The New Digital Organic
Flowers are restful to look at, they have neither emotions nor conflicts, wrote Sigmund Freud around the turn of last century. Two days ago I played a new game that I learned about on Twitter, called Blossom, created by Ken Wong of Mountains Games, previously lead designer of the wonderful Monument Valley. Blossom is a procedurally generated game that creates a flower-like organism called a blossom that, when you run your mouse over the individual parts of the blossom, change colour and shape in very tactile ways. Every blossom is unique, and when you move on from one blossom to the next, the blossom you were just playing with disappears forever. Playing Blossom has once again prompted me think about the relationship between technology, nature and what it is to be human, a theme I am surprised that I keep returning to.
I have always enjoyed being around nature, have always enjoyed photographing beautiful natural locations, going for languid walks through dense bushland and coastal settings, but I have not considered myself particularly nature conscious. I have not been very aware of the many ecological challenges facing the planet on either a local and global scale, I do not really understand photosynthesis or the role of chlorophyll, and given the choice between gardening and, say, plugging in a synthesizer, or most any other leisure activity, I’ll most never come down on the side of gardening. I’m a casual nature enthusiast, perhaps. I like trees, but I rarely consider that I like them. I am finding, however, that all of this is changing in the face of evolving technologies.
I have become increasingly fascinated with this meeting point between what could be considered hacker culture and nature writing. I established a journal of sorts, a personal think space at present, called .birches last year, that runs the tagline ‘Where psychogeography meets cyberpastoralism’. It stemmed out of a drive I took through regional Australia a couple of years ago where I was reading nature poetry and science fiction and thinking about the paperbark trees around me, and what the landscape would look like if they were to glitch on and off.
I thought too about all the incredible video game animals being created that show within their movement an incredible understanding of how animals move and react to the world, and the physics of new robots being crafted that replicate the movements of wild cats on the savannah, and the language and metaphors we are using now in our technology, the cloud.
There is a terrific book called ‘Technological Nature: Adaptation and the Future of Human Life’ by Peter H Kahn, Jr, that speaks to our human relationship to nature and to technology. Investigated within the book are research projects that explore how children and adults respond to robotic dogs, how people responded to telegardening where you could control a camera and a robot arm via the internet to view, plant and take care of a small garden, as well as other ways we interact with nature virtually, such as how it feels to look at, in your workplace, a big wall-size digital monitor displaying real-time scenes of nature, compared to looking through a window displaying an actual natural setting, and compared to having no display of any nature at all. Ultimately the conclusion made in the book across all the research conducted is that nothing can adequately substitute for the quality of human experience of interacting with real-world nature. However, if real nature is not available, than the virtual version is, the research suggests, better than no nature. And, as we well know, there are many reasons why people can’t access real nature, perhaps because of the physical environment they live in, perhaps because of accessibility needs, or their economic conditions, and all other considerations.
There is another take on this as well, that rather than comparing whether digital nature can compare to real-world nature, we might consider the way in which digital nature can help us to see real-world nature in ways we may have otherwise overlooked or forgotten about. Since playing Blossom, for example, I’ve been thinking about flowers in ways I haven’t thought about them in quite some time. I am eager to look more closely at flowers now, I’m thinking about music that relates to flowers, about the tactile exploration of flora. I have had the same experience with technology and nature in two key examples that come to mind. First, using something like a microscope that you can plug into an iPad and see beautiful, high definition views of the tiny building blocks of our nature. Seeing a leaf at 40x, and 100x, and then 400x magnification gives you a whole new perspective on what leaves are. I have gone on city walks with my daughter where we pick up leaves, rocks, chips of paint, seeds and all manner of other disjecta from the ground in order to explore them under a microscope later, and every time we did so it gave us a new appreciation for the bustling world beneath our footsteps as we move around our town.
The other example that comes to mind is when you experience something digitally that inspires you to want to seek it out in the world. It is no doubt the same as when you read a story, or enjoy any piece of art, that inspires you to seek out that experience for yourself, be it travel, or achieving a particular state of mind, or interacting with others in a certain way. I remember a recent experience when I was in a virtual reality environment, wearing a headset. I was standing on a beautiful Icelandic landscape in front of a little robotic dog, with a stick in my hand, ready to throw it in any direction for the dog to chase and retrieve. The scene was stunning, I felt so thrilled to have been transported to that location, to look around the world and soak up the exotic environment. And, of course, to play with this fun loving, quirky little dog made out of smooth white plastic components with a slinky waist joining its head to its back. Afterwards, I went home and took my own dog for a walk to the most Icelandic part of Newcastle I could find, to replicate the experience but also to build on it, to breath in the cool air and cuddle the warm fur of my dog in the most human way possible.
It is these manner of complex interactions between our own sense of what it is to be human and our own instincts and desires for a particular form of natural reality combined with what we have available to us virtually that I am increasingly fascinated with as we go forward in this century. As I mentioned above, there are all sorts of social, economic, accessibility and further challenges here that create a situation like I have just described above as a uniquely privelaged one — to be able to engage in a virtual reality experience in the first place, and then to have the good fortune of owning a dog and going for a physical walk in a nice location is something of a modern day miracle, but I would argue that this relationship between how we face the nature within and outside of us and how we align that with what we find in the technology we mostly all use every day is something of a universal experience worth reflecting on.
Take a new social technological support I saw recently, an artifically intelligent character who lives as a hologram with a sophisticated chat bot brain that acts as a digital partner to those who don’t otherwise have a human partner. They are being advertised as a companion to those who live alone and work such long hours that socialising and meeting a real life partner has become significantly difficult. What do we make of this? Do we take the line described in ‘Technological Nature’ that while a real-world experience is best, a technological version of that experience is better than no experience at all? Or, do we consider that the technological version is a temporary measure, a support to help someone through a challenging time until the real-world experience can be achieved, or is this putting a rather conservative judgement call on the quality and intentions of someone’s individual experience being sought from this technology? Is it the old evolutionary question, that we are changing and augmenting so much with the social spaces around us that what we used to understand as evolutionary trajectories have now permanently changed, hence perhaps drawing the line between real-world and technological or virtual experiences are a very outdated way of perceiving things, or, alternatively, does our human nature live in on a way that means this comparison will never be outdated?
In regards to this I think about experiences like those generated from research done into what happens when people use virtual reality to inhabit bodies that are not human. Reserach such as ‘Homuncular Flexibility in Virtual Reality’ has shown that even though we do not have monkey tails, we can learn to control them with just a little time and experimentation if we have them attached to a virtual avatar body we inhabit. We learn to feel what the body should do in order to make the tail move, like we are reaching back into our evolutionary past for the feeling to make it happen. What happens if we then inhabit bodies that are not human or animal, but are rather fantastical, or impossible bodies, how do we navigate that with our sense of our own human nature, of what our brains know about our biological history and our future?
Which brings me back to playing with Blossom, the impossible flowers it generates, forever. I’m going to start it up again now and think about nature and what it is to be a human who plays with virtual petals through a computer screen, and I’m going to think about infinity and time and how while some parts of our realities are changing with extraordinary swiftness, there are other parts of us that feel like they have never changed at all.