Digital well-being and nature
Is the time you spend online very different from when you’re out in nature taking a walk, working in the garden, or wandering by the seashore? Your first answer might be yes, but my research shows that these activities are surprisingly closer than you may think. And in the future, as your digital existence becomes increasingly merged with your physical life, there will be fewer and fewer distinctions between them. Cyberspace has connected us to each other and now it’s increasingly connecting us back to the natural world too. The reason lies in biophilia, an attraction to life and life-like processes which some believe has been deeply embedded in human DNA since evolution began. There is evidence that biophilia has influenced our engagement with digital space to the extent that when we first explored the strange abstract world of the internet, seemingly empty of life, we gave it names drawn from a world we’re more familiar with – nature. Just look at the language we use there: worms, viruses, streams, surfing are only a few of the nature metaphors we use on the web. I call this phenomenon ‘technobiophilia’, and I’ve built upon the original definition by biologist E.O Wilson to define it as ‘the innate tendency to focus on life and lifelike processes as they appear in technology’. I’m interested in ways we might use it to soothe our connected lives.
In recent years quite a few people have started thinking seriously about phenomena which at the moment happen largely unconsciously. When, in 2010, I interviewed Kevin Kelly, the legendary founding editor of Wired magazine, he told me that “Just as we go into a redwood grove and get that cathedral-like feeling, I think that as the Internet continues to complexify and become larger, it will also become a spiritual place where people will retreat to feel something bigger than themselves.” Koert van Mensvoort, Director of the Netherlands-based Next Nature Network, draws attention to the many ways in which nature and technology merge together now and in scenarios of the future. Rachel Armstrong, writing on the FutureFest blog, notes that “over the last 30 years the biotechnology revolution has collapsed the technology/Nature dichotomy” and singer Bjork’s Biophilia music project has plugged into our growing desire to merge nature and technology. Even James Cameron’s film Avatar taps into a deep nerve of biophilic longing.
In my new book ‘Technobiophilia: nature and cyberspace’, published just before FutureFest, I have synthesised the history of digital culture with research in environmental psychology to discover ways to harness our technobiophilic instincts. How can we apply them in the wired world in order to live well both now and in the future? I’ve devised some practical experiments which might prepare us for a future environment in which nature is increasingly merged with the digital. To begin with, you might want to audit your own levels of technobiophilia. How do you merge nature and technology in your own life? For example, do you use nature images on your desktop and screensavers? Are you compelled to share photos of every glorious sunset you encounter? Have you been tempted to replace your plastic keyboard and mouse with hardware made of wood? Do you like to take your laptop or tablet outside and work in the pleasant surroundings of a garden? Do you play Farmville on Facebook or create your own landscapes in Second Life? If yes, you are already embracing technobiophilia. Relax and enjoy it!
First published on the Nesta FutureFest blog 19/9/2013