Peter H. Kahn, Jr., Technological Nature: Adaptation and the Future of Human Life

Review by Robert Miller

Technological Nature: Adaptation and the Future of Human Life. Peter H Kahn. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 2011.

[1] With much research studying connections between man and the cyber world, Peter Kahn Jr.'s Technological Nature instead seeks connections among technology, humanity, and nature. Kahn's premise is that modern man long moved away from nature to a form of technological stature. This movement is increasing at an exponentially increasing pace. His believes that nature is better than technological nature, and technological nature is better than no nature. Moreover, there is a danger of evolutionary changes if we count on technological nature to replace nature.

[2] While he states in his introduction that the book can be understood by reading each chapter's conclusion alone, it is a great disservice to the reader as the conclusion of each chapter seems more of a link to the future than a recap of the past.

[3] Kahn provides a number of his published experiments with explanations and thoughts for the future. While a large number of people are working on the relationship between humanity and technology, Kahn is one of an expanding group of researchers to add nature into the relationship. Certainly, he is not the first to do this. For example, Neil Postman, in Technopoly (1993), examined how the technological world no longer can exist alongside traditional world views. But Kahn, accepting this, is asking if technological nature can stand as a replacement for nature itself. Peter Kahn, Jr. is an Associate Professor of Psychology and Director of the Human Interaction with Nature and Technological System Laboratory at the University of Washington. Author of several books in the field, he has also published results of his experiments in numerous peer reviewed journals.

[4] Kahn spends much of the early part of the book providing a historical, theoretical, and definitional framework for his experiments. For example, he examines Wilson's Biophilia (1984): "an innate human tendency to affiliate with life and lifelike processes." Snakes, for example, are feared, but trees are attractive. But Kahn sees problems with the premise of Biophilia. He suggests a human-nature interaction which would also allow for human-computer interaction which does not fit the premise of Biophilia, Additionally, Kahn believes that Biophilia is flawed in that it is a broad construct in which to test other hypothesis and not a testable thesis by itself. In, perhaps his weakest section, Kahn attempts to discuss Biophilia vs. genetic determinism in a "mock" debate between himself and a genetic determinist. Unfortunately, he plays both roles making the section less credible or believable.

[5] Batya Friedman in Value Sensitive Design (1997) provides much of the context for Kahn's work. It is a "methodology that helps people design technology to support human values in a principled and comprehensive process through the design process" (Kahn Jr. 39). This humanism is extorted by Kahn throughout all of his work. This maintains there is such a thing as human values, and technology must support them - for example, the protection of privacy. He includes a discussion of computer cookies, how they were to work, and people's acceptance of them as an example of this importance of privacy.

[6] Kahn is at his strongest when he defines Technological Nature by example: nature programs on television, giant monitors in offices allowing for views of nature as opposed to no windows, and robotic dogs. "Technologies that in various ways mediate, augment, or simulate the natural world". A rock, for example, would not be technological nature, but formed into an axe it would then be. Nature, then, is something for enjoyment and relaxation and not use. This leads to an interesting discussion of Environmental Generational Amnesia. Each generation brings its own views to nature, forgetting what existed in the past. In fact today, we no longer need to "coexist" with nature: physically, nor moving for natural reasons (for example, following hunting patterns), encountering the wild.

[7] He argues that "Technological Turn", being a technologically driven society, does not always improve our lives. He discusses early Cuban cigar factories having a reader who provided entertainment for the workers. As factories grew, this became impossible, and many factories switched to a loudspeaker system which would extol the values of the company.

[8] Kahn rejects technological determinism (Smith and Marx 1984), instead believing some technology harms and others assist. Its use depends on people's goals, how it gets introduced and redesigned based on user interaction, whether or not society will delay or reject the technology, and finally, since no society is completely homogeneous, the adaptive process is rarely homogeneous.

[9] The majority of the book focuses on experiments Kahn and his colleagues have run studying the relationships among technology, nature, and man. The first, and perhaps most interesting, looked at the differences in natural windows, technological windows, and no windows (offices inside hallways in a university setting. They found in each of these experiments that there was a difference among the three with the glass window outperforming the technological window, which in turn, created a huge emotional and psychological difference from the "blank wall" effect.

[10] There were inherent issues with the technological windows. First, people reported that they had a feeling of spying because of the cameras that were placed outside. Interestingly, there were no such feelings when looking out glass windows. Second, and more difficult to fix, was the lack of ability to create a parallax view which would change as viewers would move across the room. Even when given the ability to look at views such as the Grand Canyon, the technological window did not do as well as the as the glass window because of this parallax effect.

[11] The studies attempted to assess physiology (by measuring heart rate), how people use the installation (the technological windows also had the ability to be used as computers), frequency and duration of use, and how it affected creativity. Of particular interest were the narratives told by each of the users of the technological windows, and their feelings about them. Kahn's justification is not whether or not these will replace regular windows, but that they will, so we need to understand how to best use them and how this use will affect us.

[12] Kahn also wanted to see if humans needed a connection to animals to survive. To test this, he studied human- robotic dog interaction. First, he compared robotic dogs to a stuffed dog with a number of different age groups. He began by looking at discussion forums for owners of AIBO (robotic) dogs. While they found that AIBO "evoked concepts of mental states, emotions, and social rapport, it seldom evoked conceptions of moral standing or morality". In other words, the owners took comfort from the robotic dogs, but knew they were not real, so they didn't feel the responsibilities that real dog owners would.

[13] Kahn also examines the use of AIBO robotic dogs to help autistic children. After a brief discussion of autism, he describes an experiment differentiating AIBO and Kasha, a mechanical non-robotic dog. Previous studies found that autistic children were less afraid and more interactive with mobile (robotic) toys than non-robotic ones and that autistic children related well to real dogs; however, Stanton and Kahn wanted to look within the context of technological nature. Much time was spent on defining authentic interaction. They found that the children did have more authentic interaction with the robotic dog.

[14] Perhaps least explored was Kahn's last experiment, an examination is of the Telegarden, a garden which people controlled and related to through their computers. Unfortunately, he found that the Telegarden did a poor job of connecting people to nature. While he spent time studying user texts, Kahn never went into depth, nor provided a comparison to how people might interact when creating a "real" garden.

[15] It is easy to underestimate this book. After all, nature is better than technological nature, which is better than no nature, is not a concept that is difficult to understand. But there is something much more important here. Kahn concludes by saying technological nature, while an excellent means of collaborating with nature, should never replace it. We must find ways to preserve nature and deal with it on a daily basis or face the danger of increasing evolutionary changes that can bring about changes to our species in ways we may not be able to understand.