Max Ritts transcript

minor edits by James Parker. time stamps reflect unedited recording, so are a little off throughout.

[00:00:20] James Parker: All right. Thanks so much for joining us, Max. Yeah, would you like to maybe kick off by just introducing yourself, however feels right to you? Sure.

[00:00:32] Max Ritts: Well, I am a geographer. I'm a first year professor. Just finished my first year at Clark University in Worcester, Massachusetts. But I guess I really consider myself a person who works and thinks along the North Coast of British Columbia most of all. So that's the sort of context in which I approach issues of sound and sound studies and also the other things that shape the work I do, like indigenous politics and political ecology.

[00:01:02] James Parker: What's your disciplinary background? Oh, yeah? OK. What's your disciplinary background? Because what you've just described there is kind of pretty sound studies. Is it or isn't it a discipline? But perhaps you have a training or something that's relevant.

[00:01:33] Max Ritts: Sure. My background is geography. I consider myself an environmental geographer, most of all, I guess, although I definitely have other interests and passions and areas of curiosity.

[00:01:47] Max Ritts: I'd also say that I was lucky to have some really wonderful advisors in the world of sound studies, including Jonathan Stern, who was a committee member, and also a guy named Jeff Mann, who is known more as a political economist but wrote a really wonderful piece on country music back in 2008, which really introduced me to some of the ideas that I would then work into my own kind of project of geography around ideology and sound and power and even capitalism and the way that those issues manifest as acoustic issues. But yeah, geography is my field.

[00:02:19] James Parker: The first piece of yours I came across was called Military Cetology, a piece you wrote with John Shiga. And you've got work on the social construction of Wales song and then obviously more recent work that's to do with digital bioacoustics and various other topics. So it's a pretty broad palette. Could you describe some of the topics you've worked on? I mean, I've mentioned a couple. You said British Columbia, but what's the sort of umbrella view, the broad overview of what you've worked on previously? Because I know you've got a book coming out.

[00:02:59] James Parker: Are these all going to feed into a book? How does the story kind of hold together, I guess I'm wondering, beyond geography, beyond sound studies?

[00:03:10] Max Ritts: Yeah, it's a good question. And I guess that's why I also introduced myself with respect to this part of the world that has really shaped my training and my interests. Because the North Coast has been a space that I've worked through in relation to a number of different kind of sonic problems, I guess you could call them. Wales song being one of them, ocean noise being another, but also music, also indigenous popular music and acoustic ecologies and its legacy, and smart technologies and smart oceans, which I'm sure we're going to talk about.

[00:03:47] Max Ritts: Each of them in different ways beyond that region. But the region has kind of maintained this kind of cohering effect in the sense that these different topics that I've studied in the world of sound studies and geography all kind of related to my initial time in this part of the world, where I struggled, and I'm still struggling in some ways, to kind of see the connections.

[00:04:07] Max Ritts: But that's really what the book that I'm working on is about too, is sort of seeing in this diversity of different kinds of sonic cultures some underlying questions and underlying problems that give those things meaning in that part of the world. I've written about bioacoustics, and I've written about calving glaciers and aesthetic forays into listening to ice.

[00:04:28] Max Ritts: And I have a piece coming out around urban sustainability politics, which initially had a whole bit on surveillance actually, eavesdropping, which we kind of had to unfortunately remove from the final draft.

[00:04:38] Max Ritts: But all these topics kind of came out, again, of this very different part of the world, even though they've taken place in places like Denmark and the Beaufort Sea, which is a bit of an idiosyncratic way to do geography, but I guess it maintains that idea of situated knowledges and place-based research and just ways of thinking problems through the articulation of different spaces in question.

[00:05:04] James Parker: Do you have a title for the book?

[00:05:08] Max Ritts: I do. Yeah. It's called A Resonant Ecology.

[00:05:13] James Parker: OK. So it's an ecology is kind of going to be the, you know, the thing that holds it together.

[00:05:21] Max Ritts: Yeah, well, I can get into it right now if you want. I mean, but the the reason, the initial reason I called the book a resonant ecology is because I was thinking through some problems around the term resonance, which comes up a lot in in sound studies, and also in kind of eco theoretical discussion involving sound.

[00:05:40] Max Ritts: And I was unnerved by the way in which resonance was almost uniformly being described as a kind of positive trajectory or valence like it was a good thing to achieve resonance, when at the same time, we noticed that, you know, big data and IBM acoustic program and Microsoft and Google are also very interested in, you know, the relations of sound and space for very different purposes than, you know, democratic futures.

[00:06:04] Max Ritts: And the way in which discourses of resonance appear in Silicon Valley and in big tech in general, and you can look at auto charmers work on resonance, for example, as an example of this, this kind of moving into that space, made me realize that the term is much more better conceived as a kind of uncertain site of social mediation of sound rather than as this uniformly positive thing.

[00:06:28] Max Ritts: And in the end, the book doesn't really take on resonance directly too much, but it does maintain that interest in kind of critiquing this sort of uniformly positive turn to sound that I see pervasive in the tour even write these like very prominent thinkers who kind of posed ideas of resonance and listening as almost inherently virtuous. And of course, there are many beneficial aspects to thinking relations of nature through sound. And I want to celebrate those in the book as well.

[00:06:57] Max Ritts: But I want to kind of critique or push back against this notion that it's a positive thing, through and through. And so that's one of the sort of through lines running through the book is kind of looking at these different case studies that take on different aspects of that problem. And another one is sounds digital is digitalization. So the period in which I was on the North Coast, roughly 2012 to 2019, kind of coincides with this ascendant moment of digitalization of so many things in culture, but, you know, sound among them.

