Digital Naturalness Principles - Wellness, Beauty, Aliveness

The Digital Naturalness project starts with the experience that so much of what we find most fulfilling in life comes from and is heightened by our connection to nature. The second foundational realization is that so much of our connection to digital technology doesn’t seem to have the same impact on us. It’s a simple starting place: if nature contributes to so much of what we love about life and the future is going to include digital technology that has a more and more powerful impact on our lives, let’s try to learn what we can from nature and see if we can find a way to design our technology so that it has those same deep, positive impacts on us as nature does.

In particular there are three basic qualities we feel we get in relationship to nature that are most basic, and most important for good human lives: increased wellness, increased beauty, and increased aliveness. Is it possible to learn from nature and design tech that also increases our wellness, our experience of beauty, and our sense of aliveness? And, even better, is it possible that the tech also contributes to greater wellness, beauty, and aliveness in the ecosystems it and we participate in?

We came to these three principles - wellness, beauty, and aliveness - intuitively.  Then, after continued reflection and dialogue, confirmed them as potent aspects of our experiences of nature that support deep human health. We then conducted a literature review to see what the relevant science had to say about the way nature supports our beauty, aliveness and wellness. Our ultimate goal is to distill specific aspects of each in a way that can be applied, technically and concretely, to the design of digital products.

The following is a very brief outline of some of our findings from the literature review confirming that nature supports our wellness, beauty, and aliveness.

Wellness

The holistic definition of health put forward by the World Health Organization is a useful starting point: “a state of complete physical, mental, and social well-being and not merely the absence of disease and infirmity.” (WHO, 1948)

The following examples are wellness benefits we receive from nature physically, mentally and socially.

Physical Wellness: in nature, we experience physiological changes including lower pulse rates, reduced cortisol levels, and improved immune functioning (Ulrich et al, 1991). Studies have also shown faster recovery rates from illnesses and overall benefits on long term health (Velarde et al, 2007).

Mental Wellness: In nature we experience “attention restoration” (Kaplan and Kaplan, 1995) as the rich sensory stimuli present there engages our involuntary attention, giving our minds a rest from directed, focused attention. We may experience changes in our emotional state, including an increased sense of play, elation, and a reduced “fear arousal” (Ulrich, 1979) as well as fascination and a sense of mystery (Kaplan and Kaplan, 1995).

Social Wellness: We experience a feeling of deep social connection with nature through 'biophilia,' our “urge to affiliate with other forms of life” (Wilson, 1984). E.O. Wilson believes this to be an ancestral desire based on patterns of attraction to certain forms of nature that were also important for survival. For example, certain flowers indicate the presence of food, so we evolved to become deeply attracted to them. We may also feel more social towards others while in nature. Zhang et al. (2014) found that people exhibited “pro-social behavior when viewing aesthetically pleasing nature, such as increased perspective taking, empathy, generosity and trust with other people."

Beauty

Beauty is defined by Merriam -Webster as “the quality or aggregate of qualities in a person or thing that gives pleasure to the senses or pleasurably exalts the mind or spirit” (“Beauty”). Preferences for beauty have both individual and collective patterns, such that some principles may be universal while others reflect specific values and perspectives (Mo et al, 2016). This is also true when experiencing beauty in nature.

Associations of an aesthetically pleasing landscape have come to be known as “scenic beauty” and include water features, plants in bloom, and winding pathways. Similar patterns of scenic beauty appreciation have been identified across cultures and are thought to be universal. In specific cultural and individual contexts, scenic beauty can arise from one’s values, attachment to a landscape, sense of identity, and sense of care towards a particular landscape (Gobster et al, 2007).

The benefits of viewing aesthetically pleasing nature are closely tied to the wellness benefits of interacting with nature, largely because our interactions are significantly (but certainly not only) visual. In fact, some research on viewing images of aesthetically pleasing nature suggests that spending time physically in nature is not required to experience its wellness benefits (Vincent et al, 2010).

