The Intercollegiate Student Magazine

The Dangerous Facade of Simulating Nature

beautiful tree made out of origami

“Technology need not sap our energy; it can augment it, amplify it, multiply it, as it has done already with music. And the community that technology makes possible can still be a greater source of energy—the energy of group effort and of Eros. When man is reunited with self and with the larger community of nature, all of the cosmos add to his own source.”

—Charles Reich, The Greening of America

When I open up my Apple MacBook to write this article, a solitary humpback whale greets me as it swims circles across my LED display. The scene is majestic. Around the whale, the blue of the ocean flows fluidly from deep blues at the base of my screen to lighter hues near the top. The whale dives in and out of the surrounding water creating ripples that foam as it twists and turns through beams of light that radiate down the screen. Each twist spotlights the whale’s details: The white of its underbelly, the individual ridges of ventral pleats that shoot down its body, and the clumps of acorn barnacles that have built up and left scars on its skin. Of course, my humpback whale is nothing more than a simulation, and when I unlock my laptop, it comes to an end. 

Simulations such as these fall into a category of environmental representations that ecopsychologist Patrick Khan coins as “technological nature.” Khan, who directs the University of Washington’s Human Interaction with Nature and Technological Systems Lab, uses his research to investigate “environmental generational amnesia.” This is a phenomenon where each new generation becomes so accustomed to particular levels of environmental degradation that they cease to view it as degradation at all. Light pollution quickly demonstrates this concept as stars once littered the night sky, yet today, nine out of ten Americans have never seen the Milky Way. This should be a jarring realization, but instead, it is viewed with widespread ambivalence, and technological nature is to blame. After all, who cares if we can’t physically see the stars when a quick Google search results in millions of stunning images? While images on Google and the whale on my lock screen are simple examples of technological nature, more advanced simulations produce immersive representations of nature that actively further the already dangerous levels of disconnect that our contemporary society has with the environment. 

Rather than increasing awareness, our constant engagement with natural simulations actually severs human connections to our physical environments. Lawrence Buell, a cultural studies scholar who helped to pioneer the study of ecocriticism, briefly touches on this while theorizing on aesthetic representations of the environment in his 1995 book The Environmental Imagination. Virtual reality, Buell argues, does not inspire “delight at having realized the world, but delight at mastery over it.” This delight stems from a lack of tangible consequences when participating in a virtual simulation of reality, and it is through this that we become disconnected from the realities our simulations are representing. In the thirty years since its publication, Buell’s argument seems just as pertinent now that virtual reality has increasingly more immersive. In a more recent Quartz interview, Khan invokes psychology to describe how simulations present a “dumbed-down” version of nature that disconnects users from the bounds that he claims natural connections are drawn.  

Additionally, recent advancements in simulations exacerbate our cultural disconnect from nature by turning the natural environment into a spectacle for entertainment’s sake. Take, for example, the Sphere in downtown Las Vegas. Its staple, namesake show, “the sphere experience,” is capped off with a viewing of Postcard From Earth, a nature film directed by Darren Aronofsky and commissioned specially for the Sphere. Reviews of the viewing experience describe scenes from all over the world—elephants roaming the savannah, snow-capped mountains in Italy, and even an opera house filled with operagoers. The Sphere relies on its hyper-immersive, multi-sensory elements to create its simulation, such as its wraparound LED display or its 167,000 speakers.  In The New Yorker, Jackson Arn elaborates on this sensationalizing immersion writing that “whenever the elephants stomp” vibrations can be felt in each seat and there are “more squawks [from the audience].” A separate review provides even more details on the Sphere’s technology: “The venue kicks things up a notch with wind generation machines so that as the camera soars through ice-capped mountains, you actually feel the wind in your face and the cold.” This immersive process presents a highly sophisticated simulation whose intense stimulation captures the viewer and turns the nature it represents into an aesthetic spectacle to be gazed upon. By creating hypnotic sensory manipulation, simulations are providing an escape that separates us from the natural world. 

Beyond multi-sensory stimulation, simulations create further separation from physical environments by virtually transporting users into natural landscapes. The Apple Vision Pro combines virtual reality with augmented reality to create an interface that allows the user to “seamlessly blend digital content with [their] physical space.” In their video-guided tour, Apple demonstrates a simulated experience with prehistoric nature. The details of the video are vivid and crisp as the device’s LED screen seamlessly simulates a past landscape. Beyond dinosaurs, the headset also allows users to immerse themselves in present environments such as Mount Hood, Joshua Tree National Park, Yosemite National Park, and more. The issue is that these virtual landscapes are perfect, untainted representations of the natural world. When you step into virtual Mount Hood, you will never have to worry about light pollution, acid rain, UV radiation, or any other sources of degradation that are destroying these environments. In essence, nature is being replaced by these aesthetic simulations. 

Each of these products calls into question whether nature itself is necessary at all. Dana Phillips, another prominent ecocritic, once asked this very question and argued that no matter how the role of nature changes, its depictions should not return to visions of “Eden or the Everglades, to myth.” While representations provided by the Sphere or Apple Vision are not imitating the literal Garden of Eden, these immersive technologies mythologize landscapes by creating false representations of nature. It becomes something free from imperfections and separate from human actions—as something to be admired rather than interacted with. As simulations become increasingly more involved in our daily lives, the idyllic myths that they promote will become more appealing than the imperfect landscapes that climate change is destroying. Instead of going for a hike, or simply sunbathing in a park, we will instead be experiencing simulated landscapes from the convenience of our living rooms. While this may seem like a distant dystopia, it’s not. Already, sixty percent of Americans are satisfied with spending less than five hours per week in nature. Unfortunately, we’ve become content with simulations that allow us to marvel at the world without ever having to step without ever having to interact with it.  

My point here is not to denounce this technology. Our ability to produce simulations with increasing detail and vividness will continue to advance, but as it does, artists and designers should reimagine the messages our representations are creating. In these last few decades, technological nature has advanced in both form and content, and as it continues to change, it is time we change the story it tells. Rather than continuing to reproduce representations that are void of any human impact, we should be focusing on ways that simulations can help foster an awareness of the natural world that we all live in. Restoring our connection with the natural world needs to be a top priority, and rethinking the messages natural simulations are sending is a necessary starting point.

Andrew Barich is a Master’s student in Literary and Cultural Studies at Carnegie Mellon University.

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