[00:07:25] Max Ritts: And that's the period that we see this explosive growth in things like eco and bioacoustics. And the leveraging of those sciences through again, big tech, through things like smart governance technologies through surveillance, you know, things that we now see in the form of like racializing urban surveillance, right. So that wonderful book by Brian Jordan Jefferson digitize and punish, all this stuff begins to kind of gather steam in and around this period.

[00:07:47] Max Ritts: And I was kind of witnessing it play out in the North Coast, which is, of course, also unseated coastal First Nations lands and you know, a space where resident relations are very much, you know, things that are being valued and celebrated alongside these other kinds of terms. So the book is trying to make sense of this kind of competing and intersecting discourse of sound at a time of global unrest, but also at a time of like political economic innovation in sound, and the way that capital is moving into sound in new ways through digital technologies.

[00:08:18] James Parker: Sounds absolutely amazing. I know that this wasn't primarily conceived as an ad for your book, but when's it coming?

[00:08:26] Max Ritts: Fall 2024.

[00:08:28] James Parker: But for 2024, do you have a you have got the publisher all lined up and everything?

[00:08:32] Max Ritts: Oh, yeah. Yeah. So it's the Duke University Press. Signal Storage Transmission Series, which Jonathan and I believe also forgetting the other, the other author is a part of the couple of really cool sound studies people who edit that.

[00:08:51] James Parker: Yeah. Yeah. Amazing.

[00:08:53] Max Ritts: Lisa Gitelman.

[00:08:53] James Parker: Lisa Gitelman.

[00:08:55] Joel Stern: Okay. Yeah. Okay.

[00:08:57] James Parker: So not messing around then. Look, that sounds absolutely amazing. Before we continue, we did have a couple of like slight drops there. I think it'll be okay. But should we maybe continue with a video off just in case it makes a difference?

[00:09:14] Max Ritts: Yeah.

[00:09:14] James Parker: Did you also lose him there for a second, Joel?

[00:09:17] Joel Stern: Yeah, just cutouts for like a second at a time. It sort of seems like every every four or five minutes, there's just a drop for a second or two. But yeah, let's see. Let's see.

[00:09:42] James Parker: The book project sounds amazing. And it seems like it has a lot to do with this machine listening project. You know, everything you've been saying about digital bioacoustics seems absolutely spot on for us. You know, could we maybe dig in a little bit to that research? You published some of it. I imagine there's more of it that makes it into the book. But for the sake of argument, perhaps we could start off with this piece you co-authored with Karen Bakker on conservation acoustics.

[00:10:18] James Parker: Yeah, I mean, it seems like it's what the work that you've done that is closest to machine listening, but it's not just about machine listening. So, yeah, perhaps I don't know what the best way into that project is. Perhaps you could start by explaining what conservation acoustics is. Or perhaps it's better to explain how you arrived at this as a problem or a field, you know, through this kind of located sort of methodology that you have. Like, yeah, how do you end up working on conservation acoustics basically and what is it?

[00:10:51] Max Ritts: Yeah, so I'll define the term as sort of we saw it first and then I'll kind of backtrack a little bit. It's really meant to kind of combine two innovative kind of techno sciences of sound, which are both concerned with ecological conservation issues. And those are bioacoustics, which has been around for decades and has really kind of, I wouldn't say matured as a field, but has really kind of advanced in the last decade and a half for reasons I'll get into. But also ecoacoustics, which is far newer, which kind of got consecrated in around 2011.

[00:11:23] Max Ritts: I think there was a paper by Brian Pijanowski and colleagues that called it Soundscape Ecology. But then other people like Alma Farina and Stuart Gage using the term, you know, ecoacoustics. In both cases, it's kind of like a landscape scale evolution or other study of sound. You know, the idea of the soundscape as a kind of measure of the ecosystem's health, whereas bioacoustics is more focused on individual species interactions.

[00:11:49] Max Ritts: And so what both of those fields are doing is kind of maturing at the same time through this digitalization story I just mentioned. Mitigating emergent threats in conservation areas, detecting poachers, learning more about the subterranean or hard to reach nature of certain animal interactions and all sorts of exciting work happening through the study of these complicated ecologies that are changing as a consequence of climate change. Climate change and deforestation and so many other things. And so there's a lot of hype behind these fields.

[00:12:23] Max Ritts: And they're being supported by, you know, not just scientists and universities, but also by Huawei and IBM and Microsoft and Google. And you can look at Google's Under the Canopy project for an example of a kind of virtuous, quote unquote, merger of, you know, the work of rainforest conservation with indigenous peoples in Brazil, in the Amazon. And the idea of kind of saving the rainforest and saving indigeneity with all the problematic consequences of that idea through the white male savior who can, you know, wire the territory with listening devices.

[00:12:55] Max Ritts: And so all of that, I think, is this moment that we're trying to make sense of. And it was especially kind of strange for me because in 2016, I published my first ever piece with the GitGat Nation, with these scientists doing something very similar in their territory, which was this ecoacoustics baseline.

[00:13:12] Max Ritts: That basically put up these sensors along the Douglas Channel to listen for the ambient kind of profile, ambient sound profile of the region to generate an inventory that the nation could use in their engagement for a process with these industrial proponents with Enbridge. Basically to show that the territory has all these different rich sonic relationships that would be affected by all this noise from the tankers. So we did that work in 2012, 2013, and then it was published in 2016.

[00:13:40] Max Ritts: And between that period and the period of the work that I did with Karen, there was this huge transformation in what we're calling conservation acoustics. Because of all this stuff happening with these big tech companies taking a new interest in the topic, because of the support from the governments, because of the, you know, widening crisis of climate change.

[00:13:58] Max Ritts: And so it was remarkable to me to kind of consider how much that project had changed, how much the kind of DIY citizen science thing had become a kind of institutional thing that was written about in Washington Post and blogged about on Forbes. And so that's also what's happening in this paper.

