Monday, January 11, 2010

The Extinction of Experience

The following piece of mine appeared this past week on, in response to John Brockman's annual question: "How is the Internet Changing the Way You Think?"

Like many others, my personal experience is that the internet is both the Great Source for information and the Great Distractor, fostering compulsions to stay “connected,” often at the expense of other, arguably more valuable aspects of life. I do not sense that the internet alters the way that I think as much as it does the way I work; having the Great Source close at hand is simply irresistible, and I generally keep a window open on my laptop for random searches that pop into my head.

Nevertheless, I am much less concerned about “tweeners” like me who grew up before the internet than I am with children of the internet age, so-called “Digital Natives.” I want to know how the internet changes the way they think. Although the supporting research may still be years away, it seems likely that a lifetime of daily conditioning dictated by the rapid flow of information across glowing screens will generate substantial changes in brains, and thus thinking. Commonly cited potential effects include fragmented thinking and shorter attention spans together with a concomitant reduction (let alone interest) in reflection, introspection, and in-depth thought. Another oft-noted concern is the nature of our communications, which are becoming increasingly terse and decreasingly face-to-face.

But I have a larger fear, one rarely mentioned in these discussions—the extinction of experience. This term, which comes from author Robert Michael Pyle, refers to the loss of intimate experience with the natural world. Clearly, anyone who spends 10-plus hours each day with their attention focused on a screen is not devoting much time to experiencing the “real” world. More and more, it seems, real-life experience is being replaced by virtual alternatives. And, to my mind at least, this is a grave problem. Let me explain.

As the first generation to contemplate the fact that humanity may have a severely truncated future, we live at arguably the most pivotal moment in the substantial history of Homo sapiens. Decisions made and actions taken during the next generation will have an imbalanced impact on the future of humans and all other life on Earth. If we blunder onward on our present course—increasing populations, poverty, greenhouse gas emissions, and habitat destruction—we face no less than the collapse of civilization and the decimation of the biosphere. (For believers and skeptics alike, I highly recommend Lester Brown's exceptional summary of our current eco-crisis and a plan to get us out of it: Plan B 4.0: Mobilizing to Save Civilization, 2009) Given the present dire circumstances, any new far-reaching cultural phenomenon must be evaluated in terms of its ability to help or hinder the pressing work to be done; certainly this concern applies to how the internet influences thinking.

Ecological sustainability, if it is to occur, will include greener technologies and lifestyles. In addition, however, we require a shift in worldview that re-configures our relationship with non-human nature. To give one prominent example of our current dysfunctional perspective, how are we to achieve sustainability as long as we see nature as part of the economy rather than the inverse? Instead of a collection of resources available for our exploitation, nature must become a community of relatives worthy of our respect and a teacher to whom we look for inspiration and insight. In contrast to the present day, sustainable societies will likely be founded on local foods, local materials, and local energy. They will be run by people who have a strong passion for place and a deep understanding of the needs of those places. And I see no way around the fact that this passion and understanding will be grounded in direct, firsthand experiences with those places.

My concern, then, is this: How are we to develop new, more meaningful connections to our native communities if we are staring at computer screens that connect us only to an amorphous worldwide “community?” As is evident to anyone who has stood in a forest or on a seashore, there is a stark difference between a photograph or video and the real thing. Yes, I understand the great potential for the internet to facilitate fact-finding, information sharing, and even community-building of like-minded people. I am also struck by the radical democratization of information that the internet may soon embody. But how are we to establish affective bonds locally if our lives are consumed by virtual experiences on global intermedia? What we require is uninterrupted solitude outdoors, sufficient time for the local sights, sounds, scents, tastes, and textures to seep into our consciousness. What we are seeing is children spending less and less time outdoors actually experiencing the real world and more and more time indoors immersed in virtual worlds.

In effect, my argument is that the internet may influence thinking indirectly through its unrelenting stranglehold on our attention and the resultant death (or at least denudation) of non-virtual experience. If we are to care about larger issues surrounding sustainability, we first must care about our local places, which in turn necessitates direct experiences in those places. As Pyle observes, “what is the extinction of the condor to a child who has never known a wren?”

One thing is certain. We have little time to get our act together. Nature, as they say, bats last. Ultimately, I can envision the internet as a net positive or a net negative force in the critical sustainability effort, but I see no way around the fact that any positive outcome will involve us turning off the screens and spending significant time outside interacting with the real world, in particular the nonhuman world.


  1. Interesting perspective.

    While I agree that a general disconnection from the natural world would be a problem, I am not convinced that it is an inevitability that we're already falling in line to suffer.

    While many people do spend 10 hours a day in front of a computer screen, myself included as a consequence of employment, I do not feel any less connected to the natural world than I did before the advent of the Internet, in fact, I am generally clamouring to get outside after a typical work day.

    This urge to get out is reflected on a larger scale by National Parks breaking attendance records (288 million visitors in 2009) for the third year in a row and this trend doesn't seem to support the hypothesis that the ever increasing inundation to digital distractions would interfere with natural experiences.

