Against Nature Deficit Disorder: Why All Roads Lead Us to Merge with Machines

In his 2005 book Last Child in the Woods, Richard Louv coined the phrase ‘nature deficit disorder,’ a condition meant to provide explanation for the declining health of today’s youth. Essentially, he argues, we are meant to spend time outdoors, moving around, splashing in puddles and playing with sand, and the decreasing frequency with which we do these things can be said to account for our declining physical and mental health in the industrialized world.

Symptoms of ‘nature deficit disorder’ include; attention deficit disorder, obesity, depression, mood disorders, generalized anxiety, and systemic health conditions.

Louv is part of a larger group of ‘preservationist’ thinkers, including Bill McKibbern and Kirkpartick Sale, who argue that the influence of technology disrupts our tendency and desire to engage in the things that are most healthy and beneficial to us, as individuals, and as groups. We need to actively choose against technology in some circumstances, they argue, and in some cases, we need to prevent further development of it.

I do not disagree with Louv in his assertion that human beings benefit substantially from time outdoors. After all, civilization is a relatively recent thing in human history, and our current genetic makeup is likely optimized for spending most of our time outdoors, and more generally, for interaction with things ‘natural’.

And I agree with Louv that the best solution is one of action rather than patience, since the prospect of our naturally ‘adapting’ to civilization in a satisfactory way is unlikely and costly; biological evolution is slow.

I do not however think that Louv’s solutions are realistic, nor do they ensure the best outcome. Our desire to engage with technology is only going to become stronger and more elaborate as virtual reality experience becomes better than real experience, and as technology more generally provides us with desirable experiences we could never have without it.

The idea that we should ‘choose against’ technological engagement, giving up rewarding and augmentative aspects, to me is a soon-to-be-outdated method in addressing human-technology conflict.

So how could we get around ‘nature deficit disorder’?

Merge with machines.

One solution would be to alter our genetic makeup in such a way so that spending less time outdoors does not negatively affect our well being. Or, we could have nanobots in our system counteracting the effects of not being outdoors. Or, we could design our virtual realities in such a way that they induce the same kind of biological responses that we get from spending time outdoors in the real world.

The point is, moving away from technology in an effort to mend ‘nature deficit disorder’ does not bring about the most optimal solution, and it conflicts with the direction of human technological evolution more generally. We want to be able to choose ‘nature’, not feel obligated to it.

Merging with machines is considered the solution to other future worries regarding technology. It is thought by some AI futurists to be the only way to avoid post-Singularity extinction. And many heath futurists see merging with machines as the only way avoid disease and early death.

So do any roads lead to ‘Do not merge with machines’?

Yes.

Ultimately, the least optimal ones.

Resistance to the notion of ‘overcoming biology’ and ‘merging with machines’ will become more popular in the next decade as more people become aware of the increasing viability of these — once thought of as ‘far fetched’ — Transhumanist goals.

But when faced with the perils of present day civilization, and the rise of intelligent machines, there are many reasons to be confident that what we are moving towards is well worth the life we are leaving behind.

About the Author:

Nikki Olson is a writer/researcher working on an upcoming book about the Singularity with Dr. Kim Solez, as well as relevant educational material for the Lifeboat Foundation. She has a background in philosophy and sociology, and has been involved extensively in Singularity research for 3 years. You can reach Nikki via email at inikki3@gmail.com.

  • Matt

    Love the outdoors.
    Actually, merging with machines could create more time and opportunities for exploring the outdoors. Why do most people stay indoors? Typically work and school. In the future, perhaps these tasks won’t be tied to a physical location, allowing more time for physical exercise.
    The experience of exercise could also be enhanced.
    On a side note, I also wonder how much of nature deficit disorder is merely nostalgia?
    When-we-were-kids-we-walked-in-the-snow-uphill-both-ways-type of thing.

  • Nikki Olson

    Hi Matt,

    I agree!

    The goal I think is to ‘move beyond’ the restrictions of our biology so that we are not obligated to how evolution built our ancestors’ genes. The genes of our ancestors clash with where we are going in the future with the Singularity. Kurzweil often gives the example of turning off the genes that tell our body to hold on to every bit of fat we eat that made sense for our ancestors because they didn’t know when the next meal was going to be.

