Technology at the Service of Environmental Ethics: Hypertext and Multicentrism

Technology is often perceived as an antithesis to nature and as such is incorporated into the cultural side of the nature-culture dichotomy. The various environmental movements often tend to simplify this binary and perceive it in moral terms, assigning nature the role of the good, the fragile, while labelling culture (and thus technology) as the bad, the destructive. However, various media and technologies have always been used either to promote the environmental movement or to make changes in diverse industries to make them more ecologically friendly; hence to make a real difference in the ongoing ecological crisis. This paper focuses on cases where technology was, and possibly is, at the service of environmental ethics, a branch of ethics concerned “with human beings’ ethical relationship with the natural environment.”[1] Using an example of the role of photography at the beginning of the modern environmental movement, this paper discusses the connections between hypertext theory and contemporary ecological thinking, specifically Anthony Weston’s concept of multicentrism.

In 1968, the crew of Apollo 8 took the very first colour photograph of Earth from outer space called Earthrise. “That photograph of Earth in its fragile beauty helped to inspire the nascent environmental movement. Truly having stepped outside of Earth for the first time, we could look back on the home planet and see it as a whole.”[2] Another photo, this time of the Earth in its entirety, called Blue Marblefollowed in 1972 and became one of the most reproduced pictures in the world. While black and white pictures of the parts of the Earth had been taken before, none of them had had such an impact. Even though taking pictures of the Earth was not the main mission of either crew, these images have arguably provoked the strongest cultural impact of the missions. There is a slight irony in the fact that the missions focused on exploring outer space are known for looking back at where they come from. Timothy Clark notes that:

[s]ince late 1968 one defining icon of modernity has been the Apollo photographs of the whole Earth seen from space. The image has already become the obvious emblem of the Anthropocene. Ironically, however, one can argue that it is the very plurality, contradictoriness and evasiveness of interpretations of the image that make it appropriate for this purpose. It has been read as an icon of life’s almost unbearable fragility; as the achievement through technology of the age-old dream of a god’s-eye view; an instance of the contingent privilege of vision on the human sense of what something ʻreally’ is (ʻ… but what does it looklike?’); a terrifying view of its target from a weapons platform. […] The Apollo images have usually been read in terms of humanity’s conception of itself, as if the planet were no more than a gigantic mirror in which the human could study its own features.[3] (30-1)

The mere existence of the picture of the whole planet we inhabit has changed our perception of it as it brought a whole new perspective, a view from outside which had up to that point been inaccessible. Clark rightly points out that the Earth photographs are repeatedly read and interpreted and that their interpretations are necessarily influenced by Western cultural history which accepted the photograph medium as a true representation of reality,[4] a notion which would be soon challenged by the medium of digital photography.[5] Despite the influence the pictures had on environmentalism and the spread of its message among the public (e.g. the first Earth Day celebrated in 1970), their readings are predominantly anthropocentric, using the planet as a “mirror” for humankind. 

Both Weston’s and Clark’s comments focus on the content of the pictures and ignore the importance of photography as a medium for the impact of the Apollo photographs. Photography as a medium had proven itself more than valuable in various campaigns for nature protection, because it mediated the beauty of a certain place which would be hard to translate into words. Photography seems to be the ideal medium for such purposes, since it achieves transparency in the sense that it almost erases itself as a medium “so that the user is no longer aware of confronting a medium, but instead stands in an immediate relationship to the contents of that medium”.[6] It has perfected the linear perspective and eliminated the artist. Photography made possible what painting would never achieve. The usual viewer does not think about the mechanical and chemical processes of the analogue photograph, instead they believe that they encounter the object immediately and directly.[7]

Marshall McLuhan argues that photographs “isolate single moments in time”,[8]while Vilém Flusser claims that “they replace events by states of things and translate them into scenes.”[9] Both Flusser and McLuhan emphasize that the photographs separate time from space as they mediate the four dimensions of a real world into two-dimensional abstraction. However, they also transfer their content to cultural phenomena,[10] which was the case with the Earth photographs, since they were turned immediately into cultural and environmental icons. The photograph is a very pressing medium, which makes it almost impossible not to look at it.[11]