[00:14:18] Max Ritts: We're trying to make sense of that transition, which is why there's these ideas from Jason Moore and other kind of critical political economy people, kind of helping us make sense of the way in which this is a story of innovation through techno science as much as it is a story of responding to the crisis of nature.

[00:14:35] James Parker: That's a great overview. There's quite a lot that I'd like to dig into, but I wondered if, you know, I've read a lot of, you know, in your work and read a lot of the scientific papers. And I think it's still quite unfamiliar to people, like the idea that certain sections of rainforest or tropical reefs and various other kind of ecosystems have like fairly densely networked with microphones. You know.

[00:15:07] James Parker: Perhaps it would just be worth explaining just a couple of kind of really famous, or famous or doesn't it, they're not famous, but that's the point, but kind of a couple of flagship examples that you think demonstrate, you know, what's going on with conservation acoustics and a little more detail. And then perhaps we can dig from there into questions of political economy, the state and big tech backing of these kinds of, you know, this sort of latest push in terms of the science.

[00:15:38] Max Ritts: Yeah, yeah, for sure. I mean, one example is from Australia. It's the, you know, the Australian Acoustic Observatory, which is, I think, based or funded through the University of Queensland, if I'm correct, and it has a whole bunch of support from the government and it's, you know, 360 sensor locations across the subcontinent.

[00:15:56] Max Ritts: Like it's a huge, ambitious project to map different kinds of, you know, faltering ecosystems and to measure, you know, changes that could then be routed back to a kind of centralized, you know, repository for analysis and for response, even in certain cases. Most of these projects that were much smaller in scale, you know, it'll be like a network of 12 to 15 microphones, you know, oftentimes with a university project that then takes up the gear, you know, afterward and, you know, is done with it.

[00:16:29] Max Ritts: But there's also been, you know, certain projects that have lasted for longer than that, like the work that is done at the Cornell Laboratory for Ornithology, which I think just got renamed for a donor recently, so don't quote me on the title, but that, you know, that work there, the Elephant Listening Project has been doing this kind of work for decades, specifically in Central Africa, where, again, these national parks become wired up with, you know, sensors, you know, Kruger National Park, Korup National Park, for extended periods.

[00:16:58] Max Ritts: And there's an ability to monitor how species move and how they respond to emergent threats or, you know, again, poaching being a big one. And more and more, we're finding it's celebrated in accounts of how, you know, conservation can save the world by better understanding the soundscape, which, again, is a kind of really strange, you know, proposition, right? Because I mean, the problems continue, the deforestation continues, and there isn't a lot of attention.

[00:17:25] Max Ritts: I think part of the concern is that this stuff is channeling energy away from the real political processes that are problematic, even though I totally support, you know, innovative, interesting science. But yeah, to get back to some more examples of it, I mean, underwater, you see a lot of examples of this kind of work now, especially in heavily shipped areas.

[00:17:44] Max Ritts: On the west coast of Vancouver, just off Vancouver, you have, you know, this thing called the Echo Project, which is listening for not only whales, but also shipping noise, and trying to figure out, you know, basically how to co-locate whales, would depend on, you know, sound for navigation and communication and noisy ships, which produce noises of an effective moving through the ocean, how to co-locate those things in a kind of heavily trafficked area, such that you can allow both whales and ships to passage through.

[00:18:12] Max Ritts: And so in that case, the network, the acoustical network becomes a kind of guardrail for industrial development, basically. And you can adjust the shipping lane through what's called lateral displacement, you know, this or that degree to the left or the right of the proposed original lane to reduce... So that's another example of one that I think really highlights the way in which this stuff is linked to political economies as much as it is to conservation ambitions.

[00:18:42] Max Ritts: And then I guess just finally, like, you know, there are lots of examples of this work in this specific case of new kinds of firms that have emerged, like new kinds of conservation outfits, like Rainforest Connection, which has worked in 20 different countries. It's based, I think, in Texas now, but was founded in the Silicon Valley area by a guy named Topher White, or Pantera, which does tiger conservation and leopard conservation in Latin America.

[00:19:06] Max Ritts: And again, like you just go to these websites, and you'll see they have, you know, very kind of heavily promoted reports about the work they're doing with these networks in national parks or, you know, in places like northern Canada, where there are also really more hopeful versions of these kinds of things happening in collaboration with First Nations, you know, around management of caribou herds and just the biodiversity of the avian populations that are trying to migrate through the tar sands and things like that.

[00:19:33] Max Ritts: So there's a bunch of different examples of it. But I think you're right that, you know, even though these articles can be found on Washington Post and The Economist, which is still kind of surprising to me, it is not a huge thing. It is not a huge story in the world of conservation. But I think it's growing. I think it's getting more important. I think it got supercharged by the pandemic, because, of course, people were more online and more unable to go to certain places.

[00:19:56] Max Ritts: And because, of course, of mediated technologies, everyone's much more connected. So you can listen to these rainforests on your phone now, right? You can get the Rainforest Connection app and listen into their networks on your smartphone. And as another example of how these things are becoming more normalized.

[00:20:11] James Parker: Yeah, great. I mean, the most recent example that I saw a bunch of online was this one, this Google one calling in our corals with this reef scientist, Steve Simpson. And that's explicitly a citizen science project. The framing is that, you know, there's this enormous, there's all of these recordings of reef sounds, but there's too much of it, right? Because now that it's so easy and cheap to put, you know, hydrophones underwater and in the reefs, we're collecting all this data, but we can't analyze it all. And so what we need is people to annotate it.

[00:20:50] James Parker: And so it's an attempt to sort of enroll citizen scientists via social media, basically, and word of mouth to listen to these recordings of the reef. Click when you hear a fish sound, you get trained in how to hear a fish sound, and you click, and then Google, in collaboration with Steve Simpson and his collaborators, will take this annotated audio and use it to train machine learning systems to identify the sounds of fish automatically.

