Category Archives: Bring nature into your digital world

‘Nature and Wellbeing in the Digital Age’ – new book by Sue Thomas

Nature and Wellbeing in the Digital Age by Sue Thomas
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I announced a while ago that I was working on a new book, and now it’s ready. The title has evolved to ‘Nature and Wellbeing in the Digital Age‘.

This is the first time I’ve written and created a Kindle book from scratch, and it has been a very enjoyable experience. I plan to do more!

I hope you like this short excerpt, which includes a few practical tips to try for yourself. You’re also warmly invited to join the conversation in the Digital Wellbeing Facebook Group

Continue reading ‘Nature and Wellbeing in the Digital Age’ – new book by Sue Thomas

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

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 and co-author of Biophilic Design: The Theory, Science and Practice of Bringing Buildings to Life. He believes that 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 in The 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.

Sue Thomas, Visiting Fellow, The Media School, Bournemouth University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

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

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.