In today’s show, I talk with Professor Sue Thomas, an author, researcher and academic whose work sits at the intersection of humanity, nature and technology.
We explore the relationship and distinctions we draw between ourselves, the living world and the technology we create, what it means to be technobiophilic, and how our search for meaning, awe and transcendence can lead us to unexpected places.
Join in the conversation #hivepodcast
Sue Thomas has written and edited eight books, most notably the Clarke-nominated ‘Correspondence’ (1992, reissued 2019), and ‘Technobiophilia: nature and cyberspace’ (2013). Her most recent book is ‘Nature & Wellbeing in the Digital Age’, practical tips on to how to feel better without logging off. She is currently writing ‘The Fault in Reality’, a novel about the intoxication of connectedness and what happens when it takes an unexpected turn.
With a background in journalism, Sue is a regular contributor to Orion Magazine, she has also written for Aeon, Slate, Mashable, The Guardian, and others. She founded the trAce Online Writing Centre at Nottingham Trent University in 1994, and became Professor of New Media at De Montfort University in 2005.
She now writes full time.
NN: So I’m going to start with a big question, which is, where do you think we’re headed as a species?
ST: Well, that’s really up to us I guess. I’m quite keen on the James Lovelock’s Gaia theory that if humans ever became troublesome or too troublesome then the planet would just shrug us off. And I think that’s very possible. The only question is how much damage is going to be done before we get kicked off our own planet. But in an ideal world, I’d like to think that everything’s going to be better. There’s going to be more integrated interspecies communication and living peacefully together on the planet. But again, that’s entirely up to us. So there are two very different routes and I have no idea which one will happen.
NN: It’s curious a sense of I’m living in harmony with other beings because we seem to be very bad at living in harmony, even within our own species, less alone people or beings with whom we share the wider world.
ST: Yes, absolutely. What can we say? It’s just looking very precipitous at the moment. And I don’t even know if it’s just gone beyond any point where we can retrieve humanity from the state that it’s got everybody into.
NN: It’s funny because I think it sounds very inline with a lot of things that I’m reading and listening to at the moment about other people who are really staring down the face of the research that’s being done. It does look extremely difficult and bleak. Not that there aren’t things that we can’t do, of course there are, but I think in order to be able to make progress of any kind, by which I mean adapt to the change that is to come and hopefully mitigate the worst of it, we have to be able to accept that we’re in a really difficult position that we’ve created a very difficult position to be in, I think.
ST: Yes, yes.
NN: And so you have a really interesting realm of knowledge and research and you write among other things about technobiophilia. Can you explain a little bit about what this is and how it shows up in our lives?
ST: Well, technobiophilia is a word that I made up myself.
NN: I love it.
ST: And it’s not a very good word, but I couldn’t think of any other word. But it comes from the research I did for the book that ended up being called Technobiophilia, Nature and Cyberspace. And it comes from my initial research into the question of why is it that when we first went into cyberspace, and even now as we’re still going, we’ve developed a whole set of nature metaphors to describe cyberspace, like, streams, and the web, and clouds, et cetera, et cetera.
NN: And bugs and viruses.
ST: So I said, bugs, viruses, web obviously. And so I started out in the early 2000s to try and find out why. And it took me eight years to figure out why we did this. And the solution came when I discovered E.O. Wilson’s concept of Biophilia, and then suddenly everything fell into place.
So just to kind of define what E.O. Wilson called Biophilia was that he called it the innate attraction to life and lifelike processes. And that’s the term that describes how we react to nature because everybody knows that nature is good for you. When somebody says, “Oh, I need to get back to nature for a while”, we totally understand what they’re talking about. Everybody has this sense of longing for nature at different times in their lives often. But it was Wilson who actually used that term, Biophilia, to describe this urge if you like. And he went on to suggest that he believes that it’s kind of genetically coded into us because from the very earliest beginnings, we had to learn to live and operate within obviously the natural world, be able to survive in it, to recognize what was good for us, what was bad for us. And so we were intimately connected with the everyday processes of nature.
He later on made another very interesting suggestion, which was that perhaps biophilia can be triggered, that it can go dormant for a while and then be triggered back into life. So they are the kind of basic ideas behind his concept of biophilia.
NN: I’m curious, what are some of these triggers?
ST: He didn’t really say, but I’ve wondered whether it could be triggered by personal need, at different times in our lives we feel that need to connect more closely with nature, and these other times we just kind of ignore it. But he didn’t spell that out. So yeah, I can’t answer that question. But what I did start to think was that may be the trigger in this case was the actual adventure of going into cyberspace. Because when we entered cyberspace and the internet was born in 1969 and really in the years following that, people ventured into this new territory which worked by completely different rules to the landscapes and the physicality of the planet that we’re used to.
