Peter H. Kahn, Jr.

Peter H Kahn Jr., Ph.D.


Can Technology Replace Nature?

We need actual nature for our physical and psychological well-being.

Posted Jun 13, 2011

In terms of our physical and psychological wellbeing, does it matter that we are replacing actual nature with technological nature?  I think the answer is yes.

I just came out with a new book - titled Technological Nature: Adaptation and the Future of Human Life - that explains why.

By technological nature, I mean technologies that in various ways mediate, simulate, or augment our experience of nature.  Entire television networks, such as Discovery Channel and Animal Planet, provide us with mediated digital experiences of nature: the lion's hunt, the Monarch's migration, and climbing high into the Himalayan peaks.  People "harvest" crops in Farmville.  Inexpensive robotic pets have been big sellers in the Wal-Marts and Targets of the world.  Sony's higher-end robotic dog AIBO portends our future.

Over the last seven years, my colleagues and I have investigated children's and adults' experience of different forms of cutting-edge technological nature.  We created, for example, a "technological nature window" by installing an HDTV camera on top of a building on our university campus, and then displayed a real-time local nature view on 50-inch plasma screen "windows."  In an experimental study, we compared the physiological and psychological effects of experiencing the technological nature window view to a glass window view of the same scene and to no view.  We found that in terms of heart rate recovery from low level stress, the glass window nature view was more restorative than no view. Nature is good for us.  Second, in terms of this same physiological measure, the technological nature window was no different from the no view condition.  In other words, in terms of stress reduction, it appears likely that an actual nature view is better than a technological nature view.

That does not mean, however, that there are no benefits to a technological nature window.  There are.  In another study, we found that people who worked long-term in an inside office with a technological nature window reported benefits from its use.  This general pattern -- that technological nature is better than no nature but not as good as actual nature -- held up across the studies using our two other technological platforms: robotic pets and a Telegarden.

If we employed technological nature only as a bonus on top of our interactions with actual nature, then we would be in good shape.  Unfortunately, we keep degrading and destroying actual nature, and are becoming increasingly impoverished for it.

This trend is difficult to reverse because it is hard for humans to believe it is even happening.  For example, if you try to explain what we, as humans, are missing in terms of the fullness of the human relation with nature, a well-meaning person can look at you blankly-it has happened to me many times-and respond "but I don't think we're missing much."  We are missing plenty. Why do we not know?  A large part of the reason likely involves what in my earlier work I termed environmental generational amnesia.  The basic idea here is that each generation constructs a conception of what is environmentally normal based on the natural world encountered in childhood.  With each generation the amount of environmental degradation increases, but each generation tends to take that degraded condition as the non-degraded condition, as the normal experience. In other posts I have written of this idea (click here and here), and have brought forward further evidence and argument.  It is hard enough to solve environmental problems, such as global climate change, when we are aware of them; it is all the harder when we are not.  Thus I believe that the problem of environmental generational amnesia will emerge as one of the central psychological problems of our lifetime.

Some people say that because we are an adapting species, we do not have to worry about the long-term effects of the loss of nature and the increase of technological nature. I think that is a mistake.  Even if this planet over the next hundred years (or let us imagine a thousand years or ten thousand years) could sustainably support 6 or 9 billion people as biologically living beings, it cannot sustainably support even one tenth that number in ways where humans fully flourish in their relationship with nature.  Almost all discussions people and societies at large have about environmental issues unduly focus -- explicitly or implicitly as the bottom line -- on how the issues affect our health, our income, and our material possessions.  These matters are important, of course. But what about that in our relation with nature that gives life further meaning?  Look at a caged elephant in a zoo.  It survives for years in the space of a small parking lot, while its biological programming and its ancestral self wants and needs the wild and vast spaces of its origins. We are like animals in a zoo.  We are caging ourselves. There are millions of children who have never slept out under the stars.  There are millions of children who have never in their lives seen the stars, because of the air pollution and light pollution in their cities. Can you imagine that?  Can you imagine growing up and never having seen a star?

What I am saying is that humans flourishing matters just as much as humans existing.  Toward that end we need to re-vision what is beautiful and fulfilling and often wild in essence in our relationship with nature.