April 02, 2015
“There is a pleasure in the pathless woods,
There is a rapture in the lonely shore.
There is society where none intrudes,
By the deep sea, and music in its roar.
I love not man the less, but nature more.”
– Lord Byron
What is our relationship with nature? What is a human being? How is the human being different from other animals and from nature on a whole? These questions revolve around the various ways in which we have conceptualized the human condition and its connection with nature, and have investigated this within different frameworks all through the ages. Humans have actually considered themselves separate from nature from time immemorial. The entire thrust of the (Genesis) story is that humans and nature are separate and distinct. God gives man dominance over nature and nature is to be used to suit our needs. It is no wonder that it took until the 19th century for scientists to rediscover evolution, with the exception of some of the Natives who have always considered themselves to be related to other mammals and nature on the whole. Starting with the building blocks of most religions then (Hinduism, Buddhism, Christianity, Native Americans and Indigenous peoples alike) have theorized on man’s connection with the surrounding universe, in the forms of dualism and ontology. This was succeeded by Classical philosopher Aristotle who created his own rendition of classical ontology. The relational effects of technology with the human being and nature largely came from the 17th Century onwards, as the start of the technological revolution as we know it today. Karl Marx conceptualized a worldview of the relationship between man and nature through economics and technology. Then there was Scheler and Heidegger with phenomenology, and Sartre and Kierkegaard with existentialism. In the realm of psychoanalysis, Freud was the one to theorize on man’s innate animal, and in the twentieth century authors like Plessner, Gehlen, and Foucault have all implicitly or explicitly, argued that technology plays an important role in forming human nature and identity. According to these thinkers, humans have always shaped and extended themselves by virtue of technical tools and artefacts. Furthermore, for our purposes that in our modern era, technology has become such an inherent part of scientific investigation- which in turn has an impact on our view of human nature, in addition to its affects on the natural world and our relationship with nature. Lest we mention the musings of many mystics and poets. Indeed, it is argued in this text that to see a world in a grain of sand and to hold infinity in the palm of your hand, has acquired a whole new meaning in the light of the technological revolution. William Blake’s mystic words can now be equated to virtual reality, artificial intelligence, computer intelligence equal to the human brain, tablets and smartphones, and nanotechnology with its endless horizons – all in the palm of your hand. This text aims to serve as a transcendental summary of all these different views and to find a way forward and towards the ideal balance between mankind, technology, and nature.
Over the last century, there has been more technological progress than any other preceding era. There will be 21000 years’ worth of technological progress only in 100 years during the 21st century. This is quite a mind-blowing thought, right? It remains true that from starting fire to replication of the natural world, we have successfully attempted to simplify and enhance our own lives, from the beginnings of time. With technology so rapidly advancing, progress that’s happening at increasing speeds and arguably almost having reached its pinnacle in the form of nanotechnology – as we are now trying to remake ourselves, and to create our own world, to create utopia, it might, on the one hand, be argued that it seems all the more as if we are in a battle to claim victory over God’s creation in turn for our own creations. The question at hand here is, how is nature to survive in an environment that is all too easily created at our own fingertips? If we have the power to play God and be our own Gods, nature sadly becomes redundant. This proposes the very real dangers of the wrong technological mentality. Consider the following scenario for a moment: Can you imagine deliberately disposing of your belongings and burning all your money? If you had these precious things taken away from you, which items would you miss the most? Perhaps your phone, Laptop or IPad, most especially. This scenario might or might not appeal to you, as something that you would be able to do or not. But a young man called Christopher McCandless did precisely this as he decided to walk the Earth for two years with no phone, no pool, and no cigarettes. He was at odds with the consequences of industrialisation and technological evolution and sought ultimate freedom instead. An extremist, an aesthetic voyager whose home is the road, for whom after two rambling years, came the final and greatest adventure: The climactic battle to kill the false being within and victoriously conclude the spiritual revolution. No longer to be poisoned by civilization and technology he fled, and walked alone upon the land to become lost in the wild. The true story of Christopher McCandless who walked into the wild is strongly based around the themes of the case of Modern Civilization vs. Nature. What drove this man to do what he did, strongly conforms to what our considerations should perhaps be regarding the modern condition of alienation and the destruction of the planet, as results of processes of human greed, capitalism and control, all the more through the wrongful use of technology. The irony in the story of McCandless- and on par with the crux of our contentions about the flawed modern technological mentality lies within its ending, for if only Christopher had some way of sharing his mystical experiences with someone, because as it turned out, happiness is only real when shared…