All the above-mentioned characteristics are crucial for the impact photography made in the conservationist and environmental movements. However, the Earth images mark the change in perspective in these movements. The conservationists throughout the 20th century used photography to emphasize the beauty of a certain place and by mediating the aesthetic quality evoked the emotion in the public, since the environmental groups and preservationists have depended on providing an attractive image of the place they wished to save.[12] Places such as Grand Canyon or Yellowstone, once almost lost to demands of civilization, became cultural icons as the wilderness protection campaigns were based on their visuality. The Earth photographs represent a turning point connecting the movements concerned with nature protection by bringing in a perspective hitherto inaccessible. Instead of the up to now unlimited place the viewer is confronted with the Earth as whole, not only with its beauty, but also its “unbearable fragility”.[13] Hence, consequently the visual policy of American environmentalism changed. Since the late 1960s (and particularly after the first Earth Day in 1970) the visual campaigns “signaled the emergence of a new form of environmentalism, one that emphasized the dynamic connections between human society and the natural world.”[14]

However, nearly half a century has passed since the first Earth Day and the ecological crisis is still very present and the scientists’ prognoses are in fact worse than ever. It is rather obvious that activism and partial changes embedded in the anthropocentric paradigm are rather part of the issue than a sufficient solution to the whole situation.[15] Thinkers such as Anthony Weston believe that the true solution requires not only action, but a change of perspective. Photography and other media, despite their power, have not led to this change of paradigm. The linear perspective actually reinforces anthropocentrism. For centuries it enabled humankind to watch the world from distance, both in science and art, and seemingly objectively.[16]

Anthropocentrism is the “assumption or view that the interests of humans are of higher priority than those of nonhumans”,[17] placing humankind in the centre of the world and establishing it as a norm. The value of the nonhuman is subsequently determined by its utility for human beings. One of the direct consequences of the anthropocentric perspective on the world is objectifying nature, understanding it as a resource, as man’s possession. Anthropocentrism is a spectrum from strong to weak, in which the weak form considers the possibility of biocentric values or understanding of the value of the nonhuman.[18] As a discipline of applied ethics, environmental ethics faces the challenge of extending the originally human-oriented concepts to non-human creatures and the environment itself. This task is much more complex and precarious than it may seem at first sight due to man’s anthropocentric perception of the world. The anthropocentric perspective is strongly embedded in human (particularly Western) culture and represents a dominant, if not the only, way of perceiving the outside world which human beings are capable of.

Lynn White, Jr. traces the roots of the anthropocentric thinking to Christianity and its premise that the world was created for humans and everything else is subordinate to them as man is the master of nature: “Christianity […] not only established a dualism of man and nature but also insisted that it is God’s will that man exploit nature for his proper ends.”[19] He also points out that we know only little about the history of ecologic change apart from the fact that the Western unity of science and technology amplified the idea of human superiority to nature to the extent that led to the contemporary ecological crisis,[20] which forced humankind to re-think not only our mere actions but the way we perceive our surroundings and nature in general and how this perspective forms and influences our actions and the ethical dimension of our relationship with the world.

Weston argues that the role of environmental ethics should be not only to extend the ethical principles to a different area.[21] To ask why we have ethical obligations to the natural environment is crucial. The question is not only whether we should care, but the reason why we (should) care directly leads to different kinds of obligations. If we simplify the whole issue, “an anthropocentric ethic claims that we possess obligations to respect the environment for the sake of human well-being and prosperity.”[22] Different kinds of obligations arise when we understand that we have ethical responsibility for the well-being of future generations of humans, and yet different ones when we take into consideration “the sake of entities within the environment itself, irrespective of any human benefits.”[23] And when we want to extend the ethical responsibility towards the non-human, another question arises immediately: “What qualifies an entity for moral consideration?”[24]

