal mines and metaphorical mines. The building site of the Museum of Old and New Art adds to the mining metaphor: the museum is carved into the rock of the Berriedale peninsula, the exposed sandstone cliffs towering over you as you descend  into the labyrinthine exhibition galleries. 

The rise of so called ‘data-mining’ comes with the proliferation of mobile communication devices and ‘social media’, as well as the centralisation process described euphemistically as ‘cloud’ computing. Here, the metaphor of ‘mining’ becomes a brilliantly succinct way of naturalising data, conveying the notion that data (as its etymology suggests) is a resource to be tapped into and extracted with the help of mechanical ingenuity and business acumen, as if it were a precious ore or fossil fuel. Expelled from the realm of either propertied cultural relations or productive labor to that of a virginal terra nullius, data is the ‘new oil’ (15), meaning metaphors of harvesting or mining demonstrate how ‘deep’ avatars or other data gathering scripts dig into the data pool that is social media. 

This nexus of extractive processes, both literal and metaphorical, has led a growing number of scholars to identify an expanded notion of ‘extractivism as a dominant logic within contemporary capitalism, doomed to expand’(16). Understood metaphorically, extractivism refers to the contextual resonance and effects of extractive activities in the economical, political and social fields, such as the surveillance, analysis and monetisation of behavioural data, whereas in a literal sense it describes ‘historical and contemporary processes of forced removal of raw materials and life forms from the earth’s surface, depths, and biosphere’ (17). This expanded understanding of extraction highlights the central role played by ‘capital’s multiple outsides’(18), and the continuity of what Marx called primitive accumulation in the present. Similarly, writing at the turn of the century and at the height of imperialist expansion, political theorist Rosa Luxemburg observed that an exchange between capitalist and non-capitalist environments is essential for the existence of the capitalist economy (19). For Luxemburg, expansion has become the true ‘economic condition of existence for the individual capitalist’, a coercive law predicated on the ‘cheapness of commodities’, the capitalist’s ‘most important weapon ( . . . ) in his struggle for a place in the market’. Extraction and expansion are intricately linked. This explains the significance of the frontier for capitalist expansion, as journalist and activist Raj Patel and environmental historian Jason W. Moore have written, ‘capitalism not only has frontiers; it exists only through frontiers, expanding from one place to the next’(20). Capitalism needs to invent frontiers that it can overcome, colonise, a ‘nature’—human, or otherwise—that it can ‘cultivate’, put to work, exhaust, and do so as cheaply as possible (21). The frontier ‘concerns how the “outside” is produced, exploited, and policed’, it is a site of ‘perpetual reinscription’, writes critic and curator Vivian Ziherl; a thought which is also inherent to Denny’s amalgam of terrestrial and virtual mining and markets. She discusses the ‘persistent presence of the frontier within the globalizing era’, exploring its traces and reverberations through the visual arts in the context of aboriginal Australia (22). As specific to the Australian case, Ziherl points out the violent ‘de-registration of sacred sites’ by law to extract monetary value from the culturally and religiously sacred lands (23). 

There is a strong relation between forced and unwaged labor and extraction, which always strives to maximize value and minimize compensation. And in its expanded sense, extraction ‘involves not only the appropriation and expropriation of natural resources but also, and in ever more pronounced ways, processes that cut through patterns of human cooperation and social activity (24). One could think of this as the frontier reaching the human body (and agency).

Australia is home to one of the world's largest mining industries, and is now pioneering in its mining digitisation and automation. It is the primary global exporter of coal and opal, and is second only to China in rare earth mining zinc, gold and iron, making mining the largest sector of its economy (25). The rapid expansion of its pastoral and mining industries since the mid-nineteenth century supports Patel and Moore’s assertion that such capitalist expansion exists through frontiers. It was the doctrine of Australia as terra nullius (‘land belonging to no‑one’), established with European colonisation and only formally abolished in the Native Title Act of 1993, that enabled its extractive industries to develop on such an unwieldy scale (26)

In the second room, Denny has installed near life-size cardboard reproductions of automated mining machines in a chimera of a half-built trade fair, showcasing technologies currently in use in Australia (27). Visitors encounter a looming present instead of a daunting future. The cardboard cut-outs are illustrated in a sort of computer-game-like aesthetic and appear heavily used, almost derelict, with traces of machine oil and dirt lending the entire set-up the sort of cyberpunk, worn out, archaic futurity of a post-industrial dystopia. 

