My book ‘Technobiophilia: nature and cyberspace’ was first published two years ago this week, on 26 September 2013. Here are a few notes on what has happened since.
I define technobiophilia as “the innate attraction to life and lifelike processes as they appear in technology”. (more)
When I started writing the book ten years ago, my focus was on the interestingly persistent appearance of many kinds of nature metaphors in cyberspace. I’d no idea that the research would take me on a surprising and complicated journey which led, not to a tidy conclusion, but to more questions.
By the time I got to the final chapter, I had left the history of technology far behind and was musing instead on dreams of past, present and future. I was inspired by the words of Barry Lopez when he stood at the tip of Saint Lawrence Island and reflected on his expedition to Canadian Far North. He wrote ‘To bring what is actual together with what is dreamed is an expression of human evolution’.
I had reached, not the Far North, but regions where nature and the virtual were beginning to merge together. So I added my own thoughts to his: “As I scratch away at the synergies between nature and cyberspace, I wonder whether our attempts to leave the body behind have re-wakened the biophilic impulse lying deep within our ancestral memories, and in doing so taken us closer to bringing together what is actual with what is dreamed.”
The book ended on a beach on the south coast of England, a long way from the Midlands city of Leicester where it had begun. Writing it changed my life when I finally realised that “over and over again, cyberspace brings us back to the physical”. And if this is the case, how do we live in this new digital world? How do we find a tech/nature balance?
The concluding idea of Technobiophilia, that nature and technology are already deeply interwoven in the world and moving fast towards an even closer synergy, has resonated with many people. Through them, I’m learning where technobiophilia can take us, indeed *is* taking us: in terms of design, in matters of the environment, in the challenge of living well in the digital age, and in all kinds of thinking about art, design, and the social sciences.
Here are just some of the areas which have been touched by technobiophilia in the last two years:
Design and innovation From students in London, Birmingham, and Aarhus, Denmark, to hackers in Brazil, the book has inspired creative thinking around the growing area of technobiophilic design. In 2014 I was even asked to write a set of technobiophilic design challenges for a Hackathon in Rio de Janeiro, a competition which generated some fascinating ideas.
The future of cities In 2015 The Biophilic Cities Network at the University of Virginia took up the baton with a focus on Technobiophilic Cities, and this November I’ll be discussing them at the Festival of the Future City in Bristol. This is also a hot topic at the EU Cyberparks Network where we’re looking at the relationship between ICT and the production of public open spaces.
Environmentalism Last year Orion, the leading American magazine of nature, culture and place, published my piece ‘Another Ocean’, about the internet and the sea, and this month they’re running my list of ’10 Words technology borrowed from nature’. The National Trust is also interested in technobiophilia and in 2014 ran my piece on how to “use screentime to get more wildtime”. They commissioned another article, this time on working with kids and technology in the wild, not yet published. And in 2014 Aeon magazine featured my article “Technobiophilia: We surf the net, stream our films and save stuff in the cloud. Can we get all the nature we need from the digital world?”
Health & Wellbeing Last year The Conversation invited me to write a column on Wired Well-being, a great chance to explore the ever-increasing number of projects, hardware and software which help enhance our digital lives. And early in 2015 I gave a talk at Dorset Hospital at the launch of their innovative Biophilia Channel which projects live video feeds of beautiful locations and specially commissioned artworks into leukaemia isolation wards. I also wrote about wearables and apps. For more about the research behind these projects see my Slate article Gazing at Virtual Nature Is Good for Your Psychological Well-Being.
The Digital Humanities Technobiophilia is relevant to the Digital Humanities in many ways. I’ve talked about it in the USA at the University of California Santa Barbara and at SUNY Saratoga; on the radio for BBC’s ‘Click’ and ABC’s ‘The List’ in Australia; at Bournemouth’s Cafe Scientifique, at Brunel University’s Joint Researching the Arts/Social Sciences Conference; to artists in Stroud; at The British Library; at the Universities of Leicester, Bournemouth and Hull. I’ve written a chapter on Next Nature in ‘The Journal of Professional Communication’ and on Storying Cyberspace: Narratives and Metaphors in the book ‘Real Lives, Celebrity Stories’.
So the response to Technobiophilia was to generate even more ideas. And the ideas led to even more questions. How can we learn to live well in this wired world? Can we stay close to nature without giving up our phones and tablets? What does the future hold?
I’m working on a new book, this time for an audience much wider than academia. It tells the stories of people for whom technobiophilia forms part of a lifestyle for reasons of health, environmentalism, design or just personal choice. It follows my own personal journey too. If you have such a story to tell, I’d love to hear it. Please get in touch.
And thanks so much for following this far. There’s a lot more to come.
“A useful lens for seeing where we are, who we are, and where humans, our digital creations, and the natural world are heading.” (Howard Rheingold)
“The book is about a powerful subliminal urge by our entire species to hang onto our connection to the natural world, as we are pulled deeper into the digital age.” (George Davis, Psychology Today)