No phones on the beach or in the forest? Seriously?

This article was originally published at The Conversation in my column on Wired Well-being.

We must all now be very familiar with complaints about how the hours we spend glued to our devices eat into family time and other meaningful relationships. Stories range from children who’d rather play with phones than eat at the table (for which there’s an app to lock them out at mealtimes) to addictions in the making and ones that “threaten the very fabric of society”.

Locking away your phone may be the answer for some, and at the moment we can’t be sure whether our use of digital devices will have a positive or negative effect on our health, but isn’t it more about being smart about how you use them?

While VisitScotland took the opportunity to sell poor mobile reception as a great time to experience the “novelty of luddism”, the New Forest National Park in southern England is inviting visitors to lock away phones in what it calls the “world’s first creche for technology and car keys”. The idea is that wandering in the forest without mobiles will “get families connecting.”

Asked about this initiative on BBC radio, Conservative MP Tobias Ellwood made the case for disconnecting. He also commented on plans to introduce wifi to Bournemouth beach. While he welcomed them, he said there should also be mobile-free quiet zones.

Bournemouth also happens to be my local beach. And I profoundly disagree with Mr Ellwood. Mobile-free zones on beaches are technically impractical, if not impossible, and only reinforce the notion that we can’t enjoy nature without being “switched off”. Quiet coaches on trains, arguably an easier thing to enforce, didn’t exactly work and are being scrapped. The idea of depriving people of their connections is a backwards way of thinking and out of step with modern life.

The town, in any case, is supporting Silicon Beach, an annual gathering of techies and digital entrepreneurs, in September. Organiser Matt Desmier recently said that the conference along with other notable digital events, two universities and myriad award-winning agencies, meant Bournemouth was “emerging as a creative and digital hotspot to rival Brighton or Bristol”.

Bournemouth is clearly working towards being a place where wired people can hang out and work while pursuing healthy digital lives. Talking about mobile-free quiet zones at the mere suggestion of having wifi on the beach seems an anathema to this. I know where I’d rather be working (ideally in the sunshine, though Bournemouth of course isn’t the Bahamas).

Spurred on by the moral panic about the time we spend using personal technology, Ellwood said it was “a little bit worrying” that we now carried out offices and social lives with us. Meanwhile, the New Forest National Park declared that “a battle is raging” in families with smartphones.

Is it really? Do any of these claims mean anything at all? Or is it just that X out of Y media outlets think that negative stories about our digital lives attract Z number of readers, while only a minority of readers enjoy technology stories with a positive bent?

Conflicted organisations

The New Forest National Park seems to be engaged in its own conflicted struggle with technology. Is it good for you, or is it not? The park already offers a pretty good New Forest App with advice on where to cycle, walk, sleep and eat, as well as updated events and travel, yet now it seems to want us to stop using it and go off to play among the trees, stripped of our phones.

But is it true that technology makes the outdoor experience somehow impure – a belief that is no doubt ingrained in many minds? Or, alternatively, can it actually expand our enjoyment of it? Perhaps, as I’ve suggestedbefore, we already use our phones to enhance our woodland experiences. They give us maps and GPS, apps for identifying plants and creatures, audio to record them, cameras to photograph them, and tools to draw and write about them. Plus, of course, the ability to call or text if needed. The Wild Network, an offshoot of The National Trust which is dedicated to reconnecting children with nature, is exploring the connections between “screen time” and “wild time”.

Humans have always brought technology into nature, from the earliest adzes and axes to presentday equipment of all kinds. And people have always used natural spaces to connect and socialise, whether in green woodland gatherings or sunny beach parties. Smartphones and devices are a tool too, just a new kind, that come with apps specifically designed to be used in those spaces. Turning off will always be your choice, there’s no need to make up yet more rules about quiet zones.

SURVEY Playing on computers vs playing out in nature. How do your kids balance their time?

Exploring

We live in a world where many kids can use sophisticated technologies but also have access to the wonders of nature, whether it’s the family veg patch or the great outdoors.

I’m writing an article about the ways in which we can make these opportunities work together in harmonious and positive ways, and I’ve love to hear about your own experiences.

If you’re a parent, grandparent, teacher or carer of kids aged between 0-18, I’d be most grateful if you would fill out this short survey.

Many thanks.

Read this before you go into the sea today…

2013-09-04 18.35.25

the sea over my shoulder

“Fish, amphibian, and reptile, warm-blooded bird and mammal – each of us carries in our veins a salty stream in which the elements sodium, potassium and calcium are combined in almost the same proportions as in seawater.

“This is our inheritance from the day, untold millions of years ago, when a remote ancestor, having progressed from the one- to the many- celled stage, first developed circulatory  system in which the fluid was merely the water of the sea.”

from ‘The Sea Around Us’, Rachel Carson, 1951. Found in ‘The Sea’, Lapham’s Quarterly Vol VI, No. 3, Summer 2013. 

Another in my series of occasional Dispatches.

Sketch the connections between your mind, your body, your computer, and the network.

Sketch the connections between your mind, your body, your computer, and the network.  Prague 2004

Sketch the connections between your mind, your body, your computer, and the network. Prague 2004

A very nice image drawn by  Pinar Yeldas  at a workshop I ran in Prague in 2004.

The writing on the left says:

This is my body. My body is this. This is my mind. Mind is a bodily thing. My Mac has a bodily mind. Also, by the way, this is my heart. Look! It is beating. It beats faster when I see my Mac.