The sculptures sit on a wall-to-wall board-game layout taken from ‘Squatter’, a popular Australian monopoly-like game in which players run sheep stations as competitive business ventures in the Australian colonial frontier. For the exhibition, Denny created an adapted version of the game titled ‘Extractor’. This new version models and parodies the mechanics of platform technologies and data-extraction businesses, and incorporates different motifs from the exhibition such as the Thornbill. Extractor uses the blatant colonial ideology implicit in Squatter to highlight the expansionist logic essential to data mining, and its digital frontier. A large-scale version of the game occupies the centre of the exhibition space, while boxed playable versions populate the cardboard mining sculptures which double as shelving units. Purchasable, the sculptures are gradually emptied from boxes, only to remain in their skeletal, cut-out form. Denny assimilates to commercial strategies; he embraces the established and recognisable tricks of the trade, developing them to a degree of perfection with the decisive difference that he in fact sells a trigger for reflection of current day capitalism, a theme park for extraction. Since the days of Squatter, pastoral industries have expanded beyond recognition. But agriculture, writes Timothy Morton, ‘is a major contributor to global warming, not just because of flatulent cows, but because of the enormous technical machinery that goes into creating the agricultural stage set, the world’. As such, every game creates a world and utilises a world-picture: in the case of Extractor it is the violent, power consuming, networked world of data mining. Both worlds meet in their imagined frontiers, and in their contributions to the excessive release of carbon into the atmosphere. 

In the realm of data extraction, there is a strong development towards ‘the pervasive penetration of extraction into spheres of human activity’ (28). The problems that arise thereafter are manifold, as ‘[D]ata mining reconfigures property relations, working the boundaries of “privacy” while also testing and exploiting the differences, frictions, and connections between heterogeneous jurisdictions’(29). These jurisdictions come into the focus of insurance companies, among other stakeholders, while we write. For example, an insurance company demands a third party take care of data gathered with self-driving cars to make sure the data is not manipulated in a particular party’s interest in case of an accident. 

The ‘extractive turn’—marking the heavy use of large machinery in formerly human-scale production areas for the extraction of ‘huge volumes of natural resources, which are not at all or only very partially processed and are mainly for export’(30)—has its effects on logistics, like the need for more cargo transportation and power consumption. And, in turn, large transport infrastructures make way for large-scale production and extraction, such as the Chinese One Belt, One Road plan and the Grand Nicaragua Canal project. Once one sector is scaling up, the connected industries are forced to follow suit. If there is any consolation to be found in this vision of extractivism, it is in the fact that despite capital’s totalising tendencies, its ‘constitutive relation with its outsides punctures and troubles this very process of totalisation’(31).

Mine essentially deals with the challenge of representing global extraction processes, and changes relating simultaneously to labour, resources (for lack of a better word), and data (for lack of a better word), without privileging any one aspect. In order to mediate those mostly invisible, large-scale processes and to address what’s at stake, Simon Denny chose to unfold his arguments and concerns though a series of emblematic vignettes and an array of objects, artifacts and corporate brands. The exhibition appears to zoom in and out, in order to straddle multiple scales simultaneously—highlighting local concrete business practices while mapping a global logistics network and supply chain, for example. Visitors interact with the ‘theme park’, a tongue-in-cheek description by the artist, of carefully chosen attractions—intangible objects in real life—from a first-person-screen perspective (familiarised by ‘smart-phones’ and tablets). The show sends a warning signal, like that of the canary bird, whose history we traced in the beginning of this text. 

