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Wilderness Machines as empathic agents.
Interfaces for Empathy is the brilliant theme of this year’s Pixelache festival. In many ways it also describes what we’re aiming for in Machine Wilderness. Seen from our perspective empathy is one of the main characteristics we hope to generate. Current human technologies and infrastructures tend to dominate the landscape and their main focus is to serve people. In Machine Wilderness we’re looking at technology from the perspective of the other 99% that we share our environment with. Can our technologies participate in rather than dominate the complex ecosystems in which they are situated?

To explore this, we focus on robotics as dynamic agents in landscapes. Our field-work brings together mixed teams of people with varied backgrounds, working and teams work together on prototypes for specific landscapes based on local knowledge. In these diverse teams, different ways of knowing are pooled and varied ways of perceiving the environment are explored. The robot-prototype relates to it’s location as an animal or plant does to it’s biome. So technology becomes an expression of a specific ecosystem or landscape in the same way organisms are. The idea is not to promote the presence of robotics in nature or the use of  autonomous objects for solving our ecological crisis. That would just extend the idea of a human dominated technological fix as the way forward. Instead, we believe that designing artificial organisms with an ecological role helps to reveal many of the layers of interaction between technology and the environment. Current technological systems are out there without much considerations for nonhuman users. We’ve long underestimated the impact of our technologies on the environment. As a result of this, our planet has formed scar-tissue over a recent period which may soon be named the Anthropocene. In that sense our technologies need to function more like interfaces for empathy. The prototypes developed by teams in a series of field-work session throughout Europe have been created from that perspective of empathy, intimacy and participation.

Hacking Helsinki
During a meeting at the Day of Environmental Philosophy in the Netherlands Clemens Driessen mentioned that his interest in the use of technology in relation to farm animals recently had started extending to wild animals too. He’d just written an abstract called ‘SatNav for Wolves’ which explores the subject of how human technologies could facilitate animals to navigate human-dominated landscapes more easily and on their own terms. This became the starting point for our Pixelache workshop. Like in all other Machine Wilderness fieldwork sessions we would take the local landscape as our case-study. How can Helsinki be hacked for more non-human life to exist there? The workshop would be an exploration of urban mixed zones in Helsinki to prototype technological interventions for wild animals to navigate the local Anthropocenic landscapes on their own terms.

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The method
Scott Smith works in facilitating groups of people – from designers to government – to imagine and develop alternate future scenarios. For this workshop we investigated with him the possibility of using cards as a way of building narratives that could help think about Helsinki from the perspective of non-humans. The cards would be a quick fire deck of cards build up from observations made during an exploration of Helsinki during the workshop. By combining cards from several categories we’d get unexpected combinations from which to work. From experience Scott knows it’s best if participants build up the deck of cards during the exploration without knowing it’s purpose. This prevents participants to think towards outcomes or be limited by existing conventions. Based on Scott’s advice Theun and Clemens came up with this structure: animals, activity, infrastructure. Three teams would go out and look at the perspective of one of these three themes. Then these would be gathered and made into three pacs of cards. By randomly picking cards from each pack you would get: an animal + an activity + an infrastructure (dung beetle + hibernating + railway station) This would form the basis for brainstorming and first conceptual designs.

The fieldwork
During practice the final preparations Clemens and Theun found that the distinction between an activity and an infrastructure wasn’t always clear. Should we describe it as flow of traffic or highway? In the end we decided to go in two teams. A team lead by Clemens and Antti Tenetz would look at animals and plants: this could be either the species that were there or species that are currently missing from Helsinki, species that urban infrastructure has pushed out. The other team would be lead by Theun and would look at infrastructures: what is there in the city that could be hacked for non-human habitation.

Before going out Theun gave an overview of what has happened in the Machine Wilderness so far and an overview of recent developments in robotics and information systems that are part of ecosystems and landscapes. Clemens introduced the participants to his research into technology relating to farm animals and his interest in exploring the SatNav for Wolves idea.

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We had a pretty mixed team of people and backgrounds – garden design, politics, art, film, etc. So we set out with Clemens & Antti leading the animals team. They stuck to their task with rigor by listing animals and plants, bioprospecting the former asylum grounds, a cycle path between a glass façade and sheetrock, and the nineteenth century graveyard. Theun’s team however soon went in a radically different direction. The argument for that was that animals don’t look at their environment with this kind of intellectual focus: a squirrel doesn’t look at a drainage pipe thinking in which ways it can be applied / repurposed. Animals may relate to their environment more by direct experience. To look at the city from their point of view we adopted a mode of working more starting from our own direct experience. Each team member took some time apart to just experience what is there. Some explored nuts and fruits in the area by touch, finding that texture is also a means of communication. Others noted how one’s perspective could shift from being on top of the land to being at the bottom of the atmosphere. This resulted in more abstract cards like: orientation through sound, blindness of function, taste triggers memory, locate comfort zone. Meanwhile Clemens harvested different forms activity from these both these sets, like: predation, adapting, hibernating, migrating or germinating. We then proceeded to combine the three packs of cards and brainstorm on the results together. We would pick an animal + a plant + an activity + one of the abstract ones.

One of the combinations that came out was for example: chestnut + mimicking + finding patterns

This led us to discuss an existing project where drones are used for planting trees by shooting seeds into the soil. And how it could be interesting to link this with mimicking the natural patterns of seed dispersal for trees. We discussed how seeds are also strategies of dispersal by animals and these lead to different ways in which trees and shrubs live, in close communities that benefit from cross-pollination or far apart which makes a species less prone to disease.

The results
Some of the combinations were pretty tough, but all of them would trigger an interesting debate, often by wildly associating ideas and experiences. The sets of cards we gathered from our expeditions changed a bit in their focus. For some this was a positive thing in that it enables a process that is not narrowed down to solving an exercise. But others felt our aim had become unclear or didn’t quite know how to contribute. Overall it seemed that participants found the workshop to be interesting and we actually worked the entire day. As an experiment with this kind of methodology I think it would benefit from having more categories that are less abstract. Maybe next time we should include textures, senses, seasons, natural landscape elements and artificial elements. These could then maybe form larger sets of cards to work with? But as a first test in using cards as triggers for empathic perspectives on the landscape of Helsinki, and for reimagining current interspecies technological interfaces, it seems our day worked pretty well.

Thanks to all our participants – with special thanks to Antti – for your contribution and to Petri and Mari and the whole Pixelache crew for making this great festival happen!