audrey verma

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A recent conceptual history of the Digital Anthropocene

Rather than jumping straight into what the Digital Anthropocene could be or is not, it occurs to me that a better place to start would be to map the brief recent history of the concept. This is as much a matter of epistemic justice as grounded review. There have been a number of related ideas/concepts that have been coalescing broadly around critical points to do with human-nature relationships in technologised/digitised settings. Five key concepts may be identified in somewhat neat chronological order: Anthrobscene/Media Ecologies, Nature 2.0, Digital Conservation, and more recently Digital Anthropocene and Digital Ecologies. The reading list below (by no means exhaustive) represents for me some key conceptual contributions to recent attempts to think about the more-than-human in our digital age:

Anthrobscene: Parikka, Jussi. 2015. The Anthrobscene. University of Minnesota Press; which builds on/relates to the idea of Media Ecologies: Parikka, Jussi. 2011. Media ecologies and imaginary media: Transversal expansions, contractions, and foldings (pdf). The Fibreculture Journal 17.

Nature 2.0: Büscher, Bram. 2014. Nature 2.0: Exploring and theorizing the links between new media and nature conservation. New Media and Society 18:5.

Digital Conservation: Van der Wal, René and Arts, Koen. 2015. Digital conservation: An introduction. Ambio 44: Supplement 4. This is the introduction to a special volume on digital conservation.

Digital Anthropocene: McLean, Jessica, 2020. Changing digital geographies: Technologies, environments and people. Palgrave Macmillan. The concept is used multiple times, coming across more clearly in the text, and makes tentative (in my opinion) moves toward delineating the Digital Anthropocene.

Digital Ecologies: Digital Ecologies workshop, 29–30 March 2021.

While there are clear overlaps in the matters of concerns, there are also key differences: Media Ecologies attend to the material aspects of digital technologies in critical and necessary ways. Nature 2.0 zeroes in on the political economy of new media and its implications for practice (e.g. of conservation). Digital Conservation supersedes Nature 2.0 in some ways with an applied focus, drawing together technological practices/practitioners with more critical theoretical perspectives on what these mean for human-nature relationships. Digital Ecologies and Digital Anthropocene I believe both hold the potential to meaningfully speak to broad but clearly connected interests for long-term usage. McLean’s use of Digital Anthropocene crucially highlights the affective and experiential aspects of environmentalism in digitised settings. I am less clear on Digital Ecologies, particularly on how ‘ecologies’ is understood and operationalised in this context and how this might speak to disciplinary uses of the term not least for ecologists. Based on the conference structure however, it appears to be a fascinating early catch-all that effectively extends the concerns of Digital Conservation.

While all of these terms have attracted multi-disciplinary perspectives, the disciplinary origins, mix of disciplines, leanings and abilities to speak across a broad spectrum have varied considerably with each term. For example, Digital Conversation attracts technologists and conservation practitioners, but Media Ecologies – for all its attention to actual stuff – seems to appeal mainly on a conceptual and academic level.

With regards to alternatives and complements, Digital Nature has been floated in some literature, but I have yet to come across work that clearly sets a case for its use, in part possibly because of the conceptual ‘trickiness’ of nature itself. This is not to say that ‘anthropocene’ is any less tricky, or that ‘ecologies’ is a clearer term. These likely just have just had shorter histories or more limited traction than ‘nature’, and therefore have had less time to accrue baggage from troublesome social scientists. Digital Environmentalism has also been used in the literature, and is a crucial part of the story (not least for my own research), but this seems to me to be a key conceptual subset, for Digital Activism/Social Justice and Digital Anthropocene/Ecologies.