At some point, of course, someone does have to go out into the field to lay those cables, hoist those antennas, launch those satellites, calibrate those sensors, and capture those videos. Wildernesses do not wire themselves Fieldwork of a sort continues to be practiced, then, but in a radically different mode than it once was. Instead of conducting their own observations in the field, with or without technically sophisticated instruments, scientists now install and maintain automated devices that will feed them a steady diet of new data after they have returned home. When the cost and complexity of a new instrument become too great for any one scientist to handle, they band together to install and maintain it as a collective, often with the help of corporations and nation-states that have the resources to install very expensive instruments in very hard-to-reach places, such as the Earth’s orbit or on the surface of other planets The time may be approaching when scientists will no longer go out into the field in order to collect data, but instead solely to install the devices that will collect it for them.
New as it undoubtedly is, the novelty of this situation should not be overestimated. For centuries, much fieldwork has been conducted by proxy: if not by “devices,” per se, then at least by people who have been instrumentalized, exploited, and forgotten. Between the eighteenth-century sailing ships that carried handwritten reports of distant climes to European centers of calculation and the twenty-first century telecommunications networks that collect data from automated weather stations, then, we might see a difference of degree rather than kind, of speed rather than topology But if the continuities are real, so are the ruptures. In networks built of human observers, even if the body of the scientist is not present at the scene of observation, somebody’s body—sensitive, suffering, ecstatic, exhausted—inevitably is. As sensor networks supplant social relations, the field of observation begins to float free of the limits and potentials of the historically situated human body. In the disinhabited field of automated observation, other kinds of bodies and relations—lifeless but not necessarily therefore inanimate—are now in play
Bloodless as it may seem in comparison with personally embodied observational fieldwork, the sensor-based science of installation, maintenance, and remote data-collection nonetheless has its own virtues, and even its own heroism. Tracking a GPS-tagged great white shark from California to Hawaii and back may require little effort and even less courage, once the tag is on But getting the tag on the shark in the first place takes guts, and chum, and a ship, a crew, and the readiness to put your own body—or somebody’s body, anyway—up against the water, wind, and the recalcitrant weight of a gigantic, toothy predator. There is rich material here for barroom fish tales and behind-the-scenes television specials, and for the continuing construction of Romantic personae in an age of secondhand experience So, too, are there adventures to be had in the construction and maintenance of infrastructure. No matter how resilient the system or sophisticated the algorithm, there will still be rusty bolts and broken wires in uncomfortable places, and people who are asked to fix them
New virtues and talents are also in demand back at the lab, the office, or the living-room couch. If the success of the field scientist of yesteryear depended on a well-developed sense of place, honed through long experience in the field and often dependent on exchanges—coerced or otherwise—with well-informed residents, the networked scientist of today needs other skills These include the ability to aggregate data from multiple sources, to determine their quality and their limits, to incorporate them into meaningful models, and to recognize when existing instruments are no longer sufficient and new ones must be deployed. There is a loss here, but also a gain. Instead of the embodied intuition that comes from observing at a particular field site over time, the researcher develops a kind of Fingerspitzengefühl (fingertip feel) for the virtual field and for the data, models, and visualization techniques that make it real. The experience of scientific “fieldwork” continues to be direct and embodied—there is no real alternative—but the nature of the “field” experienced by the scientist changes: it becomes digital, distant, distributed, discontinuous.