Whenever I visit my mother’s house or, as she refers to it, “her enchanted cabin in the woods,” I am forced to watch the South Korean News. But it’s not only the T.V. that’s antiquated.The cabin itself is technologically sparse: Internet is only accessible through my mother’s smartphone which mounts into a separate keyboard. A dated, but ample stereo system lies on the floor, with a screen that flashes an “Asteroids” inspired light-show in tandem with Pink Floyd’s Animals. Across from the stereo, a Yamaha PSR 175 flaunts its dirt-smeared keys after being lifted from a neighbor’s refuse pile of abandoned Christmas gifts.
The unserviced satellite only receives transmissions from three obscure foreign networks. When compared, however, to the two other available options of Australian or Middle Eastern News, the South Korean stations relatively sluggish and dated approach quells her distaste for the violent and fragmentary “propaganda” of American broadcasting.
One evening, I saw a news brief on the instillation of the “Smart Aquarium” in South Korea’s Busan Station. The news clip showed a young woman pointing out pop-ups that sprouted from the mix of cartoons and digital representations of existent tropical species (such as regal blue tangs and clownfish; surely meant for the Finding Nemo enthusiast) swimming across the screen. Manga imposters of Brian Griffin, Tweety Bird, and Dory meandered around reefs of pixels before camouflaging into schools of fish. Their animated paddling motions looked awkward and infantile in contrast with the ease of the fish, who had millions of years of evolutionary refinement. Within a few moments, the screens flipped to montages of cascading tidal waves and Red Bull Advertisements. In a moment, the tranquility of a vibrant biosphere drowns in a flood of glaring advertisements.
This is only one of millions of patented technologies that blends Western advertising sense with the renowned gadgetry of the Far East. For most commuters of Busan Station, “Smart Aquarium” is just that; an educational advertisement using simulations to entertain audiences with the foreign while advocating for corporations such as Red Bull. No, appeals to logos are hardly revolutionary in the 21st Century (with the Aristotelian concept dating back to Classical Greece) nor is the fetishizing of the foreign ( Think Said’s Orientalism or, if your college days were one boozy blur, try Pocahontas, both Disney and historical).
Even the awkward installation of a digitized Australasian Reef in a South Korean train station is all too familiar after the emergence of prominent Postmodern markers such as Jameson’s pastiche and Baudrillard’s simulacra. What, then, is so revolutionary about the “Smart Aquarium” in 2014? With the new year promising new innovations in space tourism, wearable technology, and synthetic biology (McNicoll), why should we be concerned about the ethics of a digital exhibit?
The answer lies in the current methods and approaches to species conservation. While Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic takes aim at exploring the new frontier of space, Earth’s inhabitants indulge their naivety toward the sustainability of Earth’s habitats and its respective species. Recent reports emerging from India confirm that its vulnerable tiger population (which currently accounts for 40% of the global count) faces the risk of extinction at the hands of canine distemper. If the virus were to successfully wipe out India’s wild tigers, it would be a tragic loss that would only highlight man’s approach to conserving endangered species: “museumification”.
The present world wide distribution of tigers is perhaps the best exemplar of how species conservation is progressing toward Baudrillard’s famed “precession of the Simulacra.” Like reality T.V. and author Don Delillo’s caricature of media, the original reality of a species’ existence is slowly being replaced by representative, yet de-contextualized populations that eventually yield to pure simulation through photos and videos of the wiped out species.
The United States currently holds an estimated 5,000 captive tigers, an estimate that, according to the World Wildlife Fund, outnumbers the 3,200 wild individuals roaming the Indian Subcontinent. Using this decimation of wild tigers and other extinct species as an example, we can chart out the four stages of Baudrillard’s precession of the simulacra in the area of species conservation:
1.) The first stage of the precession is that of the “faithful copy of the Real” that of “good appearance.” With our tigers, the Real would be the prior century’s 30,000 wild tigers roaming freely across the Indian Subcontinent. Therefore, the “faithful copy” of the Real would be the 53 wildlife reserves in India run by the Tiger Project, which maintains their original habitat and, in turn, the authentic behavior of wild tigers interacting with their environment. What maintains a preserve as a “faithful copy” rather than the genuine Real, are the ideological boundaries we impose on the physical borders of the preserve. Essentially, tigers within the confines of the reserve are free to behave naturally; if a tiger leaves the protection of the reserve, however, he is susceptible to capture or hunting. What is sacrificed through this first reflection is the mobility of a species to move (In other words, tigers must remain in reserves in order to exist as authentic tigers).
