As an avid lover of the outdoors, I was super excited to see that there was an entire session at Science Online 2011 dedicated to discussing technology’s place in the wilderness.
All of the panelists are well versed in taking tech out of the city. Miriam Goldstein has used technology on multiple expeditions to study the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, taking the internet audience with her across the Pacific in search of trash. Danielle Lee is a passionate outdoor enthusiast, encouraging people in urban areas to experience the wilderness. Karen James is perhaps best known for her work with the Beagle Project, which plans to reconstruct Darwin’s Beagle and use it to sail around the world promoting science and education. And last but not least, Jason Robertshaw uses technology to create science experiences for kids and adults through Mote Marine Laboratory‘s outreach programs.
It’s not hard to see why there might be tension between technology and the wilderness. Am I really camping if I have a eight-person super-tent complete with sattelite TV, phone and internet? Or, as I put it in one of my tweets during the session, if I tweet in the woods, am I really experiencing nature? When I walked into this session, I would have said no. No, no, no! A wilderness experience is about immersion, getting away from the sights and sounds of the modern world and truly enveloping yourself in the natural world.
Add to that the moral implications of bringing technology to more and more remote locations. As Zuska pointed out during the session, every piece of tech we carry is made from materials mined from the Earth. To make those mobile devices, we must consume parts of our planet. And where, in the end, do these products end up? In landfills. Or worse: in the once-pristine habitats we carry them into for our own comfort.
I’m not arguing that we should all run around the woods naked without our GPS units and truly ‘experience’ nature. Far from it – I agree with the panelists that technology can make our experience of our environment richer and more rewarding. Miriam, for example, shared her Audobon app which provides pictures descriptions of birds and even recordings of their calls for those of us who can’t tell a warbler from a sparrow. Danielle says she uses technology “in a no excuses kind of way” to inspire people to participate in outdoor activities in urban areas.
I think the line, for me, is when we start using technology in place of experiencing the world around us. When we start checking our e-mail as we hike, or updating our facebook status when we could be admiring the stars – that’s where technology starts to detract from the natural experience.
One of Stacy Baker’s students (@the_dude_guy), though, brought up an excellent counterpoint. As he tweeted, “What is so wrong about losing the ‘traditional’ wilderness experience?” So many of the hardened adults seemed to want to say well, duh – but none of us really had a good answer. Jason pointed out that it’s a false sense of nostalgia that causes our attachment to the concept of a pure wilderness experience – nostalgia that the new generation doesn’t share. To engage today’s young naturalists, perhaps we have to put our warm fuzzies aside and give in to the idea that ‘the wild’ will never be quite as untamed as when we first experienced it.
Being bluntly honest, I have to call BS on myself. After all, I embrace technology a lot of the time I’m ‘experiencing nature’ simply because I’m a scuba diver. There’s nothing natural about suiting up in 5 mm neoprene, carefully setting an exorbitantly expensive dive computer, strapping a heavy aluminum tank to my back full of compressed air, and diving 75 feet down into a world that I could never experience without modern technology. Who am I to judge?
This session has really made me think about my own presumptions, and has opened my mind to some of the potential of using technology to enhance our experience of the natural world. After all, what really matters to me is that people experience the world around them so that they care about protecting it. If that takes an iPhone app, so be it!
PS for more about the session, check out the twitter feed at #techwild!