Weston points out that although officially against it, a significant proportion of environmental ethics is still strongly anthropocentric.[25] Our binary thinking influences the idea of distributing ethics to “others,” which means we already suppose our supremacy. The idea of using nature as a means is embedded in our thinking to such a degree that it is otherwise seen only as having an “end in itself.”[26] Therefore, the concept of intrinsic value does not assign the natural environment any value other than its right for existence on the basis that it exists. We do not know any other way than to try to impose some sort of value on nature, be it economic or aesthetic. Assigning nature some sort of value necessarily means establishing a hierarchy, as some places are considered more valuable than others, some species deserve more protection, etc.

For centuries, anthropocentrism was a matter of course, which was neither noticed nor challenged in Western society. Only since Aldo Leopold’s idea of “land ethics” suggesting that the human perspective might not be the only one, or the right one,[27] voices questioning humankind’s supremacy have started to appear. Although Leopold’s views were not necessarily non- or anti-anthropocentric, he sought a new approach towards nature in times when people saw its main value in its commercial use, urged others to understand the environment as “a community to which they belonged, not a commodity they possessed.”[28] With the ecological crisis and the rise of environmental movement, the question of what might replace anthropocentrism started to occur more frequently, since the change of perspective might be actually the key to (not only our) survival.

The anthropocentric perspective strongly affects not only humankind’s relationship with the environment, but also with technology. In his book Orality and Literacy, Walter J. Ong, after putting emphasis on the fact that writing is a technology, observes that even a text is built in correspondence with the human form: 

Texts in various scripts around the world are read variously from right to left, or left to right, or top to bottom, or all these ways at once as in boustrophedon writing, but never anywhere, so far as is known, from bottom to top. Texts assimilate utterance to human body.[29]

While technologies are supposed to serve human purposes, many critics and theorists emphasize that they also influence, if not determine the way people think and act. Ong argues that “technologies are not mere exterior aids, but also interior transformations of consciousness.”[30] McLuhan calls media and technologies “extensions of ourselves”.[31] The question is: can technologies and media assist in transforming our perspective from anthropocentrism to a different paradigm?

While the analysis above suggests that photography made a significant impact on the environmental movement, its form reinforces the subject-object distinction and established anthropocentric hierarchy, since it employs a linear perspective and is strictly visual. The medium that very openly challenges the established hierarchy and linearity is hypertext, defined by Theodor Nelson as a “non-sequential writing – text that branches and allows choices to the reader, best read at an interactive screen… a series of text chunks connected by links which offer the reader different pathways.”[32] Nelson’s definition enhances three characteristics of hypertext: non-linearity, fragmentation, and involvement of the reader. Unlike photography, hypertext is an example of hypermediacy. Its form is unconcealed. 

Hypermedia and transparent media are opposite manifestations of the same desire: the desire to get past the limits of representation and to achieve the real. They are not striving for the real in any metaphysical sense. Instead, the real is defined in terms of the viewer’s experience; it is that which would evoke an immediate (and therefore authentic) emotional response.[33]

Hypertext does not hide the fact it is a medium and its structure and impact on the receiver defy the linear perspective. George P. Landow not only points out the similarities between hypertext theory and literary theory, but suggests broad political and societal implications of hypertext:

[They][34], like many others who write on hypertext and literary theory, argue that we must abandon conceptual systems founded on ideas of center, margin, hierarchy, and linearity and replace them by ones of multilinearity, nodes, links, and networks. Almost all parties to this paradigm shift, which marks a revolution in human thought, see electronic writing as a direct response to the strengths and weaknesses of the printed book, one of the major landmarks in the history of human thought. This response has profound implication for literature, education, and politics.[35]

For Landow, hypertext represents a “revolution in human thought” challenging the idea of linearity and centre and subsequently modifying the paradigm established for centuries. The traditional hierarchy based on one centre and margin is replaced by various interconnected centres, each of the same importance. Landow also emphasizes that this revolution is not limited to technology or media and that the hypertext might influence other disciplines, and become, in the end, political.

