Skype presentation at Purdue University: “Fostering Deep Cultural Change: Problems and Solutions in Transdisciplinarity”

purdueI’m very pleased to be presenting an online Brown Bag Seminar at Purdue Polytech on Friday 2nd May 2014 at 11.30am EDT.  I’ll be skyping in from the UK for an interactive conversation with the team involved in establishing this brand new offering which is gathering together its first cohort of students.

Purdue Polytech is a transformative initiative led by the College of Technology at Purdue University in West Lafayette, Indiana. Its aim is to reinvent higher education in order to realign it with the needs and aspirations of current and future generations of students, and it has a very adventurous attitude about how to achieve this.

I’ll be sharing my own experiences from 2005-2013 when I helped to set up the Institute of Creative Technologies (IOCT) and, later, the Transdisciplinary Common Room, both at De Montfort University.  I’ll focus on the challenges and opportunities of establishing an experimental transdisciplinary culture at a UK university, and will look at issues such as staff development, assessment and evaluation, student expectation, and designing the transdisciplinary environment. Specific attention will be given to the importance of transliteracy, collaboration, creativity and future thinking. More about the talk here.

How to bring nature into your digital world 6. Pay attention to the view from your window

Desk. Photo: Carolyn Black

Chapter plate by Carolyn Black in ‘Technobiophilia: nature and cyberspace’

I wrote most of Technobiophilia at home in a cottage in the English Midlands, sitting in front of a back room window overlooking a small courtyard containing potted plants. I had arranged the plants so they looked good when you were in the courtyard, but my window looked out onto only part of it, so most of the time I could not even see the beautiful greenery I had curated.

The view from my desk featured only a single white clematis bush, but clematis is a deciduous climber which booms gloriously for a few months and for the rest of the year looks like a drooping clump of dead sticks. And I was so deep in my work that I did not even notice the paucity of my view. It was only towards the very end of my research that it suddenly dawned on me that all the plants I had spent money and time on were at the other end of the courtyard and invisible from my window. Feeling rather foolish, I realized that not only would a simple rearrangement of the pots bring colour and greenery into my view all day long, but they would also be a working application of biophilic design. I moved them right away. From then on, as I sat writing, I could raise my eyes and enjoy brilliant red geraniums, multi-coloured mesembryanthemums opening to the sun and a succession of other beautiful and renewing greenery.

So here is a question: what kind of view do you have from the places where you work and relax?

English cottage window

My cottage window 2012

One aspect of my window view which was already biophilic was the fact that at the time I was living in an old country cottage where the mullioned windows of the sitting room had eight panes apiece. According to architectural designer Kent Bloomer, the large picture windows we so enjoy and which reinforce that sense of bringing the outdoors indoors are actually provoking a damaging level of cognitive dissonance. This is because, he explains, ‘we possess a psychological boundary around our bodies (and by extension around our houses) that divides, or separates, our sense of a personal, possessed interior space from an exterior extra-personal space.’ This boundary is vitally important to our experience of the world because it conditions our perceptions of the environment; it appears at places of entry and exit, providing visual information about ‘social rank, safety, cultural belief and the occupants’ relationship to nature’. Passing through the boundary indicates the near-possibility of touching and that haptic experience is, says Bloomer, ‘fundamentally critical in establishing a firm connection, a “contact” with the natural environment. Yet’, he goes on, ‘touching is precisely what is negated by the pure picture window!’

His solution is to make the boundary more obvious, not less, by investing in ‘the liminal transitional space of the window’ and using different tactile ornamentations to emphasize the threshold. By touching them, or being able to imagine touching them, ‘you may heighten your sensual association with the world outside’. Examples of such interventions include thicker or tinted glass, mullions connecting small panes, old-fashioned bottle-glass, leaded and stained glass, or even just patterned curtains or blinds. You can also buy large transfers of life-sized flowers and shrubs to stick onto picture windows, and various kinds of sun-catchers and mobiles to hang in front of them. All of these can establish a ‘visible and touchable moment of mediation between inside and outside’.

If that sounds a little far-fetched, consider this: Bloomer ends by pointing out that the ‘naked’ picture window ‘provides a sanitized vision and might even promote a false feeling of fulfilment predicated upon an illusion of experiencing and being connected to the natural environment’. His proposition does not seem to have been scientifically tested, and it rather contradicts the general belief that big picture windows strengthen our sense of the outdoors, but it is an interesting thesis and worthy of some experimentation.

