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Image: carolyn black

I love my digital life  

and technobiophilia has made it even better

I love my digital life and I don't want to give it up. I’m not interested in a digital detox, an e-sabbatical, or locking my kit in a safe for days at a time like writer Evgeny Morozov. I don't care who sees my online profile and I don't believe technology is frying my brain or destroying my social relationships. I've been online pretty much every day since 1994 and I have no intention of logging off. However, after eight years of researching Technobiophilia: nature and cyberspace I've realised that my digital life is not always compatible with the needs of my body. It’s time to ask myself some hard questions about what I could be doing to make the time I spend online more integrated, healthy, and mindful.

This is something I hadn't understood in 2004 when I gleefully described my hyper-connected existence in Hello World: travels in virtuality. I had been deeply inspired by the words of Grateful Dead lyricist and internet advocate John Perry Barlow, who wrote of cyberspace in 1996 ‘Ours is a world that is both everywhere and nowhere, but it is not where bodies live’. In the 1990s I was so immersed in that world that sometimes I lost touch with whatever it is we call ‘reality’. I certainly forgot about my own body. It got to the stage where I could easily obtain a status report on my computer, but had only a vague idea of what was going on with my own meaty operating system. Vital signs flagging? Muscles in need of a stretch? Immune system faltering? I was blissfully unaware.

Sociologist Nathan Jurgenson believes that the digital and physical are irrevocably enmeshed, and that what we do while connected is inseparable from what we do when disconnected. Well, maybe. But lately I've begun to face the truth: I have opted for the digital and ignored the physical too many times. Those sedentary hours hunched over the keyboard probably contributed to the fact that in recent years I've developed both Type 2 diabetes and osteoarthritis. Soon, knee replacement surgery will make me just a little bit cyborg but not in a very cool way. Of course, I could have contracted those diseases anyway but in my heart of hearts I'm sure that some of it must be down to spending too many hours in the place where bodies do not live.

It’s too late now to avoid those problems, but at last I'm beginning to realise that I must pay attention to my body. How to begin? The research I've been working on for almost a decade may hold at least part of the answer. Since 2004 I've been looking at why internet culture contains so many references to nature. They can be found everywhere online, from metaphors like viruses, worms, clouds, streams, and of course surfing, to the millions of images we post and share. They're in the rainforests and sunsets on our desktops; the waving grass of live wallpaper on our smartphones; the exotic landscapes of Second Life, and even the cabbage fields of Farmville. But what purpose do they serve?

I looked it up, and things started to fall into place. The term was originally coined by Erich Fromm to denote a psychological orientation towards nature, but in 1984 biologist E.O. Wilson applied it specifically to what he saw as an ‘innate attraction to life and lifelike processes’. On the surface, it’s an obvious idea because, of course, everyone loves nature, but biophilia goes deeper. It refers to the idea of a genetic attraction to an ancient natural world which evolved long before we did. The genetic aspect is still disputed, but the notion of biophilia is now widely acknowledged, and environmental psychologists exploring this affinity have shown that contact with nature can restore energy, alleviate mental fatigue, and enhance attention. I was surprised to find, however, that although some of their experiments are conducted outdoors, many other tests simply measure human responses to depictions of nature in videos and photographs.

It was this discovery that provided my aha moment. If much of the evidence supporting the benefits of biophilia comes from pictures rather than the real thing, then surely nature delivered in a digital form through computers can also produce genuinely restorative effects? If so, could this explain my collection of nature metaphors of cyberspace? Could it be that biophilia which is delivered via, say,photos of beautiful places shared in Facebook and Twitter, or through video games and virtual worlds, can soothe our connected minds and improve our digital well-being? I think it can, and so I've coined the term technobiophilia to describe ‘the innate attraction to life and lifelike processes as they occur in technology’.

A quest for digital well-being is already percolating through the wired community as it experiments with digital sabbaticals, contemplative computing, and paleo lifestyles. The notion of a tech-nature balance is at the heart of many of these adventures, and technobiophilia provides research to support it.

However, although I've worked all this out and written it all down, there still remains the question of how I might apply that knowledge for my own personal benefit. So I'm experimenting and trying to learn from the lessons of my own book by making contact with nature indoors, outdoors and online. I love my wired life and I have no intention of logging off, but I'm reminding myself to pay attention to the physical world both inside and beyond me. I’m thinking about what I eat and how I exercise, I’m taking good care of my plants and living spaces, and consciously making sensory contact with the places I visit. I don't know if I'll manage it, but my aim is to aggregate all the elements of my life, online and offline, into a single, healthy, well-integrated system — me.

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Latest book: ‘Nature and Wellbeing in the Digital Age’. Important reading for the Covid Age. Now writing ‘The Fault in Reality’.

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