Zooming into the history of mining in modern times, certain categories in the Anthropocene discourse stand out. Aerial pictures reveal the irreversible changes of the earth’s surface, so-called ‘sacrifice zones’. Before the Anthropocene and related ecological problems were virulent, most significantly, living and working conditions mattered. In 1956, the architect Erwin Anton Gutkind described mining towns as an inhuman blending of work and living, which demonstrate the modernist relationship between man, labor and nature(32). Gutkind calls it an ‘I-it relationship’ (33). The post-war years were a time of a universal, Western one-world approach: ‘the whole world is our unit of thinking and acting’(34). When Gutkind was studying the industry and its damage to the surface of the Earth, he used aerial photographs to make his assessment. The visual material made him stress the ‘rigid layout and the unity by representation’—a modernist ideal and ideology of functionality through abstraction. The aerial perspective went well with a modern rationalised take on earth and its resources, and Gutkind and his fellow editors claimed that the most striking symbol of a new (universal) scale was the airplane, as pioneering artists, architects and theorists had already stated in the 1920s. But Gutkind added a skeptical tone to his analysis, writing that ‘the dumps are the most conspicuous landmarks of the exploitation of the natural resources and of the exploitation of the human “material”’(35). With the current process of automatising mining, on the contrary, distances between workers and the site of the mine are redefined, leaving a virtual, abstracted impression, no imprint, impossible to frame in an aerial photograph. 

On the other hand, looking into long-term problems caused by mines which are evident after closure, one comes across analyses regarding its toxic (wastewater) remains. Even though the contemporary mining industry tries hard to manufacture a ‘clean’ image—for example mining as envisioned by high-tech companies—the extraction business leaves behind these so-called ‘sacrifice areas’(36). Researchers in natural sciences as early as the 1970s, a peak period of environmentalist thinking in the twentieth century, point out the drastic man-made damage: ‘as of 1977, when stricter regulations were implemented, the mining industry alone had disturbed 2.3 Mha in the United States, an area roughly the size of the state of Vermont'(37).

 It seems so contradictory, disproportionate and mind-bending to think of mining, likely the heaviest and most rudimentarily physical of all industries, as equipped with—and even partly run by—silent computer systems, remote-controlled sensors and data analytics, which are watched over by autonomous drones. The grubby and monstrous business of mining has been gradually integrated into an algorithmic regime. The face of twenty-first century mining is a roll-call of  multinational companies like the Swiss technology firm ABB(38) Cisco or Accenture, who, in their video ads, represent the industry through images of high-tech command and control rooms for the so-called ‘connected mine’ or ‘digital mine’, which means selling digital tools intended for increased productivity in extractive operations. The company is promoting an extensive, hyper-clean smart system, including live interfaces, video phone feature and VR headsets(39). Human operators supervise the operation through an interface of screens, tablets and computers to interact with a digital model of an underground mine as well as an open pit. In their downtown remote control centre(40)—a glance out of the window reveals a complex of highrise buildings—the digital copy of the mine shrinks into a clear and manageable room size. While the control room can be installed nowhere in particular, the mine needs to be located somewhere natural resources are to be found. If previously an architecture model would serve the task of representation and mediation, in the video it is promoted as a data display and cue for action. Underground, workers data is gathered by a device such as the Caterpillar  ‘Smartband’. According to the manufacturer’s advertising, the ‘wrist-worn device automatically detects an employee’s sleep and wake periods and converts data into an effectiveness score, viewable by the employee at any time with the push of a button. If a score is approaching 70%, the employee is considered to be “fatigue impaired”’. Caterpillar claims that workers are being empowered to ‘manage their own fatigue’ and mining companies are enabled to ‘model and predict worker fatigue risk’. The smartband is, they seem to claim, the new canary. But it is also another mine, surveilling and aggregating behavioural data from the mine’s workers, as if it were just another ore. Digitisation has come full circle. The oldest, perhaps most archaic, industry goes digital, and is uploaded to the cloud. Big machines are steered based on micro-technology. Silicon Valley has found a new frontier(41).  

But let’s zoom out even further to understand what the discourse on mining, extractivism and data tells us in regards to the times we live in. How to grasp its new scale and dimension? Is it possible to represent processes so abstract, so large and all-encompassing, so sticky and messy and global, without falling to abstractions, to generalisations, without losing oneself to detail and seeing the trees rather than the forest?



