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Can Digital Technology Make Us More Compassionate to the Environment?

When was the last time you took a cell phone out of your pocket to snap a picture of a landscape or sunset for your Instagram account? #nature #mountains #sunset #inspiration #earth #outdoors #tranquility #breathtaking #OMG

Do you ever watch Youtube videos of summit groups on the top of Mount Everest or rock climbers in the High Sierra?

Are you super excited about the new season of the BBC’s Planet Earth?

Why are Americans drawn to experiencing nature through their screen? One could say that this is a natural evolution from the genre of naturalist writing (think: Thoreau) to the medium that most Americans consume today in a visually based culture. As cultural historian Karal Ann Marling writes, the increased popularity of television in the 1950s produced an American popular culture where the visual became the most important of the five senses.[1] The way Americans interact with the world today is directly connected to the visual aspect of things. In fact, reading about and looking at nature are entirely different experiences that may show us a little of what it means to be human. This is not to say that one must be able to see or hear in order to be “fully human,” but the ways we respond to this stimuli reflect our human nature.

Those who view nature through a digital screen attempt to fill a void, or try to solve the problem of separation through experiencing nature in any way possible. In fact, the practice of reading about nature versus looking at nature may have different impacts on the psyche. A study published in 2009 found that simply viewing images of a landscape or being around plants have positive effects on an individual’s intrinsic aspirations, as opposed to extrinsic aspirations.[2] The researchers assert:
“Nature can bolster autonomy directly by affording stimulating sensations (e.g., environmental stimuli that are naturally interesting and personally satisfying an that facilitate orientation to the present) and opportunities to integrate experience by encouraging introspection and a coherent sense of self, and indirectly by providing an alternative to the pressuring elements of everyday life. In either case, nature affords individuals the chance to follow their interests and reduces pressures, fears, introjects, and societal expectations.”[3]
It may be for this very reason twenty-first century Americans seek out the visuals of nature through digital platforms. Researchers found that just viewing images of natural spaces produce positive effects in an individual. The desire is strong and allows us to become more in tune to essential things like kindness and compassion, but does this desire translate to altruism toward the environment, as well? Is there a change in the relationship between humans and nature because of the digital “divide?” Or, rather, is there no real divide at all?

What is initially perceived as a thing that separates might in fact be instigated by anxieties for the unknown. Will digital culture change us so much that we will be unrecognizable to our great-grandchildren? Is pre-digital life obsolete? If we look at life one hundred years ago we certainly see aspects of culture that faded into the historical record for good reason. I think that we – our society – does not want to think of our ways as possibly irrelevant to future generations. The way we do things now is the best! Right? Perhaps it is not. I think the inclusion of digital culture into our experiences in nature might actually bring us closer to who we are and make us realize that we are actually a part of nature, not separate from it. By using digital technology we bring some aspects of ourselves – our culture – into natural spaces, instead of leaving parts of ourselves behind. We also bring images of natural spaces into our homes through these screens. Does this make us more familiar with the “wild?” Does it make us more compassionate to flora and fauna?

Of course, I have more thinking to do on this topic. In fact, it is the subject of my dissertation! What a coincidence! 🙂

[1] Karal Ann Marling, As Seen on TV: The Visual Culture of Everyday Life in the 1950s (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1994)

[2] Netta Weinstein, Andres K. Przybyiski, and Richard M. Ryan, “Can Nature Make Us More Caring? Effects of Immersion in Nature on Intrinsic Aspirations and Generosity,” PSPB 30, no. 10 (Oct 2009): 1315-1329.

[3] Ibid., 1316.


  1. Scott J Moser says


    For my dissertation, I too am working with visual culture – and digital culture – and how built environments are used for international/world’s fairs.

    I suspect our limited “compassion to the environment” plods along as it has always done, currently running slowly in parallel to a digital world. But to some extent digital technology can make startling images available to our visual culture that weigh upon the spirit of compassion. Planet Earth and even some animated films are some sources with potential through their offerings of imagery, making a point to and carrying the heart of the watchful eye.

    Scott J Moser

    • Sarah Ruth Wilson says

      Hi Scott! First, I need to say “thanks” for reading my blog so diligently! I really appreciate it.
      You are right… we plod along. In fact, though I write that digital tech might bring us “closer,” I also suspect large parts of our cultural experience is placing actors on a stage for our entertainment – and the same thing might be happening to nature. Thus, we actually care less about it in the end.

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