I’m beta testing Aeon Ideas, a new Q&A site from my favorite magazine, Aeon. Someone on the platform asked the question, “Is it possible for technology to actually enhance our experiences in nature?” What follows is my answer edited slightly to make it stand alone. When Aeon Ideas opens, I will be thrilled to link to the whole discussion.
Already does, always has.
It’s totally understandable to use the word “technology” as a shorthand for mobile, Internet-connected computers and software these days, but I don’t think it frames the human relationship to technology in a correct or productive way. I’ll demonstrate what I’m getting at first, and then I'll explain it:
“Nature” is a technology. Before the invention of nature, the world “outside” was just THE WORLD. Our experiences of what would become nature were continuous with our experiences of what would become... I dunno, society? What is non-nature called? Maybe we don’t have a discrete technology for that yet. Nevertheless, at some point, we decided it would be useful and productive to modify our environment by carving out a concept of “nature” inside it, which we could then treat differently from other realms. The invention of nature was made possible by other technology platforms, some as low-level as whatever language was used to coin the term “nature,” others as abstract as whatever economic and philosophical systems determined that we needed to invent nature.
Since the invention of nature, we’ve continued to improve upon that technology with other technologies. Examples: the legal technologies employed to protect natural spaces from economic development, the conservation technologies used to preserve and cultivate growth in natural spaces, all the various specialized clothing and equipment we use to improve our survival in and enjoyment of ever more remote natural environments, and the same conceptual tools we’ve used to develop the idea of nature all along. It’s that last category that’s probably implicated in the question of the “experiences of nature” whose “enhance[ment]” we’re wondering about. This paragraph alone should be sufficient to answer “yes” to the question, but there’s more to it than that.
We’ve also developed some technologies that have surely damaged our experiences in nature. These include all the industrial and consumer technologies that continue to weaken planetary climate and ecology, as well as those (cell phones, selfies, &c.) that have given rise to the kind of distracted, disinterested, disembodied human perspective toward nature called to mind when pondering the question — “Is it possible for technology to actually enhance our experiences in nature?” — in our everyday language about what “technology” is. We could even argue about whether the invention of the technology of nature itself has irreparably harmed our relationship with the parts of our world demarcated by the concept, but that’s probably a separate discussion.
So my tl;dr answer to the question here is, to use a Silicon Valleyism, “It’s complicated,” but only because our understanding of “technology” needs unpacking. Technology, by definition, helps us with something. My own definition of technology is the application of knowledge to change our environment. So when we have a problem in our environment that we know how to fix, that fix is a technology. Sometimes we fix one thing and break one (or twelve) other things. That’s a sign we might need a better technology there. But questioning the benefits of technology itself gets us no closer to that solution. As in our nature example here, it’s not even logical to wonder whether or not to apply technology because we already did it by inventing nature itself!
I think it’s more productive to explicitly constrain this question to mobile, Internet-connected computers and software. That way we can assess the relative advantages and disadvantages of those technologies, rather than questioning the entire enterprise of technology itself. The former helps us frame our technical questions in the ages-long tradition of human technical problems and solutions, which brings important wisdom to bear on the question of how to handle our newest inventions. The latter — the questioning of Technology Itself — would just paralyze us.