Scalar dilemmas

A number of theorists from different disciplines have tried to find adequate strategies to deal with the challenge of representing such vastly distributed phenomena. In her book Climate in Motion, historian Deborah Coen refers to climate science as a process of scaling, of ‘mediating between different systems of measurement, formal and informal, designed to apply to different slices of the phenomenal world, in order to arrive at a common standard of proportionality’(42). To grasp the human influence on climate change and its future trajectory, it is necessary to zoom in and out, to shift, jump and cut from micro to macro, from the molecular to the planetary, and from the Pleistocene to an imminent future. Timothy Morton calls those things ‘that are massively distributed in time and space relative to humans’ ‘hyperobjects’. This concept reflects his attempt at addressing ‘scalar dilemmas’ by bringing global warming down to earth and relating to it: ‘[T]he time of hyperobjects is the time during which we discover ourselves on the inside of some big objects (bigger than us, that is): Earth, global warming, evolution. Again, that’s what the eco in ecology originally means: oikos, home.’(43) Thinking with Morton’s hyperobjects helps increase our awareness of processes generally invisible to us, to create a ‘sense of intimacy’ for climate signs, the sensual footprints of hyperobjects, that speak to us; instead of spreading a message that planet Earth is doomed, Morton wants to ‘awaken us from the dream that the world is about to end’(44). Another strategy to represent globally and temporarily distributed extractive processes during the Anthropocene is offered by historian Gabrielle Hecht. In an essay on uranium mining in Gabon and planetary nuclear politics, she describes uranium-bearing rocks as ‘interscalar vehicles’, ‘riding them from Gabon to France to Japan, from the 1970s to our planet’s early history to the distant future’. Her intention is to narrate the different political layers involved in local, national and international business and politics, ‘to understand the Anthropocene and its critiques as scalar projects. This requires treating scale reflexively, as both an analytic category and a political claim’(45). 

A similar scalar dilemma has long vexed critics of political economy. The difficulty of representing, or mapping, the intricacies of global capitalism in its multiple scales is the subject of Jeff Kinkle and Alberto Toscano’s Cartographies of the Absolute, which asks for an aesthetic of cognitive mapping, as a response to a state of ‘cognitive dissonance’: a sense of disorientation facing an omnivorous capitalist world-system. What is lacking, they note, is ‘a practice of orientation that would be able to connect the abstractions of capital to the sense-data of everyday perception’, and that this is ‘identified as an impediment to any socialist project’(46). But maybe scalability and an expansive view are part of the problem, rather than a solution to it? In her essay ‘On Nonscalability’, anthropologist Anna Lowenhaupt Tsing analyses capitalism’s logic of scaling and expansion: ‘projects that could expand through scalability were the poster children of modernisation and development’ she writes, ‘we learned to know the modern by its ability to scale up. Scalable expansion reduced a once surrounding ocean of diversity into a few remaining puddles. Project advocates thought that they had grasped the world. But they have been confronted with two problems: first, expandability has gotten out of control. Second, scalability has left ruins in its wake’(47). Since extractivism and its imperative of limitless expansion leaves behind a ‘damaged planet’, Tsing advocates for alternatives outside scalability logics in favour of biological and cultural diversity. 

Novelist Amitav Ghosh has recently addressed similar questions concerning the absence of climate change in works of literary fiction, and specifically the modern novel, and the challenges posed in addressing such issues within an artform so closely related to the development of bourgeois subjects, and to modernity. With the novel, nature is relegated to a role in the  background, and the human—preferably individual—psyche, comes to the fore. For Ghosh, climate’s imagery is resistant to literary representation too: ‘[G]lobal warming’s resistance to the arts begins deep underground, in the recesses where organic matter undergoes the transformations that make it possible for us to devour the sun’s energy in fossilised forms’. These substances—coal, petroleum, gas—are ‘viscous, foul-smelling, repellent to all the senses’, or otherwise, odorless and toxic (48)