The experience of beauty in nature also has important implications for our sense of connectedness and in turn our wellness.  Zhang et al (2014) suggest that “connectedness with nature only predicts well-being when individuals are also emotionally attuned to nature's beauty.” Therefore, the emotional impacts of experiencing beauty in nature may be critical to receiving wellness benefits.

Aliveness

Aliveness can be defined in two senses, as an absolute quality distinct from being not alive, and as a continuous value positively correlated with our sense of energy and vitality (“Aliveness”). There is an extensive gradient between simply being barely alive and flourishing. Experiences in nature broaden our understanding of what is alive and heighten our vitality.

Alive/not Alive: General intuitions overlap significantly about what is “alive” and “not alive," though edge cases are not universally agreed to, nor is there a hard and fast definition of “alive” in academic biology or other fields. Sometimes “aliveness” is implicitly or explicitly grounded in having consciousness. However, there is even less consensus about how to know whether something is conscious or not (Muehlhauser, 2018). In both cases, however, we use nature and organisms in nature as our shared foundation for determining what is alive or not alive and in nature we interact with a diversity of life and the cycles of life and death much more than we do in urban environments.

Vitality: Similarly, the view that there are degrees of aliveness and consciousness is fairly widely held, though we have no precise theory of either of these spectra. Due to a combination of features of nature including increased sensory complexity, increased mystery, and decreased controllability compared to less natural environments, we experience heightened levels of sensory awareness and feelings of “aliveness” (Demares, 2000). Heightened sensory clarity is a common feature of peak experiences, cultivated and spontaneous, which often occur in nature (Roy, 2018). Feelings of nature connectedness influence our subjective sense of meaning, vitality, transcendence, and awe (Capaldi et al, 2015). Finally, nature is also a place where our basic feelings of safety and danger are heightened. Paradoxically, touching our own mortality also increases our sense of aliveness. In general, increased sensory richness, sensory clarity, emotional intensity, alertness, and connectedness are all enhanced by natural environments.

It is not difficult to see that human wellness is augmented when we are in nature or touched by nature in some way. By contrast, beauty, wellness and aliveness seem noticeably absent from our experiences interacting with digital technology. Human wellness decreases from long hours of sitting at a computer while staring at a screen; our experience of beauty decreases as we look at objects that are not built from the patterns we are evolutionarily disposed to appreciate, and our sense of aliveness lessens as we increasingly interact with nonliving systems.

And, we think this may not have to be in the case. In our next blog we’ll start to lay out some specific ways of translating these three principles into technical terms that may be useful for designing technology that mimics the deep qualities in nature that generate them.

References

“Aliveness.” Merriam-Webster, Merriam-Webster, www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/aliveness.

“Beauty.” Merriam-Webster, Merriam-Webster, www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/beauty.

Capaldi, Colin A., et al. “Flourishing in Nature: A Review of the Benefits of Connecting with Nature and Its  Application as a Wellbeing Intervention.” International Journal of Wellbeing, vol. 5, no. 4, 2015, pp. 1–16., doi:10.5502/ijw.v5i4.1.

Demares, Ryan. Human Peak Experience Triggered by Encounters with Cetaceans. Anthrozoos, vol. 13, no. 2, 2000, pp.89-103, doi: 10.2752/089279300786999914.

Gobster, Paul H., et al. "The shared landscape: what does aesthetics have to do with ecology?." Landscape ecology, vol. 22, no. 7, 2007, pp. 959-972.

Kaplan, Rachel, and Stephen Kaplan. The Experience of Nature: a Psychological Perspective. Cambridge University Press, 1995.

Mo, Ce, et al. “Natural Tendency towards Beauty in Humans: Evidence from Binocular Rivalry.” Plos One, vol. 11, no. 3, Jan. 2016, doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0150147.