So I came to the conclusion that the reason that people were developing these nature focus metaphors to describe their experience online was because they were trying to connect it with something that they vaguely recognized, if that makes sense?
NN: Maybe map out the territory.
ST: Yeah. If you’re in a strange place, you might want to say, “Oh well, that looks like another place I know. So now I feel more comfortable in it.”
NN: That’s fascinating.
ST: So that’s where it all fell together. And that’s where I thought, “Okay”, this biophilia, but then there’s also technobiophilia, which is exactly the same as his definition, the innate attraction to life and lifelike processes, but as they appear in technology. So that’s the area that I’ve been exploring for quite some years now.
NN: When I think about our sense of relationship with our environment, so everything within which we were situated, we seem to draw these quite arbitrary distinctions between nature and us. Even though we are of nature, it’s not like we just got put down here by an alien spaceship. And then by extension we also create an arbitrary distinction between nature and technology. But is this situation really as clear cut as we like to think it is?
ST: Well, I don’t believe it is because technology is just another aspect of nature really. It’s another phenomenon manifestation. And one thing I found very interesting when I was researching the book was to ask a lot of interesting people the same question, which was if the internet were a landscape, what kind of landscape do you think it would be?
NN: Oh, that’s such an interesting question.
ST: Well, I don’t know what you… do you want to tell me what you would say?
NN: I think of a very complex multilayered city, somewhere like, I don’t know, maybe Shanghai, but a futuristic version. What do you think? What’s your vision that springs to mind?
ST: Very interesting. Well, what do, I think? I guess I think of it as being like the ocean, but then we all bring our own metaphors to whatever feels right for us. But certainly ocean was a very common metaphor that people told me about. And so for example, I interviewed Tim O’Reilly of a very well known web 2.0, well, what was he? He coined the term, I think web 2.0 of O’Reilly media. And Tim O’Reilly said immediately, “Oh, it’s just like the ocean because you can be in it, but you can only see small parts of it at any one time.”
Other people said it was like a desert. Other people said that it was like a forest for similar reasons as Tim O’Reilly. But most people had a fairly quick response. And most people talked about rural landscapes rather than your city.
NN: Really. That’s so fascinating.
ST: Yeah. Yeah.
NN: Why do you think that is?
ST: Well, I guess for me, I thought we propped up my fairy, but yeah, that people would think… I mean obviously a lot of people might say the web as well because we’re used to that. That’s kind of been imposed on us, if you like.
NN: I wonder, especially in a time in which we are generating so much content specifically for the consumption of people online where it’s kind of a loss of our lives and are revolving around technology as opposed to technology just being a tool that supports our living. I wonder how people’s metaphors might change over time as to what the web is for them. Do you think it’s something which is evolving alongside our use of it, that the relationship changes at a fundamental level?
ST: Well, that’s a good thought because I haven’t really asked people that question since about 2009 I guess, when I was asking a lot of people who had been online for a long time. So today’s users, if you like to [inaudible 00:10:23] the younger users would have a different concept. I think a massive difference as well is that at the time when I was looking at it, mobile phones were still quite new and people were genuinely tethered to their laptops or their main big computers, desktops. So they are physically experiencing it differently to phones.
And people often say to me as well, “Well, the web, that’s not it anymore. Instagram is it.” Or WhatsApp is it. That is the place we go, note the term, we go to the place of WhatsApp. And I think they still very much have the sense of… You and I right now we’re talking on Skype, we’re in the same room together somewhere, but it’s not so concentrated on the internet per se as it used to be. And also I would add to that, that I always use the term cyberspace and people used to say to me, “That’s a really old fashioned term. You shouldn’t use that.” But actually cyberspace, that is the place where we both are right now.
NN: Yeah. It’s funny isn’t it, that people like the sense of, I guess it’s kind of going to a specific node and the network and finding their platform then and sticking to it. And maybe it’s about the sense of security and familiarity that maybe it’s become like an alternative to the town square.
ST: Yeah. And Facebook has really affected that as well because Facebook has put so many limitations on that place that we didn’t have before. Things like not being able to control the color of your page. In the early days, you could make your community page any color your like, but now Facebook won’t let you. So we’re very reduced. We’re in a kind of uniform environment in Facebook and people who weren’t around in the early days might not realize that.
NN: It’s so fascinating the sense of standardization, which seems to happen when things get to a certain critical mass. I remember hearing Jaron Lanier talk a bit about this idea that in the early days of course, so I was [inaudible 00:12:40] like that this wild west of possibility and creativity and people would code their websites from scratch. And I remember having a dial-up connection. I remember when I was 15 or 16 starting to use the internet and the different kinds of platforms you would have. They were not at all homogenous, they were very distinctive. And there was a sense of direct relating that I feel we’ve lost now because now we go on someone else’s platform, we follow their guidelines. What do you think that does in terms of our sense of agency and our perception of ourselves as I guess creative agents within cyberspace?