For more see Kent Bloomer. ‘The picture window: The problem of viewing nature through glass’. In Biophilic Design, by Stephen R. Kellert, Judith H. Heerwagen and Martin L. Mador, 253– 262. New Jersey: Wiley, 2008.

Nothing wrong with a digital detox but wired nature is better

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original and versions at The Guardian and Mashable. See also my blog post from July 2013 ‘Something’s not quite right’ in the debate about digital well-being’.

Nothing wrong with a digital detox but wired nature is better

By Sue Thomas, University of Bournemouth

This year some people might consider the idea of a digital detox vacation. Perhaps a trip to the Scottish Highlands, where communities deprived of decent broadband are wondering whether to market themselves as digital-free destinations in an attempt to flip a lack of poor reception into “meaningful and emotional experiences”.

A digital detox can be simply achieved by disconnecting yourself from the internet and turning off your phone for short bursts of time to flush out the anxiety infesting your poor wired mind. Digital detox coach Frances Booth lists the benefits of switching off including reduced stress, an increased sense of calm, better sleep and a sense of freedom.

But is it worth the bother and expense? Some hardliners go offline for a whole year, but usually only to write a book about it. Or you might purchase a detox vacation in some area of wild natural beauty where others take control of your consumption by confiscating your kit and enticing you towards other kinds of social and unwired interactions.

The Caribbean island of St Vincent and the Grenadines offers a digital detox holiday package where travellers exchange their smartphones for a guidebook explaining how to function without technology and a life coach to help them through it. And in northern California, Camp Grounded says it helps visitors to “disconnect from technology and reconnect with yourself”.

Numerous studies (as well as numerous anecdotal reports) have shown that being out in nature can be very restorative. But does turning off your kit increase the benefit? After all, there’s an increasing amount of evidence that the internet, is good for you in many ways, like strengthening relationships.

And, rather surprisingly, studies have shown that encountering nature on a screen can be as beneficial as the real thing. When researching my book on the relationships between nature and cyberspace, I came across a number of influential and widely cited experiments which demonstrated the positive effects of nature on physiological and mental health. But a considerable amount of their data came from subjects looking at still or moving images, such as window views, photographs and videos, rather than going outdoors.

The measurable benefits recorded were gleaned from participants who were not physically encountering the natural world, but rather viewing it through a screen, a window or, in at least one instance, in a virtual world. One might assume, therefore, that perhaps it’s not actually necessary to venture into a forest if a YouTube video of trees might have the same effect on your heart rate.

Sociologist Nathan Jurgenson argues:

‘Unplugging’ from the internet isn’t about restoring the self so much as it is about stifling the desire for autonomy that technology can inspire.

The fantasy, he suggested, was to cast off the virtual and re-embrace the tangible through disconnecting and undertaking a purifying digital detox in which “one can reconnect with the real, the meaningful – one’s true self that rejects social media’s seductive velvet cage”.

So are we kidding ourselves that handing in our phones at the door and spending a weekend gambolling in a forest will free us from the thrall of technology? Perhaps.

I would like to propose another kind of resort, one which offers not detox but intoxication – with both nature and with digital life. The ingredients are an outstandingly beautiful forest, beach or wilderness with a comfortable hostelry in your preferred style, lots of pleasurable group and solo activities, and lashings of wifi. You can gaze at the stars each night while tracking the International Space Station on your iPad; take wonderful photos and share them on Facebook, and journal the entire experience on whatever platform you like best. Turn messages and GPS on or off, as is your pleasure.

If you have all that kit in the first place, you are a lucky grown-up living in the 21st century: enjoy it.

Technobiophilic design: new Facebook campus will be literally covered in trees

facebooknewcampusThe crown jewel of the design is the roof, which will be covered by a park with trees transplanted from around California and “drought-resistant grasses.” On the ground floor, employees will look out one side to another park and the other to native tidal marshlands. (more at  Time magazine, 19 March 2014)

Review of Technobiophilia in @_Neural (Italian & English)

neural‘it’s clear that integrating these two planets (as she defines them: the one “beneath our feet” and the one “inside our machines”), should be the most natural way to balance our digital life, rather than drastic ‘digital detox’ cures, or addictive indulgence in self-gratifying screen-based loops.’