    Its difficult to tell how much is just nostalgia. A lot of the people I know who emphasize the sense of loss are also more likely to talk about how texting is isolating us etc. etc. (i.e., people who tend to dwell on the negative aspects of technology). But vitamin D (in the form of real sun) and exercise go a long way to improve health, as does having real contact with other people. But being forced to do these things when we don’t want to doesn’t make any sense to me. We are overcoming our biology in other ways, we will figure out how to counteract this aspect as well.

    I do think that as we approach the SIngualrity we will find greater freedom to do with our time as we would like. People who don’t understand Moore’s Law, Accelerating Returns etc. see the opposite.

    Thanks Matt! :)

  • http://twitter.com/CMStewartWrite CMStewart

    I agree. Adaptation to new environments isn’t a smooth process. It’s a road littered with stragglers and casualties. We are, however, on the cusp of *being our own environments.* That is, we have integrated machines into our lives, are integrating them into our bodies, and are on the verge of replacing our outdated software with modern software.

    Evolution and natural selection isn’t about being stronger and faster, it’s about an organism thriving in its environment. Soon evolution and natural selection won’t even be about successful reproduction in the traditional sense. We accelerate our technology (or technology accelerates itself) to serve human purposes, but in 50 or 100 years, those human purposes will be almost unrecognizable, IMO. This will be the “new evolution.”

  • Nikki Olson

    “Soon evolution and natural selection won’t even be about successful reproduction in the traditional sense. We accelerate our technology (or technology accelerates itself) to serve human purposes, but in 50 or 100 years, those human purposes will be almost unrecognizable, IMO. This will be the “new evolution.”

    –Yes! And i find this very exciting!

  • http://pulse.yahoo.com/_3E3DV22BXNTQZ5V7K5UVB7GPAI eric chaudy

    We are no longer animals, I mean humanity was animals after all

    We are machines, since he industrial revolution

    Information, format

    THe printing revolution gave just more informaion, dreams propaganda, correlated innovation

    Macines and its pseudo rationnal : constructed our totalitairan societies

    What defines an intelligent being : the use of a “cousciouness”, knowledge, expperiences, science

    Do you think most people want to really exist … who use its cousciouness ?

    Do our society want everybod toy use its cousciouness

    And, don’t you think , individual and mass cousciounesshas been build ? like a system, like a machine, a global brain

    DO you want to know the future ?

    What is the maximum demography on earth ?

    3 Billion ?

    What is demography when people are useless, ask s the elite …

    So let say they want 1 billion max people

    and they want some slave because , sadism, is maybe the only way to feal rich in a world where everything is possible, and everythin ( from energy to mater, ) exist in abundance

    and there may be a prbability : this world is a cosmic spectacle, from the beginning, to

    the end

    Tertiary jobs, are a spectacle , these works does not exist, eand don’t even create values

    We live in a world where machine do the jworks

    We live in a world where, jobs are prostitution and psychic slavey

    We will live in a world where every last bit of tertiary jobs, creatives jobs, etc will be donne with robots

    at the end, you don’ even know what you want

    My uess is simple : post singulatarian android, and AI machines

    dream of our stupid, absurd life

    This is better than holywood, or avatar, avatar, the metaphor of transhumanism

  • Nikki Olson

    Stephen Wolfram says in a podcast on Singularity Weblog that when everything is possible the real question that we will be asking is ‘how do we decide what to do’. He suggests that we will look to our ‘roots’ in order to determine that.

  • http://pulse.yahoo.com/_3E3DV22BXNTQZ5V7K5UVB7GPAI eric chaudy

    Stephen wolfram is a scientist,

    a good scientist

    but i never heard him speaking about psychology, economy or politics

    It’s like a deficient autistic genius child who tells you : “oh sorry” after doing a very bad thing

    like killing and mutilating 90 % of the population

    ( by the way : an AI should be a deficient autistic genius child )

    “Be the change you want to see in the world.” ( gandhi)

    Wolfram is not the change he want to see in the world ( he will understand the logic behind )

    Time is the factor of fear and thought; so if you don’t change now, you won’t ever change. Krishnamurti