Roy, Bonnitta. “Awakened Perception: Perception as Participation." Integral Review, Vol. 14 No. 1, August 2018. https://integral-review.org/awakened-perception-perception-as-participation/.

Ulrich, Roger S., et al. “Stress Recovery during Exposure to Natural and Urban Environments.” Journal of Environmental Psychology, vol. 11, no. 3, 1991, pp. 201–230, doi:10.1016/s0272-4944(05)80184-7.

Ulrich, Roger S. “Visual Landscapes and Psychological Well‐Being.” Landscape Research, vol. 4, no. 1, 1979, pp. 17–23., doi:10.1080/01426397908705892.

Velarde, M.D., et al. “Health Effects of Viewing Landscapes – Landscape Types in Environmental Psychology.” Urban Forestry and Urban Greening, vol. 6, no. 4, 2007, pp. 199–212., doi:10.1016/j.ufug.2007.07.001.

Vincent, Ellen, et al. “The Effects of Nature Images on Pain in a Simulated Hospital Patient Room.” HERD: Health Environments Research and Design Journal, vol. 3, no. 3, 2010, pp. 42–55, doi:10.1177/193758671000300306.

Wilson, Edward O. Biophilia. Harvard University Press, 1984.

Zhang, Jia Wei, et al. “Engagement with Natural Beauty Moderates the Positive Relation between Connectedness with Nature and Psychological Well-Being.” Journal of Environmental Psychology, vol. 38, 2014, pp. 55–63, doi:10.1016/j.jenvp.2013.12.013.

Zhang, Jia Wei, et al. “An Occasion for Unselfing: Beautiful Nature Leads to Prosociality.” Journal of Environmental Psychology, vol. 37, 2014, pp. 61–72, doi:10.1016/j.jenvp.2013.11.008.

Future Civilizations

In this post we give broad visions of alternative futures to lay the foundation for the importance of asking digital naturalness-type questions now, at an apparent inflection point in the history of the human species...

Contemporary civilization seems to be breaking down at the edge of our current stable state, poised to move through a chaotic transition toward a new stable state. What that new state looks like in much detail is impossible to predict. However, there are a few fault lines that seem central to these different possible futures. Given that how we collectively address the issues along these fault lines now could have enormous consequences in the near and far futures, they may be some of the most important ethical considerations of our time.

One of these fault lines is the relationship between ‘technology’ and ‘nature.’ As mentioned in previous posts we think that both of these terms have fuzzy boundaries, often overlap each other significantly, and that taking them too seriously has definite negative effects on our ability to think about their relationship accurately and and act effectively on the problems at hand. However, as pointers to our original motivation and the real tensions humans feel today, they remain relevant. Basically what we mean by ‘technology’ is human made systems, especially digital technologies including leading edge software/hardware. What we mean by ‘nature’ is all the non-human creatures and elements that give context to and interact with humans and that generally preceded our development of digital tech, as well as the ecosystemic organizing processes through which these creatures and elements dynamically maintain themselves, again overlapping and in relationship with humans.

Digital technology has transformed our lives, and there are serious predictions that new digital tech including blockchain, 3d printing, VR/AR, internet connected devices, AI, and advanced robotics will radically transform both our economies and governments. Some experts even expect AI and advanced human-computer interfaces in the next few decades to irrevocably break down the last significant boundary between humans and machines - our skins. Several companies are now seriously attempting to build consumer grade direct interfaces between computers and our brains. In the background to all this is climate change and our our continuing destruction of nature. It is our contention that digital life currently acts as a net obstacle to adequately appreciating and responding to these changes in nature.

