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Reflections on the Oxford smartphone symposium: new technology and our engagement with nature

January 19, 2011

image: R St.John

The Oxford symposium on Mobile computing, citizen science and conservation recording presented a whole array of new and exciting ideas about how new technologies might enhance biodiversity conservation.  Something that particularly struck me during the day was Simon Tokumine’s point that in the UK, the wide scale adoption of smartphones as citizen science recorders may currently be hindered by the fact that only around 18% of our national parks have the 3G coverage necessary for transmitting large quantities of data.  To some, it may seem appropriate that national parks remain uncovered by such data networks – allowing users to engage with, and enjoy nature undistracted by technology.

For me, this is a major unanswered question in the debate (and one that was not discussed at the symposium) – what happens to our engagement with nature when our contact with it is in some way routed through technology like smartphones?  The possibilities offered in terms of opening up the exchange of data, information and ideas about the natural world are patently grand.  However, does this process necessarily entail (perhaps ironically?) some form of disengagement or detachment from nature?

Specifically, by treating the natural world as a game, or as a data source which can be fully described and catalogued, do we run the risk of forgetting or ignoring our motivations for venturing into nature in the first place?  What does this mean for the conservation movement?  Does prioritising data collection and technological gratification as outcomes from time spent in nature preclude the forging of a deeper, more values-led environmental ethic?  In terms of positive conservation action, does this matter?  These questions are all works in progress, and not meant to dampen the spirit of the day, instead to pose areas of thought that might be worth future work.

On balance, it could be argued that historical precedents for both data-led (e.g. the Victorian natural history movement) and values-led (e.g. the American wilderness movement in National Park formation) conservation movements have produced positive outcomes, and are unlikely to be mutually exclusive.  Instead, as many of the symposium participants argued, we should be open to the exciting potential these new technologies offer conservation – opening up the field (and fields…) to those who otherwise may not get involved – especially younger generations – and to engage them in mutually beneficial ways.

Rob St.John
Communications & Project Co-ordinator, BioFresh
Oxford University Centre for the Environment

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