Zootechnologies: A Media History of Swarm Research

Zootechnologies: A Media History of Swarm Research
Sebastian Vehlken

Amsterdam University Press, Amsterdam, NL, 2019
400 pp. Trade $119.00
ISBN: 9780262043069.

Reviewed by
Stephanie Moran
May 2020

Zootechnologies, a revised translation of Sebastian Vehlken’s 2012 German volume, offers a much-needed addition to the niche area of media ethology. Vehlken’s study focuses on twentieth century swarm research, its stated aim to “analyze why, how, and in what manner particular dynamic collectives were understood as swarms at various points in time and in specific ways, and how these collectives were themselves able to become active in the production of this very knowledge.” It concentrates on the particularities of fish and bird swarming (technically, flocking, schooling and shoaling) as distinct from the very different modes of communication and swarm structures of other species (such as insects). Vehlken is Senior Researcher at the Institute for Advanced Study on Media Cultures of Computer Simulation (MECS), and this inquiry is framed within the context of the epistemological animalization and swarmification of computational simulation research. It presents the recent history of swarm research as a recursive process of “biologisation of computer technology and the computerization of biology” or transforming “fish into chips.” This account narrates how scientific approaches have shifted over time, from using swarms as ‘objects of knowledge’ to ‘figures of knowledge’. Figure of knowledge refers to the particular relationship between humans, animals and technology when scientists see human deficiencies or lack from the perspective of animals, often in terms of what they can borrow or shape into tools. In this figure of knowledge, the animal that was previously the object of knowledge becomes part of thought through the technologisation of its behaviour, which forms the basis for a new system of knowledge.

The three key organizing concepts of the book are the parasite, the figure of knowledge, and Kulturtechniken. Vehlken declines to fully define Kulturtechniken in the introduction, although he elaborates on it a little later. He points initially to Geoffrey Winthrop-Young’s introduction to a special issue of Theory, Culture and Society Journal on the topic. The reason for this becomes apparent when it transpires that there are three different conceptualisations of the term all in current use, and none of these are readily definable, their denotations shimmering elusively as the individual scales in shoaling herring. It is a term contextually and relationally inferred, with multiple nuances from its overlapping meanings. Briefly and most simplistically, extrapolating from Winthrop-Young’s article, it can be translated in an agri-cultural sense as ‘environmental engineering’; in a skillset sense, as ‘media competence’, which may include technologies such as mathematics and writing, or the idea of a “culturalization of technology;” and, related to but extending the second definition, the sense of technologies shaping culture. Vehlken uses it mostly in this last sense, describing automation and computerization as processes that have superseded “fundamental cultural techniques of image-making, writing and calculation,” but with an emphasis on the reciprocity of this cultural shaping.

Michel Serres’ figure of the parasite scaffolds swarms as disruptors, foregrounding the primacy of noise in swarming. It is also used here to de-anthropocise swarm theory and to critique the tendency to romanticise the revolutionary potential of the molecular phenomenon of swarming. Zootechnologies discusses the way the media-becoming or embedding into computation of swarming turns it into a ‘cultural technique’ (Kulturtechniken in the original German). Vehlken uses these concepts to depict the elaborate binding of knowledge and technology through their objects, and the ways these are transfigured. He narrates the way that an understanding of how swarms function was only really grasped through various modelling techniques and subsequent digital visualisation in computational simulations, which then lead to their ‘media-becoming’ as figures of knowledge that “coauthor processes within our culture of knowledge.” These, he argues, have become essential to comprehension in simulations that span arenas of knowledge and planning including economics and epidemiology, becoming embedded in the “governmentality of the present” in a Foucauldian co-constitution of epistemology production with their regulatory processes and aims.

After the initial theoretical chapter, Zootechnologies clusters around thematic and loosely chronological phases. Through these, it describes the processes of mediatisation, the biologisation of computer technology and the computerization of biology that have been recursively intensifying, beginning with the move towards a systemic approach in behavioural biology around 1900, the use of media technology in biological research from the late 1920s and concluding with recent case studies of swarm-intelligent applications in Unmanned Aerial Systems and drone swarms, agent-based modelling toolkits and code libraries, architecture theory, crowd simulation and control (prediction). The book covers these partially overlapping phases in a series of elegant, self-contained chapters. Chapter two, ’Formations’, constitutes a brief history of the behavioural biology shift from psychological approaches, that are seen as anthropomorphizing, contrasted with non-anthropological and non-anthropocentric, or object oriented, systemic methods. The following chapter’s ethological literature review traces a history of audio visual and sonar media technology in fish school research, and the accompanying data drifts. These data drifts, or outliers in the data collected, were viewed as noise that disrupted results, and were generally normalised at first. ‘Formulas’ offers an overview of swarm modelling and simulation in 1970s’ mathematical and geometric models. The ‘Transformations’ chapter traces a simulational epistemology through the move from the suppression of noise and data normalization to the use of interference and noise for setting modelling parameters in animal biology. It describes the way swarm models were embedded into computer programming from the 1980s, becoming more widely understood and accepted through the use of digital visualisation.

This volume is a significant work that exposes an aspect of the zoo in technology. It constitutes a thought-provoking addition to this currently small subgenre of media ethological archaeology, in company with Jussi Parikka’s Insect Media, Eugene Thacker’s research on swarming and biotechnology, Akira Mizuta Lippitt’s Electric Animal, and the bio-technoscientific history offered by Donna Haraway’s work on OncoMouseTM. Zootechnologies is dense with a breadth of theoretical and practical technological knowledge, presented with clarity and insight. It traces and makes visible a minor history garnered from disparate sources that often foreground the human. This species-bias represents a blind spot in the extant literature, paralleled by the dearth of studies about animals in science fiction. [1] The swarm in the algorithm, or the zoo in the technology, is here presented as initially human-agnostic, or entirely inhuman: "as an addressee of this cultural technique, humans were at first only an unintentional part of the equation.” However, their effects on and as part of human culture are articulated through the concepts of figure of knowledge and cultural technique, which intertwine through the terms human, animal and technology, offering a sophisticated means of reading of the media landscape.


[1] With the notable exception of Sherryl Vint’s Animal Alterity.