Detoxing (again)

Each year I try (try being the operative word) to engage with some digital detox campaigns that colleagues in other Unis run. This year’s campaign from the fabulous folks at Middlebury College in Vermont is focused on technology and the environment and I’m diving in. More info is here if you haven’t found your way to this already:

I read the first 2 posts last week, and before I open the 3rd one, which dropped today, I’m going to try capture a few of my responses so far.

What Powers the Web?

In the opening essay, Amy Collier prompts us to consider the environmental costs of the magical, cloudy, always-on internet, to consider the the ways in which various web services seek to capture and maximise our attention, and to draw an explicit link between these two things. In order to address the climate emergency, our use of the web will need to change as much as our use of other resources.

Links to practical tools such as the CarbonAnalyser browser plugin are provided. Apparently writing to this point and hitting Save Draft has now cost 0.001kWh of energy.

This post gave me some pause for thought about how we might design our digital learning courses for sustainability in the most holistic sense. We talk a lot about designing “engaging” online learning, often involving use of rich interactive multi-media. That’s an aesthetically attractive approach for sure, and it might even result in good learning, but is it a responsible and sustainable approach?

What is the environmental footprint of our courses, both in terms of their production and their ongoing delivery? Should we be assessing this during the design process or in quality assurance processes in a similar way to how we might assess accessibility?

I also wonder in my Canadian context how this kind of thinking intersects with Indigenous land-based learning, in particular with concepts of stewardship, relations with the natural environment, and responsible use of natural resources. To be clear, I say this not in terms of suggesting the appropriation of Indigenous philosophies as any kind of convenient solution to a climate crisis mostly made by rich nations for their own short-term benefit, but as more evidence that we’ve been stupid and don’t know it all. As we engage with the calls to action around reconciliation and take seriously the decolonising of our educational institutions, what might this mean for the future of digital learning approaches?

Simply then, in digital learning, how much tech is too much tech?

Our bill for this post so far is now up to 0.008kWh, which is equivalent to the emissions of about 0.018km by car.

How tech mediates our relationship with nature

In the second essay, Jeni Henrickson digs deeper into the ways in which technology is changing our relationships with nature, creating barriers to deeper engagement by competing for our attention when we are in nature, and potentially closing us off to possibilities for serendipitous discovery through the vast amounts of information about the natural world available online. Ultimately, spending less time engaging with the natural world directly may be blunting our senses and mental faculties and be injurious to our mental health. It also obscures from us the effects of environmental degradation over time. This essay draws on Robin Wall Kimmerer’s work, in particular Braiding Sweetgrass.

I found this essay personally very affecting as it spoke to some of the coping strategies I’ve relied on during this pandemic. I wrote a little while back in 2020 about finding myself stuck in a foreign country and my gratitude for the hospitality I had been shown by this place. My go to place for improving my mental health is nearly always engagement with nature, and as a kid it was long bike rides or solo moody walks along the shoreline. Finding myself living in a city centre apartment in lockdown, on the flat Canadian prairies ultimately was terribly bad for me. Some trips to the Rockies and some short hikes in local provincial parks helped stave off serious injury, but ultimately in late 2020 I made the move 800km west to the Interior of BC where I now live in a house with a garden and 2 cats. I look out onto hills in several directions and enjoy a variety of birdlife along with deer wandering the streets at night.

When I first moved here, I started the habit of a weekly Wednesday evening walk with a friend and I used to try take a photo on each walk, which I uploaded to Instagram. Partly this was a strategy to force myself to look up and around at a point that I was being a bit too introspective for my own good, and partly it was to share some of the beauty of this new place with friends and family that I was feeling distant and disconnected from. As a strategy in the short term it really did work. Being in this new place, in a landscape I really genuinely love, has helped me to heal. But at a point last year, as the well-being of a close family member substantially decreased, that digital archive on Instagram became an unbearable reminder of how long I had been unable to return home for. In one evening I archived every photo on Instagram and every post on Facebook that I’d made since moving to Canada and obliterated as much of that record as I could. Whilst being in nature here has kept me whole and safe, that digital facsimile of it crushed me.

The consideration as to whether virtual engagement with nature is as beneficial as real time in nature (it’s not) was also interesting to me in so far as I very much enjoy nature writing. I feel that I have been able to bring a little bit of home with me to Canada through some favourite books and they give me a lot of comfort. So to what extent could vicariously experiencing nature through technology be beneficial to well-being when one is dispossessed?

(For anyone who wants to know, the books in question are Antlers of Water, The Living Mountain, The Lost Words, the poetry of Kathleen Jamie, and everything I own by Robert MacFarlane that I could stuff in a shipping box).

I think I will leave things there for now, as we’re officially up to 0.96kWh which in terms of emissions is 0.227kms by car, or the equivalent of charging 6 smartphones. I’m not sure that this post is worth that cost, let alone the further costs of your reading it. At least I haven’t been doom-scrolling for all this time on Twitter I guess.

2 thoughts on “Detoxing (again)

  1. Society (the USA anyway) seems to struggle when there’s no right answer and really struggles when an answer changes with time, circumstance, and individual. I’ve gone through similar patterns with photography.

    I love going in the woods with the kids. When they were younger I was more consistent with a camera because, in part, they were slower and our paths were easier. 🙂 I now mainly go in our small local woods with the dogs and walking two poorly-behaved dogs doesn’t mesh well with photography.

    I do find that having taken so many pictures over the years I continue to look at nature that way even when I don’t have a camera. I don’t know if that’s good or bad but I do appreciate the little bits of beauty that I see regardless of being able to capture them digitally.

    I’m glad to hear you’ve moved to a happier place and I hope the cats continue to bring you joy.

    1. Thanks Tom – the landscapes and the lunatic moggies do make me happy most days of the week. I hope you and yours are also safe and well in this weirdest of times.

      I’ve enjoyed immensley the photographs that you have shared and you definitely have a skill and talent for seeing a composition. Perhaps without a camera you’re able to see a moment freeze framed in a way that most of us don’t, and that probably is a gift.

      Send more dog pictures.

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