Heads Down: Is Technology Distracting us From Nature?

Recently I was in a very beautiful place. The placing of this place doesn't matter, although I will tell you it has vertiginous neck-cricking cliffs and lush green valleys, and on this particular day the softening blue skies were already edged with the first pinks of an oncoming sunset. Piled high in the sky the clouds absorbed their share of pink, so that cotton candy became outsized. The clouds looked so soft you wanted to tumble around in them. I love clouds.

It was the sort of beauty that makes you glad to be alive.

I was not alone in this place. Others were wrapped in this beauty, among them a boy of about 14 playing a game on some tablet whose name is the end result of much marketing strategy, although I can never remember it. Someone said something to the boy (not his parents) about his surroundings, but he only mumbled as you do when someone relays an odious chore to you, one they deem important and you deem worthy of putting off. The boy's fingers pattered like feverish spider legs. His head never lifted.

The beauty receded. The day went dark. The boy's parents took him by the elbow and led him away.

I am not telling people how to live or how to experience the outdoors. My life is not the life of a 14-year-old boy (thank God; for puberty and middle school locker rooms should only be experienced once). But it is also true that both you and I have witnessed this head down behavior many times, and sometimes I wonder what is being lost.

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This does not just occur out in Nature, of course, but it is Nature I am addressing at the moment. My 14-year-old friend (well, we might have become friends if he had lifted his head) and his ilk are of concern to those who believe the outdoors have value. Not long ago I read a newspaper article documenting visitor falloffs at national parks. According to the article, the young are avoiding the wilds in droves. How can Half Dome compete with "Call of Duty"? According to the article, some parks are using technology to lure youth into their parks. One park had developed a game that simulated activities that could be done at the park. You don't need a masters in child psychology to see this might be self-defeating.

We all know this behavior is not confined to youth either. Visiting one of Southern California's Channel Islands, I watched as a group of nine hikers, in their forties and up, stopped before a breathtaking ocean panorama. Immediately, eight of them held up their cell phones to see if they got reception. When they found they did, their heads went down. I wish I was making this up. Later that day I thumbed through the suggestion book in the island's visitor center. It was true some visitors had appreciated the island's beauty ("Lovely. I am so glad these places exist"), but it was also true others absorbed Nature in the new light of our times ("Toilets were gross and Wi-fi access was terrible"). Again, I wish I could say I made this up.

I once had a friend, a woman since claimed by cancer, who owned a parcel of land adjacent to her home. A conga line of developers offered her astronomical sums for the land, for she lived on a lovely barrier island caressed by the Atlantic, but my friend Elizabeth refused to sell. I don't know what she told the realtors, but I know what she told me. She said she kept the lot vacant so the neighborhood kids could lie on their backs and look up at the clouds.

Elizabeth and I were friends because we felt the same way about many things (although I don't know if I could have resisted the realtors; the sums they offered her were ridiculous). I am no longer a neighborhood kid, but I only have to close my eyes to remember sprawling upon my own grassy expanses, how the sky looked bigger and bluer, and how, if it had recently rained, the cool, spongy ground pushed against me with a hint of fecund promise, and when I closed my eyes to the animal-shaped clouds I could hear wing beats and the zipper-quick whine of a passing bee.

Little things, but perhaps not so little.

I wonder if my friend Elizabeth's reasoning is being winnowed from our collective gene pool. It will be a sad day when the realtors win.

Of course this behavior is not just relegated to Nature. Heads are down everywhere. You don't have to be particularly observant to see this. In fact, the point is you don't have to be observant at all. Walk any two blocks in America and you will see someone removed from this world. Cars veer. Couples tap at romantic restaurants. Families sit, together and alone.

Some nights I stand outside our home and look up at the stars. This is not a matter of deep soul-searching. It's just quiet and nice and there are no distractions.

"It would be well perhaps if we were to spend more of our days without any obstruction between us and the celestial bodies," Henry David Thoreau wrote in "Walden". "What is the pill which will keep us well, serene, contented?"

Maybe the pill is technology. The heads down people seem content. Maybe I'm the one with my head in the clouds.

About the Author

Ken McAlpine’s latest book “Together We Jump” was praised by Sunset Magazine as “lyrical, evocative and deeply moving…a luminous American novel.” He is based in Ventura, California.
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