ST: Well, from my point of view, I think that’s a much reduced. I mean in the 1990s I was running an online community for writers that was called Trace. And it was an international community and everything happened on the web. That was way before we could use video. You couldn’t do video chat. It was very simple, but there are lots of different platforms. So one of my obsessions was always looking for the perfect platform for our community. And we did use the chat room quite a lot, but beyond that you couldn’t really have any live interaction. But there was very much a sense of that kind of individuality that people would feel they were coming to this unusual place that many other people did not go to. So that made them a bit special and they could literally do anything they wanted to do online. Whereas these days, I’m not sure in the popular platforms that people have that sense of freedom, it’s much more conformist. But there must be places, other places for younger people that I don’t go to, where there is still that sense of anarchy.
NN: And I wonder also, I’m just sort of checking my thoughts as I’m thinking it, but I do get the sense that, I’m really intrigued to see what your sense of this is. I get a sense that people go online a lot more now to consume because consumption is easier than creation, even though a lot of people do also create. It feels to me like the balance has shifted. I mean, would you agree with that? Do you think that that’s not representative? What are your thoughts on that, on creativity versus consumption?
ST: Well, I suppose I have a slightly kind of prejudice view because the website that I was running in the 90s there were people going there to create because they were writers who were learning how to do HTML, and they were learning how to do little flush movies and how to make things move around the screen and all those kinds of things. But even then, although our community was over 5,000 people, that group was very tiny. And as a writer, I think it’s a bit the same in that many more people read books than write books. And the same with newspapers, more people read newspapers, than actually even write a letter to a newspaper. So you get this notion of lacking. There are things that you would lack on a page because we would just sit quietly and watch. And there are lots of people like that even on Facebook now. So maybe that’s just natural human behavior. Maybe you know people who know everything that we’re doing from our Facebook feed, but they never post and they never even like they just watch.
NN: it does seem that the technology, whatever we’re doing now, is something which we can’t really escape from. And I want to jump from that point and and ask you a bit about one of the many books that you’ve written, which is called Correspondence, which I know was shortlisted for the Clark award and other science fiction prizes. And this is a story about a woman who transformed herself into a machine. And the story runs alongside a parallel narrative of a woman who merges with nature. Can you tell us a bit about this really fascinating storyline and the potential tension or similarities between these two transformations?
ST: Well, that was the first novel that I ever wrote. I have no clue what I was doing. And it’s actually because it began as two separate stories. So I was writing two books. One of them was about the woman who wants to become a cyborg. And the other one was about a woman who was desperate to live in the countryside. And the second one was very much about me because at the time I was a single parent, mature student with two kids. And I lived in a suburb of Nottingham and I was desperate to move out and live in a cottage in the countryside. And of course the kids were dead against it. And so I thought, the only way I’m going to do this is to write it out for myself, because I don’t understand why I want to do this.
So I’ll create a woman and I’ll let her do it, and I’ll find out through her what’s going on with me. So I was writing her and at the same time as a mature student, I was learning basic programming. This was in 1985, was when I started my humanities degree. So I was learning how to code and that to me was a complete revelation. The wonderful idea that you could live in a world where everything was right or wrong and that you could write a computer program and then you would type run, and if you’d done it correctly it would go exactly as you planned. And I just used to think if only life was like that I would be so much happier. So I was writing about this woman. I wrote a few short stories as well about women living in that kind of universe, but ended up writing a novel about it.
And then one day I was really stuck. I didn’t know where to go with these two characters. So I decided to give them a conversation together, let them just talk. And as they talked, I realized that I was talking about one book and I was talking about two different sides of me, going in two very different directions. So that’s when I kind of merged them together and started writing Correspondence proper, because it was about correspondences between people, between worlds and so on. So at the end of all of that, by the time it was done, I think what I understood was that the countryside story was about somebody who desperately wanted to merge with nature. And the computer story was about somebody who desperately wanted to merge with a machine. So it was about the sublime in both cases, really, but it was a long journey of discovery.
NN: Oh, that’s so interesting. And it’s so fascinating to me that you use the word sublime, because I’m currently studying art in Boston, and in the first year we were doing art history and we’re talking about this sense of the sublime. And it’s almost like a terror and an awe, an appreciation of beauty of the extraordinaryness of nature that the fact it’s so much bigger than we are, that it’s completely uncontrollable. So this sense of awe and terror we get. And so I wonder with the relationship that we have with technology, if as you maybe suggest there is that similar sense of terror and awe, and potential and beauty.
