April 8, 2009 -- Those new high definition plasma screens can take us down a mountain trail with such clarity that it's almost like being there. And that may be too much of a good thing, according to researchers who fear we may be gradually replacing the real world with something they call "technological nature."
With each succeeding generation we raise the bar on technology, and lower the bar on what we expect from the environment around us, according to psychologists at the University of Washington who fear we may be losing something as technology reshapes so much of the world around us.
Psychologist Peter H. Kahn calls it "environmental generational amnesia."
Kahn coined the expression a few years ago after studying how children in several cities around the world perceive their environment.
The children recognized that animals, plants and parks and open spaces played an important role in their lives. They also knew pollution was a bad thing, but children in Houston, for example, didn't realize it had affected their own city in a big way.
Does Technology Help or Hinder Our Relationship with Nature?
Each generation starts with a new baseline understanding of their environment, Kahn concluded, so the kids in Houston were much more likely to accept a polluted environment that would have appalled their ancestors -- because that's what the kids found when they got there.
More recently, Kahn and his University of Washington team have carried out a series of studies on how technology can hinder, or help, our relationship with true nature. They wanted to know, for example, if a large plasma screen can help calm a stressed person as much as looking out a window at a tranquil setting.
The answer, they say in the journal Current Directions in Psychological Science, is a high def image may help a little, but not as much as the real thing. The results, however, were mixed.
In one experiment, the heart rate was slightly reduced for persons who were mildly stressed after they looked through a window, but the plasma screen was no better than looking at a blank wall.
But in another study, workers in an interior office with no windows were treated to a real-time plasma image of the scene outside their office over a period of several weeks.
In later interviews, the workers told the researchers they were comforted by the images of the world they could not see from their interior office.
As Real As the Real Thing
"It was better than being in a box," said Jolina H. Ruckert, a doctoral candidate in developmental psychology and a member of Kahn's team. "They could feel connected to the outside world, and they could see the changes in the day, from sunrise to sunset."
So far, so good. But the researchers fear that little dab of help could turn into a liability if the "technological nature" as depicted on the screen gradually -- or perhaps over a few generations -- becomes as real as the real thing.
That's probably not as far fetched as it seems, because the distinction between the two has already become blurred.
Through the miracle of photography, all of us can easily recognize scenes around the world that we have never seen ourselves. Web cams take us to the treetops where we can see eagles caring for their young. We see images nearly every day of suffering around the world, and it can be almost as stressful as if we were there.
Kids Wouldn't Mind a Robotic Fido
We have become so accustomed to technology that a robotic dog that captured headlines all over the world can, indeed, seem almost real, at least to some persons. Children told researchers they knew the robotic dog wasn't a live dog, but they surprisingly thought it was pretty close.
Some 91 percent of the kids said they would prefer a live dog for a companion, but 70 percent seemed at least partially satisfied with the companionship of a robot.
Interestingly, the researchers found that autistic children bonded with the robotic dog and were more responsive later to the psychologists.
That doesn't mean a lot of folks are likely to give up the family pooch in favor of a dog that can be disconnected from its power source at night. But this is only the beginning of what is certain to be an enormous change in how technology affects our lives.
Virtual Reality of the Future
Ray Kurzweil, who makes a good living predicting future changes, believes we are nearing what he calls the "singularity," when humans and machines will be virtually indistinguishable. Need a new heart? Try aisle 5. Want to stay your present age? Pick up a few new parts on aisle 7.
Sounds pretty good, eh? We can keep grandpa around forever.
And if you want to take a walk through the forest, all you have to do is flip on your three-dimensional holographic machine and join a world that has been reshaped through technology. It will seem very real, no doubt, but it won't be nature, and that troubles the researchers.
"When I'm kayaking and a dolphin comes by and I connect with those eyes, that's an experience I remember for a long time," Ruckert said. "It's a rich experience."
Technology Can't Capture 'Wild Nature of Life'
Ruckert said all you have to do is take a trip to the zoo to see what we may lose in the years ahead. The zoo, she noted, works both ways.
"When we go to the zoo, we see people tapping on windows and throwing things," she said. "We want to be recognized by the wild animal. Perhaps this is a perverse substantiation of something very fundamental to who we are."
We want to see, and be seen, by nature. Technology, she added, "can never capture the true, wild nature of life."
For one thing, the element of fear is gone because there's no way that a holographic bear or tiger is going to eat you.
Or could it? Metaphorically, perhaps. Maybe that's what is going to happen, and those who come after us will never know what they have lost.