Smart Digital, Dumb Animal: The Ontology of the Digital

           I’ve started following some work that engages with the ontology of the digital, or as Hannah Knox and Antonia Walford put it, with the way that digital technologies are “generative of social realities” rather than simply a reflection or extension of pre-existing realities.[i] Tom Boellstorff, among others, challenges the habitual “opposition of the ‘digital’ to the ‘real’.” As he claims, the tenacious habit of opposing virtuality to reality “fundamentally misrepresents the relationship between the online and offline, in both directions.” This habit disregards the myriad ways that the online is real and conversely assumes “that everything physical is real.”[ii] Resisting this entrenched dichotomy, Boellstorff undertakes to theorize what he calls “the digital real.”

            While I’m largely in agreement with moves to think the ontology of the digital, I wonder how we might more specifically account for the nonhuman animals that populate the digital real (or what in business-speak is often referred to as the “digital ecosystem.” The market is also interested in ontologizing, or more precisely, ecologizing, the digital). So somewhat against the grain of recent work that refuses to reduce the digital to a flight from or parasite upon the real, let me float a proposition that I’m aware runs a risk of reinscribing the virtual/real dichotomy that Boellstorff and others contest. My proposition is that the nonhuman species populating the digital real – what we might call the “animal content” of the digital, which encompasses the streaming, tweeting, sharing, and storing of animal photos, videos, apps, audio files, etc. - are ontologically poor or impoverished. How can the question of animal impoverishment even be raised within the framework of a digital ontology?

          There are at least two reasons for daring to accuse the digital of impoverishing animal worlds just when the ontological turn appears to reject that sort of critical slant. The first involves the sheer amount of energy or fuel required to realize the digital as a fulsome ontology, entailing an increasingly wholesale depletion of the ecological conditions of offline life for the enrichment of online worlds. As Jennifer Wenzel and others at the forefront of the Energy Humanities contend, questions of power can no longer overlook the energy infrastructures and material resources that literally “power” or fuel culture.[iii]

           The second reason is that the digital real arguably exacerbates a species distinction that Heidegger infamously cast in ontological terms as the difference between dumb or “benumbed” animals (“poor in world,” in Heidegger’s words[iv]) and human Dasein who are world-forming. I’ll explain how I see this distinction at work in the animal content of smart media, using popular YouTube videos of “dreaming dogs” as a brief illustration.

            But first, I should probably disclose how personally prone I am to the habit of equating the offline with the ontological and the online with a diversion from the real; the practice of blogging seems immaterial in contrast with the materiality of logging that I see outside of my window when I look up from where I live and work as a settler scholar in the pacific northwest of Canada. I’m susceptible to the idea that my abstract, computer-mediated intellectual life needs to be counteracted with a dose of “real world” activity, something that compels me to build garden beds out of rock whenever I get the chance, the solidity and authenticity of rock work feeling (dangerously, I know) like an ontological antidote to so-called digital alienation.

(Photo by author)

           The garter snake that has made its home in the rock wall darts a wary glance at me when I “get real” in the garden, and again I find myself romanticizing encounters like this one as more actual and alterity-filled than my online encounters with digital animals. This is despite my deep debt to postcolonialists, feminists, posthumanists and political ecologists who have radically illuminated how culture/nature divides undergird (settler) desires for authenticity. This debt extends to those in the Energy and Environmental Humanities who strive to make the occulted links between online practices like blogging and offline practices like logging visible. When digital networks are contingent, as Lisa Parks shows, upon the harnessing of water and sun, the mining of lithium, and vast electrical infrastructures[v], not only is any fantasy of immaterial and instant connectivity unsettled, but it’s harder to partition offline and online worlds as I have been so prone to doing. The two bleed into each other, though never evenly or reciprocally; the bleed now consists in a over-draining of ontological resources from offline to online as co-contingent realities compete for air, water, electricity, time, attention … all on a finite planet . In other words, a dramatic transfer of energy and life-resources to the digital is part of what makes it real, helps it to ontologically swell at the expense of offline worlds that become less and less “swell” for more and more species.   

