Urbanized citizens are quickto reflect negatively on the verytechnologies (e.g., smartphones)that support the lifestyles theyenjoy. As well as having legitimateconcerns about the harmful effectsof waste and pollution from digitaltechnologies on natural environments[ 5], people worry about technology’sdetrimental effects on their sociallives [ 6]. As a species, we are bound tobe wary of what’s new and untested,but our ambivalent attitude towardsmartphones reflects a longstandingantipathy between the natural andthe artificial. People tend to be readyto extol the benefits of fresh greenvegetables, education, marriage,and a walk in the countryside, butare instinctively suspicious of newtechnologies. Here, I’ll examine thiscultural conflict after consideringthe evidence for the benefits oftenattributed to the outdoors. Myconclusion is that smartphones andother technologies present to us as“other” than nature, and that’s one ofthe main benefits they offer.
THE SIMPLE AND
I live in Scotland, where urbanpopulations have access to lochs, wildmountains, and sparsely inhabitedmoorlands and forests. The ScottishForestry Commission has produceda series of reports outlining why it’sgood to get out into forests and greenspace: “There is a strengtheningbody of evidence to support the viewthat green space and woodlandsprovide the ideal setting to promotehealth and physical activity” [ 7].
Environmental psychologist Roger
Ulrich and his team have delineated
some of the reasons for our tendency
to enjoy natural environments,
finding them restorative, pleasurable,
and mood altering [ 8-10]. He doesn’t
talk about mobile phones, but I’ll try
and relate Ulrich’s arguments to the
a smartphone screen may cause a
vitamin G deficiency,” where vitamin
G is vitamin B2 or the “green”
vitamin [ 2]. A book by Larry Rosen
presents similar caution: “If you are
going to use nature as a restorative
cure for technologically induced
brain overload, it is best to remove all
technology from the scene” [ 3].
Apart from the content deliveredby digital devices, their physicaloperation may also be detrimental.
A study by Brittany Wood andcolleagues indicates that backlitscreens on mobile devices emit a bluelight sufficiently similar to daylight toinhibit the production of melatonin[ 4]. This hormone plays an importantpart in setting our circadian rhythms.
So watching videos on a mobiledevice screen before bedtime inhibitssleep. The evidence is mounting:Smartphones and other digitaldevices are good for the workplacebut promote stress, especially whenyou’re trying to socialize, relax, andrecuperate for the next challenge. Soleave your smartphone at home (or inthe office) when you go for a relaxingstroll or when you go to bed.
Clearly, any harmful or positiveeffects on individuals depend on howthey use their devices. Smartphonescould, in fact, help us get out more,adding to our sense of security. GPSnavigation means you can explore andfind your way home again. There areinnumerable information sources andapps about the outdoors, and thereis the full set of Geological Surveyand Ordnance Survey maps availablefor download on a GPS-enabled app.
Digital photography also provides a
means of engaging with nature and
probing the world. As I’ll explore
later, there is a sense that outdoor
environments and what we get out
of them are already mediated by
decades’ worth of technology, not to
mention presentations via art and the
challenge posed for country walkers
who keep their phones close at hand.
Among the range of views Ulrich
discusses, there are those who think
the natural world is much simpler
than the artificial worlds of cities and
high-tech equipment. It’s not just
that many people therefore prefer the
countryside; people also find it helps
them recover from stress. Being in a
less complicated environment for a
time allows us to catch up and recover
from the pressures of our overly
Of course, what constitutes asimple environment depends on yourexperience and point of view, andthe task at hand. Erik Stoltermanprovides an interesting discussionof complexity in the context of HCIdesign [ 11]. It’s about familiarity.
A visitor has to spend more timethinking things through when inan unfamiliar setting. According toUlrich, this theory maintains thatunfamiliar (urban) environmentsrequire more cognitive effort, andso don’t provide respite and timefor recovery. The evolutionaryexplanation for why humans prefernature reminds us that we evolvedon prairies and in woodlands. Wetherefore have a built-in affinity withenvironments that look as thoughthey offer accessible food, water, andsafety—not supermarkets, but rathermeadows, lakes, and groves of trees.Natural selection favored populationswith a tendency to seek out suchplaces—those who find naturalenvironments enjoyable.
Natural environments alsoprovide a source of fascination. Thisis the argument put forward byenvironmental psychologist StephenKaplan, who notes a person’s abilityto concentrate on any task is limited,no matter how much they enjoy thattask [ 12]. Eventually they reacha point where their performanceis severely hampered, things takelonger than usual, and they makemistakes, becoming inefficient,less creative, and easily distracted.To concentrate on a task you needto block out distractions. In fact,that’s what it is to concentrate: toinhibit other instinctual inclinations.Once that blocking function getsworn down by fatigue, you are morelikely to act on impulse, to shirktasks that prove too challenging, to
People tend to be ready to extol the
benefits of fresh green vegetables,
education, marriage, and a walk in
the countryside, but are instinctively
suspicious of new technologies.