In this context two extreme futures are worth considering. The first we’ll call Machine World. In Machine World humans become cyborgs or are replaced by AI. Cities become hyperdense and filled with machine intelligences. The transformation of ‘natural resources’ into energy, production materials, and waste accelerates further until hardly any natural ecosystems are left. Eventually there are no rural or wild areas left at all. Machine World sustains itself by recycling and repurposing old machines, by continuing to mine metals on earth, and eventually by mining metals in space. Second is the World Without Civilization. We are currently changing earth chemistry so dramatically and so rapidly that there is real concern that we will cause regional or global environmental collapses to such an extent that industrial civilization will no longer be possible and humans will, like other animals, face mass die offs. Humans will live in small semi-nomadic groups of varying sizes surviving by hunting, farming, and harvesting materials from the old, no longer used equipment from cities. We will creatively re-create and maintain some modern communications but overall technological progress will stop for a significant period of time (if not forever).

Both of these extreme trajectories - one in which nature is converted into machines and one in which technological progress pulls the rug out from under itself leaving mostly nature - are unlikely. However, they help us bound the space of the future and flesh out our imagination of more likely and more desirable alternatives. More likely is that the two trends described above interact with each other in complex ways, as they are already doing today. There are several examples where digital technology is contributing to the establishment of more sustainable world system. Solar photovoltaics have in many places become as cheap or cheaper than oil and natural gas. 3d printing is empowering local, distributed manufacturing which will cut down drastically on the energy used to transport products.

The Digital Naturalness Project is an attempt to look at the fault line between digital technologies and nature and try to find areas where they might mutually benefit each other in such a way as to steer the overall direction of both in healthier, generative directions rather than unhealthy, destructive ones. Our fundamental questions are: How can digital technology be built with the patterns of nature in mind to improve our aliveness, wellbeing, and the beauty of our lives? And, what digital technologies would contribute to a future in which nature is sustained and made ever healthier and more complex? Asking these question while standing in that fault line between digital technology and nature leads to deeply exciting, terrifying, sometimes even seemingly perverse possibilities, but exploring them is necessary to find the best alternative worlds between Machine World and the World Without Civilization.

Introduction to Digital Naturalness

In this post we outline the foundations of a “Digital Naturalness” approach to building digital technologies. It reflects the range of technical issues, methodological approaches, and philosophical questions we have so far considered and is meant to serve as an evolving guide for future applications.

Our starting point for the Digital Naturalness project was our observation that, while digital technological advancement has had many positive consequences, it also seems to be having many negative consequences. Regular use of digital technology seems to have generally increased users’ anxiety, decreased attentional control, increased stress, contributed to decreased physical activity, and dramatically altered social interactions. More fundamentally and significantly, the widespread adoption of the internet and smartphones, and possibly soon VR/AR, IoT, 3d printing, advanced robotics, and powerful AI could signal a dramatic new break from humans interacting and living within a primarily living, organic, physical, and analog environment to interacting with and living within a primarily not alive, virtual, and digital one.

A background motivation for this inquiry of course is climate change and our continuing destruction of natural environments. Although industrial  economies have largely been to blame for the destruction of ecosystems and species, digital economies sit on top of them, requiring further energy resources, materials, and industrial production. More, it is now digital economies that are accelerating our sense of alienation from natural rhythms and processes. Beyond the immediate personal and social negative health consequences of digital technology, we think that the way we currently use digital technology acts as a net obstacle to adequately appreciating and responding to these complex changes. Unless we change direction, future tech will only further this alienation.

Our aim with Digital Naturalness is to make practical steps toward a better digital future. Here, ‘technology’ refers to human made systems, especially leading edge digital software/hardware. ‘Nature’ refers to the non-human creatures and elements that give context to and interact with humans and that generally preceded our development of digital technology, as well as the ecosystemic organizing processes through which these creatures and elements dynamically maintain themselves and evolve and of which humans are a part.