ST: I think absolutely. And amusingly I won’t reveal the ending of Correspondence, but a friend of mine who was asked to do a blurb for the back of the book, said it was chilling and I said it’s not chilling. It’s wonderful. And I think that sums it up.
NN: What was it that was chilling to her that you found wonderful that was such different?
ST: Well, the merging between human and machine. For me it was an ecstatic moment.
NN: Oh, I see. It’s a bit like seven of nine in star trek?
ST: Yeah. Yes. Yeah. To me it was an ecstatic moment, but to my friend it was chilling.
NN: I do wonder, do you feel that this kind of sense of split, because I definitely have the sense of split between really wanting to run for the hills and be with nature, and this romanticized idea of what that might look like. And then the other side of me that relies, as I’m doing right now, on technology for communication, for research, for entertainment. Do you think there is a way, well… what do you think are some of the ways that we can weave these things together so we have a more rich life? Because I know that you’ve written another book which I’m reading, which is fascinating, Nature and Wellbeing in the Digital Age, where you talk about how we can live well with nature in a wired world. How do we do that? What are some of the key principles?
ST: Well, I think the first principle is give up on the guilt. People who are saying, “Oh I spend too long on my phone or my laptop or my iPad or whatever”, that gives rise to this kind of anxiety and guilt about doing it, and then you think you have to go and have a digital detox. And so you lock your phone away for a week or whatever and you think that’s going to make you feel better. And then you just feel really anxious because you’re missing your entire community of friends and kind of colleagues out there. So I think the first step is forget about that. Don’t feel guilty, just enjoy enjoying your phone or whatever it is. And at the same time also take responsibility for the fact that your phone does not dominate you, you are in charge and if you want to turn it off you can turn it off.
But if you choose not to then you can kind of integrate it into your daily life. So that’s the first step I think that people have to take is not to feel overpowered by technology because you do have control of it. And then beyond that, what I’ve been looking at is ways to actually just… there’re several aspects to it. I mean one is the idea that people do use technology a lot for doing quote nature type things, whether it’s taking photographs or whether it’s using maps and knowing where you are. A strong part of it actually sharing because people really appreciate seeing other people’s photographs. You just see the photos of sunsets on Facebook and how many likes they get. So there’s a strong sense of using technology as a tool in that sense. But there’s kind of deeper aspects to it. Should I explain a little bit about where that comes from and the psychology behind it?
NN: Yes, please. I’d love to hear more.
ST: Well when I first started looking into biophilia, I found a whole range of work on environmental psychology, which is all completely new to me. It’s not a kind of area that I know anything about. And I found that really since the 80s, particularly, a number of environmental psychologists have been trying to measure the impact of nature on people. Going back to what I was saying earlier about we all know that nature is good for us and we don’t bother to measure it, but these environments mental psychologists were doing that. So there are a number of people who did very specific experiments.
So I’ll just tell you about one or two of them. So for example, in 1984 a psychologist called Roger Ulrich did a really famous experiment, whereby he took two sets of gallbladder patients, who just have their gallbladder removed, and he put half of them in one hospital ward and the other half in a different hospital ward. And the difference between them was that in one ward they had a window with a view of some trees outside and in the other ward, the view from the window was just a brick wall. And that was the experiment. And then they measured things like recovery time and all aspects of the convalescence.
So what they found was that the patients in the ward who could see a tree, and it was quite an ordinary tree, they could see a tree from the window, they required less pain relief, they recovered, their wounds healed more quickly, they often left hospital more quickly. And it absolutely seemed to show that if you have a view of an ordinary tree from your window, you will recover more quickly than if you have a brick wall. So that kicked off loads of other experiments in offices and schools and prisons doing basically the same kind of thing over and over again and getting the same results over again.
One of my favorite one was the dentist waiting room experiment, which involved an aquarium. And the researchers would take an aquarium, a real aquarium into a dentist’s office. And on some days they would leave this aquarium in the dentist’s office and other days they would take it away. So what they found was that patients who saw the aquarium in the waiting room would generally again require less pain relief. And I always think this is really chilling, they would be more compliant in the dentist chair.
NN: Wow. Wow.
ST: Than people who didn’t have the, the view of the aquarium. So there’s a massive of work on this. And as I looked into all of this, I discovered an interesting fact, which was that most of these experiments were done way before the worldwide web, but they were done using window views, screens, videos, TV programs, even paintings, even calendars with paintings on them.
