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Feature - Issue #10

Nature in the Digital Age

Words by Kalpana Arias
Illustrations by Le.BLUE

Modern technology promises to bring us closer to each other and to nature, but is this an illusion?

“Technology for the modern world, we would even include Indigenous people, is important for the evolution of human beings. But while on one hand it’s provided us with many solutions, it is also creating many problems,” says Indigenous leader and activist Uyunkar Domingo Peas Nampichkai, who is from the Achuar nation of the Ecuadorian Amazon.

We are living in an age of unprecedented urban and technological growth. According to UN figures, by 2050 urban populations are expected to increase from 55% to 68%, with an additional 2.5 billion people residing in urban areas. As the world continues to urbanise, sustainable and ecological urban development will depend on our ability to restore our connection to the land around us - working with nature rather than against it.

But while cities are restructuring our lived environments, they are not made of static, grey, inert material - their capacity to build and rebuild is evidence of their living, malleable qualities, which are constantly changing and learning. The cities of the future have within them the ability to create just and equitable futures that are guided by human-nature relationships.

Our modern technology has engineered the physical world and the human experience, often sustaining the extractive and exploitative systems on which current urban models are based. Today’s cities are on the frontlines of sustainable development: UN figures show they occupy just 3% of the land, but account for 60-80% of the world’s energy consumption and 75% of carbon emissions.

The momentum of our technological progress is driving the trajectory of our evolution towards an uninhabitable future. By offloading our innovation onto technological processes focused on convenience and exploitation, we have fabricated an anthropocentric identity predicated on the fantasy that humans can exist without nature. And yet we see a growing response to and increasing social awareness of our need for contact with nature for both individual and planetary wellness. The transition to becoming more human-nature-centred will be critical in addressing the effects of the climate crisis and social injustices.

US tech entrepreneur Alex Wolf says: “What I use as a metric for defining the validity of a particular technology for humanity is through how much meaning it provides. The idea that ‘it’s not the fact that social media is bad, it’s that people are using and weaponising it’, completely ignores the implication that design has.

“For example, If you go to the [US subsidised housing] projects, you can see very clearly that it’s not only about the people. When specific environments are created, they will influence behaviour more than any type of rules or moral enforcement. That’s what’s important to take into consideration when we evaluate current technologies because I feel like we try to cover [up] how severe the changes that are happening are. The reality is we are removing ourselves from nature.”

Current technological trends are distancing our interactions with nature without considering whether this benefits our existence on Earth. Studies show the importance of nature connection for individual and planetary wellbeing. Research by Mind, a UK mental health charity, found that ecotherapy can raise levels of mental wellbeing, enhance social inclusion, and help the development of healthier lifestyles and environmentally friendly living.

In urban spaces, access to nature is often defined by socioeconomic background, revealing an uneven distribution of resources. To receive the benefits of contact with the natural world we need to connect with wild places, which can include pockets of plant and animal life found in urbanised areas. Our future cities must be fair and green, and everyone should have access to local wild places. “We’re not on top of the world, we are in relation with it,” says Peter Khan, a professor in the Department of Psychology and director of the Human Interaction With Nature and Technological Systems Lab at the University of Washington. “After all, it’s wildness that will sustain us, not wilderness.”

How can we reverse the effects of urban-industrial modernity that continue to engineer monocultures and will ultimately lead to a sterile planet, devoid of wildness? “There are a range of solutions but the most critical [of these] is interaction with nature, contact with forms of nature that are slightly more wild than [those] within your scope,” says Khan. “If we lose interaction with nature, we’ll lose nature [itself] because we’ll lose not only will, we’ll lose forms of interaction, and we’ll lose the skills to be able to interact with nature.”

Wolf believes that our environments change behaviours faster than good ideas, so if we want to create ecological behaviours that transform our cities we need to start with their design. “When you’re in a position, as an educator, urban designer, or planner, you can take the pattern and make it slightly wilder. In the end, that’s the solution we need, [more] wild places,” she says.

‘The idea that ‘it’s not the fact that social media is bad, it’s that people are using and weaponising it’, completely ignores the implication that design has.’