Yes, you name it and we are ‘perfecting it’ through technology. Immortality, Information, Global Communication, and now, the very replication of our world. We have become completely self-sufficient. We can literally create anything we want. There is no need to deny the many benefits of technology and its power to connect and inform, and how it has positively contributed to the social sciences, engineering, and the field of medicine. However, we must be wary that while technology enhances and saves lives, it also potentially takes life away. And so we must be wary of the notion that the more plugged into things we get, the more disconnected from nature we become. A few concrete examples can tell us that nature is not sacred anymore, most obvious would be the detriment of the planet, global warming and pollution. In the unscrupulous pursuit of progress and profit, it may very well be argued on par with Marx and Heidegger, that technology as driving force for capitalism has been one factorial cause of humanity’s big disconnect with nature. If we infer the drive for technology being largely about profit, the technological mentality in itself can then be defined as the unscrupulous pursuit of profit and control, an on par with Marxism, through means of capitalism. Technology then, on the one hand, serves as a tool de force for capitalism in the face of environmental decay and alienation of the human from nature, and furthermore also from his own human nature. It is also evident that as we create new amazing life-enhancing technologies, we are also aware of the impact it has on nature, and this is obvious by frantic attempts to reverse the detrimental situation of the planet by the technological inventions of ways of preserving nature: Hydrogen car, solar planes, superefficient gliders and the electric car. Gathering from the irony in this, it seems we indeed now have developed a greed with which we have agreed…
We seem to be constantly plugged into something these days, and stay connected everywhere we go. High definition televisions and computer screens govern our living spaces, feeding us an endless array of information and advertising diets. Facebook, Twitter and texting and instant messaging have become the favoured method of keeping in touch with people. Ubiquitously, tablets, smart phones, and social networks now all promise better opportunities to connect and stay connected. Yet the isolating consequences of modern technology cannot be disputed. It can, in fact, be argued that, when used within the wrong mentality, it replaces face-to-face interactions and disguise our growing inability to trust others. According to recent surveys, at any given moment, 20 percent of the population feel sufficiently isolated. Is this to say that we have arrived at a new kind of consciousness in which electronic interfaces receive most of our attention- to the detriment of real interpersonal communication and empathy? Perhaps what we have lost is the sense of identity as part of a larger world- and this is none other than nature itself. It seems as if intimacy with machines is increasingly replacing mutual human intimacy, and in the words of Sheldon on the Big Bang Theory- “to romantically bond with soulless machines”. The trick, perhaps, is for technologies to mediate their connections with other human beings in a manner that is both responsible and socially accepted, and to seek face-to-face contacts above all. Let us just take any social setting as example. To the observer and speculate, it looks as if we are not in true community any longer, but communicating with someone who isn’t there (in the immediate vicinity), but in fact on the other side of the phone/world. So while technology enables global communication (which is great) and brings us ‘closer’, it can be argued that simultaneously, it alienates people from themselves, from others, and ultimately and evidently from nature- since we are in fact a part of nature and not wholly separate from it. Furthermore and on a more basic level, in regards to television viewing and staring at screens, studies have shown that within the first minute of television viewing, one’s predominantly beta brain waves switch from alert and conscious attention, to predominantly alpha waves, indicating an unfocused, receptive lack of attention. This is to say that the brain’s left hemisphere (the part that processes information logically and analytically) is plugged out while the right hemisphere of the brain, which processes information emotionally and non-critically, is allowed to plug and play and function without hindrance. When it comes to ‘selfies’ by self-obsession and the obsession with recording and displaying our lives, (which has been done for longer than we might imagine…) that either leads to self-awareness and super connectivity in the positive sense, or ego centeredness and narcissism in the negative.
All of the foregoing undoubtedly links up with the notion of the intensified sense of ego and greed (as mentioned before) which could be taken as the very root cause of our alienation from nature, and furthermore with our abuse and/or total neglect of the natural world. However, rather than seeing materialistic science/technology as part of the process of capitalism as being the causes of our pathology, these creeds should themselves be seen as consequences of the prevailing dualistic and de-spiritualised vision of the world which our psyches generally generate. What is called for therefore must necessarily be a return to a kind of mystical or even native outlook, with the belief that every living thing is infused with spirit and that everything is interconnected. It has actually been shown that plants have a much more complex interaction with the world around them than what is generally perceived. Studies show that plants react to thoughts, feelings and emotions in a manner that could be described as quite humanlike, and the same goes for animals. As we have seen though, something has gone terribly wrong on earth. It seems we humans have become blind to our connection with nature as we rush to cut down the forests, mine the mountains, and frock everything else in between. The reason for this is what can now be coined out ‘Nature Deficit Disorder’. It has become a reality, that whenever we are disconnected from the natural world and our intimate connection therewith, we lose our ability of feeling empathy for what’s really going on. Our supposed obsession with technological innovation and our infatuation with electronic connectivity, indeed potentially cuts us off from the web of life, from the all-pervading life-giving force of energy- and substitutes it with artificial constructs to the likes of what we have mentioned here. This shameful reality, is in many ways similar to concepts as predicted by previously mentioned philosophers, mystics, religious peoples, spiritualists and futurists. It cannot likely be argued then, that some of our predecessors were right about the fate of the planet and the destiny of mankind. The important thing now remains up to us all, to be proactive and creative and take the initiative to maintain one’s sense of discovery and relationship with nature. We must content that it is up to us whether technology steals some of our passion and relationship with nature. Beyond climate change and the depletion of natural sources in the light of greed and capitalism, humanity’s disconnect from nature then also spells disastrous implications on the psychological, religious, ethical, and physiological fronts. For example: What happens to the soul in a fake world that is seemingly as realistic as the real world? Eventually no one will notice if they have a soul and religion and ethics might become redundant. That is, of course, only if we allow ourselves to forget that our souls are intertwined and inseparable from the great universal soul…
