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."


Phil French said...

Hi Todd
I enjoyed reading your ideas. I'm glad others are thinking about this subject. I have been thinking a lot about this in the past year and while I count myself as an avid naturalist, I have looked back at my life and I see a recurring theme. I seldom have encountered nature without some sort of technology. A pair of binoculars, a compound bow, a fishing rod or a video camera are some of the tools I have used that enhance the experience for me. Sure, sometimes I just go for a walk in the woods, but technology is here and my experience is that it has brought me closer to nature not removed me from it. It's all in the user and not in the technology itself.

Phil French

Todd said...

Thanks Phil. Interesting perspective. I added some thoughts in today's post.