by Dr. Jeni Henrickson, DLINQ Instructional Designer

“Just as you can pick out the voice of a loved one in the tumult of a noisy room, or spot your child’s smile in a sea of faces, intimate connection allows recognition in an all-too-often anonymous world. This sense of connection arises from a special kind of discrimination, a search image that comes from a long time spent looking and listening. Intimacy gives us a different way of seeing, when visual acuity is not enough.” ― Robin Wall Kimmerer, Gathering Moss: A Natural and Cultural History of Mosses

I’ve been reflecting a lot lately on how technology shapes and influences our behaviors, engagement with, and perceptions of nature. I recently finished reading Robin Wall Kimmerer’s incredibly thought-provoking Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge and the Teachings of Plants, a book I highly recommend, and it sent my mind traveling down this tech-nature path. While Kimmerer’s focus is not on technology, rather on humanity’s fundamental relationship with nature, attitudes toward it, and perceptions of it, her insights got me thinking a lot about how our current technologies mediate and influence those relationships, attitudes, and perceptions.

As a longtime outdoor enthusiast and photographer who enjoys time in remote nature, and as someone who feels intimacy in wilderness, I’ve noticed some tensions in my own nature interactions in recent years – a sometimes impatience and a pull away from the present moment, a tug to check my phone, a nudge that I’m dawdling too much, a restlessness that I should be elsewhere. Some of this is a reflection of me not giving myself the permission to slow down and be present in the moment, but it is also a reflection of our tech-centric world that has allowed us to be connected to both the local and the “far-away” at all times. Tech demands our attention in ways that are unhealthy and that sometimes distract us from intimately connecting with our immediate surroundings.

Mobile phones, GPS, internet access, and other technologies, while undeniably beneficial, have altered both our perception of and our engagement with nature. Technology can place a wall between us, as humans, and the rest of nature. It minimizes our reliance on our own observation skills, senses, and ingenuity, and provides a false sense of sanitization and safety, as we become simply “tourists” in nature (with selfie culture as one example of this), rather than a living organism that is a connected part of that nature. As we “tour” from place to place, we lose that intimate connection to, historical understanding of, and sense of wonder about, the places around us and the multitude of living beings that inhabit the spaces we live in and visit.

We also often enter into nature these days with a preconceived notion of what to expect there, given the readiness of online information and data, which we are often encouraged to explore prior to going on a hike or visiting a new park, for example. As Bill Borrie, a professor of park and recreation management at the University of Montana, notes in Emily Sohn’s article What Does Technology Do to Our Relationship with the Environment?: “‘Being told what you should pay attention to and how you should pay attention to nature takes away from the mystery and the sense of discovery…,’” adding “there is value to experiencing the unpredictability and even discomfort of wild places.”

Even scientists whose research is centered on nature bemoan the amount of time they spend in front of a computer these days, engaging with data and doing modeling, rather than on their feet in the field. This phenomenon is sometimes referred to as “keyboard ecology,” as Jordan Fisher Smith observes in his article How Technology Affects Our Relationship With Nature. Fisher Smith reflects, “What may be at risk is not only the nature of information, but human ability itself,” as humans rely on technology to do basic tasks for them, like navigation, that we used to be able to do by relying on our senses and our patient observation of nature.

Research has shown that the internet and digital technologies are shortening our attention spans and memory retention skills, and altering our decision-making and relationship-building skills, among others. Meanwhile, research on the benefits of spending time in nature (away from tech) have shown the opposite, highlighting benefits such as improved psychological wellbeing, memory function, and relationship-building skills. Richard Louv’s work, ranging from his book Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children from Nature-Deficit Disorder, to short posts like Ten Reasons Why We Need More Contact with Nature, spotlights such research.

Questions have arisen whether virtual time in nature is equally beneficial to real-life engagement with nature. For example, does spending time in a virtual 3-D natural environment convey benefits akin to a walk in a real forest? University of Washington psychology professor Peter Kahn, who researches these types of questions, says they are not the same, that “People need to interact with actual nature. The solution is not just talking more about nature or creating videos of nature or other forms of technological nature. No, the solution is ever-deepening our interactions with nature and having more wild nature to interact with” (from Technology Is Changing Our Relationship with Nature as We Know It by Andrienne Matei). Matei notes that while virtual time in nature has shown some benefits, such as lowering anxiety and promoting relaxation and joy, “there is a limit to the extent technological representations of nature can provide the soothing, restorative, creativity-enhancing benefits of a walk in the real woods.”

As we lose a connection to and intimate awareness of the real nature around us, we lose the historical reality of that environment as well, along with an understanding of what is healthy there. Kahn refers to this as environmental amnesia. In Matei’s article, he warns: “All of us construct a conception of what is environmentally normal based on the natural world we encounter in our childhood. With each ensuing generation, the amount of environmental degradation increases, but each generation tends to take that degraded condition as the normal experience. This is what I have been calling ‘environmental generational amnesia.’ It helps explain how cities continue to lose nature, and why people don’t really see it happening—and to the extent they do, they don’t think it’s too much of a problem.”

While there are certainly many ways that technology has benefited our understanding of nature, and it also allows us to celebrate and showcase nature’s beauty and wonder, we need to be cautious about turning to technology too often to “save” or interpret or engage with nature. This, it seems to me, can only come about by taking time away from tech while in nature, accepting individual and corporate responsibility to change our behaviors that damage the Earth, understanding our intimate connection to all living things, and doing away with a culture that pushes constant consumption and the commodification of everything, along with a “dispose and replace” mentality.

In the words of Robin Wall Kimmerer: “How, in our modern world, can we find our way to understand the earth as a gift again, to make our relations with the world sacred again? I know we cannot all become hunter-gatherers – the living world could not bear our weight – but even in a market economy, can we behave ‘as if’ the living world were a gift?”

Take Action

  • Allow yourself to spend time in nature with all tech shut off and stored away. Resist temptations to do a quick email or text check, or to immediately start snapping photos.
  • When you come across a new plant or animal or natural phenomenon, resist the urge to immediately look it up on the internet. Make note of its unique features. Spend some time (safely) observing it. Imagine where it might have originated and what powers it might hold.
  • Play observation games with others when you’re out on a walk. This isn’t just a game for kids 🙂 Try to find something blue, something out of place, something furry, the most unusual feature on the trees around you, etc. Build your observation skills, including smells and sounds, along with sights.
  • Help others who may have limited mobility or access to nature, get outdoors and enjoy nature.
  • Volunteer for a nature-based local organization and educate yourself about the nature found in your local community.
  • Spend a few minutes each day observing small changes in the nature around you, whether that’s a houseplant you’re nurturing, a backyard or community garden, or a waterside or wooded park near your home or work.

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