Portrait of an Edition

Dark Mountain: Issue 8 is our most visual book yet. Its pages are interwoven with paintings, photographs, architectural drawings, craftwork guidelines and illustrations. Alongside the eerily smooth lines of the technological world sits the rough beauty of maker culture; the ugliness of high-frequency transmitters on South London rooftops juxtaposed with a reconstructed iron-age smelter in Scotland, or a serried row of billhooks in a tool library in Cumbria.

In celebration of this edition here are seven glimpses into the collection and the stories that can shift our attention away from the trance of the mechanical sphere and back into physical and meaningful reality.

* * *

One of the original critiques of technology comes from the French philosopher Jacques Ellul. In an interview with Jan van Boeckel, Never mind where, so long as it’s fast, he tells the young film makers who are recording him:

Existence in a society that has become a system finds the senses useless precisely because of the very instruments designed for their extension. One is prevented from touching and embracing reality.  Further, one is programmed for interactive communication; one’s whole being is sucked into the system. It is this radical subversion of sensation that humiliates and then replaces perception.

Jacques Ellul on la technique: ‘We are surrounded by objects which are, it is true, efficient but they are absolutely pointless. A work of art, on the other hand, has meaning in various ways or it calls up in me a feeling or an emotion whereby my life acquires sense. That is not the case with a technological product. We have the obligation to rediscover certain fundamental truths which have disappeared because of technology. We can also call these truths values, important, actual values, which ensure that people experience their lives as having meaning. Documentary still @Rerun Productions

The book charts some of the everyday fundamental things our hands can still touch and remember, from making sourdough bread to hanging out washing on a windy day. It shows too how artists can take ordinary materials and rework them, thereby reconnecting people with the living systems of which they are made: ink made from oak galls, deer parchment painted with birch smoke, mead made from wild leaves and raw honey.

Here the attentive hand of the furniture maker and artist Wycliffe Stutchbury pieces together slices of discarded trees and fenceposts for one of his giant ‘woodpaintings’, in an interview by choreographer Clare Whistler called Heartwood:

In the Studio: ‘Wood is the paint, the tiles are the brushes. I don’t colour, stain or manipulate the material, which allows the making of something to happen. I want the restriction of the form to keep it simple. I don’t want to distract the viewer from the colour, the texture and the landscape.’ Photo by Clare Whistler

One of the main questions discussed in the book centres on time. Technology promises to ‘save time’. What happens when a faster, more efficient machine takes over the human task of engaging with the world? What relationship with the fabric of things is lost, with our creativity, with each other? In the photo essay The Walnut Project, photographer Manuela Boeckle documents villagers in the Perigord region in France cracking their local ‘Corne’ walnuts for oil: nuts that are too hard and too small to be processed on an industrial scale:


The elderly neighbours (‘les dames denoisillenses’) gather around Leni‘s kitchen table to process the nuts. The nuts are placed on a tile, cracked with the boxwood hammer and de-shelled (denoisillage). The women chat, sing in Occitan (the local dialect and the language of the troubadours), listen to the sounds, or are simply immersed in an activity they have known since childhood. Photo by Manuela Boeckle

In The Craft of Slow Time, photographer Rob Fraser travels out to the edgelands of Tibet, Ladakh and elsewhere in search of people who still work with a deep connection to the land. Using a plate glass camera, a technology that has not changed for 100 years, requires him to engage with the subjects of his portraits and listen to their stories.

You can’t set up a large format camera, on its tripod, and stand there with a bright red cape over your head without first getting to know the people you’re going to shoot… The process of photography is also a process of kinship, talking, finding common ground.

It’s a long way from the digital clicking of a selfie generation:

6 Samburu warriors, Kenya low res
Samburu warriors, northern Kenya. ‘(We) made camp by a small lake when these three men wandered past, herding their goats. Their weapons, handcrafted out of local hardwood, are used to ward off predators keen on taking the odd stray goat. The pastoral skills needed to tend and protect a herd and derive food from their milk, blood and meat, are learned over many years.’ Photo by Rob Fraser

But working on the edge also happens within highly-industrialied countries. Between the book’s essays, interviews and life stories, you can catch glimpes of baskets woven in the woods of Northern England, or the plan for a ‘yurpee’ constructed in the high desert of Arizona, or brief meditations on a pocket knife or geologist’s pick. On the edge of the Atlantic singer-songwriter Catrina Davies gets to grips with tech and (almost) off-grid living in My Tin Shed Technosphere:

‘My shed is made from the sliced flesh of old trees. I furnished it with old trees of my own. My family of musical instruments, my several hundred books, my footstool that’s as old as me with my name carved onto it. One day these old trees will sink back into the earth and be born again as worms, or blackbirds, or roses, or tall Scots pines, or hunchbacked hawthorn, or wild, stunted apples with burnt brown leaves and supernatural blinding blossom.’

Somewhere embedded in the material is a way to regain the meaning and freedom that technology robs from us. So long as we can place our (real) hands on it.

In A Quiet Industry, writer and voyager Sarah Thomas steers a project to catalogue the old agricultural tools belonging to Walter Lloyd. In her record she notes:

We are living through a unique time in our history where these specificities of place, language, skill and purpose are being lost to a homogenised and dislocated ‘being’ and ‘doing’ in the world, as we have largely relinquished responsibility for our existences to people and systems we have never met or held in our hands.

x Sarah Thomas_Walter's Tools_Charcoal
Charcoal burners making music: : When the fair weather came in summer, outdoor workshops in toolhandle making and blacksmithing aided in the restoration process. Some of the newly restored tools were used in a series of workshops in scything and haymaking, charcoal burning and willow basket making.’ Photo by John Ashton

Dark Mountain issue 8 ends with one of the clearest insights into the limits of technology: unlike living things it is stuck in a closed system. In Love & Entropy, artists Horne & Draper chart the collapsing buildings of their native Doncaster:

The Sum of All Knowledge: ‘We are literally surrounded by the material ghosts of obsolete technology. We cannot call them ‘corpses’ as they have not yet mastered death… until we have created – or technology itself evolves – some form of techno-soil then our technological masterpieces will ever more quickly become little more than memento mori; reminding us that entropy awaits the linear world.’ Photo by Warren Draper

Top image: Mann by Robert Leaver: ‘The mannequin strikes me as calm and knowing and when I place him in nature I feel as though he is a visitor from the future. He knows things here and now are headed in the wrong direction. His silence is eloquent and somehow soothing. He is an opaque scarecrow, a strangely graceful witness. Ishmael made white by the whale of what will be.’

There’s more where this came from in Dark Mountain issue 8: Technê

For this issue Charlotte Du Cann  also wrote a story called Wayland and the Futuremakers about the mythical blacksmith and his flight to freedom. 