Beyond the Capitalocene

Contemporary extractivism—from oil, to rare earth, to data—is characterised by a different materiality to that of earlier mining, more often abstract and predominantly automated. But is it true that, as Ghosh writes, for the arts ‘oil is inscrutable in a way that coal never was’? And if so, isn’t data —and its primary existence as numbers in spreadsheets—all the more inscrutable? Or, perhaps, as Denny appears to claim, the problem lays less in the inscrutability of one substance or another, but rather, in the sleight-of-hand of industry and the mostly invisible operations of the entire logistical cycle, and the way both labour and the environment are obscured by it: from rare earth mines to seemingly innocuous hand-held machines and their omnivorous collection of behavioural data, and the absorbing of this data into ‘cloud storage’. The only representation we have of such processes are stock images, blinking server farms, ‘smart machines’ or automated mines seen from drone view. The challenge is to think about labour, resources, and data together. In narrative terms, the difficulty posed is that of breaking away from sequence, into a sort of expanded and spatialised montage, but also of allowing for the viewers identification nonetheless through AR interactivity, offering multiple nodes of entry. Denny’s reference to gaming as a narrative form and organising logic, and as a way by which behaviour is often mined and monetised, addresses similar questions concerning the possibility of representing a highly distributed ‘story’. Games are by definition goal oriented, predominantly governed by a zero-sum, winner-takes-all market logic,  relying on the positing of a rational self-interested subject, but they are also about role playing, immersion and identification, and action rather than representation. Players are more than just spectators, for one, they are always implicated, and expected to take action. In this sense games are great tools for modeling and testing future scenarios. Superimposing Extractor on top of Squatter shows how current extractive industries are built upon a long history of expropriation, while the game’s dizzyingly steep narrative—profitability increasing exponentially the further one progresses, making radical inequality a feature, rather than a bug—corresponds to the mechanics of the data industry, and by extension to extractive capitalism.  

What could be an alternative to this sort of extractivist logic? Are there examples of critical uses of datafication that could be harnessed for alternative ends, or even to prevent the future ascribed to us currently with statistical near-certainty? Can the miner outsmart his smartband?  Climate-change research is one possible example of a critical use of predictive data modeling. Such models make predictions based on past correlations, not in order to affirm the status-quo—to mine past behavioural patterns and monetise future actions—but rather, in the hope that they will prompt us to act differently and create new futures(49). These are predictions made with the hope that they fail.  

To return to our Thornbill, we can only hope that the grim prediction of its coming extinction fails —that the warning succeeds and the Thornbill comes to thrive again. Meanwhile, a community effort is underway in order to gather more data about it, where ‘experts in conservation management, specialist bird researchers, dedicated birders, and passionate local landholders all give their time freely to monitor endangered species’(50). The bird’s most recent sighting, in 2016, was documented as part of the 'Wing on King' bird monitoring project. This is not a case of government outsourcing, or unwaged labour extracted via platforms, but rather ‘unpaid work by dedicated Australians stepping up’(51). They do so, not out of desire to colonise yet another ‘outside’(52), to conquer another frontier, but with the hope that a persistent, collaborative grassroots effort will demonstrate, if only provisionally, that despite capital’s totalising tendencies, another world, with another future—beyond the Capitalocene—is possible.