    The change is NOW

    THE CHANGE IS SPIRITUAL

    Let me tell you in other words

    THe immortality is allready here

    THe abundance, is allready here

    If you don’t change now, in your life , you will never change

    and you will never be the change you want in world

    The change is simple

    Learn to share, ( and by the way limit the population to a maximum calculat with a factor of geography, resssources : this has been recalcultae lately by CNRS and england )

    SO wha else “live” ? Living and letting life living its own way

    The actual transhumanism, is in fact, a “renew” transhumanism

    Because “individualism ” grown, and people want immortality for them, and not fthrough their family

    they want abundance but in fact abundance has been reached ! ( space and earth potential is big enough =

    Thiis is why ifound this transhumanism stupid

    THE BIGGEST QUESTION : IS IN FACT THE FIRST ONE : THE BIGGEST QUESTION : MOST HUMAN AND SOCIETIES DO NOT WANT TO ANSWER IT !

    WHat is the goal of life, adn how do we live

    I andwered this simply,

    A CHILD COULD DO IT !

  • Nikki Olson

    Why couldn’t we have both things? In the past, there was a clear and forced choice, between ‘self’ and ‘other people’. In the future, where resources are cheaper more abundant, it won’t need to be one or the other.

    I cannot get behind a ‘things are great now’ sentiment for the following reason; most of the world suffers today.

    Technology will do a great deal to eliminate suffering in the next 10 years. Some think we could eliminate most suffering through advanced technology in the next 40-60 years.

    If we can ensure well-being of most through advanced technology, how is it morally unrefined to also want the things of the Transhumanist agenda?

    May I remind you that the Singularity University’s mission is to solve global challenges and is quite compatible with the sentiments of Ghandi.

    I agree with you that choosing Transhumanist goals at the expense of others is morally problematic. You should note, that prominent futurists, such as Matt Ridely, advocate GMO for this reason. GMO is arguably worse for the individual but better for the planet and others (less energy intensive). In the long term, SU and others look to make cheap ‘grow your own food’ options so as to have the best of both worlds.

    Further, ‘ethics’ is part of Transhumanist ethos. Being more ethical, and making sure the decisions made with advanced tech uphold high ethical standards, is a large part of the agenda, as evidenced by institutions like IEET.

    Also, Transhumanism can be seen as an extension of ‘humanism’. And while the goals may seem individualistic and self-absorbed at times, they are nonetheless permiated with an underlying ethos of wanting the best for humanity.

  • http://singularityblog.singularitysymposium.com/ Socrates

    Very sound argument, eloquently made!

  • http://pulse.yahoo.com/_3E3DV22BXNTQZ5V7K5UVB7GPAI eric chaudy

    NO you are wrong

    Ther is enough food, but we don’t share

    There is fewer and fewer jobs, and WE DON’T SHARE

    BUT THERE IS ENOUGHT FOOD

    It (is like those NEO LIBERAL ideology, accept all kind of domestic violence :

    BUT INFACT IT DOES NOT PRODUCE MORE GROWTH (ECONOMIC )

    IN usa 1% of the poplation is in jail, compared to 0.01 in germany

    Let’s be clear !

    THe mean to produce food locally : exist : most hippies in 60 talked and tried to do it ?

    WHY don’ we have hydroponic, alga bio reactor now …. ?

    YOU shall not bend your life on other ( coroporatist ) point of view

    Don’t you see they don’t care you live or you die ?

    WHER E COMES THE SUFFER IN THE SOCIETY ?

    WORK AND UNEMPLOYMENT

    THe economy should be asymetric, the globa income garantee is one of the solution

    THIS SHOULD HAVE BEEN DONE BEFORE , Since the industrial evolution t, since work is done with robots, the revenu become asymetric

    USA does not want this liçnethey want a global cataclysp o f pain

    Let me tell you : the XXI century will never happen : everything is spectacle and could be man made

    Think about it

    Japan the 2nd economy , and maybe one of the most advannced country able to make the singularity : IS DEAD

    Rationning energyand the higt tech is dead

    SUFFER, DEATH ?

