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Replacing natural experiences with technology hurts humans and the natural world

What is the difference between a robotic dog and a real one? Or a plasma screen displaying high definition images of natural splendor and a window that looks out an on actual natural scene? According to psychologists from the University of Washington the difference is massive.

Writing in the journal Current Directions in Psychological Science Dr. Peter Kahn, a developmental psychologist, explores the different effects produced by humans interacting with actual nature and technological nature, i.e. technology meant to represent the natural world in some aspect.

“What do we compare technology to? If we compare it to no nature, technological nature works pretty well. But if we compare it to actual nature, it doesn’t seem to provide as many psychological benefits,” Kahn said.

By comparing the psychological affects of looking at a plasma screen with images of nature and viewing actual nature, Kahn found that people recovered better from low-level stress by being exposed to actual nature, not flat-screen images.

Similarly, Kahn found that while children who interacted with a robot dog name AIBO did treat the robot as ‘other’, their behaviour towards the robot dog was not as social or deep as to a real pet.

“Robot and virtual pets are beginning to replace children’s interactions with biologically live pets,” said Ruckert. “The larger concern is that technological nature will shift the baseline of what people perceive as the full human experience of nature, and that it will contribute to what we call environmental generational amnesia.”

Kahn’s environmental generational amnesia proposes that people believe the natural environment they encounter during their early life is the norm. Instead of measuring environmental degradation with historical environments, people measure it against their early experiences in nature. Biologists have come to term this as ‘shifting baselines’, where each generation accepts a new baseline of increased environmental degradation.

“Poor air quality is a good example of physical degradation,” said Kahn. “We can choke on the air, and some people suffer asthma, but we tend to think that’s a pretty normal part of the human condition”.

Rachel Severson, a graduate student under Kahn, adds, “Some people get the idea on one level if they are interested in environmental issues. They see the degradation, but they don’t recognize their own experience is diminished. How many people today feel a loss such as the damming of the Columbia River compared to a wild Columbia River? A lot of us have no concept of it as a wild river and don’t feel a loss.”

The threat of technological nature to human development and the natural world has yet to make into mainstream dialogue, however it likely affects how people respond to many environmental issues.

“People might think that if technological nature is partly good that that’s good enough,” Kahn concluded. “But it’s not. Because across generations what will happen is that the good enough will become the good. If we don’t change course, it will impoverish us as a species…We are a technological species, but we also need a deep connection with nature in our lives.”

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