It seems a reality of modern life that we all carry with us a variety of electronic media that pull and tug on us everywhere we go–smart phones, tablets, smart watches and Google glass.
Most of us use this technology, understand that our lives have been changed because of it, and would not want to turn back the clock to a time when we were not so digitally connected. Yet, we also know there are downsides–these devices represent incredible time sinksand serve to create gulfs between ourselves and the spaces and environments in which we live. Moreover, there is the special concern about the impact on kids and the high (and ever-rising, it seems) amount of time spent with these modern media, perhaps to the exclusion of time spent just playing, exploring, and daydreaming.
The trick moving forward is how to harness these technologies in ways that foster connections with, and experiences of, nature; and how to facilitate deeper knowledge about, relationship with and ultimately caring for the natural world. Sue Thomas, author of the book Technobiophilia is an unabashed supporter of these modern technologies (see the accompanying story from a recent interview). She notes the many ways in which the internet and cyberspace reference the qualities of nature–think of the “cloud”, the imagery of social media like Twitter (and tweets), the sense of vastness that applies to natural and cyberspace alike. And she describes many ways in which the cyber world might enhance and extend our nature experiences–from screen savers (ultimate “nearby nature,” she argues), to biophilic keyboards, to cyber parks that blend the digital and the natural. And she is clear in her message that virtual experiences of nature do not replace the need to experience real nature.
The 21st century city may be a place that by necessity blends in creative ways digital nature and real nature. Virtual windows in hospital clinics, complete with sounds of birds recorded in nearby parks, while not quite the real thing, is nonetheless beneficial. The Fairmont hotel in Chicago has a large digital screen visible to those walking along the street, displaying scenes of waterfalls and hummingbirds feeding at nectaring flowers. It is obviously not actual nature, but it is uplifting to see and enjoyable to experience. Various forms of digital nature can be delivered to many interior spaces where there may be little but a cubicle and a bare set of walls. Watching nature in real time is also a possibility, of course. One recent example I happened to stumble upon is Georgia O’Keeffe’s beautiful vegetable garden at her beloved home in Abiqui, New Mexico–if you have the time and inclination you can watch this garden being tended throughout the day here.
We also know that many thousands enjoy watching animals and wildlife online in real time, whether through one of the many Peregrine Falcon cams or the Giant Panda cam at the Washington National Zoo, which has been immensely popular. One of my favorite examples is the Bearcam that broadcasts real time images of the brown bears fishing at Brooks Falls in Katmai National Park in Alaska. Some 16 million viewers have watched these bears and many viewers know and can recognize individual bears! There is a single feed but images are taken from nine different cameras including even an underwater camera (offering the perspective of the Salmon being fished).
I am especially hopeful about the ability of digital technologies to help to overcome distance–emotional and physical. With this summer’s spat of shark attacks, these majestic predators are especially in need of efforts to develop emotional ties. Here the work of the non-profit OCEARCH is extremely helpful. OCEARCH has been been tagging and tracking a number of sharks, and sharing their real time location and movements through the app Global Shark Tracker.
The public interest has been heartening. There is the celebrity great white shark known as Mary Lee, with thousands of people following her on Twitter and other forms of social media, as reported in stories in the Boston Globe and The Washington Post. It is of course partly the step of giving these sharks names (in additional to Mary Lee, there is a Mako Shark by the name of Cate Ells, and a Tiger Shark named Jamie, among others that have been tagged), but it is the technology of being able to follow their movements in real time, to understand their ocean travels and to “see them” in an otherwise invisible, distant realm, that adds an important personal element.
There is a first grade class at Highlands Elementary School in Highlands, New Jersey, has been following closely the movements of Mary Lee. They using the shark to study science, and following her daily travels (and she has traveled a lot in deed–more than 20,000 miles since being tagged in 2012!). As they have studied and learned more about sharks (and even made a 16-foot drawing of her which adorns their classroom wall) there is interest, and caring. Something that was abstract and scary to young students (a great white shark) becomes a creature of fascination and affection. In a recent news story, the class’s teacher, Colleen Acerra, reports on some of the not surprising feelings the students have developed. “They love her,” she is quoted as saying in an news story (in the Asbury Park Press) by reporter Todd Bates. “They love tracking her. They love learning about her and they’re wondering if she’s pregnant…”
And there are also important ways in which digital technologies can engage individuals and families in citizen science initiatives of various kinds. The University of Wisconsin Canid Project is one such example, enlisting the help, especially through Facebook, of citizens in Madison in better understanding coyotes and foxes there (asking them to, among other things, to collect scat!). Such efforts will surely serve to enhance connections and commitments to local nature, and will yield data and information that will help to better understand the biology and conservation needs of these species.
And there is no doubt that the internet delivers an unparalleled (and speedy) access to knowledge of nature of all sorts. Wherever one is at any particular time access to the internet can potentially help to identify, learn about and deepen awareness of the flora and fauna around one. Even without new nature apps like Bugs in the Garden, or eButterfly, simple google searches can almost immediately help to identify what kind of bird or tree of cloud you are looking at. This happens to me several times on a recent trip to Arizona. One day I encountered a remarkably beautiful desert snake and with a few keywords (like: black and orange rings, snakes, southwest), a Google search delivered its species name, and scores of sites with more information about its biology (the species was a common, but spectacular, Sonoran groundsnake, Sonora semiannulata).
Of course, a field guide of the more traditional sort would also have worked, and without the temptation to check email. But there is no doubt that digital technologies hold at least the potential to foster nature connections and connectedness. There are clearly promising and important ways in which augmented reality and new apps can be used to enhance and enrich the very real nature experiences we have.
And there are ways, of course, that we can extract beneficial aspects of digital technology while also moderating its power over of lives and its ability to disconnect and distract. There are apps for this as well–ones like StayFocused or TimeOut, that apply self-imposed limits on the time we spend serving the web, and that can remind us that it is time to take a break and take a walk outside, as well as apps that will make it easier to locate parks, greenspaces and nature in cities where we live (apps like Nature Passport).
All to say that while we must be cautious and careful about the distractions of cyberspace, it can be harnessed on behalf of nature. And indeed it offers an increasingly important suite of tools for urbanites–to help to connect them to the natural systems and life both around the corner and around the world. We can look forward to the promise and potential of technobiophilic cities, that at once commit to restoring and enjoying actual nature, but acknowledge the realities of life in cities (much of it inside, and behind a screen), and the powerful ways in which our digital technologies could underpin and help to reinforce our nature-ful commitments and experiences and our biophilic tendencies.