Microscope: Using new visual media to facilitate knowing
In our case studies, technologically-driven campaigns were often couched as ‘hearts and minds’ projects, representing attempts to simultaneously deliver science-derived facts and to evoke supportive emotional responses for conservation causes. In our interview with an executive staff member instrumental in the founding of the Seabird Centre, our respondent explained that his vision in using remote viewing camera technologies was to provide a ‘microscope’ that would educate the public about the seabirds on the islands of the Firth of Forth. This seemed to apply across all four studied organisations: The capacity for magnification and remote observation via cameras and data visualisations across our case studies meant that the technologies in question acted as a metaphorical ‘microscope’ in revealing details about wildlife, and were intentionally used for this purpose. We observed that alongside traditional media, these technologies allowed practitioners to frame, guide, direct, and inform the vision of members of the public. Through the technological microscopic lens, organisations inducted visitors and users to particular, cognitive ways of observing, understanding, and relating to nature achieved through remote observation focused on (i) behaviour, (ii) morphology, (iii) identification, and (iv) monitoring.
The visual technologies studied by us exposed behaviour that would otherwise have been impossible to see, or could previously only be seen by dedicated or lucky enthusiasts. These visual media were presented partly as an invitation for the public to observe otherwise hidden behaviours, such as movement routes, as with RSPB’s Eyes to the Skies. Using interactive maps visualising red kite movements based on satellite-tracked data, users could select particular birds, time periods, and/or geographical areas to follow the movements of the tagged kites.
“[On the website, there was a] maps section and you could click on a particular red kite. It was different levels of detail on that. [Users] could look at [the kites’] daily adventures or its weekly adventures, or every single adventure it’s had since it fledged [… Users] could see times, and could get some idea of speed of flight as well, by looking at distance covered, and looking at what times that was between. So you could get quite a bit of information about the birds.” (Red Kites operations)
Some of the footage and visual data revealed information about the behaviour of a species that was previously unknown or little known by the public, and indeed sometimes even by practitioners. In the case of Peregrine Watch, a former member of the Forestry Commission of Scotland’s managerial staff explained in some length that visitors, practitioners, and experts involved in Peregrine Watch learned a lot from observation mediated by cameras. Particularly surprising to them was the complex social interactions between peregrine falcons, which even the advising experts for the site (a local raptor specialist interest group) did not anticipate:
“And I think, just for interest’s sake, we felt that a camera, especially if it was recording the actions of the bird, would give us an insight into the habits and lifestyle of the birds. And certainly, that was one of the big successes of the project, was our understanding of the birds, the complexity of their social lives was a way beyond anything that we had even dreamt about.” (Peregrine Watch managerial 1)
Another set of social behaviours that these technologies exposed to the public was courtship, mating, and nesting rituals. With Peregrine Watch, one of the main cameras on site used for public broadcast and live website streaming was an infrared camera on a known nest site (eyrie) on the quarry face. According to the warden of the site, this camera proved particularly popular and useful for exposing otherwise hidden peregrine-chick interactions:
“The infrared camera on the eyrie with the sound, because the grass grew, the public couldn’t see the nest, they couldn’t see eggs or chicks, until they were mobile at about two weeks. And that’s where this monitor behind was linked to that camera and that was the reason behind it. So that the public could see what was happening behind the grass […]. And the infrared overnight has been excellent ‘cause it’s given us and the public a view of what peregrines do at night. We were doing this long before BBC Wildlife and SpringWatch were doing it.” (Peregrine Watch operations)
Live streaming meant that viewers could see unedited footage and were exposed to mundane reality rather than eventful action. However, staff on site did focus on frames with most potential for observing easily interpretable behaviour. At the Seabird Centre, during gannet mating season, cameras were often pre-set, and staff guided visitors to bring back into frame paired birds (which tended to stay in the same locations). Part of the reason for highlighting paired birds was to allow visitors to learn and begin to recognise unique, predictable, and consistent behaviour, such as gannet courtship rituals of beak fencing and sky-pointing. They also used recorded ‘highlights’ fairly frequently during interactions with visitors. As explained below, such pre-recorded footage was arguably better for educating the public, as the images became an available source for staff to accompany delivery of an expert interpretation of the nature on show.