(Photo by author)

             So: the blog world is enriched by photos like the ones posted here … but at what cost to the worlds upstream and downstream from digital ontologies? An already-outdated, 2013 tech-industry report entitled “The Cloud Begins with Coal: Big Data, Big Networks, Big Infrastructure and Big Power (An Overview of the Electricity Used by the Global Digital Ecosystem)” claims that “hourly Internet traffic will soon exceed the annual traffic of the year 2000”.[vi] The Mills report continues, “[g]lobal Big Data capital spending is now in the same league as Big Oil. But while Big Oil produces energy, Big Data consumes energy, specifically electricity” (6). Again, “Information-Communication-Technologies (ICT) – the Internet, Big Data, and the Cloud – use electricity across every niche of the digital ecosystem, from handheld devices and IT embedded in machines, to data centers, networks and factories” (6).

             Coal-generated electricity is what Patricia Yaeger might call the “energy unconscious” of the digital, a concept that builds on Fredric Jameson’s “material unconscious.”[1] And part of what is rendered unconscious under the spell of the digital is the sacrifice of the life-chances of countless species to the energy demands of the digital ecosystem. Nowhere is the energy unconscious of the digital more problematically occulted, moreover, than when un-self-conscious animals serve as the unwitting (and free) content providers of digital media. Their online presence helps to make the digital appear a hospitable rather than hostile life-host.

             This brings me to the second reason for suggesting that an impoverishment of animal life is at stake in the digital real, which is that a perception of animals as ontologically impoverished – “poor in world” – is surreptitiously reinforced over and over through the viewing and sharing of animal content amongst humans. Recall the distinction Heidegger drew between the stone, which is worldless, the animal, which is poor in world, and human Dasein, which is world-forming. Conjuring the image of a lizard lying on a rock, Heidegger claims that animals can be granted something of a world inasmuch as they relate to the entities in their environment to some degree. But while the lizard has some relationship to the rock, it is never to the rock’s being “as such”, the two words with which Heidegger forecloses upon the possibility of animal Dasein and distinguishes humans from other species. As Derrida puts it, in Heidegger’s thought “the animal [is] said to be ‘poor in world’ (weltarm), to the extent that the animal is precisely supposed to be deprived of the ‘as such’.”[vii] According to Heidegger, animals are captivated or absorbed in the world (benommenheit), and by virtue of their benumbment are incapable of apprehending other beings in their being. He grants them prehension (an animal grasp) but not apprehension of world, an ontological schema that Donna Haraway overturns when she makes prehension key to her formulation of companion species.[viii] Heidegger also holds that only humans can anticipate and experience death as such, whereas other animals merely perish. (If Heidegger reserves a relation to mortality as such for human Dasein, his student, Hannah Arendt, likewise denies the possibility of animal natality by reserving it for humans). In short, Heidegger consigns animals to a type of dumbness and numbness in their un-self-conscious absorption, their inability to apprehend or experience the world as world.   

               How is a similar type of ontological distinction along species lines – in this case, between “smart” technologized human and “dumb” animal content provider - played out in the digital real? Well, consider the popular YouTube videos of sleeping and dreaming dogs. Usually amateur videos posted online by pet owners, the videos zoom in on canines that, deep in sleep, are oblivious to the fact that they’re supplying content for human viewers. Twitching, sometimes clawing the air in dream combat, sometimes running or barking in their sleep, the dogs in this genre of animal video are a huge source of human enjoyment. Why?

Still from YouTube video “Funny Dog Dreaming”[ix]



            No doubt there are a multiplicity of reasons, but among them I’d include the enjoyment generated by the distance and difference opened up between humans with an ostensible power of worldly apprehension and animals un-self-consciously absorbed in their world and therefore incapable of experiencing that world “as such.” The dumbness of animal content needs to be understood in this Heideggerian sense, given that on the surface what appears to be excited by animal videos is surprise, interest in, and appreciation of the remarkable intelligence, curiosity, and prowess of animals. After all, animals are shown ingeniously escaping enclosures, artfully performing parkour in domestic architectures, playfully feinting and feigning, plus resiliently surviving falls and all manner of mishaps.