I have always made things. I remember making cardboard robots and plasticine creatures as a child to an excessive extent, filling the house with childish art. Still now, when left to my own devices I make. Sometimes jewellery, sometimes costumes, sometimes woodwork, sometimes I paint. But mostly nowadays I make bags – rucksacks, pouches, handbags, cases – that I think of a little more like useful sculptures, somewhere between craft and art (although who is defining the difference?) I make my bags largely from Butyl rubber tractor inner tubes and old car seat belts. These materials are industrial, strong, durable, easy to work with, vegan (as far as I know), and mostly quite waterproof. They are also waste. When I first approached a tractor mechanic to ask if he had any old burst inner tubes lying around he said that he mostly gave them to farmers to start fires. The very idea makes my stomach churn now I have worked with and realised the potential of them as a creative and practical medium.

Making is my meditation. It is my own personal escape from thinking. My hands take over and I finally have space from the never-ending ‘to do’ list of modern life. It is not logical, or productive in any linear way, but it’s the art of being present and occupying myself with a generally quite repetitive task and watching something grow that is so calming. If I haven’t done it for a while I can feel it lacking in my day-to-day life. Time moves differently when I’m making, in cool long waves. I cannot do it if I have to be somewhere in a few hours. I swallow whole days with my making mind space.

Using materials that are ‘waste’ enhances my creativity. By making something out of materials that have curves or bumps, or are awkward shapes or sizes has resulted in a level of originality that I would not have achieved with a plain, flat starting material. I collaborate with the material, with the designer of the original product and with time. The pieces I make have a history. The inner tube has revolved in a tyre of a tractor thousands of times; ploughing soil; making hay; towing sheep trailers; distributing pesticides; taking cows to slaughter? I can never know their full story, but I enjoy engaging in some small way with it. The re-use of the materials in a new way is a reminder of the world we live in. When I go to the (very few) scrap-yards that allow me to scavenge the materials I need, I see cars stacked high mostly from car accidents, written off, too far gone to fix, with smashed windows, baby toys on the floor, crumpled bonnets. It is an exciting process for me (if a little perverted) to take the detritus of this general destruction and regurgitate it as something new and fresh and useful and hopefully beautiful. I feel as if I’m working as nature does, scavenging on the old to create the new, in cycles that are older than time.

Up-cycling is strongly connected with the visual demonstration of ‘eco-credentials’ and ‘green’ design and although this is partly true for me, it is certainly not the main reason to make things from waste: after all, the materials are free! I am funding no immoral industries with my making habit. I don’t need to achieve any financial ‘return’ on my creations as I have only invested time rather than money. I have repeatedly refused to financially value my time. If I express doubt as to how much I should charge I am often asked, ‘But how long did it take you?’ I do not earn an hourly wage. Pricing myself like that would tie me into a concept that the more time something takes the more money it should cost. I don’t believe this. I believe in the benefits I receive from the making itself and the joy of sharing that with others. I would often rather give something away than haggle for it. There is much to be said for achieving a sense of self worth as an artist, but why should this worth should come from money? There is a chasm in difference between value and price.

Besides, using waste materials allows me to play in the moneyless space; to experiment with the magic of illogical, conceptual art whilst making practical pieces that can be functional and durable with no need to focus on selling anything. In the crevices of the human creative process dwell the last drops of magic available to us in the Western world; the kind of truth we cannot explain. To put a price on that has always sat awkwardly for me.

Up-cycling is not going to save the world. In an ideal world, nobody would be making butyl rubber tyres out of oil, so there would be no waste for me to play with. But in this world, these scraps allow me to carve a niche in which I can be creative without making too much of an unwanted mess. I am working in the ‘slack’ between consumption and protest. It feels like a step towards something; or at least a step away from something worse.

There’s more where this came from in Dark Mountain issue 8: Technê

Questioning the Cult of Repro Tech

It is summertime and I am sitting on a sunny porch with my 92-year-old mother. There is no noise, except for the hum of the bees in the garden. Occasionally a bullfrog releases a baritone groan while the birds chat in the trees. Apart from this, there is utter silence.

My mother and I sit next to each other enjoying the radiance of the sun. It was a rough winter for her, with multiple hospitalisations, tubes and wires monitoring her every breath, followed by a depressing stay in a dismal rehabilitation center. Now, several months later, with the hot breezes of summer and the song of the cicada echoing in her ear, she is much stronger and vital, that much further from the edge of death.

During the trying months of her illnesses, I frantically sought solace in technological interventions that might prolong her already long life. When the bells on her heart monitor and blood oxygen machines beeped, I would instantly spring into panicked action and run for help. The nurses were patient, assuring me that even though the machines beeped it didn’t mean my mother was in distress. They advised me to look at her breathing patterns, to notice the rosy flush of her face. Her health was improving, they told me. But it was difficult to believe them. I was more inclined to trust the interventions than to rely on my own senses and intuition.

As my mother regained her strength I concluded that, whether we are conscious of it or not, we humans are hopelessly hooked on the potential promise that medical technology symbolises in our lives. Time and time again we look to technology and pharmaceuticals to deliver us from painful situations we do not like and cannot control. In this age of technological fetishism and all-pervasive marketing, most of us have been trained since birth to expect modern medicine to conquer disease, ward off death, and sometimes, even create new life in a laboratory when none would stir inside us.


It was a hot July day in 1978 when two British men dressed in blue surgical scrubs – Patrick Steptoe, a gynaecologist, and Robert Edwards, a physiologist – held a healthy infant in their arms. A photo was snapped and within minutes news spread that the world’s first ‘test-tube baby’ had been born via in vitro fertilisation (IVF) – a controversial procedure whereby sperm and egg are fertilised outside the human body. For the millions of people reading the headlines that day, IVF was yet another example of how modern science had conquered Mother Nature.

But missing from that first photo was the baby’s mother, Lesley Brown, whose blocked fallopian tubes had made her an ideal candidate for a successful IVF cycle. More ominous was the absence of any mention of the almost 300 or more infertile women at Oldham General Hospital in Lancashire whose experimental IVF procedures had failed prior to Lesley Brown’s success, or of the hundreds more in other countries that were then experimenting with the technique.

It is not clear if the invisibility of these women’s experiences and the omission of the historical context of IVF failure was a calculated move by the British medical team, or by the Daily Mail, the newspaper that had bought the rights to release the story. Nonetheless, the exclusion of these important details immediately conjured a public illusion that IVF was routinely successful and reliable. By not telling the whole story, the doctors and the media ushered in an era of mass misinformation about the risks and limitations of the procedure – a practice the global reproductive technology industry still employs today.