Hypertext in its structure and subversive nature resembles Anthony Weston’s concept of multicentrism,[36] which also challenges an established hierarchical paradigm. Weston suggests that the paradigm replacing anthropocentrism cannot be nonanthropocentrism, since it is only a rejection without content.[37] However, he also claims that it will be neither biocentrism[38] nor ecocentrism,[39] two paradigms often listed as the most probable options. For Weston, these concepts are problematic because humankind remains in the centre of consideration and merely broadens the area of concern.[40] Weston calls these paradigms concentric and explores the possibility of a different approach:

Concentrism is a natural and indeed generous way of framing environmental ethics. Yet it cannot be said to be the only possible approach. Even in purely geometrical terms, there is an obvious alternative: a multicentered vision according to which more-than-human others enter the moral realm on their own terms, rather than by expansion from a single center–a vision according to which there are diverse centers, shifting and overlapping but still each with its own irreducible and distinctive starting-point. For a multicentered ethic, then, the growth of moral sensitivity and consideration does not proceed through an expanding series of concentric realms, each neatly assimilating or incorporating the previous stage within a larger and more inclusive whole. No: instead we discover a world of separate though mutually implicated centers. Moral growth consists in experiencing more and more deeply the texture of multiplicity in the world, not in tracing the wider and wider circles set off from one single center.[41]

Weston claims that the anthropo- part in anthropocentrism might not be as problematic as the unified centrism. He argues that in this case the concentric ethics is always based on similarities. And the further away from the centre, the harder are these similarities to find, making extentionism no longer a functional perspective since the “extension of intrinsic value to the nonhuman world occurs only if entities measure up to the criteria that are defined by humans, criteria that must mimic or resemble humanlike attributes.”[42] Weston points out that “[t]he search for a single, inclusive criterion of moral standing ultimately washes out nearly everything.”[43] He argues that we should respect the world for what it is: a multiverse with many different centres which are connected in a way we might not know or understand yet.

While there is no proof that Weston was influenced by hypertext theory, and both concepts might be independent proofs of major changes in episteme,[44] they show striking similarities. Both hypertext and multicentrism challenge the established hierarchy with one significant centre and margins. Their decentralisation and antihierarchical character make them both very democratic,[45] in the case of the latter also outside the boundaries of humanity. Landow claims that “the use of communications technology is also a concretization of certain political assumptions. In particular, hypertext embodies assumptions of the necessity for nonhierarchical, multicentred, open-ended forms of politics and government.”[46]

Both multicentrism and hypertext are described in geometrical terms, and they undermine their traditional geometries. While hypertext opposes linearity, multicentrism challenges the “circle of moral consideration.”[47] Both concepts employ the idea of several nonhierarchically interlinked centres which are discrete as well as interdependent. 

Hypertext, because of its openness – its fuzzy borders that are so easily permeated – makes the author’s role as diffuse as the boundaries of the text itself. Hypertext does not typically have a beginning, middle, and end.[48]

This openness, the structure and linking of the centres, is interchangeable, meaning that there is not one “right” interpretation, but that various paths and perspectives are equally valuable. The implication in environmental ethics is that there is not one way of being, but there are many modes of existence which should not be considered and judged from human-centred point of view.[49] Both systems decentralize, which means they refuse to simply substitute one centre for another but insist on the multiplicity of centres. 

