The error message was ‘there’s no face in your profile image. Is this correct?’
In that instant the full weight of 21st-century technology pressed up against me, whispering with menace. Somewhere in this dark internet alley, an algorithm was judging against my uploaded picture. Its pseudo-human courtesy masked the threat being made by its cold binary power. It had me in its corner, with a knifepoint under my ribcage. It could kill my message. What do I do?
With a click of my mouse, it was all over. Like an ancient hero in a saga, I gave a reply. ‘Yes’ appeased the monstrous threat and opened a magic door. My photo was escorted into the virtual world.
Why did the hidden wizard behind the algorithm train it to accept an override? I may never know. The chill down my spine faded instantly but I hold on to the painful memory. I belong to a species that created an electronic power called ‘face recognition’. This does not ‘see’ marine jelly creatures any more than it ‘sees’ millions of other species that also live on earth.
But throughout our daily modern lives, each of us now ‘sees’ these other species as if for the very first time. Everyone I know with a mobile phone has at least one photo of another species saved on it. Some people tell me their photo is something strange: an insect, a bird, a blob of living slime that surely has a name. Again and again they say ‘I never noticed it much before’.
These observations are hot binary instants: do I ignore this or do I look at this a bit more? Then the next question: whatever will I do with it?
If you live on the Sapphire Coast (south east NSW, near Eden), you could open the website Atlas of Life in the Coastal Wilderness. You could check your photo against others to see what is that creature. Perhaps it’s a rare species or even a ‘new’ one? Is it ‘new’ to here or perhaps ‘unknown to science’? You can even upload your image to the collection. Hey, there’s a call-out for a photo of an albino wallaby! Now that’s something to watch out for.
Let’s have a website like this for Byron Shire. Start-up is only $5,000. A great add-on for our tourists. A special way for our residents to share their insights. For young people, this is the reverse of collecting Weetbix cards about nature. This is joining in building local knowledge of local place for yourself and your neighbourhood.
Let’s go a few steps further. We provide a link to all the different excellent websites that already focus on special places such as Arakwal National Park, Julian Rocks, Brunswick marine zones and more.
We create a form that accepts other news about the photo so we can build local knowledge about the life histories of other species here. Another form notes any local history about that species. What memories are there of species that are no longer around?
Algorithms are for us to command. I’d love to see an empty shop in town become a ‘discovery centre’ for social and natural history.
From this hub, we can also provide virtual support for walkabouts. Whether it’s a moment noticing something odd or a day spent walking or swimming the area, technology can help us understand more of what surprises and enchants us.
The centre could broadcast live transmissions from our underwater sites or other secret places. ‘Knowledge tourism’ creates good employment. ‘Road scholars’, lifelong learning travellers are Byron’s untapped market.
We send our Curiosity to Mars and in our millions we watch breathlessly for the images. Let’s do this right here in Byron and begin the longest journey of all space-time: recognising and respecting other species.
See Nature Science Network website about crowdfunding for this project.