In her book, Pandora’s Box: How the First Test Tube Babies Sparked the Reproductive Revolution, Robin Marantz Henig documents the particulars of the scientific race to become the first to spawn human life outside the body. Numerous researchers in Britain, the US, Australia and China had worked for decades trying to replicate the intricacies of conception. It was the ten-year partnership of Steptoe, a surgical gynaecologist known for his pioneering work with laparoscopy, and Edwards, a physiologist with a background in genetics and fertilisation in mice and rabbits, that finally cracked the code.

Edwards used his own sperm and that of his male graduate assistants to fertilise the precious human eggs, also referred to as oocytes or ovum, that he was able to procure. But it was only after he began collaborating with Steptoe that his supply of eggs and the pace of his IVF experiments accelerated. Based in the working-class area of Greater Manchester, Steptoe had access to a fairly steady stream of the prized ova that Edwards needed for his experiments back in Cambridge. Molly Rose, a gynaecologist at Edgware General Hospital outside of London, and Sanford Markham, Chief of the Section of Obstetrics and Gynaecology at the US Air Force Hospital in South Ruislip, also provided Edwards with oocytes and ovarian tissue samples.

Markham has written that the women in the 1960s and 1970s who were patients at the US Air Force hospital consented to provide their body parts but did so without full knowledge of the nature of the experiments:

‘… Bob mentioned that he was in need of ovarian tissue from reproductive aged women… I offered to obtain tissue if we could work out a scheme to transport the tissue… to Cambridge… In all cases the patients provided their consent for utilization of their tissue for research. They were not told what the research work involved.’

Sandra Crashley was a 24-year-old mother of two in 1970 when she consulted with Steptoe about severe cramping during her menstrual cycles. In her book, My Ordeal in Edward’s Nobel Prize: The Testimony of an IVF Guinea Pig, she describes how Steptoe removed one-and-a-half of her ovaries without her permission. The procedure shocked her body into early menopause and rapid aging – to the point where she became wheelchair bound at an early age.

The ethical considerations associated with informed consent linked to experiments that could potentially create human life in a laboratory was only one of many concerns raised by a suspicious public and medical establishment at that time. Many commentators expressed alarm that women, embryos and potential offspring were being used as guinea pigs at the expense of scientific inquiry. After all, there was no guarantee that a child born from IVF would be healthy. It was a fear Steptoe and Edwards harboured.

The night Louise Brown was born, Steptoe chose to perform a Caesarean delivery in a location kept secret from the media. Barry Bavister, one of Edwards’ graduate students who helped develop the culture medium the embryos grew in, was quoted in The New York Times as saying: ‘If the baby was abnormal, they sure did not want the press in the delivery room.’

In fact, the Times article said, if the baby had been malformed, that would have likely been the end of IVF. The procedure had succeeded only with rabbits at that point, so it was a huge leap of faith for Steptoe and Edwards to attempt it with humans.


For close to four decades now, well-funded marketing strategies, poorly researched news stories and general ignorance about fertility has helped position IVF as one of mankind’s greatest medical breakthroughs; which it is – but only to a degree.

During a natural menstrual cycle, a woman’s ovary, about the size of a walnut, usually releases only a single egg. During an IVF procedure, most women are exposed to follicle stimulating hormones known as gonadotropins that hyper-stimulate egg production. This kind of hormone blasting can sometimes cause ovarian hyper-stimulation syndrome (OHSS), a condition where a woman’s abdomen fills with fluid and her ovaries swell to the size of grapefruits as they produce a dozen, 20 or even 40 eggs or more. In extreme cases, stroke and even death are known to occur.

Egg retrieval involves piercing the vaginal wall and the ovary with a long needle that is maneuvered to pierce one follicle after another. Suction is then applied to draw the follicular fluid into a test tube where oocytes are found floating in the liquid. If embryos incubated in a culture medium – referred to by the industry as ‘baby broth’ – result, they are then transferred into the uterus, where they either flourish or die. Every year, an estimated 350,000 happy couples from around the world go home with a baby in their arms – but there are millions more who don’t.

The European Society for Human Reproduction and Embryology (ESHRE) asserts that of the 1.5 million IVF cycles performed annually, roughly 1.2 million fail. This translates into a global IVF failure rate of almost 80%. In the US, recent reports from the Centres for Disease Control (CDC) indicate a national failure rate of roughly 70% per cycle across all ages. Public information provided by the UK Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority indicates that 73% of cycles fail annually.

Due to poor record keeping in many countries, it is virtually impossible to know for sure how many babies have actually been born via repro tech services. Over the years, however, various industry representatives have estimated anywhere from one to five million. In a 2001 interview, Robert Edwards was quoted as saying that one million IVF babies had been born since 1978. Five years later, in 2006, those approximations rose to two million, and in 2012, to five million.

These estimations suggest that in just six years – from 2006 to 2012 – three million babies were born via repro tech. Yet, according to the ESHRE’s calculations of 350,000 live births annually, only around two million such babies would have been born during that 72 month time period, and seven million couples would have experienced failed cycles. Extrapolating this over the entire four decades, it is likely that more than 20 million patients and consumers worldwide have endured fates similar to those hundreds of forgotten women at Oldham Hospital.

Edwards was sorrowful and frustrated that IVF could not always alleviate the suffering and stigma that so many infertile couples experienced. His concern for them was genuine and heartfelt and, as a scientist, he was driven to understand why the human reproductive system was so toxic to the embryos he created in a petri dish. In A Matter of Life, the book he co-authored with Steptoe in 1980, he described how the fertilised embryo in the laboratory often thrives until it is transferred back into the natural environment of the female uterus.

‘I had few fears… cleaving embryos are very small but resistant to damage… Their powers of regeneration are astonishing… this resistance lasts to the blastocyst stage… before fading after the embryos become implanted in the womb… it is only then that their growth may become distorted to cause… defects in the baby… These disasters occur after the embryo has been implanted in its mother and not before, so they would not arise in our culture fluids…’

In an article he wrote in Nature magazine in 2001, he again expresses his growing frustration with the 80% IVF failure rates and pointed to women’s bodies rather than technological innovation as the culprit:

‘I assumed human embryo implantation rates matched those of laboratory and farm animals, only realizing some time later that only 20% of them can implant successfully… Something must be fundamentally flawed with a reproductive system that allows only 20% of embryos to implant, even in younger couples.’


Remarkably, these high IVF failure rates have not derailed repro tech’s reputation for providing hope where hope might otherwise not exist. Part of the reason dates back to the industry’s early legacy of omission.

Until the last few years, when a wave of women in various countries began writing about their negative experiences, it was virtually impossible for the average internet user to find anything but success stories about IVF on the web. Putting their best foot forward, infertility clinic websites routinely post photos of smiling babies and pregnancy rates but neglect to mention high miscarriage and low live birth rates. News stories about miracle births, a couple’s triumphant arrival into parenthood after a gruelling ten-year journey, and sensationalised stories about new discoveries have also fuelled public confidence in the services.