Looking into the future once more, 21st Century Physicist and futurist Michio Kaku predicts what the world will be like in less than a hundred years from now, and says that the potential benefits of technology are great- but that we must beware of its dark side. Beyond global warming and the complete destruction of nature he contends, there are very real probabilities of the wrongful use of technology in the forms of weaponized disease; and the erection of a super-virus that could erase all of humanity. Of course, there is also the creation of DNA/life-forms with the simple ease of a typewriter in the form of what we now know to be nanotechnology. Yes, the real trouble starts now and if our world is heading towards what Michio Kaku predicts, including virtual worlds populated by AI, it also follows that the notion of an immaterial Creator of Nature that is spaceless, powerful, and all-intelligent, could be false. There would be no way to know the theology of God. Well, whether one is religiously inclined or not at all, it’s only logical to desire to save ourselves. And whether one believes in having a soul or not, would largely shape one’s specific technological mentality. There seems thus to be a divide in society with some parts gravitating towards one of two extremes; on the one hand then, there are many who use technology to enhance their lives in trivial ways that create disconnect from nature (among other things mentioned in this text). Then there are those who use technology to become hyper-aware and more connected than ever. In the grand scheme of things, does it not seem all the more to be human nature to “conquer” nature itself, starting with the harnessing of fire, water, wind, the earth? If your opinion is that we are the higher species and have the right to conquer for our own benefits, then you could contend that technology certainly makes it easier to achieve this goal and the “ideal” relationship with nature. Conversely, if your opinion is that we must coexist and treat every animal (and plant!) as equals on the phylogenetic tree, technology is bad in the sense that it destroys much of nature. Ultimately, we can only contend the ironically true, that is the opinion that technology is marvellous in itself and isn’t bad, and has potential to either destroy or preserve nature with greater ease. Thus is all depends on personal perception and orientation regarding one’s connection to nature. With the right approach, we could use technology as a tool to improve our quality of live and strengthen our relationship with nature. On par with Kaku then, we must take full responsibility and be careful with our tools on par with the simultaneous realization that everything is connected. Furthermore and most importantly, technology is also part of the evolution of nature, as part and parcel of the processes which bring us all closer to fate. It is entirely up to us to use our resources wisely.
To conclude, we cannot and certainly will not all be like Christopher McCandless whom so bravely threw his caution to the wind. There is a crux and great irony in the story of humankind, technology and ecology: we cannot do without it, and we are at odds with having it, at the same time. Technology itself is inspired by nature and there are many ways of utilizing technology for good, and all of this is very good. But, the question remains: Why are we evidently so lost upon the moment of deciding to rely entirely upon it? I do not mean that we should all revert back to the Stone Age, nor that we are all intrinsically mystics or shamans, but well that how one chooses to utilize technology depends on the exact make-up of one’s own human nature. It is therefore simply, and always, a matter of the meaning that resides in the personal relationship to a phenomenon- what it means to you. The answer to the question then lies within the given individual asking the question, that is, between the city dweller and the farmer; the virtual game developer and the Shaman; the Internet marketer and the marijuana smoking Hippy. The answer would always depend on whether we infer that we are spiritual beings, or mere mechanistic parts of our own virtual (real?) realities. In this way, technology could be seen as neutral, with the important part being- how we use technology. What it boils down to is the intention of the user, not the tool itself. Thus, perhaps, we need to consistently and continually recapitulate our own human nature and what that must entail in order to prevent alienation from ourselves as being part and parcel of nature itself. Now the way forward must also ask how technology can be developed and used in an ethical and sustainable way, what good technology is, and how both society and engineering should be organized to produce technology that is psychologically, ethically, politically, and environmentally acceptable. So, in conclusion, we may argue that it is not the “technology” itself that has impacted our environment and society, but our need for continuous consumption, which is none other than greed. When used wrongly and greedily, the alienation of humans from true human nature results in the destruction of larger nature. When technology is used as the fuel to security, material excess and power, these things undoubtedly cut us off from our own existence. We are in trouble when we are more astonished with our own creations than the creation that we are part of. We are in trouble once we prefer to speak to people that aren’t physically around instead of enjoying the ones that are in fact there. Technology in itself does not destroy our relationship with nature, but we do it upon the moment we are more astonished with a bird picture than the actual bird. We are in trouble upon ceasing to be in awe of the wonder and greatness of nature. When we prefer technological experience over and above the real world, we are at fault. And as long as we pursue profit and control through the goal of creating a reality other than the one we have been given, we will be at peril of losing both ourselves in the mist of destroying our most precious earth. To love ourselves means loving nature and vice versa, let us never fail to recall the important things in life. We need not love man (and all of man’s wondrous inventions) the less, but always love nature more!