That’s where they were getting their results from. And so I asked a friend of mine who was an environmental psychologist, why didn’t they just go out and test people in nature? And she said, “Oh, because that’s too uncertain. You don’t get to proper test circumstances, the proper environment.” So that’s why they do it indoors with screens. And there’s me, I was trying to figure out why did I have a screen saver of a waterfall? And of course it’s exactly the same thing. So that was my big understanding that I thought actually, then I found other researchers who have done the same experiments on computers and in virtual reality and augmented reality and the results are the same. So…
NN: I’m curious how that’s possible because clearly sort of we have a very rich imaginal capacity. So if we’re looking at a screen which has two dimensions, which is privately lit with a peaceful scene in nature, qualitatively, I would imagine there must be some difference between that and between being in an environment in which all of our senses are engaged, where we can smell the soil, where we can touch the bark of the tree, where we can hear sounds in three dimensions around us. What are your thoughts about that? About the quality of the immersion of the experience?
ST: Well, I thought the same thing, which is why I asked around about why on earth didn’t these people use real environments if you like. I think it is to do with the imagination and what you bring to it. There is this growing evidence that it works, but I don’t think anybody’s really qualitatively examining it as your describing because I think most of the evidence is anyway based screens and so on. Some of those not, but there was some one piece of work which was done by, I think his name was David Berman, where he did quite a detailed experiment of sending people out into a park and they had to do various cognitive experiments tests rather before they went into the park and when they came out. And he was looking at their kind of cognitive results, if you like, before and after immersion in nature.
But then a PhD student in Canada called Delcho Valchinov, he repeated the experiment that Berman had done, but he did it in virtual reality. And he said that he got the same results. That’s what his PhD was on, was the same level of results that Berman had found in a park. So I can’t explain that.
ST: I mean a very famous thing, a couple of more short things. One is, I wrote an article about this for Slate years ago, and I don’t know if you remember the Facebook game, Farmville? Do you remember Farmville?
NN: Yeah, way back when… I remember that.
ST: Tending your tomatoes and all that stuff. Well, the people at Farmville read my article in Slate saying more or less what I’m saying to you now. And they got in touch and they said, “This is amazing because they said we do a lot of user testing focus groups and we were really surprised to find that people were telling us that they played Farmville to relax, to enjoy farming their own produce and bringing it in and tending their own animals, all of this on Farmville that it suits them and lifted depression and all that.”
And they used to say, “Why is this happening?” Because it wasn’t in their plan for the game. But when they read my book in Technobiophilia, they said, “Now we understand.” So very interesting. And very briefly, one more example is if you look up a place called Snow World, that was started 20 years ago for soldiers who’d been burned, the military people who’d been burned in action and in terrible burns. And every day they had to have their dressings changed. And which was always excruciating painful. And somebody devised a snow world VR game, so they would put on their VR kit, they would go and play in this icy cold landscape and they did not even feel that burn dressings being changed. So of course, yeah, of course it’s in the mind, but the mind is very powerful.
NN: I’m curious with this because one of the things, and I’m a lover of technology and what it, what it can give to enrich our and our experiences, but one thing that I come up against a sense of our desire to escape and the ease with which we devour content or we spend time distracted away from things that might be uncomfortable for us or painful. Or for instance, in the example that you gave with Farmville, which is so interesting the way that the creators had unintentionally designed a platform that could help alleviate dysphoric states, to help people feel better by emulating something that we would have evolved to do anyway, which is to go and forage or to attend animals or whatever that might be.
I’m wondering with technology, if there comes a point at which it’s ease also contributes to somehow a degraded experience in the sense that instead of planting real tomatoes and having some food and learning about the natural world and actually getting off fingers in the soil and all the benefits that’s been shown to have, we do the easy thing. So you go on Facebook and we do it there instead. What do you think is a way for us to find balance so that we get the benefits of technology without robbing ourselves of the richness of living in our natural living world?
ST: I think that’s a really important question and one that people need to be looking at right now, because everything that I’ve described, can you imagine how those techniques could be used, for example, in a prison to keep everybody calm? I mean, some cruise ships have cabins right in the middle of the ship that have no windows and therefore they’re a lot cheaper. A lot of cruise lines and now putting virtual reality windows in those rooms. So you can pretend that there’s a balcony there with the wind blowing the curtains and the sound of the sea. Imagine putting that in a prison cell. I mean, you could virtually keep people sedated with that.
So the first thing is we have to understand the power of what this is doing. And I think, we have become passive recipients of sentimentalize nature and I’m particularly interested in that because I’m very interested in nature webcams and the difference between watching a live streaming of an eagle’s nest with say, watching David Attenborough storify the wild into something it’s not. So I think we have been seduced by years, actually I would say years of TV nature programming, into a place where nature is a picture, nature is a narrative, but it’s not smelly or scary.
