Peter Kahn is interviewed by Quartz Media about the effect of technology on humans' relationship with nature.
Technology is changing our relationship with nature as we know it
University of Washington psychology professor Peter Kahn has spent much of his career analyzing the relationship humans have with nature—and he thinks that relationship is more fragile than many of us realize.
Kahn works to understand the intersection of two modern phenomena: the destruction of nature, and the growth of technology. As UW’s director of the Human Interaction with Nature and Technological Systems Lab (HINTS), Khan researches humans in relation to both real nature and “technological nature”: digital representations of the wild, such as nature-focused documentaries, video games, and VR stimulations.
Technological nature has its benefits; engaging with it makes us feel good by triggering our innate “biophilia,” a term for humanity’s inborn, primordial affiliation with the environment. For example, researchers have found that nature videos played in prisons drastically reduce violence amongst inmates, suggesting nature’s relaxing influence translates through screens. Studies have also found that watching Planet Earth brings viewers joy and markedly lowers anxiety, and that workers in offices with plasma-screen “windows” that play livestreams of the outdoors are happier and more productive than their counterparts working in rooms without any windows at all.
We’re seeking these nature alternatives as society urbanizes and wild places become harder to access. Yet there is a limit to the extent technological representations of nature can provide the soothing, restorative, creativity-enhancing benefits of a walk in the real woods.
Kahn’s concern is that in the process of pursuing more realistic technological nature, we are becoming increasingly alienated from the real thing, growing to accept a digital substitute for engagement with the wild, and compromising our fundamental affiliation for the environment in the process.
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