  • Footnotes
    1. ‘Adam Morton, ‘Last Chance to Study and Name Australia’s Vanishing Species, Scientists Warn MPs’, The Guardian, accessed February 13, 2019,
    2. Australian Associated Press, ‘Tasmanian Bushfires: 500 Firefighters Battle Scores of Blazes as Temperature Set to Soar’, The Guardian, January 27, 2019, sec. Australia news,
    3. Calla Wahlquist, ‘How Little Brown Birds Get Overlooked in the Protection Pecking Order’, The Guardian, November 28, 2017, sec. Environment,
    4. Anna Salleh, ‘Little Aussie Bird Cries Wolf to Fool a Predator’, ABC Wednesday item, June 3, 2015,
    5. Editor, ‘Is the King Island Scrubtit Tasmania’s Canary in the Coal Mine?’, Tasmanian Times (blog), July 5, 2016,
    6. Following historian Gabrielle Hecht, we use this term tentatively ‘to acknowledge—not deny—the importance of politics, to invite a broad conversation about our earthly condition, to make friends rather than foes’. Gabrielle Hecht, ‘Interscalar Vehicles for an African Anthropocene: On Waste, Temporality, and Violence’, Cultural Anthropology 33, no. 1 (2018): pp. 109–141, p. 111.
    Donna Haraway deliberately uses both terms, Anthropocene and Capitalocene, see fn. 9.
    7. James J. Parsons, ‘The Origin and Dispersal of the Domesticated Canary’, Journal of Cultural Geography 7, no. 2 (March 1, 1987), pp. 19–33,
    8. Alfred W. Crosby, ‘An Ecohistory of the Canary Islands: A Precursor of European Colonialization in the New World and Australasia’, Environmental Review: ER 8, no. 3 (1984), pp. 215–35,
    9. Jason W. Moore, ed., Anthropocene or Capitalocene?: Nature, History, and the Crisis of Capitalism (PM Press, 2016), p. 109.
    10. Ibid, 4.
    See also: Nathan Nunn and Nancy Qian, ‘The Columbian Exchange: A History of Disease, Food, and Ideas’, Journal of Economic Perspectives 24, no. 2 (May 2010), pp. 163–88,
    When did the geological age of capitalism begin? Haraway suggests ‘one has to at least include the great market and commodity reworldings of the long sixteenth and seventeenth centuries of the current era, even if we think (wrongly) that we can remain Euro-centered in thinking about ‘globalising’ transformations shaping the Capitalocene’. Again driven by her characteristic transformative impulse, Haraway develops an argument from Anthropocene through Capitalocene to what she calls the ‘Chtulucene’. ‘The Capitalocene was relationally made, and not by a secular godlike anthropos, a law of history, the machine itself, or a demon called Modernity. The Capitalocene must be relationally unmade’. ‘I also insist that we need a name for the dynamic ongoing sym-chthonic forces and powers of which people are a part, within which ongoingness is at stake. Maybe, but only maybe, and only with intense commitment and collaborative work and play with other terrans, flourishing for rich multispecies assemblages that include people will be possible. I am calling all this the Chthulucene—past, present, and to come’.
    See: Donna J. Haraway, Staying with the Trouble: Making Kin in the Chthulucene (Duke University Press, 2016), p. 48.
    11. Karl Russ, Canary Birds: How to Breed for Profit or Pleasure: An Exhaustive Treatise on All the Different Breeds: Authorised Translation (London, 1891),
    12. St. Andreasberg breeders sold about 4000 canary cocks around 1824. Years later, in 1882, the wholesaler C. Reiche exported at least 120,000 to New York, 10,500 to South America and 5,600 to Australia on steam-powered boats. About 30,000 were shipped to other European countries and 12,000 were distributed in Germany—
    See: St. Andreasberger Blätter für Kanarienzucht und Handel, Organ der Vereine, Friedrich Haensch (ed.), first edition 1880.
    13. Jacob Smith, Eco-Sonic Media, Oakland: University of California Press 2015, p. 158.
    14. ‘Sacramento Union 11 July 1921 — California Digital Newspaper Collection’, accessed February 7, 2019,
    15. ‘The World’s Most Valuable Resource Is No Longer Oil, but Data—Regulating the Internet Giants’, accessed February 8, 2019,
    16. See: James Petras and Henry Veltmeyer, The New Extractivism: A Post-Neoliberal Development Model or Imperialism of the Twenty-First Century? (Zed Books Ltd., 2014);