[00:21:30] James Parker: And they say, ultimately, to produce what they call mega mixes to play back into the reef that will be, you know, specifically tuned and tailored healthy reef sound with the right amount of fish, you know, perfectly calibrated to the specific needs of that particular reef at that particular time. And so in that process to kind of retune the reef.

[00:21:53] James Parker: And so there's an interesting connection of like, you know, big tech, state-sponsored science, the enrollment of citizens, possibly via a kind of greenwashing process, and all in response to this kind of argument that as, you know, microphones are more and more embedded in nature, the only possibility we have is to automate the process of listening and ultimately to automate the response and the form of intervention, you know?

[00:22:30] James Parker: And so I was thinking like, that the acoustic observatory project that you mentioned, the Australian Acoustic Observatory Project, they're very clear about that because they're not, you know, backed by big tech. As you said, they're a sort of vicariously a state-funded project because the researchers have got a big Australia Research Council grant to do it.

[00:22:54] James Parker: But they're just, they say, well, the problem is once you put in, you know, 360 audio sensors in the environment, and they're recording 24-7, and they're solar-powered so they can just keep taking on the data, if you wanna do monitoring at this scale, you don't have any choice but to automate it. And so how do you do the automation?

[00:23:15] James Parker: Then suddenly big tech becomes the infrastructure, you know, provides the infrastructure via whatever it is, Amazon Web Services, but maybe it's also, you know, a convolutional neural network trained on audio set, or whatever the case might be. So you quickly get these entanglements, and it's sort of every, all roads lead towards automation, it seems like at the moment because of the scaling.

[00:23:42] Max Ritts: Yeah, it reminds me so much of Mark Andreevich's constraint, right? He has the automation loop critique that this is all just automation begets more automation. And I guess to return to the sound moment, I mean, it does also kind of depend on this virtuous promise of sound, like I was saying before, right?

[00:24:01] Max Ritts: This kind of inherent human curiosity that is what enrolls us in these projects of citizen science that, you know, allows us to work as humans in the loop technologies effectively, to commit to free labor, is this kind of interest and curiosity in apparent beneficence of like sonic nature, that we wanna be a part of it.

[00:24:20] Max Ritts: And so we're invited in, and we maybe are doing important things by listening and contributing, but we're also doing a lot of free work that is ultimately training, you know, the algorithms better to do the work without us, or so we're told, although I wonder about the energy costs of all this kind of thing down the line, like, you know, this all depends on power and electricity and all that kind of thing.

[00:24:39] Max Ritts: But I do think that there's an interesting kind of combination of like cold economic calculations going on here, and then this kind of soft, you know, suggestiveness, this kind of interpolation of sound that enrolls people into these projects.

[00:24:54] Joel Stern: Yeah, because it's hard to understand in that story that you've just told about the calling out our coral, James, what the actual role of the citizen science is in the operation of that technology and complex. I kind of did the exercise and I'm clicking to identify the fish, but it's so abstract and so imprecise that it was a real struggle for me to understand how that data would be implemented.

[00:25:36] Joel Stern: It did feel, as Max sort of just put it, more like a kind of way of familiarizing people with the... kind of tech no solutionist kind of approach and this kind of innovation rather than doing real scientific work for the project.

[00:26:08] James Parker: But yeah. That reminds me, Joel, of a great line that I wanted to highlight in your piece on conservation acoustics, Max, where you say, for big tech, conservation acoustics provides opportunities to experiment on sonic data and with minimal legal oversight. So, to me, on one level, the value for a project like Calling in Our Corals or any of the others that you've mentioned that have big tech involvement would be, well, it's sort of greenwashing. It's like good advertorial.

[00:26:43] James Parker: Every time one of these projects comes out, they send the press release to everybody and there's hundreds of these sort of micro pieces everywhere. And maybe it gets picked up by The New York Times or maybe it doesn't. But you're not going to get people to freely annotate your Alexa home, whatever, surveillance recordings. But you can do it if it's fish, right?

[00:27:12] James Parker: And then you have these big data sets that people don't feel the same kind of privacy concerns, that maybe don't feel the set, the need for as much legal oversight, rightly or wrongly, probably wrongly in certain ways. And yeah, this is a this is just a great place if you're a big tech company to start experimenting with audio analysis that where you're not going to run the risk of regulation since that's hotting up at the moment. So I thought that I'd never thought of that before. And I just I think it's a great point.

[00:27:45] James Parker: And it draws directly what you are saying, Joel.

[00:27:50] Max Ritts: Yeah, I totally agree. And I think another person I know that you guys have covered in the series is Mara Mills, and she has that great phrase, assistive pretext, you know, but the resourcing of disability for techno science. And she's dealing with disabled people in the history of the 20th century in America.

[00:28:06] Max Ritts: But you can see a similar logic with acoustically injured animals, right, with deafened whales or animals that might lose their acoustical niche, who we are listening for ostensibly, but actually helping to train the data sets for the companies that are using that information ultimately for their privacy and products.

[00:28:27] James Parker: Should we talk a little bit more about the sort of political economic critique? I mean, we sort of covered it a little, but, you know, I was struck. So, yeah, I've been doing some research myself on this topic of conservation acoustics, although that wasn't the term I was using. And I came across your piece and it just absolutely stood out. First of all, there's not many people writing at all about this that aren't the scientists themselves.

[00:28:54] James Parker: So basically, if I was like trying to describe the state of the literature on bioacoustics, ecoacoustics and whatever, there's a bunch of work being done by scientists, quite a lot of it. And as you say, it seems to have really sort of exploded in the last 10 years or so, partly because of, you know, cheapening equipment, smaller, cheaper sensors, but also because of the ability to automate the analysis where, you know, after the kind of image net and the kind of explosion of neural nets and stuff, we start to see them being used much more widely.