So I think that the kind of current vogue for some people to do extreme sports and extreme landscapes is a response to that really. It’s a complicated situation. It’s more to do perhaps with being mindful of what exactly is going on.
NN: It seems to me that there’s this strong desire, or at least of course I’m reading things around the subject, so now I’m seeing it more, but that does seem to be a strong desire and many people for a rewilding-
NN: -which is language that we’re hearing used more and more. So the sense of how do we get back in touch with that visceral sense of aliveness that we may be encounter less now that we’ve built controlled environments in which we’re comfortable. And I love having a peaceful comfy bed and waking up in the mornings and having a hot shower. I enjoy all of these things and yet at the same time kind of in keeping the outside on the outside, we also somehow cut ourselves off. I don’t know how we begin to resolve this well, especially when we’re living in cities, when it’s harder to have direct access to the great outdoors, if not through screens like you say. And then also just giving ourselves the chance to get out of the city.
NN: And maybe grow our plants and have some wild areas.
ST: But you don’t have to get out of the city for that. I mean, looking at the kind of younger generation that the idea of a forest school is more and more popular. And I’ve got four young grandsons and they all have things like forest school days. So maybe one day a week they will go and spend in a local specially created little forest school. Forest schools are quite common. And for example, it’s better to go there perhaps than a zoo where you see animals in cages. So forest schools, it is about learning how to make a fire and chopsticks and all that kind of thing. So I think there’s more and more of an awareness that we have to look at these things. Communal parks where people actually help with the gardening rather than just sit on a bench. There’s quite a movement for this. So I don’t think we should despair just yet.
NN: It’s very exciting.
NN: And also because one of the things I wanted to explore with you was this question of the ways in which you kind of frame technology and its ability to save us. So often when we’re talking about things like the climate crisis, I hear kind of arguments from either ends of a polarized position. So for instance, one argument that I hear quite a bit is, “Oh, technology is going to save us, humanity’s on an upward trend. We’re going to be fine. We just have to deploy X or Y on a large enough scale and it will be okay.”
And then another argument that I come across quite a bit is that our obsession with technology, and I mean technology of any kinds of going all the way back to the industrial age. So the ability of technology throughout the ages to offer us convenience, entertainment, free time, et cetera. The argument is that this is one of the main contributing factors to where we are now with the climate crisis. So what are your thoughts on this? Where do you sit with this kind of [inaudible 00:39:03] of opinions and technology’s role and our role within it, and with it?
ST: Well, I think we need to take a longer historical view. I mean the industrial revolution wasn’t really very long ago and actually printing wasn’t really very long ago. So if we only just go back to say 12 or 13, the centuries, most people couldn’t read or write. So they were living in a very different world. And then of course when they did start to learn and write that fomented revolution and the people were learning about things they weren’t supposed to know about. So books were revolved, and then the radio was revolved and then TV was revolved, we can go on and on. It seems like every opportunity for people to broaden their experience and broaden their ability to communicate is somehow bad. And we’ll see this more and more with virtual reality where we are bringing our own minds into play in a whole different way.
So I’m, I’m quite cynical about the good old days because I don’t think they ever were any good old days. And I mean tools, poking for ants with a stick, that’s a tool. So the idea that we should go back to some [inaudible 00:40:22] in time when people were not using any technologies, that I’m afraid I’ve got very little time for that nonsense. And some of it does come from the sentimentalizing of the outdoors by TV nature programs. Whereas if you compare them with something like watching a live stream of animals or birds, then you see things really happening that people don’t want to see and they’re not used to seeing on TV.
So this thing about the wild, you have to take the scary side of the wild with the pleasant side of the wild. But that’s a diversion. But in terms of technology, I think there is just no argument to say that at some point we have to stop because that’s not going to happen. So we have to find ways to be conscious and to control it or evolve with it as we go forward because we’re not going to be able to stop this advance and nor should we.
NN: No, but I think it’s wonderful. It’s very to sort of trace your ideas on this. And I wonder because I think there’s a reason why we enjoy technology so much and why it’s been so broadly adopted and why in certain countries people will cobble together, well in all sorts of countries, cobbled together technology out of bits that they find because it has such a huge benefit to our lives. I think two questions I’m interested in asking around this is one, how can we make ourselves more conscious about what we choose to create with our technology, which I think is absolutely vital? So if we’re talking about the stick or a club, you can use the most rudimentary technology to either kill someone or probably build a shelter. We’re going to kind of go that direction.
So the first one is about conscious use and the second one is about whether or not technology can help us with the challenges we face today on a large enough scale to have a meaningful impact? Because I know that there’s also another interesting perspective on the living technology that exists that’s evolved. So for instance, carbon sinks using mangroves and trees, whatever.