"…winter time, from a wildlife point of view, most of the seabirds aren’t around, so things like the guillemots, the razorbills, the gannets, the puffins, the kittiwakes, they’re not really on camera anyway. So there’s the argument to say, well it’s actually better for our visitors to show them recordings of the previous season […]. And it’s actually a lot more they can gain from watching that and having that interpreted for them, then by moving a live camera around on an island where there isn’t a huge amount to see anyway.” (Seabird Centre operations 1)
Apart from enabling a focus on behaviour, visual technologies were frequently used—in tandem with traditional modes of interpretation—to familiarise the public with morphology. At the Seabird Centre, for example, one of the features heavily advertised to draw visitors in was the interactive aspect of the live camera set-ups. The zoom function allowed visitors and staff to magnify, as one might do with a microscope, visible morphological traits. This was similar to Peregrine Watch, where a member of the operations staff explained that she had used the cameras to create an in-depth, direct educational experience centred on identifying features and behaviour of peregrine falcons:
“Now, the quarry face [camera] was brilliant because you could zoom in and show people and this was what we were able to do at the bottom when we got the technology with the control panels. We were able to zoom in and show the public the talons, the beaks, how they were able to pluck food and you’re kinda working with them, using the camera equipment and what you were seeing as a direct experience.” (Peregrine Watch operations)
This zoom function also inducted viewers into the task of identification. In the case of the Seabird Centre, visitors were invited to observe morphological detail to differentiate between similar seabirds such as razorbills and guillemots. With the Instant Wild application, users identified animals captured in a given image by selecting from a list of species that were likely to be caught by that particular camera. However, this was not as simple a task as it first appeared. Instant Wild’s camera often captured images of similar-looking species (for example, of the numerous species within the antelope group, on the Kenya cameras), or, due to technical limitations, blurred or partial images of smaller or fast-moving species. Making a positive identification, therefore, required informed and skilled vision on the part of users.
As a consequence of the focus on identification, the visual technologies we studied were also connected to biodiversity monitoring efforts that involved members of the public. This happened on a localised scale with log books that kept track of wildlife sightings at and around Peregrine Watch and the Seabird Centre. It also took the form of more ambitious projects such as Instant Wild, which crowd-sourced identifications on larger quantities of imagery, with the intention of scaling up to obtain species occurrence data over time. Monitoring efforts also turned up elusive species, which would have otherwise been difficult to track due to remoteness of terrain, nocturnality, or rarity. With Instant Wild, while most of the images captured by the camera traps for public identification were of common species, the set-up had captured images of a scarcely recorded mountain mouse deer (on its Sri Lankan camera) and a critically endangered Javan leopard (on its Indonesia camera), thereby confirming the existence of these animals in those locations.
The visual technologies in our case study projects did not only go some way in making behaviour, morphology, and numbers of non-human nature apparent. Organisations also boasted that these technologies afforded knowledge and insight remotely, without human ‘intrusion’ and the potential of damage to wildlife arising from any direct, unmediated contact between people and nature. Our interviewees reasoned that non-intrusive technological viewing through cameras, images, and data visualisations constituted unaltered access to ‘raw nature’ i.e. observing ‘real’ animal behaviour without observer effect. This was partly a direct response to the original intentions behind the implementation of several campaigns, where technologies were used as a crime prevention measure (i.e. to detect poaching, persecution, and egg theft, as was the case for Peregrine Watch and the red kites tracking project). Non-intrusive observation was also considered a selling point by our case study organisations, and this was seen in online and marketing material, where potential visitors were told that electronic viewing would afford live close-ups without disturbance to the wildlife.
“You don’t want to disturb the wildlife. So I just thought it’d just be ideal. Particularly, we’re near the city, so you could get the kids out, they could see wildlife without doing any damage to the wildlife itself, you know.” (Peregrine Watch technical 1)
“And also, there’s the argument that […] by viewing the birds through the cameras, you’re actually observing them more in their natural environment, than if you were stood several metres away, peering at them through binoculars, you know, because the birds do not notice the cameras at all. They just carry on life completely oblivious to our equipment out there, so what you’re actually observing is raw nature, and […] there’s not even any human intervention to make the birds behave any differently.” (Seabird Centre operations 2)
Spectacle: Using new visual media to facilitate feeling
“…there’s no underlying message [… Not] every visitor must know that there’s a 150 000 gannets on Bass Rock or that puffin numbers are in decline, or that there’s too much plastic in the ocean that’s killing wildlife. We don’t have anything set in stone in that sense. What we want is for [visitors] to go away feeling very enthused about the wildlife that we had on our cameras here, and the experience that they’ve had […]. You need to get them engaged first ‘cause if they’re not engaged, they don’t care about the wildlife, then they’re not going be engaged then with the other messages and so anything else that we’re trying to [convey].” (Seabird Centre operations 1)
Although considered by the organisations we studied as a key aspect, the uptake of techno-visual instruments in our case studies was rarely purely for producing and disseminating science-based knowledge of the natural world through using these media as microscope. Rather, as our respondent above indicated, organisations also undertook image-making and used images with the intention of getting as many members of the public as possible ‘engaged’ and caring for issues that were removed from their day-to-day experiences. The same technologies and images used to fulfil cognitive functions were also used in the creation of a metaphorical ‘spectacle’—“incredible close-up” images and visual experiences designed to capture interest, to the end of creating a necessary initial emotional, normative ‘connection’ with members of the public. This required nature to be (i) accessible and novel, (ii) emotionalised, and (iii) personified.