    James Petras and Henry Veltmeyer, Extractive Imperialism in the Americas: Capitalism’s New Frontier (BRILL, 2014); Sandro Mezzadra and Brett Nielson, ‘On the multiple frontiers of extraction: excavating contemporary capitalism’, in Cultural Studies, 2017, DOI: 10.1080/09502386.2017.1303425.
    17. Tiziana Terranova, ‘Data Mining the Body of the Socius’, in this publication
    18. Sandro Mezzadra and Brett Nielson, ‘On the multiple frontiers of extraction: excavating contemporary capitalism’, in Cultural Studies, 2017, DOI: 10.1080/09502386.2017.1303425.
    19. Rosa Luxemburg, The Accumulation of Capital (Routledge, 2015), p. xii.
    20. Raj Patel and Jason W. Moore, A History of the World in Seven Cheap Things: A Guide to Capitalism, Nature, and the Future of the Planet (Univ of California Press, 2017), p. 19.
    See also: Sandro Mezzadra and Brett Neilson, Border as Method, or, the Multiplication of Labor (Duke University Press, 2013), pp. 61–95.
    21. As Jason W. Moore has written, it is the frontier ‘of commodification and global value relations. For central to the great arc of modern world history has been the voracious consumption of, and relentless quest for, Cheap Natures—‘cheap’ in relation to the accumulation of capital and its curious privileging of wage-work as the only thing worth valuing. A civilisational conceit of this sort could only emerge on the basis of devaluing both human work outside the commodity system—much of it so-called ‘women's’ work—and the “work" of extra-human natures’. Jason W. Moore, Capitalism in the Web of Life: Ecology and the Accumulation of Capital (Verso, 2015), p. 85.
    22. 'On the Frontier, Again', e-flux Journal #73, May 2016, accessed February 24, 2019,
    23. For a further discussion of the frontier and so called ‘natural resource’ extraction see:
    Tsing, Anna Lowenhaupt, ‘Natural Resources and Capitalist Frontiers.’ Economic and Political Weekly 38, no. 48 (2003): pp. 100–106.
    24. Ibid, p. 10.
    25. ‘Australia GDP From Mining | 2019 | Data | Chart | Calendar | Forecast | News’, accessed February 9, 2019,
    26. AG; PMC, ‘Native Title Act 1993’, accessed February 13, 2019,,
    27. ‘Mining giant Rio Tinto has led the way with automation in Australia at its Pilbara iron ore operations. [ . . . ] In July, Rio Tinto completed its first delivery of iron ore by an autonomous train. [ . . . ] The jobs you lose are obviously the operators, but they get replaced in maintenance and data science because people want their data’,
    28. Mezzadra and Nielson, p. 10.
    29. Mezzadra and Nielson, p. 10–11.
    30. Verónica Gago and Sandro Mezzadra, “A Critique of the Extractive Operations of Capital: Toward an Expanded Concept of Extractivism,” Rethinking Marxism 29, no. 4 (October 2, 2017): 574–91,
    31. Mezzadra and Nielson, p. 17.
    32. Today, colliery dependencies—neighborhoods of small brick houses built for the miners and their families—have been succeeded by temporary homes for the workers only. Those camps are comparable to low-standard hostels, see for example the Stayover camps in Australia.
    ‘Mine Camp Accommodation in Australia from Stayover’, accessed February 13, 2019,
    Significantly, Caterpillar’s fatigue solutions manager and head of the Smartband program, Todd Dawson, sounds happy (while not particularly concerned about the worker’s happiness) about these commuter homes when stating: ‘What’s interesting is when I have people wearing the band for 28 days, even if I don’t know what shift pattern they are on, I can almost always tell when they’re in camp and when they’re home’, Dawson says. ‘When they’re in camp, they go to bed on time, they get good sleep, and they wake up on an almost military schedule. But when they get home, they’re all over the place. Their sleep is disrupted by kids, dogs, neighbors; they’re out partying. There are all kinds of distractions. But in camp, they do pretty good.’
    ‘How Caterpillar’s Fitbit-like Smartband Can Just about Predict When a Heavy Equipment Accident Will Happen’, accessed February 13, 2019,
    33. Here, Gutkind makes reference to Martin Buber’s differentiation between I-Thou and I-It relationships. With ‘I-It’, Buber, a philosopher of religion, describes an objectifying version of addressing another person. In contrast, ‘I-Thou’ means to recognise the other person’s full humanity. See Martin Buber, I and Thou [Ich und Du, Berlin, 1923], trans. Ronald Gregor Smith, Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark 1937.
