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Augmented Ethology
Augmented Ethology

You're lost deep inside Yellowstone National Park.

You've no map, no compass and no whistle to attract other backpackers. You could triangulate your location using familiar landmarks, but you aren't well versed in the arts of bushcraft. If only you didn't have to boycott Bear Grylls' wilderness stunt show because of your impossibly high standards of authenticity.

But there's not a drop of worry in you. Before you set out on your hike, you downloaded a fantamagical iPhone app that allows you to access the park's fantamagical wayfinding infrastructure of networked cyborg fauna. In fact, you purposefully went way off the trails just to test them out.

After a couple more days of aimless rambling, you whip out your iPhone and press a beautifully beveled, sweetly pasteled icon. Immediately it starts to broadcast a persistent electromagnetic hum coded with your coordinates and a few lines of instructions.

Soon a flock of birds appears overhead. They circle a few laps, and then a couple more due to atmospheric turbulence and signal disruption, before finally coalescing into an unmistakable shape: a directional arrow.

Thinking that it's pointing to the nearest trail — which it obviously is — you follow it.

Cyborg Beetles
Cyborg Pigeons and Cyborg Rats
Cyborg Moths

After a while the flock suddenly dissipates. You whip out your iPhone again to see the screen flashing red. Apparently the network is reconfiguring itself, and there's nothing you can do but wait.

In the meantime, you take in the natural beauty of the landscape. Temporarily de-augmented, you inspect some of the native plants, enjoy the warmth of a geothermal pool, eavesdrop on the plaintive howls of the forest, marvel at some distant peaks. An hour later, a jingle snaps you out of your reveries. Systems operation has been normalized.

Seconds later, some of the elks that you were snapping photos of earlier start to make a beeline for you. Despite an ingrained fear of humans, they've got you on their sights. The app has turned you into Snow White whistling a hypnotic electromagnetic melody.

The elks stop just a few feet away. After a few seconds of jostling about, they return to munching on the vegetation as before, except this time they're conspicuously more organized. Their antlers, you noticed, are all pointing in the same direction, towards the nearest trail.

The network appropriates not only migratory and flocking behaviors but also herding and grazing behaviors.

Augmented Ethology

As you make your way through this personalized guided tour of the wilderness, the herd ahead readies the next marker for you while the one in the back begins to disband. If there are no elks around, then the network conscripts other animals in the vicinity.

Augmented Ethology

Just before sunset, you switch off the app and make camp. While munching on power bars that night, you realize that like any other network, this one can be hacked. In fact, there's a jailbreak app that lets you code nonstandard instructions. So with nothing else to do, you program some algorithms, enter this-and-that inputs, debug scripting errors, and check for any other stray codes before finally pressing the send button.

Waggle dance

Set at full blaze, you position your portable stove to spotlight a slight clearing a few feet away. You take out another power bar, snuggle into your sleeping bag, and simply wait until your plein-air avant-garde stagings of Aesop's Fables and The Lion King begin, staring critters infected with your malware. It's a double matinee anticipated by Humphry Repton.

The next morning, you decamp and continue on following the markers being performed for you.

Unbeknownst to you, rogue PETA members have also hacked into the network during the night, and in their unsuccessful attempt to permanently bring down the entire infrastructure, they've only managed to wreak havoc with its translation matrix. As a result, all coordinates, vectors and fixed action patterns get miscalculated.

You are now being led astray further and further away from civilization, and it's gonna be a very long while before you realize this.

POSTSCRIPT #1: Cf. "Instinct Meet New Technology" in GPS penguins.


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