Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Further Thoughts on Technology and Nature

I received some interesting feedback from Phil French (you can read his blog here). Phil illustrates how technology can enrich the nature experience and has often made his nature experiences better. He makes the point, very eloquently, that he rarely experiences nature without some technology at hand - a compound bow, a video camera, or a fishing rod. I too keep those items (not the bow - I'd hurt something, probably me) close at hand while hiking, paddling, etc... But to my mind, these technologies don't mediate the experience. They augment it in a very tangible way. By casting into a stream in the hope of bringing in a fish I'm interacting with the habitat in a very real way. Fishing is a completely immersive experience; replete with a complete suite of sensory cues. The sound of the stream, the feel of the drag on the reel, the smell of the forest, the myriad sights and even the taste of the spray coming off the reeling line. This is not an experience that can be replicated by viewing additional content through the screen of my mobile device.

Hiking, skiing, paddling, snowshoeing, climbing - they all have their respective technologies that are required to take on the sport, and they are all activities that take place in natural spaces. But as with fishing, the technology makes these multi-sensory experiences possible, without mediating them in any way.

Therein lies the distinction for me and the crux of my original argument. Technology that filters the experience of simply being in the natural world, acts as a solvent to the experience. While all of our modern communications tools and platforms are sold to us with the promise that they will enrich our lives and broaden our understanding of the world, this promise falls short in nature. Climbing a piece of rock, fishing in a stream, skiing through a forest, hiking up a mountain trail are all very real experiences; just as sitting next to a pond watching swallows catch and eat mosquitoes on the wing is a real experience. All of these experiences require some technology to facilitate them - even the pond experience may require binoculars.

However, none of this technology mediates the experience. They don't diminish the experience in the way that sitting next to the pond, texting our friends about what we're seeing, does. Or in the way that standing in a forest learning about a tree - that we're standing in front of - by reading a wikipedia entry about it, on our iPhone. The natural experience we should be having and the real meaning in the experience is found in the touching of the tree, the smelling of it's leaf buds, the sound of the birds and squirrels in the canopy. Instead, all too often we place the mobile device between ourselves and the experience.

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Technology and... Nature?

I will begin by admitting that I love modern, digital technology; unabashedly and unashamedly I am enthralled by what we've managed to do with silicone and electricity. The sheer volume of information we can access and control, the content we can create at a moment's notice, is unprecedented in human history. The reality of being able to access, manipulate and add to - in a very real sense - the whole of human knowledge from a device smaller than a package of cigarettes, is unbelievable. To use a word that is over-used in the English language: It's awesome.

Not awesome in the sense of, pancakes in bed are awesome. I mean awesome, like, I have seen the depths of universe and have been irrevocably changed by it, awesome. The technology that we wield with aplomb and abandon, is nothing short of Awesome (capital A intended).

Now, here is the "However".

I think that our technology has limits to where it belongs.

In an age where children are exposed to screens for an average of 53 hours per week outside of school time, that there are some places where we need to put the devices away. While information is powerful, it cannot replace experience. In many cases I think it can't even augment experience in a meaningful way. Every time we place a screen between us and a real experience, we are mediating that experience. We are making the experience more sterile, cleaner. The trade off is that we can access all sorts of supplementary information about the experience by mediating it.

My question is: Is it worth it? Is the extra information we can get online, via smart-device worth the price of tactility? Would you rather have your child learn about the animals in a wetland by leaning in with a dip net, carefully catching insects, larvae, fish, amphibians and, with the guidance of a facilitator, learn about those animals and all the connections between the animals, the habitat, the child and the greater environment beyond? Or, would you rather your child stood at the edge of the pond, pointed a digital device at it, took a picture and the went surfing online for information about ponds and wetlands - all while texting their friends?

I will choose the less-sterile, more connected experience every time.

You may argue that some kids don't have the opportunity to visit natural spaces, to get dirty and to explore wetlands (keeping with our pond example). I would counter-argue, that it's your responsibility as a parent to provide your child with those experiences. If you can't, there are resources in almost every community that can help you. And often, those resources are free-to-minimal-cost.

The point is, that nature doesn't need to be mediated. Experiences with nature and natural environments don't need to be enhanced with video, interactive content and QR codes taking you to websites for more information.

I argued in an earlier post (two or three years ago) that we have lost our ability to be awed. At that time I was talking about technology. We have lost our ability to be astounded by the next great thing our digital device will do. We simply expect the next generation-device to be faster, more advanced, more capable. Well, I think that along with the inability to be awed by technology, we've lost our ability to be awed by nature.

We - and I admit I'm talking in broad strokes here - live in a society that is so driven by dynamic imagery, that we can look at the mist on a pond say to ourselves "Pretty", and then pull out our phones to check in to twitter or Facebook. We have lost the ability to watch the mist curl over the water and dance on the air currents. We have lost the desire to simply sit at the pond edge and watch the ducklings trail along behind their mother or to peer through the cattails and spy on a fishing spider, dangling over the water. We'd rather point our phones at a code and watch a video of the very thing that is in front of us - live.

And yet, when we interpreters can get people's attention and get them to sit and close their eyes and listen or to simply sit and watch the pond with new eyes, they're hooked. I've seen well-healed, metro-urbanites nearly brought to tears when they sat on the Nature Centre's viewing deck and simply listened to the activity on the pond.

Invariably the first two words out of their mouths are: "That's Awesome."