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Instagram and the death of the natural world

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Because of the prevalence of digital life, we are losing touch with the real, tangible world (image by Sea Serprent Di via Pexels).

Dr Peter Fisher discusses the erosion of the natural environment at the hands of the digital world.

INSTAGRAM DEVOTEES – a staggering 10 per cent of the world’s population – can look forward to breaking free from the confines of their screens: they’re about to be privy to colour palleting buildings (and thence whole streetscapes?) at the hands of “I get it” architects folding physical space into the everyday familiarity of the screen. That opens up the possibility of built environment click-bait.

Fugitive Paint programs?

Where might this art play be heading?

Back in 2010, computer scientist Jaron Lanier asserted in his book, You Are Not a Gadget, that what's communicated between people online eventually becomes their “truth”.

Maybe you've picked up on this in worrying about kids spending vast amounts of time playing "games" with their profusion of manufactured imagery, or even the fact that you have to prise them off an iPhone, with toddlers too young to speak also clicking and toggling.

Oxford University neuroscientist, Susan Greenfield, has argued that children are in danger of confusing the fictional life of the web with real life, detailing the case of two 11-year-old girls who beat up two other girls and then couldn’t understand why they just didn't get back onto their feet.

In the real world, seriously wounded people can't perform this feat. Greenfield has since reiterated her concerns that young brains are being shaped by technology.   

Blended cognitions

In short, the distinction between what's on a screen and what's out there is getting rather woolly. It's but a small step to a situation where the natural world is considered non-mainstream, exceeded by the goings on in virtual space. The recent spread of tagging to trees – where organic and innate objects are seemingly perceived as a continuum – may be symptomatic of such a cultural shift?

Additionally, science writer Margaret Wertheim has spoken of a cyber agnosticism; where "the physical world [is] held to be impure or inefficient and that existence in the form of pure information is better and should be pursued”. For the likes of Oscar Wilde, who thought nature crude, monotonous and unfinished, that would be no big deal. Could there be in these developments the makings of a debilitating disconnect from the natural world? 

Some beautiful signs

At the start of the decade, it seemed judicious to question how a future society raised on gadgets, with a growing disconnection from nature, would cope with a planet stressed out of its socks by climate breakdown — scorching temperatures, contagion fires, catastrophic floods, storm surge and category five cyclones? (Maybe opt for off-planet colonisation?) And we could be raising a generation unable to cope with regular nature, let alone the vagaries of climate change. The recent national students’ strike and march, however, has dispelled those fears, at least in regard to millennials and most certainly on the second matter. 

Not out of the woods yet

But serious concerns remain with the U.S. National Institutes of Health (NIH). It is investigating emotional and mental development and has reported that kids having two hour screen time per day (the American average is four hours) score poorly on language and thinking tests, with evidence of narrowing of the cortex at seven hours — something which normally occurs later in life.

As to finding out the extent that these traits – unfettered, blunt perceptions of a living world in steep decline – we’ll just have to wait and see.  And that may take several decades to fully assess, prompting a somewhat wry Seattle paediatrician Dr Dimitri Christakis to observe "that we’re sort of in the midst of a natural kind of experiment on the next generation of children”.

Lost worlds

'It’s actually hard to remember that Earth is a planet. We live in a house in a neighbourhood in a city in a country. and all of these seem more real and daily to us than the big ball we inhabit.'

Bill McKibben             

The trappings of Christakis’ “natural kind of experiment” run deep with the danger of a numbed sensitivity to nature making it as abstract a concept as McKibben’s big ball.  

Recasting built space to conform with screen space is further contorting, what it means for something to be real, a notion already barred in the minds of kids void of stimulation from grass, trees, flowers, birds or worms,  who wander through forests absorbed in their iPhones.

Dr Peter Fisher is an Adjunct Professor at the School of Architecture & Built Environment, Deakin University.

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