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.

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