But during the last decade the industry’s factual omissions and the media’s exaggerated reporting have contributed to a disturbing pattern: healthy women have started flooding infertility clinic waiting rooms because they no longer trust the natural conception process. This fear-based demand is slowly transforming IVF from a respectable medical intervention designed to treat specific maladies into an over prescribed elective enhancement therapy.

A number of scholarly articles and studies published in prestigious medical journals over the last several years have exposed the lack of evidence supporting the non-medically indicated use of IVF. A 2013 CDC study revealed that, despite an increase in the number of couples using IVF, infertility diagnosis in the US had actually declined over the last three decades. The consumption of repro tech services was being ‘driven by a change in the market, not biology,’ said Anjani Chandra, lead author of the study.

In a controversial 2014 British Medical Journal article, 15 experts referred to a ‘lack of will’ among the medical establishment and the public to question the perceived success of IVF. They stressed that many infertility clinics were increasingly prescribing the procedure to couples that had subfertility and likely would conceive eventually if they only tried for a longer period of time. Research from Spain in 2015 found that, despite the industry-wide practice of recommending elective embryo freezing, there was no proof that the costly service increased a couple’s chance of birthing a baby. A more recent large study from the CDC found that the use of intracytoplasmic sperm injection (ICSI) – where sperm is injected directly into the egg – has more than doubled in the last two decades. ICSI was initially developed to treat certain male infertility conditions, like sperm defects. The 2015 investigation, however, found that ICSI was regularly being employed whether the male had a problem or not and that the expensive service did not improve live birth rates.

Part of this proclivity to prescribe repro tech services gratuitously may be due to well-intentioned doctors trying every available option to help couples to conceive. But it is also most certainly linked to clinic revenues. Profit motivation combined with rampant distortions about efficacy has earned medical entrepreneurs annual returns estimated at US$10 billion globally. This number is expected to more than double in just six years: by 2020, some market research predicts the industry’s global value will hit US$21 billion.


Many couples that don’t conceive after a few months turn to the internet to learn why. Once online it is easy to be overwhelmed by hundreds of websites and news stories urging them to sign up for repro tech services before it’s too late. It is not unusual for IVF commercials featuring cuddly babies or instant chat windows to pop up on the screen, inviting distraught couples to click just once to enter the Promised Land.

What most couples don’t know when they begin searching for answers is that there is no globally agreed-upon definition of what actually constitutes an infertility diagnosis. Consequently, even among public health institutions and experts there is a lot of confusion and diverging opinion. In the UK, the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence defines infertility as a ‘failure to conceive after regular unprotected sexual intercourse for one to two years.’ Demographers, on the other hand, often require a five-year period to determine infertility patterns in a population. The World Health Organisation has changed its infertility definition timetable multiple times in the last few years, from one year in 2009 to two years in 2012.

The American Society for Reproductive Medicine (ASRM) is an influential trade and lobby group in the US charged with policing 500 unregulated infertility clinics. Its 2008 definition stated that infertility is a disease defined by failure to achieve a successful pregnancy after 12 months or more of regular unprotected intercourse.

The very intentional use of the word ‘disease’ and its timetable of 12 months was likely aimed at private health insurers that remain steadfastly opposed to providing coverage for services that fail so frequently. But inserting the word ‘disease’ into the definition raises other questions.

There are many reasons why a couple might not conceive within a 12-month window that have absolutely nothing to do with infertility diseases in women or men. An estimated 30% of infertility cases are unexplained, and contrary to popular belief, even spontaneous conception among young, healthy couples can sometimes take longer than a year.

High stress levels or the hectic lifestyle of a dual-income couple that travels frequently for work and can’t copulate at peak ovulation times are also factors that might hinder conception, but they are not diseases. Older women in their 30s and 40s who have trouble conceiving are not necessarily sick. They don’t have a disease, per se, unless the industry is now framing the onset of menopause and natural fertility decline as an illness that inhibits conception and must now be ‘fixed’ via hormone shots and IVF.


When you marry misinformation and the aggressive marketing tactics of the industry with the psychological profile of a woman who is nervous and fearful about her natural reproductive capacity, you begin to understand how new customers are being reeled into the waiting rooms of an estimated 2,300 repro tech clinics operating in 56 countries today.

This is an extract from a longer essay that appears in Dark Mountain issue 8: Technê


Mario Popham
Partial Eclipse
from Looking Glass, an ongoing series taken within British educational institutions. A generation of young ‘digital natives’ cannot recall a pre-internet dark age when our lives were not heavily mediated by technology with its promises of instant knowledge, distraction and control. What does our relationship to technology mean for consciousness and our conception of ourselves when we occupy the virtual and material world concurrently? What does it mean to be a human being in a world designed, simulated and overseen by our machines? Looking Glass addresses the anxieties that surround our new divided condition.

Dark Mountain Issue 8: Technê

We are at a strange moment in human history. Things that for decades were the wild fantasies of science fiction are suddenly becoming reality. Military powers are developing autonomous killer robots and functional laser weapons; new nanomaterials with physics-bending capabilities are being employed in a myriad of industrial products; printable body parts, stem cell therapies and injectable tissue are on the verge of medical application; cameras and computers are shrinking exponentially, becoming ubiquitous in the fabric of our lives.

At the same time, the costs of our technological advance are becoming ever more apparent. Half the forests are gone, desertification threatens a quarter of the world’s land, and we are living through the sixth mass extinction of plant and animal species. Hundreds of millions of tonnes of plastic are decomposing in the oceans, releasing endocrine-disrupting chemicals into the global food chain.

The cultural responses to this unique epoch are similarly marked by paradox. For many, the solution to the problems created by technology is more technology: China has become the world leader in cloud seeding to combat drought, rocket-launching chemicals into the atmosphere to create millions of tonnes of extra rain. Our gaze turns skyward, contemplating the engineering of the atmosphere itself, while some dream of entirely transcending the ‘limitations’ of organic existence through the apotheosis of a technological Singularity.

At the same time, a cultural backlash against these visions of hi-tech triumph seems to be in play in the richest societies. The turn in fashion towards a rough-hewn, homespun aesthetic; the revival of handcrafts and home-baking; the popularity of drama set in historical periods or quasi-mediæval fantasy realms – all these seem to suggest an unconscious reaction against the unbounded, high-speed frictionlessness that now characterises electronic media, global finance and corporate hegemony.

In the midst of this network of cultural and material tensions, this issue of Dark Mountain the first to focus specifically on one theme – takes as its subject not ‘technology’, but ‘technê’. Unfamiliar as it may be, the classical distinction between epistêmê – the realm of theory or knowledge – and technê – the practical application of art and craft – has continued to structure our thinking to the present day, dividing our humanities from our sciences, our intellectuals from our engineers, and our minds from our hands.