[00:29:26] James Parker: So there's this explosion and it does get picked up in the papers. But there isn't any, there's not a critical, there's not a body of critical writing about it. So you've worked with like Jennifer Gabris, for example, and there's a couple of people writing about smart environments. But this is the only piece I've come across, I could be wrong, that is writing critically about digital sonic ecology or digital bioacoustics or what have you. And so I just wanted to dwell a little bit on that. Like, what do you see the critical intervention here as being?

[00:30:05] James Parker: What were you trying to do with the piece? I know we've touched on a few points and sort of where do you see the field going and what do you, like how urgent do you feel the need for intervention is? Because to me anyway, it really stood out that there's not many people worrying about this and that maybe you're one of them.

[00:30:26] Max Ritts: Yeah, I mean, I'm sure there I know that there are more folks asking these kinds of questions. I know that in Australia there's.

[00:30:39] James Parker: Max, we lost you. We lost you there. So you said in Australia, there's somebody. I was like, with bated breath waiting to hear who it was.

[00:30:49] Max Ritts: You probably know AM Kanngieser

[00:30:51] James Parker: Yeah, yeah.

[00:30:52] Max Ritts: And then there's some folks at Queen's University in Canada working on extinction ecologies. I should get the name and send it to you because it's important that I reference this person's work. Just blanking on it right now. But Jennifer, myself and Trishant Simlay are also working on a piece that kind of takes up some of these topics as well. I do think it's coming in more and more with the smart environments question. And I think you're seeing more work that looks at the specific question of sound in that broader story.

[00:31:21] Max Ritts: And it's, you know, in geography, for example, there are people writing about digitalization and sound more and more. Like there's a wonderful piece about policing sounds that was just published by Lally, Nick Lally, which is looking at not the ecology so much as the weaponization of the environment, of the acoustical environment, which is, you know, using, again, similar technologies, similar kinds of algorithms to do the work of annexing sound to political economies of surveillance.

[00:31:47] Max Ritts: So there is definitely, like, I think a lot of work in and around this topic now. But yeah, I mean, like, I think anybody who does, you know, a project is always surprised that it isn't the most interesting thing in the world for everybody else. And I'm definitely like guilty of that. And I'm glad to know that you're working on this stuff, too, because it's fun to have conversations about it. And I do think it's important. I do think, you know, a lot of kind of the politics of nature goes unnoticed in the world of sound.

[00:32:12] Max Ritts: And I think there's a lot of reasons for that, including, you know, the apolitical nature of earlier discourses of sound, and just the ideas that we have around, you know, the ways in which politics work through nature, and how these smaller, more subtle sites aren't often taken as seriously as they ought to be.

[00:32:31] James Parker: When you look at conservation acoustics, or the, and especially, you know, the front, the current frontier, which seems to be machine learning's kind of pairing with digital bioacoustics or conservation acoustics. What, what is it that worries you most? Like, is it like, big tech is gonna, you know, just be monitoring environmental systems forever, and they're going to be our point of access to the problem of ecology, you know, a kind of monopoly, scientific, technoscientific kind of monopoly kind of problem?

[00:33:15] James Parker: Is it a sort of an extractive exploitation, like, problem? Is it a distraction problem or a greenwashing problem? Probably the answer is all of the above. But like, yeah, when you when you look at conservation acoustics and its trajectory, what is it that you find most concerning or worrying or you think that we really should be applying our attention to?

[00:33:40] Max Ritts: Yeah. Before I answer that, I just want to do a quick, I hope you don't mind me doing this. A quick kind of review of some of the folks I wanted to just briefly mention in this area. My last kind of response. I mean, I think it's important that you know, Hannah Hunter's work at Queen's, Sandra Jasper at Humboldt University, John Pryor and Michael Gallagher are also doing work in this area, not necessarily in the political economy, but kind of asking critical questions around listening and conservation.

[00:34:06] Max Ritts: And I would just want to like reference those folks as well. And there's many others. I'm just thinking of those two right now, or those four. So yeah, your question. I mean, I think definitely the automation question in all of this is concerning to me. The depoliticization of political processes, because we are more and more reliant on systems we don't fully understand. And by we, I mean, you know, society in general. The automation of surveillance, right? Which Mike, excuse me, Mark Andreevich writes about.

[00:34:41] Max Ritts: Or the work that, you know, is being done around cloud ethics by Louise M. Moore and like, you know, facial recognition technologies. Just the way in which more and more of our natural world is coming under logics, which we have to trust implicitly because we can't understand it or unpack them. I think there's always been a level of like black boxing with science and conservation science and just trusting.

[00:35:05] Max Ritts: ...differences in degree, and we just seem to be inching toward an extremely strange situation where entire ecologies are being managed, you know, through remote systems based on, you know, what are ultimately, you know, computationally intensive data sets or rather statistical prediction systems rooted in, you know, you know, evaluation data sets. Like, that's what machine listening really is, right? It's kind of a very, you know, ideological term. It's not really as quote-unquote smart as we often attribute it to be.

[00:35:38] Max Ritts: It's about, you know, pattern recognition based on evaluation data sets that may be very biased because, of course, we don't know what the initial assumptions were with the people who collected the initial training data is necessarily. So there's a lot we don't know about what we're seeding here in terms of the authority and the power to manage these kinds of processes. And, you know, I think that that's one of the major concerns. Of course, that ties into the second thing, which is that they're not going to be very effective.

[00:36:03] Max Ritts: That because we don't know how they work, it's hard to know how they're going to do the job necessarily of predicting emergent threats and risks, or whether we agree with the definitions of what those things are, risks and threats, whether a poacher who may be a racialized, you know, farmer who's looking to recover some sort of area that he had worked before is in fact the poacher that's being declaimed as such because the gunshot that he's using has been identified by the acoustical system as a threat to an animal with the idea that, you know, gunshots are indexical of poaching.