At one level, new visual technologies were used by our case study organisations to bolster access to the natural world and the spectacle therein. Technologies such as mobile applications and cameras were viewed by respondents as means of facilitating social inclusion, of drawing in and disseminating information to people who may have wanted to but were physically unable to access nature in person, either due to distance or inability/disability:
“And part of it was, as I said before, to get pictures from here down to the bottom for people who weren’t able to come up themselves, you know. For the disabled or less able to walk up themselves.”(Peregrine Watch technical 2)
“I think it’s really an incredible thing for people to be on the website, to be on the iPhone out there sitting at their whatever job they’re doing, and they get a text message or you know, a notification of an elephant in Tsavo has just triggered the camera. And it’s just a way to get people connected with nature, and a way that, you know, there’s nothing else out there like there [….] what we’re doing [gives a] real time kind of excitement of being able to see wildlife in areas where people might never be able to go to, or might never see that wildlife. So it’s a pretty cool way to get people connected you know to what we’re doing in the field and the species that we’re trying to conserve.” (Instant Wild operations staff)
Implicit even within the above quotes was a concern beyond access to nature in the interest of inclusivity. Our respondents recognised the need for organisations to improve the accessibility of nature in order to encourage the public to ‘connect’ with nature. To interest members of the public who were not already enrolled into the cause, as well as to garner repeat visits, visual technologies were employed as a strategy to make wildlife less remote, detached, or ‘outside’ of people’s day-to-day experiences. For audiences who were more familiar with technology than wildlife, organisations used image-based functionalities to seduce viewers and invoke a sense of fascination and ‘discovery’ with regard to the nature displayed. Additionally, the technologies themselves provided a point of novelty, enabling new, and for some, exciting ways of viewing and imagining nature. Both image and image-making thus offered a means by which non-human nature could become accessible on demand and without requiring prior knowledge.
“Ultimately, what we want are visitors to walk away from the Centre having had a fantastic day out, and a really good experience. Now, if they walk out of there having not gained any new understanding about wildlife, about nature, yet they’ve had a fantastic day, they’ve learnt about how our cameras work, fine, brilliant. They’re gonna go home, they’re gonna write a really good review on TripAdvisor, you know, we’re gonna get good repeat visits from that […]. I mean, my argument to that would be how would you engage disadvantaged or generally uninterested person [without] having a camera there […] what we’re doing here is we’re taking that wonder, say the Bass Rock, and we’re actually making it accessible to as many people as possible.” (Seabird Centre operations 1)
“And I’ve had lots of people email me saying, ‘oh it’s amazing to receive these images, it transports me to this other place’. People do seem to get a lot from it. And I like to think at least that that gets people, makes people more enthusiastic about conservation, about saving those species they see in those images. If you’re more connected to something, you care more about it. It’s hard to care about something that’s very, very remote from you and very, very much outside of your experience.” (Instant Wild technical)
The technologies were also viewed as particularly effective in tracking, capturing, and amplifying ‘reliable’ species that exhibited consistent and predictable behaviours that could be easily viewed. These were seen as being easily translatable into guided viewing experiences, allowing organisations to interpret and mediate images for viewers, especially those who may not be ‘geeks’, by establishing an easy understanding and affective connection within a limited interaction time:
“For someone that’s not a birdwatcher, it’s [also] easier for us to show them what a gannet is or what a puffin is, the big, easily identifiable birds. When you get into the realm of waders, because they’re a lot smaller, because they share lot of similar characteristics, it becomes a lot more difficult to explain to a visitor a certain type of wader. It’s not impossible. It’s just more time consuming, more difficult and ultimately, we found that visitors that don’t get as much enjoyment out of those types of birds. There’re not charismatic enough, not predictable is what I think I would say. You know that if you point a camera on a gannet, at some point it’s gonna beak-fence, it’s gonna do some bowing, it’s gonna do some sky-pointing. All these are very interesting things. They’re easy to spot, from a visitor’s perspective, and even from someone who’s not a birdie, who’s not a birdwatcher at all, they can understand.” (Seabird Centre operations 1)