NN: So the sense of maybe we need to broaden our definition of what technology is, that it’s not just human made, but also it’s the entire living world is evolved into this complex organized intelligence system.
ST: Yes. Well it is that, it’s always has been that complex, organized, intelligent system. But we keep trying to make it all about us. And so we’ve completely lost any sense of our place in the world. And going back to E.O. Wilson, the day that he discovered biophilia, he writes about it very movingly when he was in a forest in Suriname. And what made him come up with this concept was that he said he suddenly realized how inconsequential he was in that forest and that all of it would just go on without him. And that he didn’t understand, although he was an eminent biologist, he did not understand most of what was happening around him. He discovered his place and that’s where he felt so deeply connected, but also deeply inconsequential. So we’ve got to look at.
NN: It sounds to me almost like an opportunity for the dissolution of the ego.
ST: Yes, yes. So unconsciously using technology, what came to mind when you asked me that was maybe it’s less about using it and more about designing it. We have to look back out the people who actually designed the technologies that we use, like Facebook and all those other things. Who are those people? What are their values? What are they’re trying to achieve? There was a time when I used to go to a lot of technology conferences in Silicon Valley and it was a running joke that all of the geeks and programmers there were kind of young guys in their early twenties or younger who wanted to design a fancy thing, so their fridge would tell them when they’d run out of milk. That’s what they were interested in. And so people who come along and say, “Actually, I don’t want that. I want technology that does this or that for me, that’s different.” Well, they’re not leading the drive, these young kids, mostly men, are leading the drive and they’re making what they want to make.
And it’s still the same now as it was when I used to go to those conferences 10 or 15 years ago. A few years ago, a conference that was happening in Rio de Janeiro asked me to set a design challenge for the people who were coming to this maker’s conference. So I asked them to design something that was technobiophilic. And the winner was a project which was never made, understandably, but what it did was it linked the user to the user’s own pot plant at home. And so the pot plants life was dependent on things that the user did in the real world. So if the user didn’t get in effects or size or feed themselves properly or whatever, this link would mean that the plant itself would deteriorate. It was a crazy idea, but they had a nice picture of it.
NN: Because that’s such a profound idea.
ST: Yeah. Isn’t that? That’s what you get at these kinds of brainstorm. So why can’t more people think like that? And rather than the kind of very narrow Silicon Valley culture, which produces practically everything that we use online or in our phones or whatever. So maybe it’s not so much about us changing what we use, it’s more about us saying, “Actually we don’t want that, we want this.
NN: On that note about designing things, there’s another question I want to ask about one the themes or one of the subjects you touched on in your book, Nature and Wellbeing in the Digital Age. And you wrote about touch pathways and you gave us beautiful example of how, for instance, when we wear a leather wristwatch over time the strap will mold itself to a distinctive shape through our use of it. And in technology people will often talk about haptic interfaces. So when your phone vibrates in response to your touch or whatever it might be. And where do you see the biggest potential for bridging the gap between the virtual and essentially?
ST: Well, that’s a really interesting area for development and I think people are starting to work in that area. I mean, one of the things that I suggest to people is that this question of touching natural objects is very powerful. So I, for example, I’ve got a bamboo mouse. I like to use a mouse, I don’t like the finger part. So I bought a bamboo mouse. You can get bamboo keyboard’s, you can get bamboo or different wood phone cases so that you are physically touching word when you pick up your phone, which sounds like a tiny thing, but actually I think it could be quite powerful. In similar ways, things that you have on your desk, you could have for example, natural objects, like particular stones that you like or pieces of wood that you enjoy touching or whatever and make a conscious effort rather than having another cup of coffee.
You can make a conscious effort to pick up your stone and run it around in your fingers while you’re thinking. And these are all just tiny, tiny things, but they are connecting us with the natural world and taking us away, if you like, from plastic. But one more thing I want to mention with that is that in the world of design and environmental psychology and architecture, there’s a great interest in what they call biophilic design, which is designing buildings and interiors that reflect that biophilic sense. So if you Google biophilic design, you’ll see lots of fascinating photos of beautiful buildings with lots of wood, stone, running water is a really big thing in a biophilic building.
I went to Singapore a couple of years ago and as you probably know, there are many green walls and Singapore buildings dripping with greenery and so on. So we can help biophilic design, so what about techno biophilic design? What about applying the same principles of biophilic design to our appliances? I mean that they’re starting to make phones now with more rounded tactile edges, aren’t they, than they used to? So it’s creeping in, but you could have a lot more techno biophilic design in the technology that we use. If people really worked hard at making it, I suppose a reasonable price, it does already exist.