This book is intended to cut across this divide, weaving the global with the domestic, the theoretical with the pragmatic, the technological with the artistic. In the process, we hope to crack open the black box of a culture drowning in the digital and strangled by power lines. What stories underpin a technological mode of life? What role does skilled practice have in a world where everything Smart™ runs at the push of a button? Where are the boundaries between art and technology? Where does this experiment in total biospherical control end – in determinism or liberation, Singularity or despair?

Over the next seven posts on this blog, we’ll be offering some extracts from the new book which give some idea of its breadth and balance. We begin with an offering from the American writer and activist Bill McKibben, on the disturbing prospect of a technological ‘Singularity’.

Being Good Enough

Bill McKibben

 I wrote a book several years ago called The Age of Missing Information, in which I recorded a rather odd experiment. I went and found the largest cable television system in the world, which at the time was in Fairfax, Virginia and had a hundred channels, and I got people there to tape for me everything that came across those hundred channels for 24 hours. So I had 2400 hours worth of videotape—a kind of day in the life of the Information Age pre-internet. And I took it back with me to the woods where I live, I bought a recliner, and I settled in and watched, trying to figure out what the world would look like to you if that was your main portal on it.


Of course, for many it is. And the book was filled with a lot of ideas and insights, but the central one—and I think the message that flows out of that coaxial cable, and out of every other instrument of our consumer society, is that you, sitting there on the couch, are the most important thing in the world. You’re the heaviest object in the known universe; everything should orbit around you. That’s a powerful idea.

It’s worth remembering, however, that there have been and continue to be different conceptions of who we are and who we can be. A certain strain of powerful thinking that we sometimes call spiritual, traces back at least as far as the Buddha for instance, and argues instead, that as we manage to makes ourselves somewhat smaller we become more fully who we are. Most human beings, in most times and places, have almost certainly defined themselves in connection to the tribe (the community), the divine, the natural world, some amalgam of those three.

And it’s not only spiritual traditions that lead us in that direction. To me, the most remarkable emergent science of the last century was neither atomic physics nor computerized mathematics. It was the insights of ecology, with its developing notion of balance and of niche.

Now, adjudicating the dispute between these two positions—this hyper-individualism and a kind of community—is of course difficult. Too much depends on the assumptions and even the mood in which you begin. But I would like to register by way of illustration a couple of small examples, reasons to think that perhaps more is not always better. Advocates of various forms of transhumanism or other improvements will routinely point to human memory as one of our most obvious defects. Marvin Minsky, for one, explaining why he didn’t ‘much like how people are now’, pointed out that we can only learn about two bits per second. Even a century’s worth of learning at that pace would leave us with only three billion bits of data, or less than what could be stored on the increasingly obsolete technology of a compact disc.

By now, doubtless we can store that much on a disc the size of a housefly’s thorax, and perhaps, as director of engineering at Google, Ray Kurzweil, has written, ‘we’ll soon have knowledge downloading ports in the electronic version of our synapses, so there will be no need to read a book. The computer will just squirt the contents into your head.’ It’s easy, in a Midas-like mood, to yearn for perfect recall, but be careful, in this as in many things, about what you wish for. Isn’t one of the most remarkable features of the human memory precisely its ability to forget?

Take the even more prosaic example of human physical performance. It will in all likelihood prove possible to make us faster and stronger than we are at the moment, genetically, pharmacologically, by melding us with machinery. We will then by some measure be better than we are now. But to what end exactly? I’m an athlete, albeit a slow one. I run marathons and I race on cross-country skis. A number of years ago, I qualified for the Boston marathon. Now there was no danger that I would win it, of course. Of the 20,000 people who started that race, at best ten of us had any real hope of triumph. And yet it somehow wasn’t meaningless, indeed half the people who crossed the line with me an hour behind the victor were in tears, and only partly because they were in pain. More importantly, it had been a very dramatic example of that most human of activities: finding out about yourself. What your limits were, how you dealt with them, what it felt like to be you.

To imagine the scene a few generations hence when the same runners had been improved in utero so that their haemoglobin could carry four times the oxygen, or been machined in some way as to give them super speed, is to imagine the poverty of more. Yes, people would get to the finish line faster, but if getting there fast is the point you might as well take a motorcycle, or cross a person with a motorcycle for that matter.

The real point of the enterprise, self-discovery, would be fatally undermined, since you’d be discovering not yourself but your equipment. It might be worth thinking more deeply, because if the meaning of something as ephemeral as sport can be fatally damaged by improvement, then what of love? Of art? Of faith? Of the central and profound human experiences? What of life itself?

One thing that became clear to me as I wrote my book Enough, and as I read and talked to the many enthusiasts of the coming technological climax, was the degree to which this work was driven by a loathing of death. At some level this surprised me. Many scientists have long prided themselves on a willed immunity to the superstition known as religion, that so many weaker souls embraced in the cold shadow of our own eventual demise. But clearly scientists, some anyway, turn out to be as mortal as anyone at least in their fear of mortality. Here’s Michael West, the CEO of Advanced Cell Technology, which produced the first cloned embryos, and grew them to the six-cell stage: ‘all I think about all day long every day is human mortality and our own aging’, he said. Indeed he talked about admiring a t-shirt he’d seen with a picture of Einstein and the words ‘if he was so goddamn smart why is he dead?’

Damien Broderick, writing his book The Spike, stated that ‘we’re stuck at the moment with death’s pain, loss and grief. But in the longest term in the history of intelligent life in the universe, it’ll surely be the case that the routine and inevitable death of conscious beings was a temporary error, quickly corrected.’ Or the futurist Max More: ‘Involuntary ageing and death is a rotten design feature for our species. It really is vital that we understand the causes of ageing and how to intervene to stop it.’ And hence the crusade, not to extend the average human life toward the edge of our genetic possibility, which is about 115 years, but to surge past the Hayflick Limit and achieve some form of immortality.

Far be it from me to dismiss this deepest of human dreams—enough simply to raise a few doubts—less about the practicalities, though president for life would certainly take on a new meaning, than about the most basic questions of meaning. For all our terms as mortals, we’ve been mortal—the creature that knows it will die. Consciousness in many ways is the software for coming to terms with that knowledge. And without it, consciousness would have little to rub against. Absent mortality, no time. All moments would be equal. The deep, sad, lovely, immensely human wisdom of Ecclesiastes would vanish. If for everything there is an endless season, then there’s also no right season.

