I write about technology professionally but in my spare time I also write articles about how to use it wisely while focusing on some of the ways it can affect our relationships with our communities and the natural world. This is a topic that’s increasingly being explored in the media as we come to better understand the need to control our technology and not let it control us. Writing about this has been a consuming passion of mine for many years, and culminated in a book called Digital Mythologies (Rutgers University Press). In the book, I tried to explore what some might view as a fairly far-out idea: whether emerging technologies such as the Internet, iPhones, virtual reality, and others might, in ways we are only now coming to understand, create a kind of barrier between those of us who use it and the natural world: It seems that the virtual worlds being created are construed by their creators, at least to some degree, as substitutions for aspects of reality in the natural and physical world. Intriguing here are the possible psychological roots of the notion of substitution. The phenomenon known among cyberspace practitioners as online addiction should arouse our suspicion. What is also telltale (and disturbing) is evidence that the online world is being given an ontological status that is more or less equivalent to that of the physical and natural world, as if there could possibly be any real competition between the two. Given that our planet is rife with enough metaproblems to push many of us toward either denial or Gurdjieffian somnolence, we can wonder if there is not some kind of escapism at work in the quest for virtual nirvana. Environmental degradation, for example, is certainly a cause for great concern, but it is clearly not something that our society is dealing with at a rational, conscious level. Given that global warming and massive climate change are distressing possibilities, the retreat into cyberspace can be construed as a kind of flight from reality and a quest for a purer, more rarefied world. I’ve thought about it quite a bit over the years and have come to the conclusion that — yes – these digital technologies taken either together or individually are somehow desensitizing us with respect to fully appreciating and enjoying the natural world and our immediate surroundings. Hooked on the tiny psychological payoffs afforded by social media, it seems we are somehow “entertaining ourselves to death” in the words of Neil Postman as we become distracted from the need to reconnect with nature and deal with the pressing issues of rapidly accelerating global climate change. How exactly might this be happening? I don’t know if theft of attention is too strong a phrase but a new book The World Beyond Your Head addresses the topic of how technology affects our most precious natural resource – attention. It talks about the subtle processes in play when digital technologies rob us of having more direct, unmediated experiences with our immediate the environment: The fields of view that haven’t been claimed for commerce seem to be getting fewer and narrower. The ever more complete penetration of public spaces by attention getting technologies exploits the orienting response in a way that preempts sociability, directing us away from one another and towards a manufactured reality , the content of which is determined from afar by private parties that have a material interest in doing so. There is no conspiracy here, it’s just the way things are. The good news is that we’re all getting smarter about how these technologies affect us on a day to day basis. Tech giants like Facebook and Google have come under heavy criticism lately and in some cases the algorithms they use to addict us come straight out of the playbook of Las Vegas casinos. These “weapons of mass distraction” as they have been called seem to pull us into virtual realms that distract us and steal our attention from connecting more deeply to the world around us. Children, instead of spending their time enjoying nature — something I very fondly remember from my childhood — are now deprived of this wonderful primal experience and spend far too much time staring into screens of one sort or another. Unplugging at times from the digital matrix is only part of the solution. Equally important is rediscovering the natural world to restore perspective and balance. In Scandanavian countries that score high in the “Happiness Index”, experiencing nature is viewed as an important dimension of life. But no need to hop on a plane to Denmark for a dose of “hygge”. Immersion in the natural world through simple enjoyments like Forest Bathing is readily available no matter where you live. Even in urban areas, the green spaces being nurtured and preserved through the work of the Worcester Tree Initiative, Tower Hill Botanic Garden, and other organizations are ensuring that these opportunities are available for city dwellers. It’s true that “re-enchanting the world” in the words of cultural historian Morris Berman might be the larger project for the technologically obsessed society we live in. But as individuals there are many resources available right now to savor and reacquaint ourselves with the peak experiences afforded by the natural world and its beauty. —– —– —– —– —– Tom Valovic is a volunteer with the Worcester Tree Initiative and a freelance writer and editor. Tom has written articles for “The Boston Globe”, “The San Francisco Examiner”, “Annals of Earth”, “Whole Earth Review”, “Common Dreams”, Computerworld and many other publications. He has written about technology and its effects on appreciation of the natural world in “Digital Mythologies”(Rutgers University Press). Tom can be reached at [email protected].