Have you ever wondered why so many technological terms are named after nature, such as the cloud, or why many of us have wallpapers and screensavers of beautiful natural wonders and landscapes? Could there be biophilic traits to this ever-growing technological world? When you ask Sue Thomas, author of Technobiophilia: Nature and Cyberspace, to define the meaning of the title of her book, she explains, “biophilia is the innate attraction to life and lifelike processes. We have also have an innate attraction to life and lifelike processes through technology. Combine biophilia with our love of technology and you arrive at technobiophilia.” While much of popular media presents our love of technology in a negative light and discusses the need for “technology vacations” and “digital detoxes,” Thomas is much more optimistic about how this love of technology can be used to promote nature and connect with it in new and different ways.

Popular cartoon depicting the overuse of smartphones Source: https://twitter.com/kronosgf/

Technobiophilia and the City

But how might technobiophilia be applied to cities? Thomas mentions Escale Numérique, the high-speed wifi installation in Paris which allows passers-by to benefit from a high-speed WiFi connection just as the Wallace fountains provided free drinking water in the city a hundred years ago. But such examples are rare. The CyberParks Network, of which Thomas is a member, is funded by the EU to research the relationship between ICT and the production and use of public open spaces. She is enthusiastic about the concept, stating “This is very much integrating the living environment with the technological environment. We’re working towards creating real technobiophilic cities.”

The National Trust in the United Kingdom is concerned about young people not engaging with parks, so they have been steadily researching and funding projects that aim to get them outside and using natural areas. They are thinking that an effective strategy is by using technology.

The Future of Technology and Biophilia

Could there be a point where we go too far? Where nature is replaced by technology? Thomas believes the popular press is anxious to find negative stories about this. In 2014, for example, the media got excited around a story about how pollution in Beijing had become so dense that the sunrise had to be televised on a giant screen in Tiananmen Square. Local people, starved of natural light, were said to be flocking to watch it. In fact it was simply ten seconds of a much longer advertisement for tourism in Shandong Province which ran all year round.

Tiananmen Square during January 2014

Thomas is careful to say that technobiophilia is important, but that we shouldn’t sentimentalize it as the “nature fakers” did in the 19th century. “ Technology can help us access nature that may be too difficult to reach or is better left without human intervention, she says, but “we don’t want to be satisfied with a virtual bird.”

There is much work to be done in this area, but Thomas is encouraged by the energy and enthusiasm she has encountered. She says, “I’m very optimistic. I’m passionate about the benefits the digital age has brought to us. As we look ahead to the future, this melding and merging of nature and technology will only continue and become more and more complex. At the moment, we are at an interim stage. Not so long ago, for example, the vast majority of people in the West were illiterate, and there was a lot of suspicion around written communications. But today we take it for granted that almost everyone can read and write. Today we are in a similar position with the internet. There are people who are totally wired and those that aren’t. But this is changing very fast and it will touch every part of our lives.” As we look ahead, we can be mindful of how technology can be used to strengthen our connections with the natural world and innovate in ways that are not even imaginable today.

To learn more about Technobiophilia, view a recent Biophilic Cities webinar featuring Sue Thomas.

About Sue Thomas:

Thomas has been writing about computers and the internet since the late 1980s. She fell into cyberspace in 1995 when I discovered the virtual world of LambdaMOO and was inspired to found the trAce Online Writing Centre, an early global online community which ran for ten years. She has since written about digital life, lived it, and helped many others to join the wired world.

Thomas is interested in answering questions, such as, “Where are we headed? What should we be doing to ensure that our digital lives are healthy, mindful and productive? How can all of us – children, adults, seniors – take practical steps to make that happen?”

She has written books including ‘Technobiophilia: nature and cyberspace (2013), Hello World: travels in virtuality (2004), a travelogue/memoir of life online, and Correspondence (1992), short-listed for the Arthur C. Clarke Award for Best Science Fiction Novel.

From 2005-2013, she was a Professor of New Media in the Institute of Creative Technologies at De Montfort University, England, where she founded the field of transliteracy research, a unifying concept of literacy for before, during and after the digital age, and ran innovative projects like Amplified Leicester and the Transdisciplinary Common Room. She has received funding from Arts Council England, the Arts and Humanities Research Board, the British Academy, the British Council, the EU, the Higher Education Innovation Fund, the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, NESTA and many others. Some of Thomas’ early websites have been archived in The British Library Special Collection, E-publishing Trends, including Sue Thomas (2010, 2011, 2012, 2013), Writing and the Digital Life (2007), and of course trAce (2005, 2008). You can also find many ancient pages of trAce (1998 onwards) at The Wayback Machine, and the main trAce Archive at Nottingham Trent University.