And none of the profound, daily, joyful heroism of bringing up a child in the full knowledge that she will supplant you. There might be some being called a child in this endless future, with whom you had some tangential biological or financial connection, but you would never pass on your life. Your child would be just one more figure in the sea of figures, owing you little or nothing in return.

The immortalists imagine that if one bite of the apple gave us consciousness, another bite or two, or really cramming the whole thing in our mouth at once, might take away the pain that came with consciousness. But it’s at least as likely that the next bite will erase human awareness instead, that meaning and pain, meaning and transience are inextricably intertwined. Immortality wouldn’t be more–it would be utterly different.

To quote Michael West again, answering a reporter’s question about whether immortality wouldn’t lead to overpopulation: ‘Perhaps it would,’ he said. ‘But why put the burden on people now living, people enjoying the process of breathing, people loving and being loved? The answer is clearly to limit new entrance to the human race, not to promote the death of those enjoying the gift of life today.’ Now, now, me, today. Forget about the future, this is an attempt to stop time. You may be able, with some combination of these new technologies, to live forever. But I have doubts about enjoying the gift of life eternally. The joy of it, the meaning of it, will melt away like ice cream on an August afternoon. I would suggest that living should be enough for us, not living forever.

Yes, as Max More has stated, proposing amendments to the human constitution, ‘we have limited senses, imperfect memories and poor impulse control.’ Yes, as Gregory Paul and Earl Cox pointed out in their book Beyond Humanity, ‘even the erect bipedal posture of which we’re so proud makes us so unstable that falling on flat ground can have devastating consequences.’ Yes, as Nick Bostrom has predicted, it may become possible to engineer us so that we will have orgasms and aesthetic contemplative pleasures whose blissfulness vastly exceeds what any human has yet experienced (although, speak for yourself).

But in fact, we already possess a singular and lovely ability—one unique to our species, and one likely to be drowned in the oncoming singularity, which merges us with the machine and re-engineers us for greater efficiency. And that unique gift is our ability to restrain ourselves—to decide not to do something we’re capable of doing. To set limits on our desires. To say ‘enough’.

This is, as I said at the start, an attribute that our spiritual traditions centre on, and that neither Copernicus nor Darwin has knocked askew. This deep tradition reminds us that meaning counts more than ability or achievement or accumulation. That turning the other cheek is rather more impressive than building some titanium-girded hydraulic-powered jaw that will let us chew gravel.

In recent times, we’ve begun to see again, and in very secular terms, how right that sense of the world may in fact be Scholars across a wide variety of disciplines have begun to ask in the last couple of decades a large question that academics have traditionally shied away from; namely, ‘are we happy?’ And the answer seems to be ‘not so much.’ Pollsters have annually surveyed Americans since the end of World War II. The number of my countrymen who will say they are very satisfied with their lives peaks in the 1950s and has declined slowly but steadily ever since.

Barely a quarter of us will now make such a claim, which is odd, since in that same span of time our prosperity has almost trebled. We’ve acquired huge new powers—jet travel has become routine, for instance. Our houses have more than doubled in size, even as the number of people living in them has shrunk. We have, for a vanishingly small cost, access to prodigious amounts of information. Every semi-musical sound emitted by anyone on any continent can be downloaded instantly, to that more or less permanently installed hard drive known as the iPod. We are more enabled, empowered, more astride the world than anyone anywhere at any time, so why isn’t it working so well?

Now, the singulatarian answer to this dilemma is to say ‘yet more’. Crank up the molecular assembler. Once we can have everything we want the instant we want it, we’ll finally reach happiness, not to mention solve global warming. There’s something charming and sweet in this answer, the endless triumph of hope over experience, but there’s something sad in it as well. As best as sociologists and economists can ascertain, the reason that we’re less happy than our statistics would predict is that we’re starved for human contact, for community. Starved, that is, for the chance to make ourselves a little smaller, a little less central to our lives.

If you think about it, that makes a certain sense of the statistics; after all, it was in the 1950s that we isolated ourselves in the suburbs, in the first of the series of screens that now dominate our lives. And we’re beginning to figure that out. Just as a small example of what might be changing, the number of farmers’ markets doubled and then doubled again in the last decade They’ve sprung up in rich communities and in poor ones, partly because people have begun to realize the environmental benefits of local food networks (they can cut the energy intensity of your dinner and hence its carbon emissions by a factor of ten), partly because people want better food that tastes like something, and partly because people want community.

A team of sociologists shadowing shoppers last year reported that those at farmers’ markets had ten times more conversations than shoppers at supermarkets. In order of magnitude, less energy, in order of magnitude, more community, and all with an innovation—the farmers’ market—that in technological ways of thinking is less efficient than the conventional model it replaces. Food for thought.

As you can tell, I fear very much the further rationalization of our societies, promised by these singulatarian technologies. I fear very much the further extension of our hyper-individualist model. I hope very much that as democracies, we can summon the will to draw on our better angels, and draw the lines that might prevent their full enactment—just as in the last century we struggled to bring under control the possibilities represented by the atom.

In some cases, I think it’s become clear where those lines should be drawn. Germline genetic manipulation, I think, should be banned, while those extensions of more traditional medicine, represented by stem cell research or somatic gene therapy, should be permitted, albeit closely monitored. In other areas, nanotechnology, say, I don’t think we know just where a wise democracy would set the boundaries yet.

Now I understand that the very idea of boundaries intensely irritates some people. The idea that individual enterprise and expression might someday bow to community judgement. I know that to those who style themselves the Columbus’s of these new voyages such ‘flat-earthism‘ seems hopelessly irrational. Still, given the stakes, and as I say I think the stakes are nothing more and nothing less than the future of human meaning, it seems to me worth taking all this slowly if we can.

One way to think of this is: is there some goal to our existence, some endpoint towards which we’re heading? If so, then perhaps it makes sense to speed up so we’ll get there faster. What is it that we need all this new computer power to do? All this extra intelligence to figure out? I’ve tried to weigh the practical possibilities in cases like global warming and I find them dubious.

But in any event, my reading of this movement’s literature leaves me thinking that practical applications are, in fact, a small part of the excitement. Rather, that an eschatological fervour really drives a lot of this work. Let me give you a few quotes. ‘It will allow us a deeper understanding of what truly we are’, says Rodney Brooks. ‘Our new biology’, adds Gregory Stock, ‘will allow us pierce the veneer of inside things so that we may reach the naked soul of man.’ In the words of Jay Hughes, ‘Re-engineered minds will permit us to think more profound and intense thoughts.’

Forgive me for saying so, but these sound like sentiments shared in the parking lot on the way out of a Phish concert. Look, environmentalists—and I am one—may overvalue the present and underappreciate the glories of the techno world to come. But I don’t get it.

