Exploring the literature on the relationship between humans, technology and nature, I found various differing views that highlight the complexity of this relationship. I’ll be writing more about these topics as my PhD progresses.
You might like to read this together with a related post ‘arts & digital technology – the shadow side’.
Many authors have written about human alienation from nature. The notion of a human/nature split, that they can operate independently of each other is in Gregory Bateson’s view an ‘epistemological fallacy’ (2000). This way of understanding the world can be traced back to Descartes and Cartesian dualism in the period known as the Enlightenment.
To address the perception of alienation, ecopsychology has developed as a new field in psychology and psychotherapy. Proceeding from the assumption that at its deepest level the psyche remains sympathetically bonded to nature, it finds that our sense of wellbeing is affected by our sense of connectedness to nature, and that ecological decline has a negative emotional impact on us (eg. Rozak, 1995). The project of ecopsychology and ecotherapy is to ‘rewild the psyche’ (Totton, 2011; Kahn cited in Smith, 2010). A recent National Trust report states that the evidence of a long-term and dramatic decline in children’s relationship with nature is overwhelming and that this is harming both their health and their education. The report advises that urgent action is needed to bridge this growing gap (Moss, 2012). The Trust is launching a consultation into ‘nature deficit disorder’, a term coined by Richard Louv to describe a dislocation between children and nature.
Technology and domination
In ‘The Death of Nature’ Merchant (1983) discusses in depth how the scientific revolution sanctioned the exploitation of nature (and women).
Marx in the early 1840s saw capitalism and science as expressions of human alienation from nature. A good society, in his view, was one where the alienation between humans and between humans and nature would be overcome and oneness with nature would be realised. However, by the late 1840s Marx shifted his position and now understood human freedom and self determination as a struggle against the limits imposed by nature, and thought that by applying science and technology to harness the forces of nature to human purposes, social wealth could be vastly increased (Benton & Craib, 2001).
Adorno and Horkheimer from the Frankfurt school of critical theory built on the early ideas of Marx, and argued that the technology humans have developed to dominate nature, has in turn dominated us (Benton & Craib, 2001). This is in keeping with Illich’s view that “Machines that ape people are tending to encroach on every aspect of people’s lives… such machines force people… to communicate with them and with each other on the terms of the machine” (Illich, 1992 p47 cited in Curry, 2011 p169).
Technology for Marx was an extension of labour, which changes things so as to make them useful. Norbert Wiener also argued that technology could help make us better human beings and create a most just society but for it to do so, “we have to take control of the technology. We have to reject the worshipping of new gadgets which are our own creation as if they were our masters” (cited in Friedman & Kahn, 2003 p.1195).
However, Foucault held that one could not assume what the outcome of technology might be – good or bad, as that depended on the ideology informing it. His view about technology is echoed in Friedman and Kahn (2003) who discuss how values become implicated in technological design and what this means for human agency.
In the Embodied position, designers inscribe their own values and intentions into the technology. Once developed and deployed, the technology determines specific kinds of human behaviour. The Exogenous position holds that societal forces significantly shape how a deployed technology will be used, and that technological systems invariably favour the interests of people with economic and political power. The Interactional holds that while features or properties in the design may more readily support some values and hinder others, actual use depends on the goals of the people interacting with it, leading to an iterative process whereby technologies get invented and then redesigned based on user interactions. This position also emphasises how users use the technology in the context of social structures.
Disenchantment and exploitation of nature
Curry (2011) argues that there is an emotional bond between humans and nature and that there is a spiritual dimension to that emotion. To be sacred is to have intrinsic value, which is an inexhaustible mystery. Disenchanting the world through science, he asserts, is a fundamental pre-requisite to exploiting, commodifying and selling it. So the task is to bring mystery back, to let go of the myth as Mary Midgley calls it, that through science we can know the truth of things, and I would add, that we can techno-fix our way to a sustainable future.