[00:36:35] Max Ritts: So there are just assumptions like that that are worked into these systems that I think are deeply unsettling. And we don't know how effective they are for actually achieving conservation goals at this point.

[00:36:46] Max Ritts: There may be very well, you know, good, you know, future work on this area, I'm not denoting that, but I just don't think that there's a lot of evidence yet that like, the investment in these systems versus the investment in, you know, obviously, like dealing with the structural problems, or even dealing with the local problems is the way we should be going about things.

[00:37:05] James Parker: Right. I mean, to put it very bluntly, like, how much do we really need to know about how a reef sounds to know that the only real way we're going to save the reefs is if we put this breaks on carbon production, really bloody fast. And, you know, on some level, it's like, knowing precisely how screwed the planet is, is, or knowing computationally in real time, you know, is on some level missing the point in terms of the application of energies.

[00:37:42] James Parker: Is it you know, is that is that one of the that's what I'm hearing from you, Max, on some level, I put it Yeah, no, totally, totally.

[00:37:51] Max Ritts: And I kind of go back and forth between just kind of being like, you know, this is all a distraction to know there's actually important things going on here. And I think it's a bit of both. Like, I think, you know, we do know enough. This is like, abundantly clear enough to like, you know, intervene more directly in the way that conservation happens today, just to take that one case example. So there is, in some ways, there's a waste of resources going on here. But in other ways, like, you know, there are also new questions that are being asked.

[00:38:17] Max Ritts: And I don't want to denounce the science, because the science can be really cool and interesting and important. And so that's the tension.

[00:38:25] James Parker: Just so I think this is a good opportunity to segue, but I just want to get something on the table in case it's not completely obvious. But I just want to clarify when you said, you know, you're worried about the surveillance dimensions. I think that the kind of New York Times can style liberal concern with this stuff is that if you've got microphones in nature, then if you go into nature, they might hear what you're going to say, right? And that the problem of surveillance is a problem of human surveillance.

[00:38:54] James Parker: I just want to be, I think that we're, I think that you would, that's not what you mean. And I certainly know what I would be concerned about here. But I just want to, when we talk about surveillance, we're talking about knowledge production in relation to or via sound, you know, rather than, which sometimes involves, you know, spying on people or whatever. But that's not really the concern here that this is like a Trojan horse for, you know, listening to people's conversations.

[00:39:29] Max Ritts: Yeah, I think so. I mean, I do think that like the human dimension of surveillance actually is interesting here. I mean, a colleague has a really interesting story about how in, you know, these camera trapped forests in Northern India, you know, women no longer sing as they would have to alert predators of their presence, not because of the camera tracks hearing them, but because they confuse the camera traps sensing tools with ones that could hear them. So there is a kind of strange, you know, self-regulation going on here.

[00:39:55] James Parker: That is so interesting.

[00:39:57] Max Ritts: Yeah, in surveillance spaces. And I think, you know, that's also something that happens in urban spaces now too, right?

[00:40:06] James Parker: Right, so it's not that you specifically, oh, sorry, I think we got cut off there. Continue the thought.

[00:40:13] Max Ritts: Well, just that, you know, I think that the human dimensions of surveillance, I think, are concerning for that reason. So are the animal dimensions of surveillance for more kind of broadly, not necessarily philosophical, but like for animal rights issues, I think that there are real issues around how exploitation can be made possible through surveillance of animals and how bad ecological decisions can be made on the basis of exploiting relationships around animals. I mean, there's this whole thing about, you know, data poaching right now.

[00:40:41] Max Ritts: An ecologist in Australia named David Lindenmeier wrote a piece about this a few years ago now, but I think it's still a relevant issue where poachers can, like, you know, basically eavesdrop on the sensing tool to know where, you know, animals that would be worthwhile for poaching are located.

[00:40:59] James Parker: Right, because there's a sort of a political thing playing out in the, who owns the data in relation to this stuff. So you see like a big push, like the Australian Acoustic Observatory, the whole thing is like open source, open source sharing. You know, there's the ocean. I can't remember what the, is it called, GLUBS, the global, the ocean, the library of ocean sounds that they want to create that is all kind of meant to be open source. Of course, you know, the problem with that is that anybody can access it.

[00:41:33] James Parker: So the political response is to close it down and to host it on a trustworthy, you know, gate kept server or something. But even the open source ones are all on Amazon Web Services and what have you. So big tech wins either way. But you could certainly see how you might end up seeing a kind of an enclosure, basically, of the sort of the commons of acoustic knowledge, like precisely on the kind of basis that you're suggesting there, Max.

[00:42:08] Max Ritts: Yeah, totally.

[00:42:11] James Parker: I don't know if this is, you know, I hope this is an appropriate question, but yeah, I'm still there. Are you here?

[00:42:20] Max Ritts: Yep.

[00:42:21] James Parker: So, you know, we've been talking about the sort of the critique of this, you know, field and maybe the kind of ambivalent politics of it and feeling, you know, wanting to honour the scientists who are doing interesting and innovative work at the same time as acknowledging that maybe the scientists aren't always the best at thinking through the politics of what they're doing and that there might be, you know, reasons for concern here.

[00:42:54] James Parker: And I just wanted, since she was your co-author, to ask you about Karen Bakker's new book, which was sole author, The Sounds of Life, which I think is the most high profile book on acoustic ecology that I've, certainly digital acoustic ecology that I've come across. And it's very recent. And yeah, it just seems like that is a kind of a work of advocacy and from sort of promoting a new scientific field that doesn't so much align with the critical story that you've been telling, Max. And I just wondered if you, you know, you've worked with Karen.

[00:43:35] James Parker: I'm not really asking you to, like, I don't know, take a position on Karen's book, but just to, yeah. Or did you, what do you, how do you, what do you think about that book or that angle? Or, it's a bit of a sensitive question, I realise.