    34. E.A. Gutkind, ‘Our World from the Air: Conflict and Adaptation’, in William L. Thomas (ed.) with Carl O. Sauer, Marston Bates, Lewis Mumford, Man’s Role in Changing the Face of the Earth, Chicago and London: The University of Chicago Press 1956, p. 44.
    35. Ibid, p. 27.
    36. Atwood, Genevieve, ‘The Strip-Mining of Western Coal’ Scientific American. 233 (6), 1975, pp. 23–29. doi:10.1038/scientificamerican1275-23 Also referred to as ‘expanding zones of ecological sacrifice’ or ‘sacrifice zone’, for example by TJ Demos in ‘Blackout: The Necropolitics of Transaction’, in dispatches, issue 1, October 2018, p. 3.
    37. Susan L. Brantley, Martin B. Goldhaber, K. Vala Ragnarsdottir, ‘Crossing Disciplines and Scales to Understand the Critical Zone’, in Elements, Vol. 3, October 2007, pp. 307–314.
    38. ‘ABB The Future of Mine Automation’, accessed February 13, 2019 ;
    ‘Connected Mine—Accenture Mobility’, accessed February 13, 2019 .
    39. ‘The ABB digital mine’, accessed February 13, 2019
    40. Ganga Jey Aratnam, a sociologist at Basel University, did impressive research on the Swiss company Glencore located in Zug. In his case study, he looked into the organisation of a particular company. Ganga traced its local political and culture activities and its business network spanning from Zug to mines in Zambia. He published ‘Glencore oder die Rhizome der Macht. Eine Spurensuche in Zug’. In: Geld und Macht in der Schweiz. Zürich, pp. 395–425.
    41. During the last year alone, Gizmodo reports that ‘Amazon, Google, and Microsoft have all struck lucrative arrangements—collectively worth billions of dollars—to provide automation, cloud, and AI services to some of the world’s biggest oil companies, and they are actively pursuing more’.
    See: Brian Merchant, ‘How Google, Microsoft, and Big Tech Are Automating the Climate Crisis’, Gizmodo, accessed February 23, 2019,
    42. Quoted in: Michelle Nijhuis, ‘On the Trail of the Climate’, February 21, 2019,
    43. Timothy Morton, Hyperobjects, p. 118.
    44. Timothy Morton, Hyperobjects, p. 7.
    45. Gabrielle Hecht, ‘Interscalar Vehicles for an African Anthropocene: On Waste, Temporality, and Violence’ in Cultural Anthropology 33, no. 1 (2018), pp. 109–141.
    46. Alberto Toscano and Jeff Kinkle, Cartographies of the Absolute (John Hunt Publishing, 2015), p. 7.
    47. Anna Lowenhaupt Tsing, 'On Nonscalability: The Living World Is Not Amenable to Precision-Nested Scales', in Common Knowledge, Volume 18, Issue 3, Fall 2012, pp. 505–524, 523.
    48. Amitav Ghosh, The Great Derangement: Climate Change and the Unthinkable (University of Chicago Press, 2016), p. 73.
    However, as he notes, mines, and particularly nineteenth to mid twentieth century coal mines, did engender stories of class solidarity and resistance, and many of the most salient political mobilisation in struggles for labour rights revolved around the coal mining industry, which scholar Timothy Mitchell attributes to the relative autonomous methods and places of work in coal mines. Prior to mechanisation, the miner’s relative freedom from supervision was diametrically opposed to that of the modern factory worker: ‘the militancy that formed in these workplaces was typically an effort to defend this autonomy against the threats of mechanisation, or against the pressure to accept more dangerous work practices, longer working hours or lower rates of pay’.
    See: Timothy Mitchell, Carbon Democracy: Political Power in the Age of Oil (Verso Books, 2013), p. 20.
    49. Chun, Wendy Hui Kyong, Boaz Levin and Vera Tollmann, ‘Proxies’. In Nanna Thylstrup, Daniela Agostinho, Annie Ring, Catherine D’Ignazio, Kristin Veel (ed.), Uncertain Archives, Cambridge MA: The MIT Press 2019 [forthcoming].
    50. David M. Watson, Dejan Stojanovic, and Matthew H. Webb, ‘Australia Relies on Volunteers to Monitor Its Endangered Species’, The Conversation, accessed February 11, 2019,
    51. Ibid.
    52. Sandro Mezzadra and Brett Nielson, ‘On the multiple frontiers of extraction: excavating contemporary capitalism’, in Cultural Studies, 2017, DOI: 10.1080/09502386.2017.1303425.



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