It is late afternoon in winter and you are weary.
You have been reading and writing emails for hours; now you raise your eyes from the screen just as street lamps start to come on outside. Beyond the window, cars and buses glide by, their headlights catching the pale faces of shoppers and children coming home from school. You feel trapped in a grey world. Turning back to your device, you sigh, slip in your ear buds, and open a web browser to search for some relief. Just for a moment, you need to be somewhere else, somewhere bright and warm. As you click around, a video catches your eye and you discover…
…deer wandering through a sunlit forest glade. Birds sing, a stream rushes by, people are quietly working.
In the forest, something stirs…
You notice an odd wooden structure, a complicated camera rig, and a man with a megaphone. He says ‘Take One’. Someone sets a wooden ball onto a series of carpentered rails built like a long thin staircase. The ball alternately rolls and falls from one step to the next. Every time it drops, the impact generates a single musical note. Then another. You realise you are looking at an exquisitely-designed giant marimba and it is playing a familiar piece of music — Bach’s cantata ‘Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring’.
Eventually the ball rolls to an exact stop on a wooden ledge where two mobile phones stand side-by-side, one facing to the front, the other to the back. It is a surprise to find these hi-tech devices in this woodland grove. The screen of each phone is rectangular just like other smart-phones but the case is unusual in that it is made from real cypress wood and smoothly curved to fit perfectly in the palm. The grain of each is different from the other because, of course, no two slices of wood look the same.
This is a 2011 promotional video for the Sharp Touch Wood SH-08C, filmed in a forest on the island of Kyushu, Japan. The combination of wild nature with state-of-the-art technology may at first appear incongruous but in the pages ahead we shall come to understand how thousands of years of human experience lie behind the design and marketing of this very contemporary piece of kit which has been encased in an ancient material and ‘discovered’ in a stand of trees.
Back in the real world
As the movie comes to an end there is a brief moment when your imagination places the phone into your hand and you can almost smell the tangy aroma of the forest. Then another email pops up and you are back in the real world of any desk anywhere. But your brief excursion has made you feel just a little refreshed and before opening the mail you follow the link in the video to check out where you might be able to buy such a phone. Maybe it would be good to own that piece of real wood, to gaze at its patterns and feel its warmth between your fingers.
This kind of momentary reverie at the computer transports us into natural spaces which are very different from the industrial plastic and glass of modern life, and an increasing number of technology companies know that appealing to our love of nature in order to sell high tech products is both powerful and influential. But how did this apparently incongruous synergy come about?
The internet is full of nature
It seems to be connected to the fact that as the internet developed it generated new kinds of experiences and encounters, such as ‘being online’, and new kinds of innovations then grew up alongside them. But all these tools and designs needed names, and many of the names we gave them drew upon metaphors from the natural world. These terms were not imposed on us and there was no single person directing them; rather, they seem to have evolved as part of the haphazard lingua franca of cyberspace. If the idea seems unlikely, consider this:
just as the town of Macondo in Gabriel Garcia Marquez’ novel One Hundred Years of Solitude was ‘so new that some things still lacked names’, so it was too with cyberspace.
And even today the language of computers and cyberspace is still saturated with images from nature: fields, webs, streams, rivers, trails, paths, torrents, and islands; flora, including apples, blackberries, trees, roots, and branches; and fauna, such as spiders, viruses, worms, pythons, lynxes, gophers, not to mention the ubiquitous bug and mouse. This is somewhat surprising since internet culture is an entirely new construction built by human beings who mostly live in cities, and until very recently our engagements with it have taken place largely indoors because computers have needed to be close to an electricity supply. The advent of better batteries and mobile technologies is now changing that, but why should cyberspace have any relationship with nature anyway? As we shall see, the reasons are both unexpected and comforting in a world riven by anxieties about the effects of technology on our health and well-being.
The problem with cyberspace is that we love it, and we fear that we love it too much.
Should we turn off our machines to relax?
When it comes to our phones, tablets and computers we are constantly torn apart by passion and guilt in equal measures. Are they making us addicted? Anti-social? Brainless? But how can that be when they also make us so happy? Strange as it may seem, there could be a connection between our passion for cyberspace and our affection for the natural world. Extensive research by environmental psychologists and social biologists has already demonstrated that exposure to nature helps us in many different ways such as relieving stress and restoring attention and concentration. Author Richard Louv, who coined the term ‘nature deficit disorder’, writes ‘The more high-tech our lives become, the more nature we need to achieve natural balance.’ It might seem important, therefore, that we turn off our machines and go outdoors, and there are certainly many times when this is advisable. But the situation is more complicated than that.
My research shows that some of the features we so value in the natural world can also be found online; indeed,our subconscious has already imprinted nature into cyberspace. Now we need to recognise how that is happening and learn to harness it for ourselves.
You’ve just read the first two pages of Technobiophilia: nature and cyberspace by Sue Thomas (Bloomsbury, 2013). Find out more here.