Another in my series of occasional Dispatches.

“Breathe as if your life depended on it (because it does)” @JonKabatZinn

I’ve lived in my head in virtuality for twenty years, and in writing for most of my life, but it’s only recently that I’ve tried living in my head in meditation. As I experiment with various approaches, the teacher I like best is Jon Kabat-Zinn.  I love his advice to breathe as if your life depended on it (because it does).

Note: I’ve been inspired by The 15-Minute Daily Habit That Will Change Your Career to try sharing short dispatches from my research. I am to do it on a fairly regular basis but perhaps it won’t last. We’ll see. At any rate, this post is the first of them.

The webcam opened a ghastly window to the real red-in-tooth-and-claw world of nature

This article was originally published on The Conversation in my column on Wired Well-being.

Webcam bird rescue shows how quickly our attraction to nature can turn sour

Cute for now. Ell BrownCC BY

 

The proliferation of webcams streaming live feeds has brought wild animals directly onto our screens, sometimes from thousands of miles away. Watching on the web in real time, we can peer into nests, hover over watering-holes, and gaze into zoos. But when something bad happens – an intrinsic part of the wild nature we’re watching – is there anything more going on behind our emotional reactions to end the suffering?

In a recent article in the New York Times, Jon Mooallem reported on a painful drama concerning a family of bald eagles nesting in the Twin Cities area of Minnesota. The Minnesota Department of Natural Resources (DNR) has a live webcam feed to enable nature lovers across the world to lurk unseen as the chicks are raised. But this is real life and prettiness cannot be guaranteed. The DNR made this very clear in two disclaimers on its home page. Viewer discretion is advised and content may not be suitable for younger viewers, it said. The warning was made even more explicit:

This is live video of wild birds in the natural process of raising their young. Life and death struggles occur all the time in the natural world. DNR staff will monitor this camera and will evaluate incidents as they occur, but we do not plan to, nor do we condone, any interference with this nest or its occupants.

The DNR soon found itself in a difficult position: increasing anxiety about the failing health of one of the eagle chicks (nicknamed Snap by its adoring viewers) led to an outpouring of concern until eventually the DNR gave in and went to the rescue. “It was badly injured — most likely trampled accidentally by one of its parents,” Mooallem reported. “It had a severely fractured wing and a systemic infection. There was no chance of recovery. Snap had to be euthanised.”

A webcam set up to bring pleasure to its audience and attract donations to support the programme had opened a ghastly window to the real red-in-tooth-and-claw world of nature, where creatures get hurt and die.

As one woman put it, she wasn’t “up for that learning experience”. But if we’re so keen on nature and how it makes us feel, why did all the webcam watchers feel so distressed when it started to go wrong? Beyond one explanation of anthropomorphism, another could be biophobia – a fear of the natural world.

Natural turn offs

In most cases, images of animals have a beneficial effect on us, says Stephen Kellert, a social ecologist at Yale University. He believes images of animals often provoke satisfaction, pleasure, stimulation and emotional interest. For philosopher Paul Shepard, seeing animals in ornamentation, decoration and art, may lead us to experience “the tug of attention to animals as the curved mirror of ourselves”.

But sometimes we respond fearfully not only to certain living things (most notably spiders, snakes and bugs) but also to some natural situations which might contain hidden dangers and be difficult to escape from, says psychologist Roger Ulrich, writing inThe Biophilia Hypothesis. It is this that he describes as biophobia.

Just as positive encounters with nature can have calming effects,argues Ulrich, it follows that the opposite should result in negative effects such as anxiety – something that the many nature centres and wildlife reserves that manage live webcam feeds will be aware of.

Webcams allow us to watch real animals with an unprecedented level of intimacy. But the unrealistic empathy they can create has the potential to provoke real distress when it goes wrong. And this is where it seems we’re only human.

On *not* writing for academia: celebrating my first year of freedom

A year ago today I jumped out of academia  Do I regret it? Not one bit! I may have much less money now, but at last I have the head-space to write what I want.

I’m in this position because we’re in a recession. It’s painful for many but for a few it can be very enabling. For young colleagues eager to try new ideas, it can blow open the doors of tradition and create new opportunities, and for older people such as myself, it offers the chance to try a new path.

So when my university announced a voluntary severance package, I leapt at the chance and applied. Six months later, on 30th June 2013 and a fortnight before my 62nd birthday,  I left.

Here’s my first blog post from over the fence. ‘From now on I am going to be writing, writing, writing.’  That’s exactly what I’ve done, and it still feels pretty good.

In the last twelve months I’ve written for Aeon, been offered a column at The Conversation, and had a piece accepted by Orion. I’ve been republished in Slate, Mashable, The Guardian and other places. I’ve been experimenting at Medium, joining in with its adventures around new ways to do publishing. And, of course, ‘Technobiophilia: nature and cyberspace’ has opened all kinds of interesting doors and brought me to an exciting EU project about Cyberparks, plus all kinds of invitations to speak and consult.

But I’m not entirely out of touch with academic life. My Visiting Fellowship at Bournemouth University lets me keep up with developments and meet interesting people, and I’ve worked on a number of scholarly projects. But these days I principally think of myself as a writer, not a Professor.

According to the author Annie Dillard “how we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives.” For too many years I spent my days in a world which never quite fitted me. Now, I’m creating a life of my own, and it feels just fine.