NN: I think that the potential there is just extraordinary to be able to integrate technology with biology. Not just our own, but without one I find a little bit scary-
NN: -but more so, smart homes that have, I don’t know, interfaces that allow you to get in touch with your wall garden instead of just one pot plant. Maybe there’s hundreds of them of whatever it might be. Or to reroute water that you’ve got running through your homes. I mean this could be extraordinary.
ST: It could be. And actually one term I should mention is the notion of biomimicry, which there is a lot of discussion about at the moment about using of functions found in nature and using them for technological development and so on. That goes alongside the biophilic design. And that is very hot in discussion circles at the moment. So it’s definitely on the radar.
NN: And I think it’s an interesting thing because we are needing to reconnect ourselves back into these living systems. And I think if we’re designing technological systems that have the potential for ascensions, which I know is a hotly discussed topic, then probably it would help if we actually felt ourselves part of a wider intelligence system before making design decisions that could potentially alter the course of humanity.
ST: Yes, that’s a good idea. And the whole idea of ascensions is absolutely vital that we understand what is happening here and being mindful of it and take it more slowly if possible.
NN: Yeah, I agree. I love the possibility for progress, but again, I think if you kind of running so fast down the hill that you know that it’s a matter of time before you trip over and smash your face, probably better to slow down.
ST: Yeah, yeah.
NN: So you’re currently writing a new book, The Fault in Reality. And I’m curious to ask you what the main idea is and how it explores the realms of nature and technology?
ST: Well, what I’m trying to do really is take all of the material that I’ve been collecting and thinking about the last 20 odd years and turn it into fiction. And I’m realizing as I go along, that there are lots of similarities with that first book Correspondence, which was in 1992. And it’s a bit shocking to realize that you’re still thinking about the same things all these years ahead. But I’m trying to really, I suppose what the first subtitle, a draft title out for this book, was what the hell is going on? And I’m trying to make sense of what is happening in the world. So the book itself is actually set in the Brexit year of 2016. So it starts in the week of Brexit and it ends with the week of Trump’s election. And so the time span is just in between that.
And what I’m trying to do is to look at, not particularly the politics that runs underneath it, but really what’s going on in terms of our relationship with nature, our relationship online, the way that our minds are working. And I’m trying to think very broadly about the way people are connected and lots and lots of different manifestations to try and get some sense what the world is becoming. Because we can look back now and we understand Cambridge Analytica was digging around in everybody’s head, the Russian hacker stories and so on. But our heads were being seriously played with that year and we didn’t really know it, but now we do. So it’s written very much really from the point of view of somebody reading it now and looking back and thinking, “Oh yeah, I know what that was”, but at the time you didn’t. So it really is me trying to make sense of all of these things, how they connected and how connectivity, which seems such a bonus, is also showing itself to have a very dark side.
NN: I do wonder about this, is something which my mind bends towards with all of these conversations, which is the seeming you’re going to stretch humanity’s potential out to both directions, to the dark and the light. How is it that we charter a path forwards with progress in mind when so much progress has been made, but when that also comes hand in hand with a huge amount of destruction, how do you conceive of humanity moving forward?
ST: Maybe the first thing is not to think of it as moving in any linear direction. And I’m speaking as somebody who… so I’m 68, so I was one of the people, I was one of the hippies through my lifetime. So many amazing social reforms have happened, women’s liberation, the question of disability, the question of gay rights and all of these things, racial discrimination, all of these isSTs have been dealt with in my lifetime and we kind of tick them off. Great. That’s done, that’s done, that’s done. Now what we’re seeing is half of them being unravelled.
ST: So I don’t think we can look at linear time. It’s not a question of moving forward anywhere. It’s a question of being in the now, right now and what you’ve done today. I think that’s all we can do, is make everyday work, which sounds like a platitude, but I think it’s true because from my experience you move forward but then you just as easily move back.
NN: So I think maybe this is a good place to ask the last question. If there was one insight or advice that you’d give to everyone listening about how your exploration of your work could help us lead more rich lives or face difficulty, what would that insight or advice be?
ST: Well, when you, you mentioned that you were going to ask me about this I was going to make a recommendation about getting closer to nature. But this question is a much bigger one than that. I do think that being aware of connectedness is really important and being aware that we are, and everybody says this, but that we are all on the same planet and that there are many, many forms of communication and knowledge that we simply know nothing about. So we assume that humans are elevated because we have language and we do all of these technical things, but that doesn’t elevate us. That just makes us different from another species.
I was reading about mycelium and fungi lately for my book and I didn’t realize that plants are one category of beings, if you like, humans are another category of beings and animals. And mycelium and fungi are a third, which apparently are actually closer to humans than they are to plants.
NN: How weird is that?
ST: So what does that say? I suppose my larger response to your question is that we have to constantly be aware of that, about what connects us in a positive way.