Watching Webcams, Or: The Private Lives Of Plants and Animals

Curator's Note

The internet is full of animals, from the ungrammatical inanity of LOLcat memes, to the big-data initiative ICARUS, which uses an antenna attached to the International Space Station to track long-distance movements of tagged animals. The live animal cam was pioneered in the late 1990s by companies such as EarthCam and If their stated purpose is to educate the public about wildlife, the received purpose may be to open a virtual window on screens cluttered by torrents of email, spreadsheets, and other work-world rubble.

As I write, a pair of bald eagles in central New Jersey pull shreds of meat off what appears to be a rabbit carcass, passing it to a fluffy hatchling who bobbles to stay upright between two unhatched eggs. Perhaps most remarkable is the birds’ utter unselfconsciousness before the camera, their refusal of interactivity, going on with or without us. While webcams perch atop stoplights and within doorbells, where tech companies mine data from our online moves, animal cams appear to be benign, even beneficial surveillance. The animals don’t mind if we peep their daily lives, do they? The benefits accrue not only to the parks and preserves offering webcams, but to viewers, who may forge affective bonds with the animals we watch, however distant.

Still, ticking time code, surrounding context on webpages — and sometimes, the routine of sitting through an advertisement before being patched through — remind us that the animal cam is a human activity. Recently, a moonflower cactus bloomed at the Cambridge University Botanical Garden. It’s an annual event, and a fleeting one, since the flower emerges and withers within 12 hours. I caught some of the live cam, now discontinued and replaced by time-lapse videos, the slowest kind of real-time, slow TV reduced to short-attention-span summaries. The flower is the star of the show, but no part of it startled so much as suddenly rustling foliage in the background: a full-screen look revealed the silhouette of a garden employee, going about the work that is part of his daily life, in the shadows of a carefully curated greenhouse.

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