[00:43:52] Max Ritts: No, I know. I mean, I'm glad you kind of brought it up, actually. I mean, I haven't read the book, but we've had back and forth about this. And I like having back and forth with collaborators. And, you know, we disagree on the politics or the political valence of these things. And I think, you know, it's cool to kind of know the other ways in which you can interpret these developments and not necessarily agree with them, but understand the logic. And I think for Karen, there's a lot of optimism in the ideas of innovation and emergence.

[00:44:28] Max Ritts: I think that's also why I hesitate from kind of being too denunciatory or too kind of classically Marxist about it and just seeing it all as a story of like appropriation and, you know, enclosure. I mean, I think that it's just a mistake to read it that way. I mean, I think that we both agree that Donna Haraway is a kind of wonderful exemplar of that kind of tense position, right? I mean, where she is both pro-science and anti-capitalist. And I think it's a tricky position to occupy.

[00:44:53] Max Ritts: And since I haven't read Karen's book, I can't speak too much to her detailing of that issue. But I do think that, like, you know, there are people who are going to like have a different opinion on these things, and it's really important that they be part of this conversation. And that's certainly been, you know, the experience that we had in writing that conservation acoustics piece that, you know, it was a debate and certain arguments kind of won out. But they're by no means like the kind of definitive arguments.

[00:45:16] Max Ritts: And I could be persuaded otherwise, too. You know, I'm kind of I'd like to be more hopeful about it in a way, too. I mean, I think, you know, it would be a shame if all this innovation and creativity in science was just being completely annexed by big tech. Yeah, I think I don't think it is. But I think that's, you know, that's one of the problems with studying these things is you form a kind of a kind of hunch. And, you know, it's important to kind of revisit it at times, too.

[00:45:47] James Parker: I wonder, is it worth saying, having a quick conversation about the ocean, specifically, Max, because most of your work, and certainly the way I first encountered your work was via your work on Ocean Sound, and you briefly mentioned the Echo Project before, and some of the stuff on whales, but yeah, I mean I guess I have two thoughts on this. First of all, it's just like most of the world is ocean. And historically in machine research and machine listening, there have been always been people working on oceans there, like right from the beginning.

[00:46:26] James Parker: And I just wondered if you could, if you wanted to talk a little bit about your work on smart oceans, and how some of these political questions or techno-scientific and political questions play out in relation to the ocean specifically, or whether there even is a kind of ocean specificity here, or whether we should just be talking about like, you know, acoustic ecology and the forest, the ocean, you know, doesn't matter too much.

[00:46:55] Max Ritts: Yeah, no, I mean, I think, you know, Melody Ju's really wonderful book, Wild Blue Media, and I think that's... analytical categories from like land to sea and not expect changes and transformations. And so I definitely think the ocean poses different analytical questions around sound and listening and surveillance and governance than does the rainforest or the urban space for that matter.

[00:47:23] Max Ritts: And the reason I kind of engage with marine spaces a lot is because again, a lot of the work that I've done is kind of been oriented around my time on the coast and the North Coast and working with communities that really hold marine spaces as central to their ways of life.

[00:47:37] Max Ritts: And the story that I tell in the last chapter of my book is really about the Smart Oceans Governance Project, which is, you know, a kind of a utopian idea of like, you know, real time regulation at a period of intense environmental risks and increased shipping and the faith and the ability of data systems to like coordinate responses to emergent risks is really the story here, you know, it's part of a bigger story of sustainable marine development.

[00:48:03] Max Ritts: And this ONC based project or Ocean Networks Canada based project of Smart Oceans, you know, has been thoroughly supported by the state of Canada, by the government, and by all these tech entrepreneurs and by people who are interested in sort of seeing data and big data, firmly a part of marine governance.

[00:48:23] Max Ritts: And it's also important that I think a lot of coastal communities have, you know, hope in this kind of a project, because they see, you know, not a lot of government support for other kinds of ways of doing governance, and also because they're concerned about their lands and territories.

[00:48:37] Max Ritts: So writing a paper with Mike Simpson about the topic, kind of brought us to the realization that it is again, kind of too easy and analytical argument to kind of come down on this is pretty a story of enclosure, when communities are finding reasons to kind of take these new approaches seriously in the way they manage their territories. And sort of it sort of moves the site of politics to a different space, right, with like indigenous communities, and indigenous data sovereignty movements, more at the center of how a smart ocean should evolve.

[00:49:06] Max Ritts: And wanting to kind of create space for that in our arguments and in our analysis is something we were sort of struggling to do in that paper, but we hope hopefully did do. Because again, I think, you know, these systems pose a lot of risks, but they also are ones that people are having to use because they don't have other options, but also maybe using because they find new ways of, you know, enacting their stewardship obligations through those systems in ways that the analysts like myself wouldn't have, you know, anticipated.

[00:49:31] Max Ritts: And so kind of keeping open that door for like some surprises, I think really important as well.

[00:49:37] James Parker: So just to be clear, what is what you're saying that indigenous communities, marine or sort of custodians who groups who understand themselves as custodians of marine environments are quite pro automation in certain forms? But.

[00:50:09] Max Ritts: Yeah, I think it's tricky territory, especially as like a white settler to speak, of course, on behalf of other communities. But I will say that there's been a long history of innovation and experimentation and creativity in the part of the world I'm talking about among First Nations and in taking technologies and, you know, enacting counter modernities or what one historian calls more additional economies that combine traditional and modern.

[00:50:36] Max Ritts: And I think that's a story of indigeneity under modernity that, you know, to use new systems for the benefit of the nation is something that these communities will embark upon if they decide that they will be rewarded for it in the sense of better governance. So I wouldn't say it's automatic. Those can include smart technologies as well.

