Borrowed features and attractant noise

Posted on | januari 5, 2014 | 6 Comments

One of the sculptures in the work Linnunlaulu (Bird song) by Finnish artist Jussi Valtakari.

One of the sculptures in the work Linnunlaulu (Bird song) by Finnish artist Jussi Valtakari.

Within circles of bird watchers there has been debates on field uses of smartphones and similar devices to create attractant noise. With eg. an iPhone you can easily playback the sounds of different bird species in order to lure birds out of their hiding places. Several bird watchers do not appreciate this use. Yesterday Sarah Portlock wrote in Wall Street Journal about recent debates.

As Christopher Vogel approached a hot spot for Louisiana waterthrushes in a New Jersey state forest one spring day, the professional ornithologist could hear the bird’s complex crescendo of ”CHEE-CHEE-CHEE-titi-WEE.”

But something didn’t seem quite right.

Then he spotted the trouble. The warble wasn’t coming from a bird. Rather, he said, a large man in full birding regalia—khaki field vest, floppy sun hat and expensive binoculars—was standing there on a bridge, his iPhone chirping away. It was loudly playing the bird’s song, seemingly on a loop, in an effort to lure the bird into view.

”He thought he was alone. He was being on the sly,” recalled Mr. Vogel, 41 years old. ”And then somebody caught him.”

”I told him, ‘You know that’s exactly what you’re not supposed to be doing.’ ” Mr. Vogel then snapped a photo of the man and threatened to post it online for public shaming. The birder blanched, said nothing, went back to his car and left.

In his book Sound and Sentiment sound anthropologist Steven Feld wrote in a ground breaking way about the ways the Kaluli people in Papua New Guinea were using sounds like bird song to create a cultural system.

In his book Sound and Sentiment sound anthropologist Steven Feld wrote in a ground breaking way about the ways the Kaluli people in Papua New Guinea were using sounds like bird song to create a cultural system.

I’m not a bird watcher, and don’t have any specific idea on where to draw the line between appropriate and non-appropriate technology use in this context. But I feel tempted to relate the debates and controversies about smartphones and bird watching to a concept I introduced in the text “Enhancement or Distortion? From The Claude Glass to Instagram” last year. In the text I discussed how recent debates on Instagram aesthetics could be related to earlier controversies around imaging technologies like the Claude Glass. The concept I used to try to understand the debates and often strong feelings around technology use was “borrowed features”. The concept has to do with normative aesthetics and the negotiations on uses of new technologies.

Here’s a part from the text, in which I described how disdain and strong feelings around technology use could be interpreted as…

…a historically recurring theme of what could be called normative aesthetics. It is part of a defense of craftsmanship and ideas about professionalism. It is part and parcel of the social dynamics that occur when new technologies are introduced in various practices. When electric, then electronic and digital music instruments were introduced there were reactions against the loss of musical craftsmanship. Some writers still prefer mechanical typewriters, arguing that computer-based writing is numbing and dumbing. The same goes for imaging technologies. (…) But there is more to the story.

New tools encourage and strengthen some practices. New technologies are to some extent often prosthetic (McLuhan 1995). They offer new possibilities, they might enhance the abilities of the user, while they are also numbing or blocking some capacities. (…) This shift of knowledge (and skill) can be challenging.

There is a moral undercurrent that seems to run along much of the critique against uses of various technologies. The undercurrent is best illustrated by the fable about ”the bird in borrowed feathers”, in which a bird (sometimes a crow or a jay) borrows finery from another species in order to impress. The beautiful bird is however revealed to be ”fake” and the borrowed (and sometimes its own) feathers are torn off. This moral stance seems to spur critics when they disdain uses of new technologies as ”cheap gains” or as reliance on tools without having any real skill. I feel tempted to slightly tweak the fable to being about borrowed features.

It feels appropriate to use the notion of borrowed features/feathers when it comes to electronic imitation of bird song.  And when Jeffrey Gordon (president of the American Birding Association)  speak about thoughtless playback of sound out in the field , borrowed features/feathers comes to mind .

”I find it so boorish when people are just out here, indiscriminately blasting stuff,” said Mr. Gordon, who uses an app, but says he does so judiciously. ”When we’re getting out, we’re trying to become more attentive to what’s around us, and playback—or any kind of overreliance on gadgetry—can quickly start to erode the experience.”

Technology use in settings associated with wildlife and nature is a truly thought provoking topic.  


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6 Responses to “Borrowed features and attractant noise”

  1. Gustav Holmberg
    januari 6th, 2014 @ 17:26

    Intressant! Det finns liknande berättelser kring annan teknik inom fågelskåderiet.

    Fågelskådarna har ju en historia av intensivt bruk av informationsteknik, inte minst från 1980-talet och framåt, med minicall-baserade larmkedjor, telefonsvarare, SMS och annat som snabbt sprider kunskapen om att en väldigt sällsynt fågel observerats på en viss plats.

    Jag har hört äldre fågelskådare berätta negativa historier om detta; hur det var mer ”på riktigt” när man förr i tiden fick jobba lite hårdare för att bocka av arter, kryssa sig upp på 300-klubbens lista.

    Samma sak finns inom amatörastronomin. Jag diskuterar det hela i termer av olika amatörkulturer. Det finns de amatörkulturer som bejakar de digitala verktygen fullt ut, medan andra snarare är emot dem. De diskuterar den amatörastronomiska upplevelsen i termer av det sublima, att uppleva med egna ögon, att på ett icke-medierat sätt närma sig galaxer och annat.

    Hade ett paper på temat på en internationell workshop om amatörastronomins historia i september.

  2. robertwillim
    januari 6th, 2014 @ 17:30

    Mycket intressant Gustav, tack för kommentaren, och kul med kopplingen till astronomin. Det är nog så att denna typ av diskussioner förekommer i en rad fält där nya tekniker gör intåg. Vore kul att se papret från september.

  3. Gustav Holmberg
    januari 6th, 2014 @ 17:37

    Ja, verkligen spännande att se kopplingarna mellan olika typer av teknikbruk, inom olika slags amatörvetenskap och även i andra områden! Analogpurister inom hi-fi och DJ-världen, tex.

    (Papret levererades muntligt och finns bara i form av ett stolpigt manus – men det skall skrivas ihop till en något mer läsvärd form, och då delar jag förstås gärna med mig.)

  4. robertwillim
    januari 6th, 2014 @ 17:48

    Kanon, vi får höras mer om detta. Jag har också skrivit ett kapitel kallat ”Transmutations of Noise” (kommer ut nästa år) som handlar om den skiftande synen på vad som är noise och hur det omdefineras i relation till olika praktiker. Jag antar att noise och gränsdragningar kring detta även är ett intressant tema när det gäller astronomin.

  5. robertwillim
    januari 6th, 2014 @ 17:51

    Eller rättare sagt så kommer noise-kapitlet ut detta år :-)

  6. Gustav Holmberg
    januari 6th, 2014 @ 17:56

    Kanon, indeed – något att fortsätta pratas vid om!

    Ser fram emot att läsa Noise-kapitlet!

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