What the above respondent also highlighted is that accessibility relied on charisma. While the concept of charisma is a subjective one and visual technologies have the capacity to make even the mundane extraordinary by offering unique perspectives, we observed that organisations actively selected charismatic species described as possessing ‘wow factors’ as flagships for technological projects. Although the physical locations connected to the technologies we studied were rich in species biodiversity, focal species were ones that were most easily recognisable, predictable, detectable, distinctive, larger, and yet unique (Lorimer 2007)—species that organisations believed the public found most interesting, and that would provide the most evocative viewing experiences. With the Seabird Centre, despite being located in the naturally abundant Firth of Forth, we observed that live cameras were most frequently trained on puffins (with distinct colourful beaks during breeding season between mid-April to early June), gannets (which gather in the tens of thousands on Bass Rock during breeding and nesting season between late January and October), and seals (which breed mainly on the Isle of May in November and December). With Peregrine Watch, the site was named after and revolved around what was perceived to be the Bin Quarry’s most charismatic species, the falcons, despite a rich variety of species living in the surrounding Bin Forest. Although there was debate over the decision to go with ‘Peregrine Wild Watch’ rather than simply ‘Wild Watch’, our respondents explained that the decision was made partly because the organisation believed that the prospect of watching these raptors, known for reaching high speeds when diving after prey, would draw the public in.
The access(ibility) of wildlife was also a precondition for the production of emotionalised images and viewing experiences that elicited affective reactions from observers. Apart from affording greater frequencies of sightings of rare species or visually arresting behaviour and impressive features that visitors and users might not have seen closely, the technologies were viewed as having greater capacity to create intimate emotional experiences, compared to traditional modes of interpretation (such as static information panels). A staff member at Peregrine Watch recalled an incident that she believed would not have been seen and which would not have had an effect if not for the cameras:
“…on this occasion, the female [peregrine falcon] had two chicks, but one chick died. And she spent an afternoon trying to feed a dead chick. She would croon at it and try and get it, to revive it. Now I had the public in, and I had a cabin full of people who spent a couple of hours watching this bird with this dead chick. I had public that were crying, and in the end I had to switch it off […] because it was that emotional, that experience. And it still gets me in the throat because in the end, she had to discard the dead chick and then go and look after the living one. So the people that were there related and it was a very emotional thing for them […]. We wouldn’t have seen that if we didn’t have the cameras.” (Peregrine Watch operations)
Organisations relied on the emotionalised effects of such technologically enabled viewing experiences and images to garner the social and political will of the public and policy-makers. This support was perceived as being important for conservation causes, particularly when faced with issues such as raptor persecution. In the case of the red kite tracking project, the tags, satellite data visualisations in the form of maps, blogs, and the various website facilities were an integral part of a larger approach that
“…was about connecting the communities around the Black Isle with the red kites, just to try and make people see how bad it was that they were being persecuted [and] really, to give us a big platform from which to kind of spread the unfortunate bad news, but that was the only way we could really get people to kind of understand the magnitude of what was going on.” (Red Kites operations)
Due to the reliability of both charismatic subjects and the visual technologies trained on these animals, there also existed the possibility of mediating a sense of affinity with individual, often named and personified animals. With the red kite tracking project, birds were named, and more recent efforts saw each bird having its own blogs and maps visualising its movements. Such features allowed the user community to become acquainted with birds as individuals and lent themselves to press coverage, as was the case with Merida, a tagged female red kite named after the heroine of an animated Disney movie.
Further, the personification of a particular species or individual extends the possibilities for the creation of emotional affinities and communities of interest. With the Instant Wild application, one of the US-based camera traps often caught images of a raccoon that came to capture the imagination of the user community (Fig. 3). Users anthropomorphised the raccoon, and Barry (as the community had named it) garnered a fan following of its own. The personification of Barry created possibilities for Instant Wild to bolster emotional affinities and consolidate the community of interest. In October 2013, for instance, field researchers associated with Instant Wild put a pumpkin carved with Barry’s name out by the camera trap frequented by the raccoon. The resultant images with Barry and the pumpkin generated a higher degree of interaction between users, and between users and researchers, compared to the more usual disjointed user comments on images.