The ongoing recovery from Sandy’s devastating impact from the Caribbean to the East Coast of the U.S. – particularly New Jersey and New York – highlights for me the complex relationship between nature and technology. Satellite technology and meteorology were vital in predicting the storm and undoubtedly saved lives. No matter the accuracy of the predictions, however, Mother Nature still rendered many laptops and iPhones useless. On the day after the storm, electricity starved wireless device users, fortunate to not have other, critical needs, were lined up at libraries and other public places with open power outlets.
At this point, it is well known that mobile devices, texting, and Twitter play critical roles in linking citizens with government officials, including first responders. Mobile devices and social media allow families, friends, and neighbors to collaborate and comfort each other during emergencies. Particularly in times of weather-related adversity, wireless technology is vital to bringing communities together.
What about in quieter times? Does wireless technology enhance or detract from an individual’s relationship with nature when there is no crisis? When there is no urgency to tweet a photo? Great authors have grappled with this question recently. Princeton graduate Walter Kirn argued earlier this year in an excellent article in Outside magazine that “nature and technology need not be kept at a distance, as though they might spoil each other if they should touch.” I agree. Out on a bike ride, I enjoy stopping for a moment to capture with my iPhone camera the sun glistening off a pond or the fall flowers blooming at the edge of the road. Using my iPhone briefly does not jar me from appreciating the simplicity and beauty of my surroundings; it allows me to capture a moment and share the joy of that experience later with family and friends.
In his 2011 New Yorker article, “Farther Away: ‘Robinson Crusoe,’ David Foster Wallace, and the island of solitude,” Jonathan Franzen travels to remote Alejandro Selkirk Island, five hundred miles off the coast of central Chile for solitude, bird watching and to release the ashes of his recently deceased friend. Aside from the two-way radio, ten-year-old GPS unit, satellite phone and spare batteries that he brought “at various people’s insistence,” he was entirely alone, with no way to communicate with the faraway world. Of the modern technology he left behind in favor of a paper map, a notebook, binoculars and a backpack filled with camping gear, Franzen writes: “[T]he Internet, that Blackberry-bourne invasive, which, instead of mapping the self into a narrative, maps the self onto the world. Instead of the news, my news. Instead of a single football game, the splintering of fifteen different games into personalized fantasy-league statistics….The individual run amok, everyman a Charlie Sheen…”
I have found, in contrast, that nature provides an apt companion for today’s customized devices. Each smartphone contains a different selection of its owner’s apps, photos and carefully constructed playlists. Each day spent in nature is different – sometimes sunny, windy or cold – or maybe all three at the same time. The gentle warmth of the sun on a fall afternoon lends itself to a different playlist or podcast than a hot summer evening. Spending time digitally with your favorite people while in an ever-changing beautiful environment of your own choosing is fantastic.
How can anyone know whether Henry David Thoreau would have enjoyed having his favorite songs with him on his iPod on Walden Pond?