Of Beauty and Solace: Technobiophilia and the Virtual Garden
14 January 2014
Late last week my attention was attracted by a tweet from the Virtual Human Interaction Laboratory at Stanford University that 'virtual nature makes us feel good.' Shortly afterwards, I learned that Sue Thomas has written "Technobiophilia: Nature and Cyberspace," a book exploring this effect. The term technobiophilia extends biologist E. O. Wilson's definition of the biophilia hypothesis to cyberspace: ‘innate attraction to life and lifelike processes as they appear in technology.’ This idea correlates very well with personal and informal observations from my work in virtual garden tourism. Following a series of retweets among myself, Stanford, and Sue Thomas, I offered to write about these observations. They are at the very heart of a proposal of expansive scope I am currently preparing entitled "The Antheia Project: A Virtual Garden of Beauty, Solace, Science, and Education." The Antheia Project represents a unique opportunity for gardens to enhance their visibility and make it possible for anyone with an Internet connection to visit their virtual representations at any moment and as often as desired with negligible travel time and expenses. In my view, the four most important advantages from increased visibility within the global, social, and technical setting of The Antheia Project are raised awareness of the beauty, solace, scientific research, and educational value gardens provide. Within the context of technobiophilia, the balance of this article will discuss the beauty and solace to be found in virtual gardens.
Over half of humanity now lives in urban areas1; in Europe and North America the number exceeds 70%. These percentages are expected to increase over the next quarter century, particularly for countries in Asia and Africa. This dramatic shift in population distribution from non-urban to urban environments over the last 250 years is largely a consequence of technological advances that greatly increased agricultural surplus. Without the pressure of focusing solely on food production to survive, people had more time to do other things. Additional technological innovations in manufacturing equipment and transportation systems during this period coaxed people to relocate to cities where it was much easier to trade newly developed goods and services. Naturally, urban planners concentrated on functional and efficient designs for housing people, providing services, and transporting products. Utilitarian rather than beautiful is the key adjective that overwhelmingly describes urban environments.
Yet, research has shown that beauty is important to how people perceive and interact with their surroundings2. A beautiful setting is uplifting and motivating; people have more positive impressions of themselves and others, are happier and, consequently, more creative and productive. Certain aspects of cities may be considered beautiful such as fascinating architecture or a magnificent nighttime view of the skyline. Artistic and cultural points of interest as well as parks and gardens also can be sources of beauty. However, as a practical matter, urban residents must find the time to transport themselves to these venues and bend to their particular accessibility requirements, which can be especially acute problems for those with time constraints or who are socially isolated due to illness, age, or immobility.
One important observation made during research and development of the above-linked virtual gardens was how often people would visit the builds simply to enjoy their beauty and relax. To the extent possible, it was determined that these were intents independent of economic status, profession, level of education, or nationality. Within seconds, an individual could log in to the simulator and enjoy 15 minutes or many hours of uninterrupted beauty. It would seem surprising that beauty can be realized from the graphical output of a computer simulation. But the visual processing system of the human brain really only operates on three kinds of information: shape; color; and spatial orientation (location, movement, and spatial organization). It does not matter to the brain that these stimuli come from the natural environment or one that is computer-simulated; beauty is beauty.
Most people experience times during their lives when negative conditions take a toll on their mental and physical health. For many, these periods are protracted and full of unrelenting distress and sadness. It is especially important during such intervals to find quiet in order to ease the tensions of the mind and body as well as promote reflection upon the problems underlying the stress.
Unfortunately, electronic communications, family demands, and personal needs, among many other distractions, constantly compete for our attention and fragment our time. In addition, there is the incessant environmental noise of modern life, which we cannot escape even during sleep since the auditory system is still actively processing sounds around us. The effects of constant noise3 on health are well-documented and include poor sleep quality, increases in stress hormones and blood pressure, cardiovascular disease, impaired cognitive performance, and hearing loss.
Moreover, it can be exceedingly difficult to locate and travel to undisturbed places. Solace then, like beauty, is hard to find and access.
A virtual garden provides an always available and easily reachable restorative environment as well as other advantages. One important benefit is the option to customize the visitor experience by manipulating the viewer settings. Someone seeking solace, for example, could choose to enjoy silence or to hear sounds normally associated with features of the garden: the burble of a fountain; the wash of a river; the splash of a waterfall; the susurrus of a gentle rainfall; the purl of a stream; the sigh of a wind; the tweet of a bird; the chirp of a cricket; or many others. Music would be another possible choice depending on the particular design elements.
In general, people who toured my virtual garden builds were excited by their scope, highly-detailed realism, and sheer beauty. But I gradually became aware that a substantial number of visitors were also: coping with the death of someone close to them; severely ill; old and alone; suddenly unemployed; physically impaired; or geographically isolated. In some cases, they were dealing with several of these difficulties at once. The virtual gardens were calming, soothing, and even cheering for them but, most notably, they provided quiet time for reflection.
Beauty and solace are delicately entwined emotional sensations that weave themselves throughout a garden, whether real or virtual. But a virtual garden makes it possible for anyone, anywhere, and anytime, either alone or with others, to enjoy and benefit from its beauty and solace, providing a powerful illustration of technobiophilia.
1 United Nations Population Fund State of World Population 2007 (https://www.unfpa.org/swp/2007/english/introduction.html, accessed 19 September 2013).
2 Florida, R., Mellander, C., and Stolarick, K., “Beautiful Places: The Role of Perceived Aesthetic Beauty in Community Satisfaction,” Martin Prosperity Institute, University of Toronto, (http://www.creativeclass.com/rfcgdb/articles/Beautiful%20places.pdf, accessed 21 October 2013).
3 Basner, M., Babisch, W., Davis, A., Brink, M., Clark, C., Janssen, S., Stansfeld, S., “Auditory and non-auditory effects of noise on health,” The Lancet, Early Online Publication, 30 October 2013.