We need new senses

Plants and animals are smart too. Plants and animals live in families too.

They have languages, like us, know concepts of reciprocity, affection, friendship. Cows have friends, primates use tools, dolphins call each other by name, wild dogs have been found to use words to describe the people studying them (‘the big fat guy in the red shirt’).

The dutch primate entomologist Frans de Waal has been building bridges between the human and the animal world for decades. In his most recent book, he wonders if we are intelligent enough (with our limited senses and limited – mostly lingual – capacity of communication) to understand animals.

We need new senses. We need new instruments. Instruments that allow us to sharpen or widen our senses (for example, sensitive to magnetism, as with many birds, or sensitive to humidity and light, like plants). Or instruments that allow us to translate (as a radio receiver translates short wave, or a sonar echo allows us to ‘see’ a baby in a womb).

Some great work has been done. Bio-techie Joey Stein developed an app to communicate with fire flies. Amongst themselves, they flash to warn predators, lure females, signal for food, or flash in synchrony, apparently just to acknowledge each others existence. With Stein’s app, you can engage in a bioluminiscent communication. Until we have learned more about the ‘language of light’, it is a search for meaning, but in mirroring another species in a shared system of symbolism, you are already performing a first act post-humanist engagement. Beyond the comfort of our own language, you cannot help to feel humble and ignorant, or in wonder and amazement for the intricate language of little bugs.

Another great example is the Magnetoceptia project by artists Dewi de Vree and Patrizia Ruthensteiner: she builds translation-costumes that enable the user to pick up the ever-changing magnetic fields around us. Many of them are man-made radio signals, but occasionally she is able to pick up on the electro-magnetics rumble of changing weather.

Can we build sensory machines to understand the North Sea? Can we listen to the grass? Can we feel the passing clouds? Which cognitive abilities from the world around us can we engage or borrow to enrich our own world?

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