It’s all too easy to imagine nature and technology as being engaged in a centuries-long boxing match, with the 21st delivering the knockout punch.
Humans never were part of nature. We were always part of technology
Sunsets obscured by selfies. Hundreds of thousands of tonnes of toxic ‘e-waste’ dumped in Ghanaian wetlands each year. Words such as 'acorn', 'adder' and 'willow' excised from the Oxford Junior Dictionary to make way for 'broadband', 'analogue', and 'cut and paste'.
We complain about the colonisation of our wild places with wifi, yet declare internet access to be a human right. We despair about poaching while helping the culprits track down rare animals with our social media posts. We dream of relaxing on tranquil Maldivian islands, but demand unsustainably cheap flights to get us there.
No wonder we're so conflicted. As the scientific philosopher Christopher Potter points out in his book How To Make A Human Being, “Humans never were part of nature. We were always part of technology.”
From the moment modern humans harnessed the power of fire, it put us on a path to global domination and we never looked back.
Now, from cooking vessels to virtual reality headsets, technology is simply a set of strategies our species has developed in order to cope with being self-conscious creatures on a chaotic and often hostile planet. That makes our drive to innovate just as ‘natural’ as the structure of our brains.
So we find ourselves stuck between a rock and a MySpace; and all too often we sacrifice our native habitat for the short-term exhilaration of change and short-term resolution of economic and political problems. But although many of our digital inventions serve to estrange us from the world they were created to enrich, technology and nature are also continually cross-pollinating in powerfully positive ways.
Consider the field of biomimetics, where natural design elements and processes are used as a model for new materials, devices and tools. One famous example is the invention of Velcro, which was developed by Swiss engineer Georges de Mestral in 1941 after he observed how cockleburs in the mountains caught on his clothing and in his dog's fur.
More recent advances in the field include the creation of a neonatal surgical tape modelled on the structure of spiders' webs; the imitation of viruses to create self-assembling nanoparticles which can deliver medication straight into cancer cells; and a super-efficient, reflective, colour e-reader screen based on the way butterfly wings gleam in bright light.
Technology has impacted most positively on nature in the past ten years through our emerging ability to achieve near constant monitoring of valuable natural assets
Then there’s the use of tech to support conservation and sustainability projects. Technology For Nature is a unique partnership between Zoological Society of London, University College London and Microsoft Research designed “to rapidly scale up our global conservation response” by bringing together technologists and zoologists.
Current projects include FetchClimate, a fast, free, cloud-based service that allows experts to access accurate climate change data from any geographical region around the world, and Mataki, which develops new devices for recording the behaviour of animals in the wild.
Dr Lucas Joppa, one of the founders of the group, admits that there are challenges in bringing together scientists from disciplines traditionally seen as at loggerheads. “Language, terminology, different motivations,” he sighs. “Pretty much everything!” But he also believes that bridging those differences is more than worth the effort.
“The conservation issues we most urgently need to tackle right now include the monitoring of protected areas, tracking species of high commercial value, and online detection of the illegal wildlife trade,” he explains. “Technology has impacted most positively on nature in the past ten years through our emerging ability to achieve near constant monitoring of valuable natural assets, such as protected areas and rhinos. We are creating a powerful nexus of information.”
Of course, nature isn’t all puppies and waterfalls, and tech is also helping people manage her crueller side. Hashtagged tweets and geotagged Instagram photos have become a valuable way to share real-time updates as natural disasters unfold. Google’s Person Finder, which was created to reunite relatives during 2011’s Japanese tsunami, is currently live in Nepal. And the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s (FEMA’s) app allows stricken communities to crowdsource crisis relief.
Then there’s "green city" design. Imagine high-rises transformed into vertical farms, with crops carpeting rooftops and walls; spare footage used to cultivate algae-based biofuels; and trees turned into streetlamps, spliced with bioluminescent genes. London’s Garden Bridge project, despite its many detractors, has been presented as a first step towards this vision of a hybrid urban-rural landscape; and with projections showing that Earth's cities will swell with another 2.5 billion people by 2050, it’s not a moment too soon.
Clearly, the news isn’t all bad when it comes to tech and nature on a grand scale. But how is the tug-of-war working out for us personally?
Considering the addictive nature of digital platforms, it is sometimes hard to dispute Potter’s belief that “technology evolves a life indoors”. And when we do venture outside, mobiles and wearables can keep us trapped inside our heads, even on the most glorious of countryside walks.
We must stop seeing tech and nature as sparring partners, and start concentrating on helping them to dance
But there is in fact a blossoming ecosystem of software that aims to boost our appreciation of the great outdoors, from Leafsnap UK, which applies facial recognition technology to leaves in order to help users identify 156 tree species, to mindfulness apps that can help us learn to reconnect with our environment.
And tech empowers each of us to do our bit for conservation too. Car-sharing apps and home energy monitoring devices are just the start. Joppa is currently developing “algorithms to encourage citizen scientists to go out and collect observations of species that are of high value for international policies.”
Of course, as Joppa says, “Technology isn’t going to solve all of the conservation problems of today, but it can be a fantastic tool in the toolbox.” Rather than lingering on the mess we’ve got ourselves into, we need to focus on harnessing its potential. Despite the attempts of the Mars One team, it’s unlikely that we will find a new home planet in the near future, and is even more unlikely that it will be as beautiful as ours, bruised though it may be.
The technologist Kevin Kelly believes that technology is “a force of nature”, evolving along the same principles as any living species. Perhaps he's right. Or perhaps nature, like humanity, is a sort of mysterious technology.
Either way, we must stop seeing tech and nature as sparring partners, and start concentrating on helping them to dance.