Interesting tech-related stories are coming thick and fast this week. This one, another pre-publication electronic release (only slight irony here) shows that there is a world-wide trend for us to spend less time in natural spaces, including national parks, campgrounds, fishing and hunting grounds. The authors, knowing that their evidence for a tight connection is slightly sparse (they discuss this in another of their papers, published some time ago, but available at their nice website) suggest that it cannot be coincidence that the decline in our time spent communing with nature began at around the same time as a noted upsurge in screen time (in the 1980s and beyond).
Regardless of what one thinks of the causation argument (that we don't go to parks because we're more inclined to spend our leisure time looking at television, computer screens, bigger screens at the cinema), one of the implications of a finding like this speaks to those trying to convince the general public to shell out resources and put up with inconvenience to preserve biodiversity. In the words of the late Stephen Jay Gould, "we will not save what we do not love." If we want to convince people that biodiversity has value, it won't be so simple as to remind them of how much they enjoy communing with nature. Perhaps they really don't.
I think as well of the deeper roots of this development. Why has there been this cultural shift? Why are we gravitating towards looking at windows on the world, rather than the world itself? For one thing, it's safe and manageable. If I can immerse myself in the Serengeti with a flick of a remote control or a drive to the local cineplex, then why not? Going deeper still, though, the answer has to lie in a brain that is so comfortable with the jarring discontinuities of spaces joined only by etherlinks and invisible radio-waves that we can let these flickering images stand in place of the real thing without feeling that we've lost anything.
Like many, I worry about these kinds of developments, but at the same time I wonder whether the answer is to simply beat on electronic media as the greatest evil since Walter Raleigh chuffed on his first smoke. Might there be ways to co-opt these media to re-connect people (kids especially) with nature? Is there no scope for a computer game whose goal is promotion of biodiversity, or even embedded media that remind us of our connections to a greater world? What would be the impact of a giant screen on a city street that streamed 24/7 video content from the melting Polar caps? Isn't it just possible that a spark could light in the mind of someone sitting, waiting for a bus, looking at that screen?
The technology that is responsible for letting us teleport from one place to another using just our eyes is not going away. Clearly, though we may not yet know exactly why, we love this stuff. Given this, to me it makes more sense to find ways to use our strange attraction to the visual to our benefit, rather than to issue blanket condemnation of all things electronic.