           But in the state of sleep, of dreaming, the ontology of the animal is ostensibly laid bare; while human viewers may be fascinated by a species kinship roused by the recognition that, like humans, animals dream, I’d propose that the dynamic of looking at sleeping animals reiterates a longstanding species distinction between the being who apprehends and the one that is absorbed, blissfully unaware, ontologically “asleep” by virtue of lacking the “as such.”

          The popularity of animal content, in this case videos of sleeping/dreaming dogs, may therefore have something to do with how it serves to reproduce an ontological distance or difference, accentuated by smart technologies, between animals that exist in a digital ontology without apprehending that existence as such, and humans who do.

           I don’t doubt that animals exceed their status as digital content in the sense I’ve been exploring here, and that they can be generative of other, unpredictable effects. The fact that most YouTube videos of the kind described above are amateur (by which I mean, not professionally edited) recalls to mind something that Anat Pick says around André Bazin’s prohibition on editing in his reflections on cinematic montage. Pick relates Bazin’s aversion to montage to a creaturely vulnerability, that is, to a risk or “precariousness inherent in the cohabitation of heterogeneous elements” within filmic scenes where anything can happen by virtue of a ban on human editorial control.[x] I wouldn’t rule out the possibility that amateur videos of animals at times represent this sort of risky, unedited, and unpredictable interaction of humans, animals, and technology. Especially when animals become aware of and meddle with the digital device that is filming them, the Heideggerian ontological schema begins to erode.   

           However, when it comes to how forms of human exceptionalism are either reproduced or rattled within the ontology of the digital, what is most ironic is how profoundly absorbed the human is in the digital real, effectively aligning them with the benommenheit of the animal in Heidegger’s ontology. Will critics ever tire, after all, of identifying the ontological threat posed by the digital with the captivation of the smart phone user whose head is in the cloud(s) and who isn’t present to the world as such … with the smart phone user whose very humanity is thus ostensibly at risk?

The benommenheit of the digital …



[i] Hannah Knox and Antonia Walford, “Is There an Ontology to the Digital?” Theorizing the Contemporary, Cultural Anthropology website, March 24, 2016. https://culanth.org/fieldsights/818-is-there-an-ontology-to-the-digital

[ii] Tom Boellstorff, “For Whom the Ontology Turns: Theorizing the Digital Real.” Current Anthropology, Vol. 57, No. 4, August 2016 (387-407).

[iii] Jennifer Wenzel, “Introduction,” Fueling Culture: Words for Energy and Environment. Eds. Imre Szeman, Jennifer Wenzel and Patricia Yaeger. New York: Fordham University Press, 2017.

[iv] Martin Heidegger, The Fundamental Concepts of Metaphysics. Translated by William McNeil and Nicholas Walker. Indiana University Press, 2008 (248).

[v] See Lisa Parks, “Networks,” in Fueling Culture: Words for Energy and Environment (234).

[vi] Mark P. Mills, “The Cloud Begins with Coal …” (3). [https://www.tech-pundit.com/wp-content/uploads/2013/07/Cloud_Begins_With_Coal.pdf]

[vii] See Jacques Derrida, The Beast and the Sovereign, Vol. 2. Translated by Geoffrey Bennington. University of Chicago Press, 2011 (63).

[viii] Donna Haraway, The Companion Species Manifesto: Dogs, People, and Significant Otherness. University of Chicago Press/Prickly Paradigm Press, 2003.

[ix] View on YouTube: [https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YFVfx1zeXwA]

[x] Anat Pick, Creaturely Poetics: Animality and Vulnerabilty in Literature and Film. Columbia University Press, 2011 (112).