Extinction of experience

Virtual reality could bring nature to people who cannot access it. But there’s also a danger we might distance people further from the natural world...

Environmental scholars have battled with society’s growing disconnection from nature for decades.

In 1993, Robert Pyle described a growing lack of contact with nature as an “extinction of experience” and predicted that detachment from the natural world could lead to increasing environmental destruction.

Peter Kahn went further in 2002, suggesting that whilst each generation’s experience of nature might be more impoverished than the last, “environmental generational amnesia” meant that the baseline for what is considered normal slowly changes; each generation accepts their level of degradation, and humanity slowly forgets what used to be.

By removing people from the beauty and brilliance of the natural world—and hiding the destruction behind ‘digital trees’—virtual nature has the potential to accelerate this process and change our relationship with nature entirely.

Once again, Peter Kahn spotted this possibility and updated his dystopian view of generational amnesia, this time with warning of the slow rise of “technological nature”.

Others have also worried about the impact of virtual reality on behaviour. In 1999, Levi and Kocher imagined “hyper-real” experiences which would devalue “ordinary” nature, wondering why anyone would want to experience the mediocrity of “neighbourhood nature” if they could be continuously awed by the brilliance of virtual worlds.

These concerns have deep roots. As far back as 1973, Martin Krieger reflected on the way Niagara Falls ‘should’ look, sound and feel.

His discussion centred on the problem that Niagara Falls is subject to changes in flow, variable weather, and rock falls; each capable of changing a visitor’s experience. Krieger asks to what extent the Falls should be managed; should their cultural importance demand a son et lumière?

We face a similar dilemma in virtual reality, do we have a duty to replicate and represent nature as fairly as possible? Or should we harness the freedom from bodily limitations (and even from physics) to provide experiences which awe, inspire and educate?

We’re hoping there’s a sweet spot. One where VR can provide therapeutic experiences, but also build connections to nature which foster pro-environmental behaviours and a desire to explore and discover in the real world. Increasing ‘screen-time’ is seen as a leading cause of extinction of experience, perhaps we could use virtual nature as a way to reach those who have already disconnected themselves.

The Virtual Nature project will work with a wide range of people to start tackling some of these questions. Vitally, it will listen to and learn from ‘virtual nature visitors’, developing an understanding of the issues which users believe are important.

Alex Smalley