Peter Hart and Steve Kellingblog on “The Future of Birding?”

This winter Peter Hart and Steve Kellingblog about “Birding with Technology in the Year 2025[1]They take “a road trip through Silicon Valley to explore the future of birding—and see what new Birding Tech might be out within the next five years” [1].


OK, I have problems with this article, on many levels.

At the most basic level, I have a different notion than they do of what “birding” is, or should be.  Maybe that makes me a poor birder, but I don’t think so.  And I’m not the only one.

For me, birding is about paying attention, and about taking time to pay attention. And its about being with birds (and everything else).  Be here now.  (Which, I’m pretty sure, is how birds live.)

Life list?  Don’t have one, don’t care.  Identifying species? Mostly they are familiar already, and that’s part of the experience.  Competing with other humans?  Not even remotely interested.

You get the picture.

So, just what do Hart and Kelling foresee for the future?

They note recent technical “advances”, including digital assistants which are increasingly available in your pocket.  No need for a paper book, you can have a guide to birds on your mobile device.  And it can also connect to databases of migration information and sightings.

When you have a hammer, everything looks like a nail.

H&K see this expanding to “By the Year 2025, Birding Could be the Latest Addictive Gaming Craze”.  Gamification has been the flavor of the month for more than a decade now.  It’s one of the coolest “hammers” that Silicon Valley has, so everything looks like a “nail”, including birding.

In this case, the game features include tracking activities, giving digital feedback (“badges”, fer cryin out loud), and competition, e.g., trying to accumulate the most sightings.

A second notion is “By the year 2025, birding could become a social-media movement”.   Obviously, “social” apps are one of the biggest “hammers” of all, and birding is another “nail”.

One thing this could mean is digitally connected teams, sharing information and “birders working together, encouraging and sharing experiences.”  With mobile devices, this can be real time, in the field, communications.

They note, correctly, that these tools “eBird is that it works for birders and scientists alike—a handy digital checklisting tool for the former, a big-data treasury about birds for the latter.”  This is the one good idea in the article.

Having these ubiquitous surveillance methods available to all can enable citizen science and professional science.  Bird watchers invented citizen science, long before Turing (heck, long before Babbage/Lovelace).  So, yeah, putting better tools in the hands of birders will make the cooperation easier and more powerful.  That’s a good thing, at least for science.

Inevitably,  H&K think that  “AR* and AI** will combine for a more powerful birding experience”, which will also lead to “smart devices could identify birds on their own”.  Two more “hammers”, and apparently “powerful” ones.  Sigh.

Essentially, these technologies offer suggestions and “coaching”, telling you stuff instantly, answering questions you didn’t even ask yet. And ultimately, knowing more about birding than you do.

But wait, there’s more.  How about “Smart Bird Feeders” that “Turn the Backyard Feeder Into a Data-Monitoring Station”.  This is a permutation of the “smart refrigerato”r IoT technology, which basically makes your feeding station spy on watch the birds for you.  How about “Robo-Birders” to “Autonomously Survey Birds Across The Entire World”.  Some of these will no doubt be aircraft, bothering birds even where puny humans can’t go.  Sigh.

The theme here is clear:  these surveillance technologies widely used for social control, marketing, and advertising/propaganda can be deployed to surveill birds as well as people.  In fact, they can do things humans can’t do, and can potentially amass comprehensive databases about birds.

What does that have to do with birding?  Best case, it is replacing the birding experience, displacing the puny human.  (Worst case, it has nothing at all to do with birds, and everything to do with human egos.)

But the big, big problem with this article is the unquestioned assumption that we not only do, but should carry our digital devices with us into the field, and that we want to use them for bird watching.

For my money, the point of bird watching is to #Turn It Off (TM).  Put away the phone and screens, and pay attention to birds, trees, weather, nature.  Paying attention to your screens, having screens built into your optics, and even thinking about birds as data is antithetical to being there with the birds.

These technical developments may be “powerful”, but they are mostly powerful psychological distractions that degrade the best part of birding.

So, no.  No, no.  Just say, “no”, to this E-birding nonsense.

Put you phone away and pay attention.  And don’t let those dangerous fools in Silicon Valley ruin birding for you.

  1. Peter Hart and Steve Kelling, Birding with Technology in the Year 2025: Our Predictions, in All About Birds, January 9, 2020.


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