    My oldest son loves Scooby-Do (and Dinosaur Train too for that matter). If I would let him, he would watch episodes back to back all day. But if I present the option to watch Scooby Do or go outside and dig a hole in the yard, he's grabbing his shoes and looking for a shovel. Why is this? Could it be that we are hard-wired to seek and experience our environment? Do we have a natural drive to learn what we're capable of and discovering those limits in the natural world is a sort of evolutionary homecoming? Are we subconsciously driven to gravitate to the outdoors? Would it be possible for mankind to completely turn it's back on nature by way of digital distractions?

    On that last question - is there evidence that is the case? Is industrialization and consumerism driving a wedge between us and the natural world, or are they being re-invented to lessen the human footprint and make us collectively more aware of our impact on the planet? I perceive the 'green' global movement to be bigger than it has ever been in that everyday business from the 'Mom and Pop' shops to the global companies are now 'going green' in an attempt to contribute to the eco-security of the planet. And sure, there is green profit to be made too. Hey, an enviro-cash pun!

    I would suggest that the environmental global consciousness has been elevated to an unprecedented level. For example, in the Architectural, Engineering and Construction industry, LEED design, or 'sustainable design' has exploded and is practically a prerequisite to stay competitive... it's not just some novel resume bullet point or hippie pipe dream. 10 years ago, no one knew, or cared for that matter, what sustainability and green design and construction was. Are these trends perpetuated not only by business decisions to be more efficient in our development, but also by a deeper connection to the environment?

    Also, is the Internet different from any other distraction? TV? Video Games? Books? Toys? I have heard this argument with the variable culprit substituted by said alternatives.

    While I agree that there are undue and unforgivable ecological tragedies that occur across the planet on a daily basis, I am skeptical of the inevitability of a technological lobotomy that would effectively hobble our collective efforts to be more responsible stewards of the environment. In my anecdotal observations, the opposite seems to be the case - we are witnessing a green revolution.

    I share your concern for the future, but maybe I have more faith in mankind to do the right thing, regardless of current perceived blunderings or distractions, and also based on what I believe is intrinsically part of our existence; a general respect, if not for all a reverence, for the natural world.

    Am I dreaming out loud?

  2. Jason,

    Thanks very much for the thoughtful response. My personal bias is that humans do have an innate ability to form bonds with nonhuman nature. This is what E. O. Wilson has called biophilia -- a love of nature -- which he argues all of us possess thanks to our evolutionary ancestry (Wilson, E. O. 1986. Biophilia: The Human Bond with other Species. Harvard University Press, Boston). However, even if true, an innate propensity to form bonds with nature does not ensure that this process cannot be overidden by cultural trends. Indeed, by all accounts, Western societies are generating more "biophobics" than biophiliacs. The best summary of this epidemic situation is Richard Louv's 2006 book, Last Child in the Woods (Algonquin Books, Chapel Hill, NC). Louv documents recent studies demonstrating that children today spend on the order of 90% less time outside than they did just one generation ago (when I grew up). There are many reasons for this trend (e.g., fear of abduction, loss of natural spaces, etc.) but certainly a major reasons is the desire to stay "plugged in." I am very glad to hear that your son would prefer to play outside than play a video game. Unfortunately, many, many children do not make the same choice. In addition to a loss of connection with nature, "nature-deficit disorder," as Louv as termed the conditon, is contributing to rampant childhood obesity and various cognitive problems like attention deficit disorder. With regard to your point about the major "greening" of culture that we are experiencing (e.g., LEED certification, hybrid vehicles, organic foods, etc.), all of these are very positive signs, and I agree that momentum is shifting in the right direction. However, I remain seriously concerned that all of this will not be enough without a rapid shift in consciousness, one that places humanity inside nature (see Jan. 5 post). And a key component of this transformation in thinking will be contemplative time spent outdoors, something which, by all accounts, is not happening anywhere near enough. In sum, I hope that you are correct in your positive outlook, but I fear that you are not. Thanks again.


  3. Thanks Scott for the references Scott; I'll be sure to read further. I recall hearing about the concerns raised in Louv's book when it was released. This prospect is frightening and fascinating all at once.

  4. Life is a journey
    What you have gone through can help others
    Please share at WikiJourney

  5. Interenet is a perfect source to get information so I think sometimes Internet van be a double-edged sword because there are children who can get information related to Generic Viagra and that's not sane for them, parents should be careful with them in order to they don't searching for other information.

  6. It has been for me really interesting actually this quote ""How is the Internet Changing the Way You Think?" is an excellent representation how people are being involved by the internet I was talking about it with my friend "samrx last week.

  7. Dear Dr. Scott Sampson,

    I was searching the internet for information on extinction of experience (after running into the expression on the 2005 article by James R. Milner “Biodiversity conservation and the extinction of experience”) when I came across this article and your blog. I was searching information in order to write on this theme for my natural history blog, but I see you have covered my ideas spot-on! I’m still going to write my opinions on this topic (especially given I write in Portuguese), but I’ll be sure to post a link to this.

    I already read some entries and I really liked the blog, the way you write, the themes (especially posts on human-nature disconnection, and the sometimes counterproductive role of science in it), and I encourage you to continue doing this great work!

    Best wishes
    Pedro Andrade