The decentralization destabilizes the traditional subject-object or centre-margin hierarchy. The established hierarchy of author-reader or human-nature, which implies a sort of subordinance and passivity of the latter, is rejected. McLuhan argues that print entailed centuries of “uniformity, quiet privacy, and individualism.”[50] Hypertext instead embraces cooperation and active readership and “provides an infinitely recentrable system whose provisional point of focus depends on the reader.”[51] Not only does hypertext reading enable the reader to choose, it “requires the reader to make deliberate decisions about which path to take within a hypertext Web.”[52] The more dialogical structure of hypertext is another link to multicentrism, which emphasizes the role of dialogue and encourages finding ways of communication with the world. The idea of an objective and distant observer, utilized in positivist science, is no longer functional and should be replaced with a paradigm based on reciprocity.[53]

The transformation from imposition to dialogue implies participation in a community. Hypertext encourages the formation of communities around the texts, communities which can share, comment, and enter the discussion without distinction of authority. In this sense, hypertext is closer to orality,[54] or the Ongian concept of secondary orality 

Which diverts from individualism and isolation connected to print and attempts to make the language again an event not based simply on visual perception and passivity. This new orality has striking resemblances to the old in its participatory mystique, its fostering of a communal sense, its concentration on the present moment, and even its use of formulas.[55]

Similarly, multicentrism emphasizes the idea of human beings becoming again a part of the community and returning from their individualistic and anthropocentric isolation.

Finally, hypertext and multicentrism exceed their original fields and might have serious social, economic, and political consequences. As any other concept or medium, they enter “a network of technical, social, and economic contexts.”[56]Landow points out that “[t]he appearance of any new information technology like hypertext provides conditions for major societal change, though any change, such as the democratizing effects of writing, which took millennia, can take a very long time to occur.”[57]

The potential societal changes that multicentrism might cause are hard to predict. Multicentrism values discussion more than definite answers and this openness suggests that the democratization implied in hypertext should be taken to another level: across the boundary of species, or the land, to an “ecological democracy.”[58]Multicentrism seems to almost be the embodiment of Ong’s secondary orality, inviting the human back into the community, making communication an event which is based on reciprocity and not imposition, enhancing the multiple levels of meaning rejected with the adoption and acceptance of the linear perspective, only extending Ong’s concept beyond the human.

While Bolter and Grusin suggest that virtual reality might serve the ability to imagine various points of view different from ours, insofar as it might “enable us to occupy the position, and therefore the point of view, of people or creatures different from ourselves,”[59] the question is to what extent this idea is achievable. Without the dialogue between and openness towards different perspectives, we might tend to simply anthropomorphize other species, as is often the case in their cultural representations. The creation of an avatar of a different species does not automatically create their perspective. “We are bound to misinterpret nature if we start with the assumption that her methods are all like our methods.”[60]Idealization of nature “as a separate, beatific entity that must be preserved at all costs”[61] is not a functional perspective, since it leads to evaluating other forms of life on the basis of their aesthetic quality, which is, again, anthropocentric.

Considering that the two concepts of hypertext and multicentrism derive from completely different fields, they show many similarities in their structure, functions, and possible impact on social, economic, and political contexts. They share an enhancement of plurality and multiplicity, decentralization, and emphasis on the active role of the humans in the context either of a text or of a natural environment, as well as the potential to shift human thinking from isolated individualism towards the direction of understanding humankind as a member of a community based in communication and dialogue. This openness of the experience is probably the most important point of intersection of both theories. 

Hypertext is sometimes perceived as a threat to literature, to the existing thought paradigm. However, environmental ethics shows that the change in our perception is inevitable, if we are ever to change our ways towards the world around us. Technology and environmental ethics seem to be reaching a similar goal this time: to challenge the established order, to challenge humankind as the norm, and to displace its position as the only centre of reference.

This essay was first published in Speculative Ecologies: Plotting Through the Mesh (Litteraria Pragensia Books, 2019).

[1] Alasdair Cochrane, “Environmental Ethics,” Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy, accessed 12 February 2019<>.

[2] Anthony Weston, The Incompleat Eco-Philosopher: Essays from the Edges of Environmental Ethics (State University of New York Press, 2009)163.

[3] Timothy Clark, Ecocriticism on the Edge: The Anthropocene as a Threshold Concept, (Bloomsbury Publishing Plc, 2015).

[4] Clark 31

[5] Jay Davis Bolter and Richard Grusin, Remediation: Understanding New Media (MIT Press, 2000) 72.

