Smart mobbing and enjoying the garden
December 16th, 2009

“We can’t see the forest for the T-Mobiles,” a Washington Post essay today by Adrian Higgins, rounds up some current facts and commentary about whether mobs of people staring at screens have lost touch with the natural world. An example given is wondering whether walking through a garden while staring at a screen makes that person oblivious to the garden. What popped into my mind when I read that was the problem could be overstated: for example avid gardener Howard Rheingold is one of the most perceptive observers of the world within the screens.

Here is a provocative view given in the article:

Actually, we have become symbionts, says Katherine Hayles, author of “How We Became Posthuman.” Just as a lichen is the marriage of a fungus and an algae, we now live in full partnership with digital technology, which we rely on for the infrastructure of our lives. “If every computer were to crash tomorrow, it would be catastrophic,” she says. “Millions or billions of people would die. That’s the condition of being a symbiont.”

Hayles is among a number of intellectuals who see this dependence as not necessarily bad, but as advancing civilization and, above all, just inevitable. “From Thoreau on, we have had this dream we can withdraw from our technologies and live closer to the natural world, and yet that’s not the cultural trajectory that we have followed,” says Hayles, a professor of literature at Duke University. “You could say when humans started to walk upright, we lost touch with the natural world. We lost an olfactory sense of the world, but obviously bipedalism paid big dividends.”

Here is a big dividend already paying off: through the screens we can virtually experience gardens far beyond the places we could ever visit. The picture above is a Grevillea ‘Bonfire.’ It is “In Flower this Week,” a feature found on the website of the Australian National Botanical Gardens. The bright red flower you see through your screen right now puts you a bit more in touch with the global natural world in new ways the screens make possible. Unless you happen to find yourself near a pond in Australia in December, it is highly unlikely you will ever see the Grevillea ‘Bonfire’ in any other way.

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