@robinince has taken Technobiophilia on tour with him, but where is it now?

Robin Ince

Google Alerts are the digital equivalent of your ears burning when someone’s talking about you. They’re not very reliable, it’s true, but when an alert does penetrate the fog of cyberspace with news that you’re part of someone else’s day it’s always worth following it up.

So it was that Google tipped me off I’d been mentioned in Robin Ince‘s blog. I met Robin last year when he hosted a panel I was on at Nesta’s Futurefest event. He was curious about Technobiophilia so it’s great to see that he’s taken the book with him this autumn while he’s on tour around the UK.

So what does he think of it? Google brought me only one alert but he’s mentioned the book in three blog posts so far so it can’t be in the bin yet.  He started off by trying to use it to get to sleep (!), then picked it up again a couple of days later on a train, and a few days after that it accompanied him home from Oslo. Then I lost sight of it.

Has he still got it? Did it totally send him to sleep in the end? As he travels from gig to gig, I’ll keep an eye out for further appearances via Google’s inconsistent whispers…

Apple’s Yosemite demonstrates the technobiophilic sublime

Yosemite (maclife.com)

According to writer and environmentalist Wallace Stegner, wilderness is both ‘an opportunity and an idea’.[1]

With the release of OS X 10.10 Yosemite, Apple adopts one of the most famous wilderness areas in the United States, the gloriously wild Yosemite National Park, as a totem of its own ideology. And it’s no coincidence that the stunning mountain images which accompany it engender a sense of deep awe.

Apple is deliberately connecting us with the technobiophilic sublime.

As I wrote last year in ‘Technobiophilia: nature and cyberspace’, the vastness of the internet, both visible and invisible, can trigger a powerful sense of the sublime. I described how technology historian David Nye explained that eighteenth century philosopher Edmund Burke  ‘established an absolute contrast between the beautiful, which inspired feelings of tenderness and affection, and the sublime, which grew out of an ecstasy of terror that filled the mind completely’[2].

Before Burke, the notion of the sublime was connected with alchemy, but as the ideal of scientific objectivity grew into the foreground it came to be seen as part of the Enlightenment project of defining reason. And as the New World was opened up, the stunning raw landscapes of America seemed made for the expression of the sublime. Said Nye, ‘to experience the sublime was to awaken to a new vision of a changing universe.’

This changing universe, presumably, is the vision Apple wants us to buy into as we scale the dizzy heights of its own digital Yosemite, yet another new growth in the company’s much-vaunted ‘ecosystem’.

[1] Stegner, Wallace. Wilderness Letter, written to the Outdoor Recreation Resources Review Commission. 1969. http://wilderness.org/content/wilderness-letter
[2] Nye, David E. American Technological Sublime. Cambridge: MIT, 1994.

Six wearables and apps to improve health and happiness



The age of the wearable is fast upon us, and many of the new products we’re going to see in the next 12 months will be all about health and happiness. The New York Times recently predicted that soon some wearables will seamlessly blend in by looking like a skin-coloured sticking plasters and even perhaps become fashion items. There are also lots of new apps in this area too.

I’ll be trying some out over the next few months but here are six that have come across my desk: one hand-held, two wearables and three apps that can help you calm down, straighten up, and take a deep breath.

Continue reading Six wearables and apps to improve health and happiness in my column at The Conversation.

Technobiophilia Hackathon – apps and wearables connecting you to nature

sesi-cultura-digital-2014-header (1)I’ve been hoping that someone would come up with a technobiophilia app or, even better, a wearable. Something to enhance our digital lives by connecting us to nature, or sharpen the pleasure of the outdoors by connecting us to the internet. Something that clearly demonstrates the level of well-being to be gained from a technobiophilic lifestyle. And how about applying technobiophilic design to software and hardware? More natural materials and colours please!

With luck my wish will be answered later this month at SESI Cultura Digital in Rio de Janeiro.

I’ve been invited to set two design challenges for the Hackathon part of the event, taking place on Thursday 23rd October 2014. It’s a fantastic opportunity to apply my research to real-life problems and I’m very excited to see what participants come up with!

The brief for the Hackathon Challenge on the website is in Portuguese but I’ve posted the English version in the Technobiophilic Design section of my website. If you can’t be in Rio for the competition, but you’d like to have a go at developing something in response to the challenge, do get in touch.

You can follow the Hackathon action on Facebook and on Twitter via hashtag #scd2014 (unfortunately in the UK this matches the tag for a very popular TV show, so be warned!).

(Thanks to Amber Thomas for her invaluable help in designing the challenge)

‘Another Ocean’, the internet and the sea in Orion Magazine

orionThis month I have a short essay, ‘Another Ocean’, in Orion, a long-established and beautifully-produced American magazine about nature and the environment. I’m very grateful to the editors for taking a chance on a piece about the internet and the sea because I realize that it’s a synergy which may not sit comfortably with some readers. I do hope they like it though.

Unfortunately ‘Another Ocean’ is in the paid-for section of the magazine but perhaps that’s a good opportunity to sign up for a free trial issue! I’ve been reading it for years and always enjoy the great writing and gorgeous images.

Next nature: ‘nature caused by people’

Next_Nature_Book1-530x343Next Nature: ‘nature caused by people’
by Sue Thomas in the Journal of Professional Communication

Our love of ‘nature’, also known as biophilia, represents a trusted and ancient baseline in our understanding of the world. But Koert van Mensvoort disputes that idea. Citing examples like electronic plants and lab-grown meat, he postulates that ‘nature changes along with us’. How should we respond?

Thomas, Sue (2013) “Next nature: ‘nature caused by people’,” Journal of Professional Communication: Vol. 3: Iss. 2, Article 5. Download from: http://digitalcommons.mcmaster.ca/jpc/vol3/iss2/5

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.