The great Princeton geneticist, Lee Silver, in the conclusion of his book, Remaking Eden, on the gen-rich future, describes the immortals that we will build with all our new technologies, as different from humans as humans are from the primitive worms of tiny grains that first crawled along the Earth’s surface. He can’t find the words to describe these celestial beings; intelligence, he says, does not do justice to their cognitive abilities. Knowledge can’t explain the depth of their understanding. Power is not enough to describe the control they have over technology that can be used to shape the universe in which they live. So what do these sublime creatures do all the days of their endless lives? In his view, they dedicate their time to answering three questions: Where did the universe come from? why is there something rather than nothing? and what is the meaning of conscious existence?

With all due respect, these strike me as profoundly uninteresting, at least compared with the deep human questions, like how are you feeling, and can I give you a hand with that, and do you think you could ever love me too. It’s there that I end my defence of the world that we now inhabit.

This essay is based on a talk presented at the 2006 Singularity Summit.

Bill McKibben is an author and environmentalist who in 2014 was awarded the Right Livelihood Prize, sometimes called the ‘alternative Nobel’. His 1989 book The End of Nature is regarded as the first book for a general audience about climate change, and has appeared in 24 languages; he’s gone on to write a dozen more books. He is a founder of 350.org, a planet-wide, grassroots climate change movement.

Cover design by Andy Garside.

Andy Garside is a North Wales based graphic designer. When not moving text and images about a computer screen in a pleasing manner he spends the rest of his time as a partner in an independent record label (www.drumwithourhands.com), playing bass (www.mechanicalowl.co.uk) and DJ’ing with vinyl. A self confessed music obsessive who prefers cycling to driving. www.andygarside.com

There’s more where that came from!

Listening to Ecogical Interference

 The sounds of modernity are increasingly moving into natural habitats. With an influx of technologies designed to utilise and extract material from nature, the natural soundscape is becoming masked by the mechanical and technological. This article addresses an experience of listening and recording which took place in the summer of 2015, within two different natural landscapes: the southern region of Iceland and the north eastern region of Spain. The field trip exposed a significant keynote sound within each space; a sound produced by renewable technologies. The sounds produced by these technologies, wind farms and hydroelectric power stations were significantly louder than had been expected. This lead to a personal critique of how to determine if certain sounds within a natural environment can be critiqued, even if they are noisy, because their impact on the landscape is less harmful than other types of energy technologies. 

In search of a clean sonic terrain

In June of 2015 I was part of an audio field recording group that visited the southern region of Iceland. One of the primary goals for most of the recordists was to document the natural soundscape, hopefully absent of manmade sounds. Iceland, with its vast uninhabitable landscape and small population, fewer than half a million people, is considered one of the few remaining landscapes to escape the soundscape of humanity. This can mean greater opportunities for recording a clean sound. Because of its harsh environment, long dark winters, live volcanoes and arctic temperatures most areas within Iceland are uninhabitable. This means that the landscape, and by definition the soundscape, remains untouched by human sound. A single sound produced by an animal can travel great distances without the masking effect of industrial or mechanical sounds. The ability to record in great detail for example a particular bird sound is made possible by this relative quiet. During the field trip the group recorded an immense variety of sounds, from birds within forests and marshes to the gurgling, hissing and bubbling of sulphur pools, the explosion of sound from geysers, and the sounds of floating icebergs. One of the most interesting animal sounds recorded on the trip was that of the common snipe; when it flaps its wings the sound is almost mechanicalI had never heard such an odd sound in nature and in my quest to document this sound I was confronted with the emerging technological soundscape infringing on the Icelandic landscape.

Within the recording it is possible to hear the faint sound of a car traversing the landscape, a sound that during the period of recording was increasingly difficult to ignore. A growing frustration developed within the group during the ten-day field trip as we tried to find natural habitats removed from a human presence. It became clear that escaping from the soundscape of humanity, without venturing off normal routes or working during the night, was almost impossible. Vast roads have been built in Iceland to traverse great distances to deliver goods and people all over the country. These roads flow between the mountains, volcanoes and glaciers, bringing tourist coaches, trucks, cars and farm machinery to various spaces. When recording, if a car appeared on the horizon it was heard long past its disappearance from view.

As Iceland has turned its economy towards tourism as a way to overcome the severe economic crash it experienced in the 2000s, more of the sites once seen as inaccessible, such as sulphur mountains, craggy volcanic rock areas and vast marshes, are now crowded with tourists.

This meant that some of the field recordings took place at night or during the early hours of the morning to escape these crowds. On one particular field trip the majority of the recordists chose to work only with hydrophones by a lake of floating icebergs, this was as a result of powerboats running throughout the day bringing thrill-seeking tourists out on to the water.

Screenshot 2015-10-01 at 16.09.31
Recording ice floats with hydrophones

Technological interference: the sound of nature harnessed

In Iceland one of the greatest uses of the natural landscape is hydroelectric power. With many vast rivers and waterfalls it is an immense natural resource. In comparison to oil or gas companies the ecological impact is minor. These power stations sit above and deep below the land, with massive engine rooms turning powerful fans, producing electricity. A visit was arranged which allowed the group record the soundscape of the station. Inside there were four levels each going down deeper into the earth. At each level the sound became louder and on the lowest floor, where the river was harnessed, the sound of the water was intense, producing a physical pressure within the ear. After several hours of recording within this space the sounds began to affect several of the recordists, with some forced to leave the building. Outside the station the sounds were faint, but beneath our feet the wave propagation produced by the turbines was travelling through the land and the river.

Screenshot 2015-10-01 at 16.11.45
Inside the hydroelectric power plant
Screenshot 2015-10-01 at 16.12.42
Recording the river outside the power plant

Before entering the station the sounds heard seemed subtle, gentle even, increasing the impression that this form of energy production must have little or no impact on the acoustic sphere. However, after travelling through the depths of the station, and experiencing the physical and audible impact of the sounds produced within, it was impossible to ignore the potential for these sounds to impact on subterranean or underwater ecosystems. Low frequency sounds have the potential to travel through objects and surfaces and are known to cause physical reactions. After placing a hydrophone in the river outside the station it was possible to hear the constant low rumble of the turbines as they harnessed the river.

For the recordists the soundscape of modernity was an intrusion into the natural habitats we wanted to document; these sounds masked our ability to record the unique sounds of Iceland. Yet hours were spent documenting the various frequencies of the power station, using a range of microphones. The varying mechanical and electrical sounds were beautiful in their own way. In fact one trip made was to record a large electrical power line using piezzo contact microphones. It is this contradiction that faces sound artists, field recordists and acoustic ecologists. Our fascination with sound in all its forms means that we also have a greater understanding of the fragility of certain soundscapes. It was during this trip that I began to question the logic of a sound artist documenting all potential sounds while critiquing the infringing soundscape of humanity.