‘Secular’ science and transcendence
However, Coeckelbergh (2010) argues that this notion of ‘disenchantment’ as defined by Weber to describe a supposed shift from religious (mystery and magic) to scientific (calculation, rationalisation, intellectualisation, control) understanding of the world is wrong, citing Szerszynski who says that secularisation never happened. He argues that the emergence of modern science in the 17th century was not an abandonment but a transformation of theological discourse. For the founders such as Francis Bacon it was a way to achieve knowledge of the divine design of nature and ultimately the mind of the creator, a view also put forward by Midgley (2003). Like Midgley he questions how ‘secular’ contemporary science and technology actually is. Midgley finds myth to be a central part of the language of science, for example the myth of progress (now disguised as evolution), and the myth of body/mind separation. Myths for Midgley are networks of powerful symbols that suggest particular ways of interpreting the world. She posits that some of our strongest myths are profoundly shaped by technologies.
Referring back to Wiener’s point about our ‘worshipping’ of technology, Coeckelbergh echoes David Noble argument that the reason we are so obsessed with technology is because it promises the transcendence of mortality. This may be why so much more resource is spent on transcendental projects like space exploration than on social justice projects to meet basic human needs. Coeckelbergh refers to Hefner who says we create technology in order to compensate for our finitude. Technology is a mirror that shows us what we are – mortal, and that in its engagement with finitude and death, technology becomes almost explicitly religious.
Coeckelbergh also discusses the cybergnosis view that to overcome alienation from the divine world, people embrace the cyberworld, which allows them to escape their mortal bodies and become spiritual entities, and refers to Genevieve Bell’s studies of ‘technospiritual practices’.
Coeckelbergh notes the paradox that humans try to achieve spiritual immortality by processes of materialisation, for example though written culture, which tends to disembody knowledge. People may also experience technology in animistic terms and attribute agency and spirit to things, often without being aware of it.
Technology and spirituality then, he argues, have always belonged in the same spheres. “Technology shows our power to change the world, but it also shows the limit of that power… Science is also increasingly concerned with the invisible, which according to most moderns, has always been a mark of the spiritual” (p962)
Technology and nature
In regard to human wellbeing, Kahn (2009) finds that looking at real nature is better than digital representations of nature, which is better than nothing. He says, “More and more, the human experience of nature will be mediated by technological systems with potential implications for human flourishing” (cited in Smith, 2010).
There are many instances of the use of digital technology in natural places to augment visitor experience, for example with information about habitats and species.
Bidwell (2010) finds that human computer interaction (HCI) research in rural and wilderness settings is scarce and that HCI has little explored technological mediation of enriching experiences in natural environments. She refers to artist Jeremijenko who aims to enable people to feel as connected to wildlife in cities as in rural places. Designers she feels, can “reveal the consequences of interacting with nature, allowing interactants to experience a heightened awareness of the effects of their actions as individuals and as an intrinsic part of the world” (p.25), and refers to artist Lynette Wallworth’s immersive installation in South Australia that responds to movements of the ‘interactants’.
There are other examples of artists using digital technology to create immersive environments that I have personally experienced.
FACT in Liverpool presented an artwork ZEE by Kurt Hentschlager as part of Abandon Normal Devices festival 2011. Its immersive mind-altering qualities were achieved through the use of artificial fog, stroboscopes, pulse lights and surround sound. It was primarily an audiovisual experience and not designed to evoke any emotion in particular. However, the technology if developed with smells and binaural multilayered sound (e.g. animal noises, forest sounds, human voice) to create a fuller sensory experience could potentially guide participants towards transpersonal experiences. This type of digital intervention takes us into the realm of technoshamanism, which integrates technology into shamanic practice to influence experiences.
Technology and ethical behaviour
Feedback is a critical component in self-regulating systems. Knowing the impact our actions have on the rest of nature helps us to moderate our actions, to choose more wisely. However, due to the highly complex nonlinear nature of our world, the consequences for people and planet of our everyday choices are often hidden and unknown. Avoiding unintended consequences is extremely difficult.
