Diane Ackerman writes: Last summer, I watched as a small screen in a department store window ran a video of surfing in California. That simple display mesmerized high-heeled, pin-striped, well-coiffed passersby who couldn’t take their eyes off the undulating ocean and curling waves that dwarfed the human riders. Just as our ancient ancestors drew animals on cave walls and carved animals from wood and bone, we decorate our homes with animal prints and motifs, give our children stuffed animals to clutch, cartoon animals to watch, animal stories to read. Our lives trumpet, stomp, and purr with animal tales, such as The Bat Poet, The Velveteen Rabbit, Aesop’s Fables, The Wind in the Willows, The Runaway Bunny, and Charlotte’s Web. I first read these wondrous books as a grown-up, when both the adult and the kid in me were completely spellbound. We call each other by “pet” names, wear animal-print clothes. We ogle plants and animals up close on screens of one sort or another. We may not worship or hunt the animals we see, but we still regard them as necessary physical and spiritual companions. It seems the more we exile ourselves from nature, the more we crave its miracle waters. Yet technological nature can’t completely satisfy that ancient yearning.
What if, through novelty and convenience, digital nature replaces biological nature? Gradually, we may grow used to shallower and shallower experiences of nature. Studies show that we’ll suffer. Richard Louv writes of widespread “nature deficit disorder” among children who mainly play indoors — an oddity quite new in the history of humankind. He documents an upswell in attention disorders, obesity, depression, and lack of creativity. A San Diego fourth-grader once told him: “I like to play indoors because that’s where all the electrical outlets are.” Adults suffer equally. It’s telling that hospital patients with a view of trees heal faster than those gazing at city buildings and parking lots. In studies conducted by Peter H. Kahn and his colleagues at the University of Washington, office workers in windowless cubicles were given flat-screen views of nature. They reaped the benefits of greater health, happiness, and efficiency than those without virtual windows. But they weren’t as happy, healthy, or creative as people given real windows with real views of nature.
As a species, we’ve somehow survived large and small ice ages, genetic bottlenecks, plagues, world wars, and all manner of natural disasters, but I sometimes wonder if we’ll survive our own ingenuity. At first glance, it seems like we may be living in sensory overload. The new technology, for all its boons, also bedevils us with speed demons, alluring distractors, menacing highjinks, cyber-bullies, thought-nabbers, calm-frayers, and a spiky wad of miscellaneous news. Some days it feels like we’re drowning in a twittering bog of information. But, at exactly the same time, we’re living in sensory poverty, learning about the world without experiencing it up close, right here, right now, in all its messy, majestic, riotous detail. Like seeing icebergs without the cold, without squinting in the Antarctic glare, without the bracing breaths of dry air, without hearing the chorus of lapping waves and shrieking gulls. We lose the salty smell of the cold sea, the burning touch of ice. If, reading this, you can taste those sensory details in your mind, is that because you’ve experienced them in some form before, as actual experience? If younger people never experience them, can they respond to words on the page in the same way?
The farther we distance ourselves from the spell of the present, explored by all our senses, the harder it will be to understand and protect nature’s precarious balance, let alone the balance of our own human nature. [Continue reading…]