[00:51:02] James Parker: I guess the reason I'm interested is because of the scale problem, because you mentioned like data sovereignty. And I suppose what I see with digital bioacoustics in oceans and otherwise is like a real drive towards scale. It's the Mark Andreevich point you mentioned before, right? That like automation begets automation and that the only players capable of feeding and really sort of governing that degree of automation and scaling are really, you know, the big tech companies and states and really mainly the big tech companies.

[00:51:48] James Parker: And so I wonder what the front lines are in terms of holding or pushing for data sovereignty in the face of that kind of a problem.

[00:52:07] Max Ritts: Yeah, these are really tricky questions. And I've spoken with critical indigenous studies scholars, really brilliant people about this topic. I think for some people, refusal and turning away entirely is the only way to go because there are so many risks and so many potential spaces of error effectively. But there are also communities that don't have that choice anymore because of political economic circumstances, because of the desire of the developmentalist state to ship things down their territories.

[00:52:44] Max Ritts: And those communities, in many ways, have to engage with these systems because they're kind of caught in these contradictions. And I think part of our job as kind of researcher allies is to look for spaces of potential opening in those conflicts while we're mindful of, like you said, those huge, you know, prevailing logics that are really buffeting against any kind of hopefulness. But nevertheless, I think we have to look for them and not invest too much in those systems and other systems can be cultivated as well.

[00:53:13] Max Ritts: But also not abandoning those systems entirely because they are being utilized in those communities and because there is a capacity interest in using technology for local governance. So I guess it's a very tricky position to think through. And I like to say it's like, you know, it's one that I think invites very situated kinds of findings because there are so many different particularities for different contexts. But. That makes sense.

[00:53:44] James Parker: We lost you just at the end there, Max, but, you know, obviously, you've you've you said situated quite a few times, which obviously, you know, a really important part of your work as being geographically situated. You know, obviously you're interested in Parraway and the. The grounding of that situatedness in a feminist practice of science studies, you know, against the kind of machismo view from nowhere kind of logic that we often see in this kind of research. And I thought perhaps that's an interesting note to end on because.

[00:54:26] James Parker: You know, part of the logic of automation itself is sort of on the one hand, like intense situatedness because it always claimed that the logic is always to be responsive to the particularities of the context, but on another level, like radical desituatedness, that the same neural network can be applied literally anywhere to anything in the world. To anything all of the time.

[00:54:56] James Parker: It's a completely they couldn't you'd you'd struggle to find a system that's claiming to that is more comfortable with the kind of God's eye view than a convolutional neural network that is can be applied to birdsong, but it can also be applied to whales and the sound of typing and gunshots and, you know, everything right there. A what, you know.

[00:55:25] James Parker: a domain agnostic, it can just do what it can be applied anywhere. And that's the like a radical desituatedness. So it seems like on some level, the. Yeah, like, I don't know, I just I guess I'm just hearing that from what you're saying, that like the political intervention here is ultimately about a kind of situatedness. And insofar as there's a critique of science, maybe that technoscience, it's really along those kinds of lines.

[00:55:56] Max Ritts: Yeah, I'm going to just try to riff on this a little bit. It's late here, but I think this is, you know, really interesting stuff to think about. I don't know if it's situatedness for me. I think that you're right. You're totally right. I've been using that word a lot. I've been using the North Coast as a kind of figure a lot in this conversation. But I guess when I think back to the book project, there's two other words that kind of come to mind that I think are also about what I'm thinking about here is that kind of politics of this stuff.

[00:56:22] Max Ritts: One of them is is limits. And, you know, a lot of work has been written about ethnographic limits. Audra Simpson's term in the context of, you know, indigenous refusals and so forth. And I think, you know, that word can be too easily used to kind of designate things that are off limits when really what what Simpson's talking about is the community's right to self-representation.

[00:56:45] Max Ritts: And I think, you know, that as a kind of principle is something that I think we need to insist upon in the context of machine learning and big data, that what those systems do is try to represent people. It's a kind of one of the oldest stories of colonialism, right? It's like, you know, the way in which people can be counted and assembled and to insist upon limits is to insist upon, you know, community's right to self-representation.

[00:57:08] Max Ritts: And the other thing that I think about in the context of the North Coast is this idea of possession, because a lot of, you know, the history of anthropology and salvage anthropology begins in this part of the world. Right. Like Franz Boas wrote that piece on alternating sounds in 1898, I believe, which is, in my opinion, maybe the first ever kind of modern piece of sound studies.

[00:57:28] Max Ritts: And it's all about him as an anthropologist trying to make sense of these Simshian words that he had to kind of possess within his linguistic framework to kind of understand them. And you can kind of trace a line between salvage anthropology and the kind of possession of like artifacts and sounds and music and songs and later on and other things as well.

[00:57:46] Max Ritts: And, you know, modern, you know, kind of reconciliation discourse that happens in both Australia and Canada as a way of kind of possessing things for other people, because you're better at taking care of them. And that's, of course, the story of museums and is the story of our practice as much as it is a story of state policy. And so I think one of the other political kind of questions is how to kind of enact a discourse of counter possession, of not needing to possess things to appreciate.

[00:58:14] Max Ritts: On bioacoustics, you know, and not needing to like possess massive datasets of animal sounds to like have some claim over the ability to manage them or live next to them even better than manage them. So I guess the question of possession is also one that I'm interested in and that I think about through the specific histories of the North Coast, because, again, that salvage logic is such a big part of the story of colonialism. And also, I think, sound in that in that region.

[00:58:40] James Parker: Amazing. That's a that's a great note to end on, I think, unless you want to raise anything else or table anything else, Max.

[00:58:52] Max Ritts: No, I mean, I, you know, like I said, it would be great to, you know, have more conversations. I really appreciated the questions. I hope I I hope I was giving you giving you guys some coherent answers. But otherwise, good.