In July I travelled to the Spanish Terra Alta region, the purpose of which was to record a contrasting soundscape to that of Iceland. Following from the Icelandic trip, the recording focus for Spain altered. Instead of trying to locate natural soundscapes removed from human sounds, I wanted to document where and how human sounds were interfering or interacting with the natural soundscape.

The Terra Alta soundscape July 2015

The Terra Alta region of northern Spain is a vast mountainous area. During the summer the high temperatures parch the landscape, riverbeds dry up and fallen leaves and branches quickly turn brittle. The field recordings took place primarily around the village of La Fatarella, a municipality within the region of Ribera d’Ebre in Spain. The surrounding area consists of Fincas; the landscape, though rocky and dry, allows farmers to produce crops of olives, almonds, grapes and cherries. During the day crickets dominate the soundscape, only slowly disappearing as the cool of the night sets in. At night swallows come out in their hundreds, flying around the rooftops of the village producing high pitched cries. Throughout the day one hears the sounds of various vehicles as they ascend the mountains, the boom of planes flying overhead and occasionally the sound of a tractor on a piece of farm land. While recording the soundscape of this area there were few opportunities to document a sound absent of manmade sound. Instead, my approach involved listening first to the sounds, engaging with a form of embodied listening where one tries to interpret what role the sound plays in the environment.

Screenshot 2015-10-01 at 16.17.48
Recording a cricket on a bush

Listening with intent

When training as a deep listener with Pauline Oliveros in 2009, I discovered that there are different modes of listening: passive and active, or directional and focused. Similar to sight, one can focus in on sound; one can also tune sound out, either to deal with monotonous sounds or loud sounds. The overriding issue when recording environments for later listening/viewing is how memory and experience might interfere with our interpretation of the experience. Interpretivists contend that it is the experiential moment that is important, but a recording is only an indication of what sounds were in the space at a given time. In recording this space it was necessary to step back from the technology and instead pay attention to the entire sensory moment. The recording technology became an extension of my listening experience, but it was necessary to not make it the only process by which I was documenting the space. This meant that the experience of listening and documenting became an embodied experience, whereby the sounds, sights and smells shaped my use of and experience with the space. I chose not to exclude any sound and instead interpret in what ways for example technological sounds transformed the natural soundscape.

In the last ten years a new sound has emerged within the surrounding region: the sounds of hundreds of wind turbines. These technologies used for harnessing wind power now shape both the visible and audible space of this region.

Screenshot 2015-10-01 at 16.20.11
Recording the wind turbines. La Fatarella, Spain, 2015

During the day, from a distance, these monolithic objects seem silent as they turn with the wind; at night their presence is made visible by a ring of red lights flashing on and off to warn pilots. Up close the sound of the turbine is a constant whush, whush, changing when the wind changes. As the blades turn they also momentarily darken the landscape, covering and interrupting the ecology (see video above). They sit within a vast sensory space of smells, sights and sounds, most of which have evolved over time to fit together. The only other sound to match the mechanical nature of the turbines is the repetitive chucka, chucka, chucka of the crickets. However, unlike the turbines, the crickets respond to other sounds, going silent when for example, one walks close by. Yet the contradiction of the turbine is that it too has been constructed to respond to nature, only moving when there is a wind.

Screenshot 2015-10-01 at 16.20.30
Recording the wind turbines. La Fatarella, Spain, 2015

Paradoxically, as a sound artist it was easy to be captivated by these objects. Similar to the hydroelectric power station, the sounds produced by the wind turbines were beautiful, from the sounds of the mechanics inside as they turned the turbines in response to wind directionality, to the whirring of the blades. They provided an interesting and odd contrast to the nature sounds of the area. It gave rise to various conceptual ideas for art works, installations and performances.

My concern for the soundscape of this space was in competition with a fascination of the sounds produced by the turbines. This was also true of the sounds produced within the hydroelectric power station in Iceland. Composers and sound artists have been fascinated with the sounds of technology since the introduction of mechanical and electric objects, starting with Luigi Russolo’s exploration of mechanical instruments for performance in the early part of the 20th century. This has sat alongside growing concerns about how these sounds are bad for public health and damaging to the natural environment. Acoustic ecologists argue that mechanical and industrial sounds within the natural world are a form of noise, and should be treated as a threat to the natural soundscape. However, it is difficult to be critical of technologies when there is a moral imperative to search for sustainable energy technologies.

A study conducted by the musician and ecologist Bernie Krause explored how sustainable forestry (a goal where forests are expected to be managed to maintain biodiversity while simultaneously meeting the needs of man) actually depleted animal populations. These interventions are considered ecologically sound; they include reforestation programmes of woodlands, where the wildlife forestry organisations argue that in replanting trees after cutting, they are maintaining the wildlife diversity. Krause’s research found that while the visual elements of the natural landscape seemed materially unchanged, the soundscape dramatically altered. Over a period of decades he recorded a drop in the sounds of birds and mammals within a particular forested area of San Francisco. Krause discovered, through years of active listening and recording, that the animal soundscape was slowly disappearing because the ecosystem were constantly transformed through logging. His work has not been formally recognised as proof of an ecological impact, because subjective listening is difficult to verify. Researchers have suggested that this period of history, known as the anthropocene, is a period in which man’s interventions into nature have the potential to not only alter the soundings of animal life, but to produce a profound shift in our relationship to the natural world.


A series of questions emerged as a result of the two field trips and from writing this paper. A key question was, how as a sound artist can I tackle issues such as noise in the natural world, whilst simultaneously finding the soundscape of technology fascinating? It is difficult to reject a sound or define a sound as negative or noisy. Working with sound means dealing in personal subjective aesthetics. It was, however, hard to ignore how the soundscape of environmental technologies might interrupt and even interfere with a natural ecosystem, potentially masking, reducing or even removing certain sounds over time. As someone who has engaged with sound from a sociological perspective, I understand how important subjective listening experiences are to both individuals and local communities. The transformation of a space and the subsequent loss of a keynote sound can alter people’s relationships to a space, particularly older people. Yet my research has found that over time new generations adapt to, and form connections with, new often-technological soundscapes, particularly within cities. The study of natural ecosystems is, however, new to me.

During the trip to Spain the sounds of the turbines began, over time, to feel less like an intrusion and more like a new part of the soundscape. These tall metallic structures seemed to dominate less, and through sheer numbers become a part of the landscape and soundscape. Yet they must in some way interfere with the natural soundscape, whether this is through the killing of birds and bats, or the cyclical rotation of sound and shadow that masks the surrounding space as the blades turn. One then wonders how an ecosystem can respond to such an object in its space. Humans adapt to and interpret all sounds differently, from an individual to a community level. However, within nature, should we expect the biophony to adapt to man-made sounds?