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.