2.) The second stage consists of the “perversion of the Real” that “masks and denatures the Real.” In our example, this perversion occurs when tigers are relocated to zoos and held in captivity. While the zoos and captivity programs may strive to replicate the original habitat of the Indian Subcontinent (and in essence “hint at the existence of an obscure reality which the sign itself is incapable of encapsulating” [“Simulacra”]), it holds restrictions that denature the authentic lifestyle of tigers. These “perversions” include any breeding programs, feeding regiments, tourism, and the static nature of the enclosure. In other words, the “perversions” that make captivity an “unfaithful copy” are the ones that affect or dealign the tigers with their natural behaviors. Behaviors present only under captivity begin to replace wild instincts or accommodate a natural need (for instance, the feeding regiment of tigers with fresh, yet dead meat eliminates the need to hunt).
3.) Stage three marks the absence of the real by pretending to be a copy, yet failing to have a real. While this hasn’t yet happened to our tigers, we’ve already witnessed species immersed in the third stage. Such a stage would require the extinction of wild populations, which would leave only captive members alive; essentially, the International Union for the Conservation of Nature’s Red List status of EXTINCT IN THE WILD. Under these conditions, any behaviors unique to wild individuals are lost unless they are captured by other means of indirect signification such as footage or recordings. If all the species of tigers succumb to this state, only captive behaviors would exist and inform our future idea of what a tiger is. For example, the only observable behaviors that we can witness of the Seychelles island tortoise are those performed under the perversion of captivity. Any behavior exclusive to its wild habitat are gone, only accessible through secondhand representations of videos or recordings that are, in turn, limited to the time and location they were performed.
4.) The final stage of Baudrillard’s “sacramental order” is “pure simulation” or the complete replacement of the Real by its representation, a.k.a. a simulacrum. The best example of this state is that of the thylacine. An extinct Australian marsupial, the thylacine is only accessible to us through five film reels of the thylacine in captivity, a handful of black and white photos, skeletons, and scraps of native and colonial art. These artifacts come to completely represent our interpretation of the thylacine, with the behaviors exhibited in the footage as accounting for the entirety of the species. The thylacine and our modern interpretation of it is based entirely on representations captured at precise instances in time. If the tiger were to become truly extinct, future generations would only be able to interpret the tiger through representations that either showcase inauthentic captive behaviors or wild behaviors limited to the precise moment in which any footage or photography was taken. Any other, previously undiscovered attributes of the tiger are eliminated and replaced/re-interpreted only through the finite representations that are preserved. For instance, scientists can only learn about the thylacine through film, documentation and skeletons; a phenomenon that shoves the unexplored behaviors and attributes of the thylacine into the realm of myth and speculation.
As for now, the tiger wavers between the second and third stages, depending on the audience. For instance, most Americans will never witness a tiger in the wild but only through nature documentaries, books or zoo captives while those involved in the conservation of tigers can witness a more authentic tiger lifestyle.
The uncanny way in which Baudrillard’s speculations on signification relates to the process of forced extinctions reflects a massive error in which humans interact with their environment. We, as a species, allow representations to satisfy a species presence in favor of aesthetic pleasure (e.g. exotic pet trade, fur trade) or a reluctance to compromise (i.e. the extermination of, rather than a cooperation with a species in a certain environment; see wolves or cougars).
So. How does the aforementioned “Smart Aquarium” play into this precession of extinction? By allowing simulation to replace authenticity: we are satisfied in populating digital screens with virtual creatures programmed with a limited range of motion rather than conserving the actual environments and species that are being represented. Might we be satisfied enough with our holograms of regal tangs and clownfish so as to allow for their eventual decimation through habitat destruction?
In other words, our future children’s concept of tigers may be as vague and misinformed as the misrepresented and counter-factual animatronics of Spielberg’s Jurassic Park that defined my own generation’s understanding of dinosaurs.