[6] Bolter and Grusin 23-24

[7] Bolter and Grusin 25

[8] Marshall McLuhan, Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man (MIT Press, 1994) 188.

[9] Vilém Flusser, Towards a Philosophy of Photography (Reaktion Books, 2006) 9.

[10] Vilém Flusser, Towards a Philosophy of Photography, 8 and 23-24

[11] Vilém Flusser, Into the Universe of Technical Images (University of Minnesota Press, 2001) 53.

[12] Alison Byerly, “The Uses of Landscape: The Picturesque Aesthetic and the National Park System,” The Ecocriticism Reader: Landmarks in Literary Ecology, eds. Cheryll Glotfelty and Harold Fromm (The University of Georgia Press, 1996) 63.

[13] Clark 30

[14] Finis Dunaway, “Gas Masks, Pogo, and the Ecological Indian: Earth day and the Visual Politics of American Environmentalism,” American Quarterly (vol. 60, no. 1, 2008) 67.

[15] Ronald E. Purser, Changkil Park and Alfonso Montuori. “Limits to Anthropocentrism: Toward an Ecocentric Organization Paradigm?” The Academy of Management Review (vol. 20, no. 4, 1995) 1080.

[16] Purser, Park, and Montuori 1055-6

[17] Lawrence Buell, The Future of Environmental Criticism (Blackwell Publishing, 2005) 134.

[18] Buell, The Future of Environmental Criticism 134

[19] Lynn White Jr., “The Historical Roots of our Environmental Crisis,” The Ecocriticism Reader: Landmarks in Literary Ecology, eds. Cheryll Glotfelty and Harold Fromm (The University of Georgia Press, 1996) 10.

[20] White 4

[21] Weston 65

[22] Cochrane

[23] Cochrane

[24] Lawrence Buell, Writing for an Endangered World: Literature, Culture, and Environment in the U. S. and Beyond (Harvard University Press, 2003) 226.

[25] Weston 23

[26] Weston 24-25

[27] Aldo Leopold, Sand County Almanac and Sketches Here and There (Oxford University Press, 1989) 132.

[28] Roderick Nash, Wilderness and the American Mind, revised edition (Yale University Press, 1979) 192.

[29] Walter J. Ong, Orality and Literacy: The Technologizing of the Word (Routledge, 2002) 99.

[30] Ong 81

[31] McLuhan, Understanding Media 7

[32] Theodor Nelson, “Chapter Zero,” Literary Machines (Mindful Press, 1987) 0/2.

[33] Bolter and Grusin 53

[34] Landow refers to Jacques Derrida, Roland Barthes, Theodor Nelson, and Andries van Dam.

[35] George P. Landow, Hypertext 3.0: Critical Theory and New Median in an Era of Globalization (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2006) 1.

[36] “Multicentrism: A Manifesto” was first published in 2004.

[37] Weston 93

[38] “The view that all organisms, including humans, are part of a larger biotic web or network or community whose interests must constrain or direct or govern the human interest” (Buell, The Future 134).

[39] “The view in environmental ethics that the interest of the ecosphere must override that of the interest of individual species” (Buell, The Future 137).

[40] Weston 92

[41] Weston 90

[42] Purser, Park, and Montuori 1069

[43] Weston 91

[44] Landow 1

[45] Landow 343

[46] Landow 345

[47] Weston 89

[48] Patterson 77

[49] Weston 92

[50] Marshall McLuhan, The Gutenberg Galaxy (University of Toronto Press, 1962) 118.

[51]Landow 56

[52]Patterson 77

[53] Purser, Park, and Montuori 1060

[54] Landow 109-10

[55] Ong 133-4

[56] Bolter and Grusin 65

[57] Landow 29

[58] Purser, Park, and Montuori 1080

[59] Bolter and Grusin 245

[60] Buell, The Environmental Imagination 190

[61] Purser, Park, and Montuori 1058

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