Environment / Technology
Acknowledging Technology as an Ally in the Anthropocene.
Technology and the natural environment are often considered opposites, especially with regards to the ways in which humans interact with them, but how productive is this mode of thinking in an age where technology permeates so much of society? We currently exist within the Anthropocene, a geological epoch wherein humankind directly affects the planetary make-up of the Earth. This influence of humankind on natural environments has subsequently blurred boundaries between what is and what isn’t natural. Although previously seen as anything but natural, technology has now, in a twisted way, actually become natural.
And yet, why does opposition still seem to exist between technology and the environment? The damaging side effects of technology are abundantly clear and certainly not to be undermined, however to draw the conclusion that technology itself is to blame in this scenario is to misunderstand the ‘social relations from which technology arises and in which any technology is vitally embedded.”¹ This misunderstanding has been allowed to brew for so long because designers fail to assert an honest level of humanism within the technology they create. People, therefore, mistakenly assume that technology is a destructive, extra-terrestrial force turning us against the natural environment. However, accusations should not be aimed at the machinery and infrastructure itself, but rather at the set of social beliefs that underpin the designing of these objects.
If the dichotomy separating technology and nature is to be resolved, there must be a shift in the way in which they interact, one that disassembles our false assumptions of technology as a separate, autonomous force and builds, through experience, a cherished relationship between them. Natural Networks, a creation of Studio Six-Thirty’s, is a buoy that floats in natural water sources and collects a GPS, light, time and temperature reading, and it may serve as one device that could begin to repair the tear between humans and the natural environment. Through a 4G transmitter this information is sent to an AI that has studied a wide variety of Twentieth Century poetry, it then translates these data readings into emotive poems extolling the virtues of the natural world. Here is an example:
The hazy river full of leaves,
Churned the River Stort.
The Cold travelers washing their necks
And disappearing into the morning walk…
When writing of possible environmental solutions, Bill McKibben, author and environmentalist calls for a “humbler alternative – one that would let us hew closer to what remains of nature and give it room to recover if it can.”² Although significantly complex in technological feature, Natural Networks is actually rather modest. Physically, the object is comparatively inert and does little to interrupt the natural environment like other solutions such as wind turbines. Experientially, the object also possesses humble characteristics, there is no grandiose interaction involved, simply a steady stream of dialogue between technology and nature that can be chosen to be read when it suits the subject. Natural Networks alters the computer (and technology more generally) from something we associate with a detachment from nature, to something that actually reattaches us to nature. It also allows the busy twenty-first century individual to approach nature on their schedule and from the comfort of their own home.
With this in mind, let us examine this model of sustainability in the long term:
Week 1: You log on for the first time and enjoy reading a poem written by a river, you’re interested.
Week 4: You have logged on a few times and have noticed a shift in data readings, and a subsequent shift in mood of the poems, the seasons are changing.
Week 20: You have become fond of checking the river’s varying emotions and decide to visit. Soon enough you’re a regular visitor and begin to experience these changes in season, atmosphere and mood in person. You are stimulated by the change, and after a while you begin to really care for this snippet of nature. Why would you want something you care for to be damaged?
Through commitment to a long-term experience, Natural Networks has the ability to build meaningful relationships between human, technology and nature and therefore directly engages with “the underpinning behavioural phenomena that shape patterns of consumption and waste.”
Studio Six-Thirty have recognized that “mutual evolution will effectively transcend obsolescence,”³ tackling the Anthropocentric notion that the world exists to be mined for our benefit. In a progressive, technologically oriented society, developments are constantly being made that outdate previous models of technology. Once these models are outdated they no longer “reflect desirable and up-to-date reflections of our own existence” 4 and are subsequently disregarded and thrown away. Technological artefacts such as Natural Networks, however, offer a perfect platform for “mutual evolution” because they enable subject-object interactions we envisage ourselves performing in the future such as online consumption and communication with Artificial Intelligence. We therefore perceive them as up-to-date objects that have a lifespan long enough with which we can co-evolve. Not only does this product provide the ground for humans, technology, and the natural environment to engage with each other, but it also demonstrates a contemporary alternative to the way in which we consume objects through challenging outdated forms of communication and ownership.
1 Bryan Pfaffengerger, “Fetishised Objects and Humanised Nature,” Man 23.2 (1988): 242.
2 Bill McKibben, The End of Nature (London: Viking, 1990) 17.
3 Chapman, Emotionally Durable Design, 61.
4 Chapman, Emotionally Durable Design, 49.