Over and over again, cyberspace brings us back to the physical
So here we are, poised at a moment of crucial tension. Do we embrace cyberspace as part of the natural world, with all of its opportunities and flaws, or do we keep it at arm’s length, as an unnatural guilty pleasure we should not really enjoy?
I’m writing my first novel for twenty years. It’s new, but it’s also the culmination of all my previous books, fiction and nonfiction. So much so, in fact, that the brief final chapter of my 2013 ‘Technobiophilia: Nature and Cyberspace’ might even turn into the introductory chapter of whatever this new book will be called.
So to bring myself up to speed, I’m sharing that last chapter here. Writers often share the first chapter of a book but they rarely give away the ending. In this case, however, the ending is turning out to be the beginning of something else. So here it is. Am I on the right track? I welcome your comments.
To end where we began, the problem with new technology, especially cyberspace, is that we love it. We love it and we fear that we love it too much, to the extent that we are constantly torn by passion and guilt in equal measures. But once we begin to understand what drives us we might, perhaps, be ready to make our peace with technology.
During the course of my research for this book I learned that the biophilic tendency pushes human beings to seek life everywhere, even in cyberspace. As a result, we have created elements of nature in virtuality where they did not exist before, and the fact that they can now be encountered throughout our digital lives seems to help soothe our connected existence.
I also found that such restorative experiences can stimulate innovation and creative truancy, and that there is today a real opportunity to take the principles of biophilic design which are increasingly being applied to our physical surroundings and use them to enhance our technological environments, both in virtual space and in hardware design.
Eco-philosopher David Abram has written that
‘Despite all the mechanical artefacts that now surround us, the world in which we find ourselves … is a living field, an open and dynamic landscape subject to its own moods and metamorphoses’.
But he has misunderstood. Millions of us are not simply surrounded by the mechanical artefact of the internet, we are immersed within it. It is actually because of the machine that the living field has been multiply extended. We navigate through cyberspace just as we might make our way in a forest; we build a homepage as we might lay out a garden.
So here we are, poised at a moment of crucial tension. Do we embrace cyberspace as part of the natural world, with all of its opportunities and flaws, or do we keep it at arm’s length, as an unnatural guilty pleasure we should not really enjoy? Edward O. Wilson believes that this dilemma has been embedded in the human mind since the earliest days, a perpetual suspension
‘between the two antipodal ideals of nature and machine, forest and city, the natural and the artifactual’.
In those terms, the internet is an artifactual product which in turn produces cyberspace, much as a candle produces a brighter area around itself.
In the last pages of his epic account of the Canadian Far North, Arctic Dreams, author Barry Lopez stood at the tip of Saint Lawrence Island and reflected on his expedition.
‘To bring what is actual together with what is dreamed,’ he wrote, ‘is an expression of human evolution’.
As I scratch away at the synergies between nature and cyberspace, I wonder whether our attempts to leave the body behind have re-awakened the biophilic impulse lying deep within our ancestral memories? And, in doing so, have they taken us closer to bringing together what is actual, as Lopez said, with what is dreamed?*
By the time this book was in the last stages of completion I had moved to the south coast of England. On the day I wrote this page there was an unusually low tide, so at sunset I left my desk to wander on the beach alongside many others who had come to take advantage of the chance to walk on a part of the sea-bed which is seldom exposed. Almost everyone was taking photographs, and I would bet that many of us would upload them to the internet to share. I certainly planned to.
As I gazed out to sea, I thought about how we pour our pictures into the bottomless internet to create a digital ocean of photographs: sunsets, waves, waterfalls, forests, flowers, gardens, animals and people from every part of the world.
Over and over again, cyberspace brings us back to the physical.
*Looking back at the last typescript before it entered the final editing process, I see that I heavily revised the following paragraph and most of it is missing from the final draft. It felt a bit kind of wishy-washy. But five years later it seems important to acknowledge. And it is certainly influencing the novel I have just begun to write, so I restore it here as, perhaps, a message to the future.
Maybe it is less of a creation story and more of a discovery story, so that just as the discovery of radio waves triggered intense curiosity about the spirit world, perhaps the discovery of digital connectedness has triggered curiosity about the noumenal world. Some of us used to dream that cyberspace might eventually deliver human beings to a higher plane where we could shrug off our mortal bodies and live the pure life of the mind.
But, after all, perhaps this is not what we really want. Perhaps the mind is so deeply connected to the physical that our attempts to leave the body behind have instead re-wakened the biophilic impulse lying deep within our ancestral memories and compelled us to take nature along with us into cyberspace.
And perhaps this is an opportunity we do not yet understand.