Sue Thomas

life nature technology

Reviews of Technobiophilia

Image: Carolyn Black

What they are saying about Technobiophilia:

“It seems that our ancestral attachment to nature has not been forgotten, especially if you look at how we use natural metaphors to name technological products and services. We even integrate natural symbolism into elements of our interfaces. Moving well beyond the usual dichotomy between warm nature and cold technology – and unlikely compensations integrated the man-made machines – Sue Thomas investigates this relationship, framing it in a new territory that hosts the dialogue and the juxtaposition of the two domains. The book’s title stems from the concept of “biophilia”, or our innate tendency to focus on life and lifelike processes, which was coined by Erich Fromm, popularized by biologist E.O. Wilson, and celebrated by the homonymous interactive album by Björk in 2011. The technological world seen through the lens of environmental psychology is absorbing, generating an innovative perspective. Thomas collects a vast amount of elements ranging over design, practice, digital folklore and interfaces. She discusses the biophilic needs of a huge number of users, arguing that restorative qualities of nature affect brain functioning capacities. And after an articulate discourse involving quite different cultural fields, it’s clear that integrating these two planets (as she defines them: the one “beneath our feet” and the one “inside our machines”), should be the most natural way to balance our digital life, rather than drastic ‘digital detox’ cures, or addictive indulgence in self-gratifying screen-based loops.” Alessandro Ludovico in Neural


“Early on Technobiophilia Sue Thomas points out just how exceptional “wild” is, and how manufactured or artificed are what many think of as “natural”: hedgerows and fields. She describes experiments in which viewing representations of nature are shown to trigger the same or similar effects to embodied immersions in the terrains represented (though none of the experimenters seem to have considered how that physical immersion in the real thing might be being translated through framing and organising ideas like ‘picturesque’). Thomas argues that, unless humans are to be given privileged and exceptional status (and that, surely, went with Wallace and Darwin), New York City is as natural as the Sun. Placing human artifice within the remit of nature does not, however, engage with the distinction between a glacier, hedgerow or Broadway and their representation”. – Mythogeography.  Read the whole review.


“Sue Thomas has taken a very personal and broadly interdisciplinary look at one of the most important issues of our time — the tension between the natural and digital worlds. This book provides a useful lens for seeing where we are, who we are, and where humans, our digital creations, and the natural world are heading. We need to learn to make fulfilling lives without abandoning either the world of technology or the world of biology. Technobiophilia shows the way.” – Howard Rheingold, Lecturer, Stanford University, US, and author of Net Smart.


“At a time when our technological environment has become so intricate, omnipresent and autonomous that we have started to perceive it as a nature of its own, such sensibilities are desperately needed.” – Koert van Mensvoort, author of Next Nature: Nature Changes Along with Us


“The book is about a powerful subliminal urge by our entire species to hang onto our connection to the natural world, as we are pulled deeper into the digital age…It is good to find someone like Thomas who loves nature but is not an anti-technologist. Her book is the beginning of a line of thinking that needs to be expanded by those who are deeply concerned about the effects of our addiction to technology. The book reinforces the idea that if human problems are exacerbated by technology, as they certainly are, doesn’t it make sense to use technology to ameliorate human problems…Thomas book is filled with well-documented, transdisciplinary, theoretical arguments for the many researchers who should begin working in this field;, but it is a good read for general audiences…I kept reading because I want to see where the personal story leads. What happens to her suggest some things that we ought to make happen for ourselves far more often than we do.” – George Davis, Read the whole review.


Technobiophilia, by Sue Thomas, reminds me of several other books to come out recently that, instead of bemoaning our increasingly cyborgian, augmented reality, seeks to reconcile our love of screens with our love of—and need for—nature. The title comes from biologist E.O. Wilson’s word “biophilia,” or the tendency of living things to seek out other living things. This desire to connect drives our use of online social networks, as well as the rise of nature-themed words in our tech vocabulary (are you, by chance, reading this on an Apple product?). Drawing on the research of Orion contributor Richard Louv and other familiar names, Technobiophilia reminds readers that we control how we use our technology—and even smartphones and screensavers can help us connect to the natural world. – Emily Glaser, Orion Magazine.


Thomas outlines Stephen and Rachel Kaplan’s arguments for the benefits of being in natural environments, and translates these to the online world. In particular she draws on studies into people’s responses to the presence or absence of windows. Apparently hospital patients recover quicker, and people in waiting rooms are less anxious, when there’s a view of green space from a window. But pictures on the wall provide a similar benefit, as do still and video images of nature scenes: “Whether indoors, outdoors or online, it is clear that nearby nature has a profound effect on well-being” (loc921).

She refers to the book Technological Nature by Peter Kahn who studied people working in environments with no windows, rooms with actual windows to an outside world, and wall-mounted computer displays of outdoor scenes. Kahn concludes, “technological nature is better than no nature but not as good as actual nature” (xvi). Window substitutes are ok if there’s no better option.

But irrespective of the evidence about recovery and well-being, these authors seem uneasy about the idea that we could fill our environments with window substitutes. I don’t need to catalogue all the ways that an actual window differs from a picture or screen on a wall. I take from Thomas’ book a challenge to the sanctity of some mythical idea of our authentic experience of nature. That similar benefits might be achieved by other (digital) means adds weight to this challenge. – Richard Coyne, Windowphilia. Read the whole review.


Smartphone makers like Apple, Samsung and others have flirted with different materials to make their smartphones — metal, plastic, even glass front and back with the iPhone 4 line.

So which of these is best? Wood!

When Google first marketed the Moto X smartphone, it showed a picture revealing a bamboo-backed version of the device (which was made by Motorola, which Google has since sold to Lenovo). Later, Google announced four “natural material” options: bamboo, ebony, teak and walnut. I already had a plastic-backed Moto X, but when the wood version came out I bought one. I had to have it because of the wood.

This desire to own consumer electronics made at least in part with natural materials is called technobiophilia. The word was coined by Sue Thomas for her 2013 book, Technobiophilia: Nature and Cyberspace. It’s, of course, a combination of tech and biophilia, which is the innate attraction to nature and living things.

A bit of bamboo or walnut on the back of a smartphone isn’t nature, per se. But it symbolizes nature and can be more pleasant to touch than cold metal or cheap plastic. Plus, wood components done right give gadgets a high-quality feel and make each one unique, because the grain pattern of a piece of wood is different from the pattern on any other piece of wood.

It’s easy to get it wrong when adding wood to electronics, which is another way of saying that it’s hard to get it right. – Mike Elgan, Confessions of a Technobiophiliac, Computer World. Read the whole article.



See also Amazon Reviews UK – USA

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