Can technology better our interactions with nature?

Posted in 2011 The Gnovis Blog

In anticipation of her eighth album, Björk, the petite, Icelandic artist infamous for a certain swan dress, recently released an album-integrated app for iOS devices called Biophilia (new window).
The term Biophilia refers to the affinity between humans and other living things.  The narrated introduction to the app explains, “Just as we use music to express parts of us that would otherwise be hidden, so too can we use technology to make visible much of nature’s invisible world.”  In the app, the user zooms around the cosmos, which are comprised of a star or small galaxy for each song on the album. Eventually, individual apps will be released that correlate with these points in the Björk universe and much of the material comprising these applications will relate to the connection between music and natural phenomenon  – the sound of lightening, for example. However, as is sometimes the case in fostering an intellectual understanding of the natural (and is oftentimes the case with smartphone applications), the process of navigating the digital universe presents distractions that make it increasingly difficult for the user to fully appreciate the simplicity of the naturalistic world or the content.
Biophilia’s introduction reminds me of the film-based artwork Edge of a Wood by Canadian artist Rodney Graham.

In a darkened gallery, the projected film contains footage of a portion of the perimeter of a thickly wooded area in the depth of night – the inkiness occasionally and increasingly punctuated by a probing searchlight originating from the loud helicopter overhead. The scanning nature of the light is the only means by which the audience can see the illuminated forest while the sound of the helicopter enhances the atmosphere of the woods and makes the forest feel sinister. In this instance, while technology is the only means by which we can experience the nature that is presented, it also destroys natural aspects of the forest and simultaneously reconstructs a new perspective.
Additionally, according to research done by Dr. Peter Kahn, the observation of technological nature, such as organic images portrayed on television screens, provides greater psychological benefits than no such observation. However, the benefit is not as great as that experienced when viewing real landscapes, and therefore, it is not an appropriate substitute for the benefits provided by observing the natural world firsthand.
On a grand scale, the fact that technology can make the invisible, visible, is true; technology does provide us an insight into the most remote parts of our world. Without the aid of technological innovations, it would be impossible to observe and research microscopic organisms. Technology provides us with the tools that give greater access to both nature and the science involved therein, but this cannot replace the value inherent in unaided encounters with the physical world surrounding us. Biophilia, therefore, can similarly provide a greater understanding of nature and increase our intellectual engagement with the biological world. Yet, even with the aid of technology, or perhaps because of it, this interaction is not as beneficial, nor as enlightening, as the actual experience of being in the physical world.