Technological Nature: Adaptation and the Future of Human Life

July 14, 2011

I have a slight obsession with getting cold and wet, for no particularly good reason, and have often been encouraged to wonder why by the less masochistic members of my family. This usually occurs while lost on a foggy hillside or bobbing around in a small boat. Happily, Peter Kahn offers me some explanations he has gleaned from analysis of research on the Bushmen of the Kalahari in the form of characteristic interaction patterns that lead to a healthy relationship with nature. My favourite is entitled "Using Bodies, Vigorously".

Kahn draws on many of these patterns when examining human attitudes to the artefacts that mimic natural phenomena to provide an interesting insight into a range of human endeavours as well as into the mind of the researcher. He appears to have pulled together a series of pieces of work that touch on different aspects of how humans respond to pieces of technology that hide behind a "natural" veneer, and attempts to draw some admirably broad conclusions.

This is neither a research treatise nor a free-flowing discourse on the future of the human race. What it offers is a middle road, which means that although it is less erudite than many popular science books, it is a less sensationalist and more believable offering, with a sprinkling of eco-warrior credentials to add a little zing.

Kahn's work on the analysis of internet forum traffic from the (occasionally unhinged) owners of Sony AIBO robot dogs is both amusing and revealing, but one cannot help feeling that it is somewhat skewed by the fact that these are people who went out and spent large sums of money on an artificial pet: they are not average people. Neither are a second group that Kahn considers, namely the academics with windowless offices who agree to having a "technological nature window" installed. For a more balanced cross-section of the population, it strikes me that the advent of Facebook and the countless technological gardening and farming applications that it has spawned, or even computer games like the now rather old-fashioned Age of Empires, might have been more fertile ground upon which to base studies such as those presented here.

There is little doubt that humans have a fundamental preference for interacting with the richly stimulating and unpredictable real world of nature in which we developed as a species and, unsurprisingly, this is not disputed: Kahn is keen to clarify that he is not surprised by this result. The subsequent step the book takes to what rapidly becomes an ecologically motivated proclamation about the generation-by-generation erosion of expectations of the natural world comes somewhat out of the blue, but it does neatly match up with what comes before.

His overall conclusion - that real nature is best, but that technological nature is better than no nature at all - is unlikely to come as a shock. More interesting is the assertion that adaptation to the moving baseline of nature is potentially dangerous and undesirable. This should make us wary of adopting technological nature as a substitute for real nature and instead motivate us to experience nature for ourselves and to encourage our children to experience nature for themselves.

FarmVille is not a real place nor a good substitute for a garden and a bag of compost. It is to be hoped that most of the population are not so easily fooled as some of the slightly potty AIBO owners Kahn describes. Rather conveniently, I am also now able to justify dragging my family to cold and wet places in small boats with the excuse that I am doing my bit for the future of the human race and planet Earth.

Technological Nature: Adaptation and the Future of Human Life

By Peter H. Kahn, Jr. MIT Press, 240pp, £18.95. ISBN 9780262113229. Published 1 April 2011

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