Digital technology can assist in this by providing easy access to real-time data and direct feedback. For example, Transformative-Applications.net provides a platform for showcasing mobile applications that address pressing global challenges by increasing transparency and enabling users to understand the impact of their actions, see the whole value chain of a product, and create new trans-border networks to influence policy makers and business. These apps are at present fairly limited, but they point to ways forward.
Gaming is also contributing to the effort to influence pro-social and pro-environmental behaviour. Alternate Reality Games (ARGs) are increasingly being used in civic contexts, and research has found that participating in frequent civic gaming experiences is strongly related to actual civic engagement (Kahne et al. 2008).
Gamesforchange.org is a hub that ‘facilitates the creation and distribution of social impact games that serve as critical tools in humanitarian and educational efforts’. It documents a number of ARGs that seek to create impact for players, society and the natural environment, such as EVOKE designed by Jane McGonigal that sought to solve real global and regional problems. Another example is World Without Oil featured on SeriousgamesInstitute.co.uk that aimed to create real engagement with a real problem and influence behaviour and attitudes beyond the life of the game.
However, as noted earlier, technology can also influence ethical behaviour in users through its design. Friedman and Kahn (2003) make a distinction between HCI usability and HCI values with ‘ethical import’ relating to: human welfare, ownership and property, privacy, freedom from bias, universal usability, trust, autonomy, informed consent, accountability, identity, calmness, and environmental sustainability. A design, for example, may be good on usability yet undermine one or more of these values.
The relationships between humans, technology and nature as explored above is fascinatingly complex. Although I’ve written about the ‘shadow’ side of digital technology, I do think digital technology can play a positive role in service of the wellbeing of humans and the rest of nature, if we are mindful of its design and of how we interact with it.
Bateson, G. 2000. Steps to an Ecology of Mind, University of Chicago Press
Benton, T. & Craib, I. 2001. Philosophy of Social Science. NY: Palgrave
Bidwell, N.J. & Browning, D. 2010. Pursuing genius loci: interaction design and natural places, Pers Ubiquit Comput, Springer, 14, pp.15-30, Available at http://meraka.academia.edu/NicolaJBidwell/Papers/771844/Pursuing_genius_loci_interaction_design_and_natural_places [Accessed 20 February 2012]
Coeckelbergh, M. 2010. The Spirit in the Network: Models for spirituality in a technological culture, Zygon 45(4), January issue, pp. 957-978
Curry, P. 2011. Ecological Ethics, Cambridge: Polity Press
Friedman, B & Kahn, P. H. 2003. How values become implicated in technological design, The Human-Computer Interaction Handbook, Ed. Jacko, J & Sears. pp. 1177-1201, L. Erlbaum Associates Inc. Hillsdale NJ USA.
Kahn, P. H. et al, 2009. Human relation with nature and technological nature, Current Directions in Psychological Science, (18:1) pp37-42.
Kahn, P.H. n.d. The Development of Environmental Moral Identity. [online] Available at: http://faculty.washington.edu/pkahn/cv.shtml [Accessed 23 February 2012]
Kahne, J., Middaugh, E. & Evans, C. 2008. The Civic Potential of Video Games, MacArthur Foundation
Marx, K. 1999. Capital. Oxford University Press
Merchant, C. 1983. The Death of Nature, San Francisco: Harper & Row
Midgley, M. 2003. Myths We Live By, Routledge
Moss, S. 2012. Natural Childhood, National Trust
Rozak, T. 1995. Where Psyche Meets Gaia. In: Rozak et al, ed. 1995. Ecopsychology, Sierra Club Books, pp.1-17
Smith, D, B. 2010. Is there an Ecological Unconscious? New York Times 31/1/10
Totton, N. 2011. Wild Therapy. PCCS Books