The Sounds of Life: How Digital Technology is Bringing Us Closer to the Worlds of Animals and Plants. Copyright © 2022 by Karen Bakker. Reprinted by permission of Princeton University Press.

Over fifty years ago, philosopher Pierre Teilhard de Chardin described the future of computing in a mystical fashion. His poetic metaphor for the growing ubiquity of computer networks was a prescient description: our planet “clothing itself with a brain.” Marshall McLuhan would later expand on de Chardin’s description in his best-selling book The Gutenberg Galaxy. Decades before the invention of the World Wide Web, McLuhan saw on the horizon a digital revolution, in which the interconnection of computer networks was analogous to a planetary nervous system. He predicted, moreover, that the emergence of this digital network would give rise to new forms of global consciousness. Technologies, according to McLuhan, are not simply tools that people deploy; rather, our inventions alter our behavior and consciousness, both individually and collectively. The invention of movable type by Johannes Gutenberg around 1450, for example, was a pivotal point in the development of a standardized, uniform, and ultimately automated cultural production of knowledge through mass print media, such as books and newspapers. 

Central to McLuhan’s argument was the interplay between technology and our senses. The rise of movable type, he argued, changed humanity’s perceptual habits. By replacing oral and scribe cultures with print technology, the importance of our visual senses intensified; the salience of oral and aural sensing receded. Information no longer needed to be recalled and remembered; rather, it needed to be collected and organized. Gone were the recitations of long epic poems, which cultivated the art of memory. These were replaced by the segmentation of information, which cultivated the art of knowledge specialization. Literacy replaced orality; the Dewey decimal system supplanted Homer’s Odyssey.

McLuhan also predicted a resurgence of oral cultures. Whereas print culture separated the storyteller from the audience by interposing a fixed text (a book), he foresaw that digital communication would lead to the return of oral modes of interactive storytelling: interplay between storyteller and audience, call-and-response patterns, and mimetic, collaborative evolution of story lines. The rise of internet phenomena like TikTok and interactive computer games arguably prove McLuhan’s point (including his prediction that a renewed tribalism would emerge). What McLuhan and de Chardin failed to predict, however, was the extension of these digital, networked cultures to include nonhumans. What would they have made of digital bioacoustics and the potential for interspecies communication via the internet?

Stories of speaking with animals are as old as human history. In the Pacific Northwest, Indigenous communities relate how Txeemsim (Raven)—trickster and shape-shifter, prankster and shaman—teaches humans about balance and harmony while living within a natural world that both shapes and sustains human beings. In the Persian epic poem Shahnameh, the phoenix-god bird Simurgh teaches wisdom to the forsaken Prince Zal, preparing him to rejoin the world of men. In the Christian tradition, St. Francis speaks of repentance and love with the wolves and the birds. In medieval texts and fables, talking animals abound; medieval bestiaries feature animals ventriloquizing human morals, testifying to human fallibility, divine grace, and hypocrisy in humans’ treatment of nature. These stories remind us that nature is a source of teachings, if we remember to listen.

Yet many Western scientists and philosophers also espouse the view (defended in a lineage stretching from Aristotle and Augustine, to Aquinas and Descartes, to the present day), that humans “alone among animals possess speech,” and hence uniquely possess the faculty of reason. These views are now being overturned by a new generation of scientific research. Yet human ambivalence about animal language persists and is linked with our uncertainty about human status: Are we one animal among others, or does something (language, toolmaking, logos) truly set us apart? Debates over animal language are a touchstone for human uncertainties about our role in the cosmos.

Our uncertainties extend to an ambivalence about our relationship with nature. Although the ability to converse with animals appears in the origin stories of many cultures, our myths also tell us that these voices were silenced. In Greece, the all-powerful oracles lived in sacred groves and asked animate Earth deities for advice, yet this did not stop an onslaught of deforestation; as their fellow citizens denuded the islands, Greek poets wrote that felling a tree was akin to committing murder. Once, explains Robin Wall Kimmerer, we all spoke the same language—humans and animals alike; but when colonial settlers came, writes Anishinaabe legal scholar John Borrows, nonhuman voices fell silent. The desire to recover a lost ability to communicate with other species stirs up powerful feelings: from fierce skepticism to a yearning for reconnection. The stories told in this book explore this tension. By remembering that sound is more than digital data, I seek to hold multiple truths simultaneously: sound as data and information, sound as music and meaning, sound as language and the true tongue of places and nonhuman peoples. Listening is both a scientific practice and a form of witnessing that acknowledges our presence as guests on this planet and embraces our kinship with other species across the Tree of Life.

Digital technologies, allied with science, are often depicted as a method and mindset that distances us from other species. The stories in this book offer another view: the potential for science, enhanced by digital technologies and interwoven with deep listening, to bring us on a journey of rediscovery of the natural world. In this way, we might foster communion rather than dominion, kinship rather than ownership of Earth.

Excerpted from The Sounds of Life: How Digital Technology is Bringing Us Closer to the Worlds of Animals and Plants. Copyright © 2022 by Karen Bakker. Reprinted by permission of Princeton University Press.

Karen Bakker is a professor at the University of British Columbia.