Digital Animalities / Unguiculate Humanities by Binarius

Probably because of the ubiquity of its use in common parlance as an adjective describing media and technologies, the term digital now rarely carries the sense of “a number less than ten”, which has its root in the Latin digitalis, “measuring a finger’s breadth”, or more generally “of or relating to the finger”. But as technologies based on the manipulation of numerical digits, whose use often (but of course not exclusively) relies on the articulation of physical digits, we should not overlook the connections between omnipresent digital technologies such as phones, personal computers, tablets, gaming consoles and the like, and hands.

Hands, those most humanist of human appendages: anthropocentric thought has so often been swept up in what Stanley Cavell has called “the romance of the apposable thumb”.

In her blog post, Nicole Shukin explores the legacy of Heidegger’s thought for thinking about digital animalities. And it is there, too, as Jacques Derrida and after him Cary Wolfe, Matthew Calarco, Steve Baker and others have explored, that we find the most dogmatic assertions about the hand as a distinguishing feature of the human: “man does not ‘have’ hands, but the hand holds the essence of man, because the word as the essential realm of the hand is the ground of the essence of man” (qtd in CIFERAE, p. 15). The distinction is between a kind of purely anatomical “having” of hands and an existential being grounded in the hand as such; this, in turn, is thought to separate the human from the animal—as Heidegger notoriously puts it: “the ape, for example, possesses organs for grasping but it has no hand”.

This all goes to suggest that there is a quiet but important assertion in the title of our collective research project—with its unabashedly catachrestic alignment of digitality with animality—and so also its blunt refusal to accept the humanist terms of binary separation (which is of course another crucial facet of the digital).

In this context it is worth looking again at a fascinating moment in the history of the development of digital and information technology and their interpenetration with visual aesthetics and live animal bodies. (We write this, indeed, at the moment the Guggenheim Museum first chose to show and then to remove three artworks involving various forms of violence towards animals.)



In 1970, MIT’s Architecture Machine Group, led by Nicholas Negroponte (later co-founder of Wired magazine and enthusiast for the “digital revolution”) produced an exhibit called Seek. This was shown at the Software exhibition curated by Jack Burnham at the Jewish Museum in New York.

Seek involved an arrangement of small metal-coated blocks in piles inside a plexiglass vitrine. Also trapped inside the box were four gerbils, whose job was to move the blocks (as is gerbils’ wont). We could call this “rearranging” the blocks, but that would go against the logic of Seek: it also included a computer-controlled system involving a robotic arm which was programmed to pick up and rearrange the blocks into the original configuration after the gerbils moved them; the conceptual assumption was that the gerbils would only be putting the blocks into disarray, not arranging them to their own requirements.

As an artwork, then, Seek dramatises a dualistic conflict between information-systematic order and chaotic life. In it, the computer-programmed robot is on one side and the gerbils (assuming the place conventionally allotted to animality in this equation) are on the other.

The point, though, is not quite that the robot technology is aligned with “the human”, so that together they oppose a chaotic animality. For, as the name of Negroponte’s group suggests, Seek is really an allegory of the relationship between the establishment of order in architecture (here, physical as well as information systems architecture) and the unruly impulses, desires and drives of human life. This allegory plays out as a dramatic battle of wills (or rather of will and technological skill versus instinct and chance), with the opposing sides performed by the robotic arm and the gerbils.

In Seek, then, ordinary human life is equated with unruly animality, continually disrupting and destroying the order of the ideally designed system—a system which is in principle machinic. That said, if we take together the thematics of the hand discussed earlier and the importance of the very idea of establishing order for post-Enlightenment notions of the pre-eminence of the human, it is, in a sense, no surprise that, in Seek, systematicity should be epitomised by a robotic arm.

With Seek’s allegory, we are dealing with a mid-twentieth century recapitulation of an age old drama, with two different and equally conventional characterisations of “the human” as its protagonists: the human as exceptional, the intelligent designer par excellence, and the human as animal, with needs and desires that are by definition unruly. In order for that allegory to have any kind of dramatic force, it must deflect us from the more prosaic reality of the exhibit: in which it is a more or less mundane animal experiment, like any other in which the skill an ingenuity of animals—in this case gerbils’ brains and their claws—are physically as well as conceptually manipulated to tell a story not about animals but about humans.

Earlier, we mentioned the philosopheme of the human as the paradigmatic digital species. Gerbils are, by contrast, an unguiculate species: animals that bear one or more claws. We might say, then, that Seek, is an example, not perhaps of  the “digital animalities”, but of the “unguiculate humanities”. It tells a story that needs, implicates, and traduces animal life to body forth the most techno-utopian dreams of human futures.



(Binarius consists of authors Robert McKay and Tom Tyler)






Climate change infuses so many aspects of our lives and changes the way we think about our relations with nonhuman animals.  Critics of the media have rightly observed, however,  that there has been a massive failure to connect the dots in telling such stories.  Here is an example of a dot that fails to connect.

Canadians eating less meat, taking a bite out of food industry’s margins. (September 2015)


In this story published in Canada's "business" newspaper, people are eating less meat for economic reasons. I selected this one  to illustrate my point but it could be n any number of news stories.  Perhaps you have seen some you would like to share.  The author fails to mention two important subjects concerning why people do or don't eat meat.

1)  Animal agriculture is a major contributor to climate change, a connection now widely accepted as fact.

 2)  People have started to know about the brutal exploitation of animals in the meat industry and this may dissuade many of them from wanting  to eat its products.

There are many reasons for people to eat less meat, and not all of them are about money. Some of them are about the future of the planet.

Of course, it's possible that the Globe and Mail's flagship Report on Business knows nothing about these issues.  Perhaps these particular journalists have not read any of many news stories or reports that demonstrate that the relationship between animal agriculture and climate change has been known for some time.  Here are some of those stories.

Rearing cattle produces more greenhouse gases than driving cars, UN report warns. (2006)


A Leading Cause of Everything: One Industry That Is Destroying Our Planet and Our Ability to Thrive on It



There are many articles on this subject displaying quite a variance on the statistical findings.  The range of statistics produced to  document this connection is unusual and fascinating in itself.  This variation is one of the research questions currently being addressed by our Digital Animalities project. 

But right now, I'm in flabbergasted mode.  All these stories about hurricanes... about glaciers...wildfires out of control....hundreds of species of animals becoming extinct every year....  is there something in the training of journalists in the commercial or mass media that blocks them from acknowledging the links between the stories??  

Now would be a good time to start.  Talking about animals means talking about climate change.  Catastrophes that are killing thousands of people and animals and making their lives unlivable.

But there is another problem connecting the dots where it comes to environmental issues. To cite journalist Nick Fillmore:

Environmental groups need to work together.

"With the creation of Blue Dot, Canada has at least seven networks and 17 groups that claim to be fighting ecological collapse.

"The groups seldom, if ever, work together. In fact, they are just as likely to see other groups as rivals. They don’t tend to share campaigning information. They compete for funding. The bosses protect their own isolated empires."


For those who care about animals, for those who care about media representations of nonhuman life in the age of risk, for this who care about what animals get to live and those that must die, this is urgent.  Let's work together to make these journalists and organizations connect the dots!