A 2009 article by psychologists at the University of Washington provides a brief summary of some research exploring “technological nature,” defined as technologies that in some way simulate, modify, or mediate our experience with the natural world (e.g., nature webcams, videos, virtual environments, robotic animals). The specific question their review addresses is whether there is a difference between exposure to technological nature and exposure to actual (natural?) nature in terms of potential impact on our physical and psychological wellbeing.
The seven studies they mention suggest an affirmative answer. For example, one study found more rapid heart rate recovery following low-level stress when a person was in an office with a window that looked out on a natural landscape than when a person was in either an office equipped with an HD plasma screen displaying a real-time image of a similar landscape or an office with only a blank wall to stare at—no recovery differences between the plasma image and a blank wall.
The article is worth the quick read for the concise description of Wilson’s biophilia hypothesis if nothing else. In addition, there are a couple things the authors said that I think are worth noting. First, they begin their abstract with the claim that “Two world trends are powerfully reshaping human existence: the degradation, if not destruction, of large parts of the natural world, and unprecedented technological development.“ They say this as if these things were parallel but entirely unrelated phenomena.
Also, and perhaps more noteworthy, they talk about something called environmental generational amnesia. It is unclear whether they coined the term, but the idea is pretty straightforward: because the quantity and quality of engagement with the (actual) natural world is decreasing with each subsequent generation, children growing up today will have reduced awareness and understanding of features of nature that their grandparents understood intimately. Environmental generational amnesia is an insidious side effect of the progressive substitution of technological nature for actual experience with the natural world:
“The concern is that, by adapting gradually to the loss of actual nature, humans will lower the baseline across generations for what counts as a full measure of the human experience and of human flourishing.”
Makes me wonder about how far my own baseline has shifted as I stare into the computer screen in front of me. I suppose it could be worse. I could be playing Farmville.
I came across another set of studies not too long ago showing that an adult’s level of environmental concern is highly correlated with the amount of contact he or she had with the natural world as a child. Add that to this idea of generational baseline shift, and we could be looking at a very environmentally apathetic future.