How to bring nature into your digital world: 1. Build the passage of the day into your digital life (and ignore that fake story about the Tiananmen sunrise)

How to bring nature into your digital world: 1. Build the passage of the day into your digital life

At Dorset County Hospital in Dorchester, England, a patient lies awake watching the sun rise. She’s being treated in an isolation ward with limited window views, yet technology enables her to observe the changing hues just metres from her bed as the sun climbs into the sky. On the wall across from her bed, a live feed is being streamed from a webcam positioned on the roof of a castle a few miles away.

Not a substitute sunrise for the smog-smothered citizens of Beijing, but just one screen of a video ad for tourism in Shandong province.
Not a substitute sunrise for the smog-smothered citizens of Beijing, but just one screen of a video ad for tourism in Shandong province.

Recently another digital sunrise has been in the news. The image, displayed on a giant screen in Tiananmen Square, Beijing, attracted worldwide attention when the Daily Mail presented it with the headline China starts televising the sunrise on giant TV screens because Beijing is so clouded in smog and asserted that “the city’s natural light-starved masses have begun flocking to huge digital commercial television screens across the city to observe virtual sunrises”. A poetic notion, but untrue. In fact, writes Paul Bischoff in Tech in Asia, “that sunrise was probably on the screen for less than 10 seconds at a time, as it was part of an ad for tourism in China’s Shandong province. The ad plays every day throughout the day all year round no matter how bad the pollution is. The photographer simply snapped the photo at the moment when the sunrise appeared.”

Why did this piece of untrue ‘news’ attract so much attention? Perhaps because the notion of a deliberately-engineered fake sunrise is what we expect to find in a world where we’re already feeling anxious about the possibility of encountering artificial nature and, just like Truman, not being able to spot the difference.

Watching the sun come up offers a deep sense of authenticity by connecting us to the daily turn of our world. It’s a reminder that we are part of a vast and unknowable but natural universe. The fact is that we love sunrises and we love to share them. Check out Google Images, which categorises them into sunrises at beaches, mountains, forests and farms, as well as providing thousands, if not millions, of sunrise images whose locations are, for the most part. pretty indistinguishable from each other. Another source of sunrise pics is the Flickr group Sunrises and Sunsets, which has over 20,000 members. This morning, as on most days, my local cafe on the south coast of England shared a photo of the sunrise along with an invitation to breakfast there. And even as I write this my friend Thilo Boeck, currently in Santiago, Chile, is busy posting his own personal sunrise in Facebook. I ‘liked’ them both, of course. We can’t get enough of sunrises, even when they arrive digitally rather than through the medium of our own eyes, out in the fresh air or through a bedroom window. I’m reminded that someone once told me how checking his email as soon as he woke up is his personal daily ‘cybersunrise’. 

A Room with a View. Auxiliary Nurse Lucy Woodward demonstrates Dorset County Hospital's new £50,000 'Room with a view' for cancer patients who have to spend long periods in 'clean air' isolation rooms. The unique project beams live pictures via a microwave link from a beauty spot several miles away. (Bournemouth News)
A Room with a View. Auxiliary Nurse Lucy Woodward demonstrates Dorset County Hospital’s new £50,000 ‘Room with a view’ for cancer patients who have to spend long periods in ‘clean air’ isolation rooms. The unique project beams live pictures via a microwave link from a beauty spot several miles away. (Bournemouth News Agency)

Back to Dorset County Hospital, where Arts in Hospital manage a project called Room with a View. As I’ve explained in Technobiophilia, numerous studies have shown that pictures of nature can be as effective as the real thing in reducing stress and restoring well-being. This project was set up as a service to patients who might benefit from that kind of facility. It projects a live feed from one of two locations: a view from a camera on the roof of Kingston Maurward House, approximately three kilometres away, showing the gardens and the lake, and a different landscape captured from the roof of Brownsea Castle overlooking Poole Harbour. The images are transmitted to large LCD screens in two isolation rooms which are used for immuno-compromised patients with leukaemia and other blood cancers, who may have to remain in them for several weeks. During those terrible nights when a seriously ill patient lies awake in pain, or is afraid and cannot sleep, they can at least look forward to the arrival of the sun.

So what can we learn from the email ‘cybersunrise’, the fake ‘fake sunrise’ in Tiananmen Square, the millions of shared photos, and the hospital ward’s live video feed?

The lesson is that we should have confidence in our digital images and enjoy them without guilt. Sure, the Tiananmen Square picture turned out to be something different than we were led to believe – that is to say, it’s not government propaganda after all, but the film probably does, dare I say it, bring a ray of sunlight into the lives of Beijing citizens. The city smog is inexcusable, but the image of the sun coming up in Shandong province is really quite beautiful. The live stream in a hospital room doesn’t have the smells and sounds of the real thing, but it offers relaxation and perhaps even pain relief. And the pictures we snap and share with our friends when we’ve risen early and captured something gorgeous – well, why not?

Sunrise in Santiago, Chile.  22/1/14. Photo: Thilo Boeck
“Good morning. This is what I just woke up to.” Sunrise in Santiago, Chile. 22 Jan 2014. Photo: Thilo Boeck

The first tip, therefore, in this series on How to bring nature into your digital world is this:

Build the passage of the day into your digital life. Choose the best sunrises, the most evocative dusks. Photograph them, share them. Set aside a moment to gaze at them.  And if you already know of a gorgeous picture app or desktop application which follows the day from one sunrise to the next, especially with a live feed, please share it. Enjoy the digital dawn.

4 thoughts on “How to bring nature into your digital world: 1. Build the passage of the day into your digital life (and ignore that fake story about the Tiananmen sunrise)”

  1. Lovely thought Sue, and great that my picture was useful. Following your thoughts it is interesting what people comment on my pictures, especially whilst being in Chile with gorgeous weather…perhaps the most striking is of a friend who said: ” I love them because I can escape and imagine to be there. It brings sunshine to the grey British day.”

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  2. Hi Sue
    I wrote about the Tiananmen sunrise and am not at all surprised to hear the ‘true’ story. (http://pipmarks.com/2014/01/19/when-did-you-last-catch-a-real-or-virtual-sunrise-or-sunset/) As you say, I wanted to believe it. It also made me reflect on how much the media has drawn us into debates about climate change etc to the extent that many people seem to have forgotten about basic environmental issues such as air and water pollution. This post and your number 4 post have made me think more optimistically about how we can integrate nature and our increasingly virtual world – but I am still not sure if it is where we should be heading. Thanks. Pip

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    1. Hi Pip, thanks for your comment and for bringing your post to my attention. I really enjoyed it. I note your uncertainty about whether this is where we should be heading, but perhaps you might feel more comfortable about it if, for example, you imagined seeing the first ever painting and had misgivings about whether it might divorce us from ‘real’ nature. I’m sure you’d agree that we’ve benefited hugely from pictures and movies of nature, and I’m sure the same will be true of digital/interactive renderings too. We’re really just at the start of that era, which I find really exciting. I look forward to following your blog.

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