Nature and the digital world

Dear humanities,

A few blog posts ago, we glanced into the world of biomimicry, the practice of taking inspiration from nature to create new technology, art, and anything in between. For my last blog post, we will revisit nature, though this time it will be from a more meditative state. Take a look at how the digital realm can make us appreciate and indulge in the physical world.

The apps that could bring us closer to nature

For years I have spent afternoons and nights strolling around the forests, parks, and fields of my town. With its lush green visage, I consider myself lucky to have grown up along the trees, Recently I decided I wanted to know more about the flora and fauna around me. What bird is exactly singing and which tree is this? After a quick search on the Appstore, my phone was equipped to determine everything in the wild, from flowers to the squiggly bark and even birdcalls.

The first app I want to show is called ‘Plantsnap’ and recognizes the different types of plants. All you need to do is take a picture and it starts determining which species is the most likely candidate to be in front of you. The method of determining is done by comparing the input image to the database of plant images. Once it has been analyzed you get a short description of the plant and, if applicable, how to take care of it.

Two screenshots of Plantsnap, left is a determined picture, right is the community tab

The second app is a bit more complex and is called ‘BirdNET’. Made by the university of Cornell and Chemnitz technical university, users can input recordings of birdcalls and songs to determine what species they are hearing. Like the previous case, the input data is compared to a database contained within the app.

Two screenshots of BirdNET, left is the birdsound trainer, right is the recorder
You can try the app with this clip of bird sounds (or better yet, try it outside!)

The inherent lie in nature on social media

These apps could be seen as bringing us closer to nature by understanding what we hear and see around us. Though if you need to be activated first to invest your time into inquiring about plants or birds, then social media might look like the way to fan the flame. Platforms such as Instagram have cultivated massive pools of content that are nature themed. If you stumble upon it the algorithm will make sure you are trapped in the vortex. Media of cute animals in the wild and cinematic rolls of tree canopies will overrun your feed before you know it.

A typical nature picture you might see on Instagram –

Why does a company like Instagram however promote this? Is it not in their best interest to keep you away from a non-technology-infused state? The answer in my opinion lies in what kind of relationship social media institutions want you to have with the outdoors. They have categorized nature in a diminutive way compared to the non-discrete value it exemplifies in human culture. In other words, for social media; nature is to be framed, understood, and shown to an audience, it is an act. So can digital media bring us closer to nature, it depends on whether your appreciation is beyond the scope imposed by social media companies.  

If I could give one piece of advice, it would be to go outside, take the apps with you or don’t, but experience what nature feels like to you and how it contrasts with the digital world you have amassed.