Both ‘nature’ and ‘technology,’ however, are fuzzy terms that often overlap each other significantly, and in order to find solutions at the intersection of digital tech and nature one has to think that those two concepts are not irreconcilable. Yet we have often found ourselves struggling with hidden assumptions about their mutual exclusivity. In one sense everything humans have ever been or done or will be or do is natural, and to think otherwise is to use the same kind of absurd isolationist thinking that drives both ecological destruction and “leave no trace” ideology (Morton, 2018). This attitude leads to a simplifying, reductionist logic which is useful for manipulating and extracting, but not for appreciating or participating with other natural elements a fruitful way. On the other hand, it is also true that even though AI and robots are natural, we still don’t want to cut down all the trees, bleach all the coral, and subsume ourselves into increasingly virtual environments. We want VR nature to generate empathy and foresight in relation to real world nature, not satisfied apathy such that we don’t mind its obsolescence.

We have asked two questions:

  1. How can digital technology be built with the patterns of nature in mind to improve humans’ aliveness, wellbeing, and the beauty of our lives?

  2. What digital technologies could contribute to nature being sustained and made ever healthier, directly and/or by improving humans’ ability to sense, appreciate, and positively participate with nature?

Digitally natural products should help users experience more beauty, wellness, and aliveness and contribute to greater beauty, wellness, and aliveness in surrounding ecosystems. These three principles were originally chosen intuitively and have guided our choice of fields of study, of exemplary technologies, and of potential new applications. In time and with help from collaborators we hope to formalize these principles into useful metrics for digital technology developers. Each of these principles are complex and broad in their own right; our goal is to distill specific aspects of each that could be used to inform digital technology development.

To attempt to answer our questions, in such a way that could immediately inform the development of digital naturalness applications, we drew from the fields of natural computing, biomimicry, biophilic design, ecophilosophy, ecopsychology, the cognitive sciences of perception of complexity, human computer interaction, and ecological economics.

In posts to come we imagine multiple possible futures, define the three principles including key insights from relevant fields, give examples of currently existing digitally natural technology products, describe a perception centered, process-design methodology by which technology developers could make it more likely that their products accomplish the principles, and sketch potential applications. We always welcome feedback, collaborations, and suggestions for improvement.

Reference
- Morton, Timothy. Dark Ecology: For a Logic of Future Coexistence. Columbia University Press, 2018.

Our Digital Future

We are usually being told how digital technology will change and impact us in the future. However, most of us are not asking ourselves what we want that technology to become. As it develops, digital technology more and more seems to literally have a mind of its own and it becomes increasingly important that we ask big questions about the ways we want to live with that technology. There is power in creating intentions for the future that most calls us: if we don’t know what we are shooting for, how will we know if we are heading in the right direction?

Last summer, we had an uneasy conversation about feeling like powerless victims facing digital “monsters’ looming on the horizon, threatening to alienate us even further from the kinds of environments, organisms, and intuitions that we find both deeply satisfying and that are evolutionarily most familiar to all humans. A world without digital tech seemed impossible. A world of increasing mechanization and the destruction of living systems seemed terrible. It was difficult to imagine futures that could be both possible and desirable.

Sitting in my (Carissa’s) backyard, eating blackberries and looking into the face an old cedar tree, we decided to take a position of greater agency and less isolation by imaginatively asking the “nature in ourselves” what tech future we/it most wants to see. The metaphoric answers we found after silence and inner journeying led to surprising insights for both of us. Most importantly: that the beautiful patterns we see in nature are more fundamental that any supposed nature-technology divide, that those patterns can inform digital technology design, and that we can all be active agents in building beautiful, digital futures in which we want to live.

The Digital Naturalness Project looks for ways that digital technology can contribute to increasing the depth and quality of life by mimicking deep patterns in nature. We start from the view that humans and all human-made technology are always-already part of nature and that there are ways we can design technology to feel even more natural. We pursue research, develop community, and train technologists and designers to investigate the value of a digital naturalness approach to technology design. After a period of quiet development, we are beginning to work publicly with biologists, technologists, designers, philosophers, wise elders, and technology users to undo our alienation from the natural world by building a more enchanted future in which nature is honored and deeply appreciated and technology helps us come more alive.

We will soon publish some of our early research and conversations and invite you to contribute.

What digital future do you most want to see?