— US tech entrepreneur Alex Wolf

We need to go back to the way that our ancestors treated their relationship with the environment, believes digital security influencer and founder of the Cyber Collective, Tazin Khan Norelius: “There is an element of presence in their interaction that has been removed because our current culture is about moving forward at pace and scale. The answer is in our elders and in children, and asking their perspective.

“I think a lot of people, in a very egocentric way, believe that their idea is the best idea, and it can impact society in the best way, but because of the lack of lived experiences or exposure to diverse narratives of lived experiences, we think what we are creating is broad, but it’s actually very narrow. So the individuals who have the power to create these apps and convenience technologies have not realised the bias and the unintended harm in consequences of their technology to the scope outside of the microcosm that they know.”

And while our technology is increasing in complexity and capacity, its approach creates a homogeneity and uniformity that fundamentally counters the natural complexity of ecosystems, widening the gap between humans and the natural world, says Wolf. “We keep creating technology so quickly and thoughtlessly [because] we need vehicles to drive capitalism further. Part of its creation is to keep this system going.” She adds. “Then there’s another perspective that comes up when you get into the mindset of your stereotypical visionary ‘tech bro’ who wants to put a ‘dent in the universe’ [as Steve Jobs once said]. I love Steve Jobs, but why would I want to put a dent in the universe when the universe is whole? With that Silicon Valley kind of optimism, [nature] is an unfinished canvas. Of course, if you have that perspective, you’re going to keep building on top of it.”

With this exponential growth in technology, it’s hard to notice the changes in our surroundings due to the shifting baseline in our environments, making it harder to qualify what is natural or normal. “This is happening on urban-rural frontiers, but [what] troubles me more is the generational shift because when children are born, they come of age in a new world and they’re constructing knowledge through what they interact with, which is already a huge environmental loss,” says Khan. “We are all subject to this generational environmental amnesia. It’s a universal, psychological phenomenon, and it’s problematic because [in the future] we won’t have the experience to understand what a healthy landscape is.”

‘If we lose interaction with nature, we’ll lose nature [itself] because we’ll lose not only will, we’ll lose forms of interaction, and we’ll losethe skills to be able to interact with nature.’

— Professor Peter Khan

Some urbanites have turned to digital representations of the natural world, but can this really replace a genuine contact with nature? “We have technological mediations, augmentations, or simulations of nature [which can provide some benefits], but usually, things get lost,” thinks Khan. “That’s tied to the shifting baseline because as they’re lost, we don’t have the actual to compare it to, and then we’re only recognising the gains that technology gives because our benchmark is gone. That’s a huge loss. That’s extinction. We talk about the extinction of species, well this is the extinction of experience, the extinction of interaction.

“The large concern that I have is that humans are nature too and our human-human interactions are a beautiful part of who we are. If we recognise people as a part of our environment, and look at the way children are growing up now increasingly with social media, which is still display orientated, our culture is evolving into the metaverse, a virtual world, while also becoming more embodied in the social world. We’re not only losing our human-nature relationships, we’re losing our human-human interactions. Our response is that we can adapt, we’re an adaptive species. But the question really becomes can we flourish? Who are we as a species? What are we capable of experiencing? I don’t think technological nature will meet that benchmark. It will be able to bring some benefits but we’ll lose more, we’ll lose a language and the experience of interaction.”

Uyunkar Domingo Peas Nampichkai agrees. “There’s even a level of contamination happening psychologically among young people, creating a culture of distraction. Children are forgetting how to have direct dialogues, it is not the same interaction we used to have with our fathers and mothers, so knowledge gets lost. If we don’t ground ourselves and [instead] continue to misuse technology, this system will destroy our homes, families, and children.

“We have to have regulations or else something very destructive will happen to our relationships with each other and nature. Nature doesn’t need to make a transition because it is us who need her. We have all of these technological products like computers or cell phones, that are being created, not for the service of humanity, but for business.

“To take care of the Earth, we have to ask ourselves how [technology] should exist in relationship to nature. In our culture, our technology is traditional ecological knowledge that we use to connect with nature and have direct communication with the natural world. For example, through our knowledge of plants we communicate with life and our environments, these plants help us dream and have visions for the future. So in cities, we need to observe and interact with our environments. If we want to create more technologies, OK. But let’s take care of it and each other like children of the Earth and ask ourselves how this technology should exist in relationship to nature so that the next generation can live.”

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