Review of Technobiophilia by Alessandro Ludovico, Chief Editor of Neural magazine. In 2005 Neural also reviewed my last book, Hello World: travels in virtuality.

Mass online meditation lets you zone out in cyberspace

First published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

A shorter version appeared at The Dish and includes a great video about Insight Timer.

Mass online meditation lets you zone out in cyberspace

By Sue Thomas, University of Bournemouth

For the past year I’ve been experimenting with meditating live online with people around the world. Their chosen spot is not a temple or a church hall or a sitting room, but cyberspace.

Meditation is fast becoming this year’s favourite personal development tool. You can meditate alone, in face-to-face group sessions – both offline and online – or you can switch on an app. Arianna Huffington recently cemented a business partnership between the Huffington Post and the Hankyoreh Media Group in South Korea with a meditation session. And Google has been offering its employees “Search Inside Yourself”, a mindfulness meditation course, since 2007. Many other technology companies provide similar perks.

In Zen Computer, a light-hearted spiritual guide for the wired user, Philip Toshio Sudo advises: “Don’t ask where the path is. You’re on it.” In that spirit, I decided to try two different paths for my explorations: Insight Timer is an app which maps and connects fellow meditators online, and The Buddhist Geeks is a subscription-only community based in Google+

Insight Timer works on iPad, iPhone and Android. With black text on an unattractive blocky yellow on a white background, it’s not the prettiest app in the slick world of mobile design, but it has lots of great features. At the simplest level, you can set the timer, close your eyes, and get started on your own. Or, if you’re in the mood, you can choose from 61 guided meditations of various lengths. Register, and not only will it log your meditations in a tidy graph, but every time you start a session you appear as another yellow star on its little world map. As I write this, the map tells me that “438 people are meditating worldwide”. Although it’s impossible to pick out individuals, I can see that my fellow meditators are in the US, Europe, down the coast of China, in Australia, and in Africa.

So how does it feel to meditate alongside invisible people? Well if, like me, you’ve spent a lot of time in virtual worlds, gaming online, or even just chatting in Facebook, you’ll know that there can often be a strong sense of co-presence. During research for my book on technobiophilia, our love of nature in cyberspace, I found that as early as 1995 the Californian magazine Shambhala Sun described the internet as an esoteric place for meditation which provided “a feeling of complete and total immersion, in which the individual’s observer-self has thoroughly and effortlessly integrated”.

I have felt that “experience of the moment” many times while using Insight Timer to spend time “on the cushion” alongside others in virtual space. It’s not so much a sense of connecting with individual people, but more of a mind-meld moment with everyone involved. Much of this comes from the imagination, of course, but is no less potent for that.

Media theorist Sandy Stone calls this kind of tightly restricted communication “narrow bandwidth”. It has startling effects, she says, because it reveals “a deep need to create extremely detailed images of the absent and invisible body, of human interaction, and the symbol-generating artefacts which are part of that interaction.”

The Buddhist Geeks broaden this bandwidth in their daily Open Practice sessions, when members turn on their webcams and log into Google Hangout to meditate in small groups. Each daily half-hour session is usually attended by around half a dozen members. At the scheduled time we log in one by one, greet the others with a smile or a hello, then quietly settle down to our individual meditations. The leader may tap a bell to begin, or the start might happen organically.

We sit there. Sometimes we turn off our microphones to avoid making distracting noises, sometimes we keep them on and listen to each other breathe. We are thousands of miles apart, sitting in front of computers, tablets or phones to log in from our homes, offices and gardens. Although we are in different countries and timezones, we somehow feel very close to each other. We’re together on the path, being mindful in cyberspace. It’s not so very different from physical meditation meetings which share a space in silence for a while each day.

But Buddhist Geeks do much more than meditate. They are, they say, working to discover how to serve the convergence of Buddhism with rapidly evolving technology and an increasingly global culture. Theirs is a thriving online community which also hosts physical conferences and meetings in Colorado, US, where it has its headquarters.

So here is a question for them to think about. If we can already be together like this in virtual space, can that mindfulness be extended to cyborgian or machine space? In other words, rather than meditate in Google+, might we some day meditate with Google+? Imagine that: a mind-meld with the great entity which is Google itself. It would be as if sci-fi writer Douglas Adams’ Deep Thought machine had finally come alive inside our heads.