    An atomic bomb in the right place and you got a tsunami, that will destroy 2 or 3 atomic reactor, and impact the world in 4 way

    WHat will you accept in order to build a dream YOU CANNOT DEFINE

    The singularity, the future, the power, could lead to a lot of things

    Human being is the biggest treat to human being

    A transhumanist should define the soiety he

  • 77pop7

    It seems to me that people are afraid to be merged with machine because they don’t want to look hideously disfigured on the inside or outside.

    As for living in a city for 100 years (more specifically a cubical), Why? What function would it serve in a future technorganic paradise.

    Beast Machines: Transformers (TV Series 1999–2001)

  • http://singularityblog.singularitysymposium.com/ Socrates

    You are making a valid observation 77pop7. However, since beauty is in the eye of the beholder, what seems to be “hideously disfigured” now is likely to change in the future. Look at art, we may disagree whether Picasso, the impressionists or the modernists make “beautiful” art but it is undoubtedly “free” of all the historic preconceptions. The human form and its perceived beauty have evolved through the ages and will evolve incredibly more during the next couple of centuries…

  • Nikki Olson

    Thanks for the comment 77pop7,

    What you are referring to is sometimes referred to as the ‘Frankenstein’ argument in Transhuman discourse; the idea that something eerie or gross might be the result of genertic engineering or merging that ‘dehumanizes’ us in some way, or ends up being less desireable than what we start off with.

    I personally think that the possibility for something much more favorable than what we started our with is more likely. It is the role of institutions such as IEET to ensure these ‘monster’ outcomes are not the case. I.e., this kind of technology isn’t exercised until a certain level of confidence in the outcome can be reached. I imagine that by playing out the outcome in a simulation might be a good way to have foresight here.

    As for living in a cubicle, I agree! For a number of aesthetic reasons, we’ll still choose outdoors over cubicles for the next while. But you have to admit, futuristic cities can look very beautiful and inspiring!

  • 77pop7

    Art as a virtue is inferior to wisdom,

    Nikki Olson referenced how beauty of the future city’s shall look more so than today.

    The art of current times needs to be more towards healing the psychological wounds we face now.

    Saw 1, 2, 3, 4, 5. Are movies best left to a history museum and not a kinder-garden.

    All Dogs go to Heaven left scares on me as a child (6yd), Proper lessons learned of our trauma may be needed to insure the best way to raise children to resist our past mistakes.

  • http://singularityblog.singularitysymposium.com/ Socrates

    All I can say here is that movies such as the ones you mentioned are traumatic indeed. That is why I simply don’t watch them. This is at least one way to start healing “our psychological wounds” – minimize trauma and avoid psychotic stuff..

  • Nikki Olson

    The ‘Saw’ series, I agree it is really traumatic. I watched one of them when I was 26 and took too it badly. However, the girl that I watched it with was only 19 at the time, and she seemed totally unphased by it. I didn’t know how to interpret that difference between her and I. Desentistization to violence on the part of youth really seemed to be true to me in that circumstance at least.

    “Art as a virtue is inferior to wisdom”–maybe so. But I would point out that from an evolutionary perspective, we findy beauty ‘moving’ because it embodies something that is good for us. Beautiful people are thought to have the best genes for reproduction and so on.

    As it stands, virtual reality is nowhere near as beautiful as real reality, even when the virtual is more vibrant, more luscious, and so on.

    One reason that has been given for this is that virtual reality objects have ‘no history’. They don’t have the complexity that billions of years of evolution puts on something. Actually, in the Stephen Wolfram interview here on SW he goes into that a bit. I haven’t read ‘Zero History’ by William Gibson yet, but as I understand, he plays with the metaphor in that as well. The ‘wisdom’ (long history) of our heritage is visible to us in the subtle details of objects in the real world, which is why we stil appreciate them more than virtual ones, even when the virtual are more perfect, less dull, etc.

    But given that there are projects in A-life that attempt to derive the algorithms of nature so that we can simulate the universe, and so on, I am confident that we will arrive at a day when virtual reality will be just as beautiful or even more beautiful to us.

  • http://abstractreg.wordpress.com Reg_robson

    In the mean time why not just make machines to help us exercise out doors? Or to help us know where our children are? Or to help us protect the environment? Oh wait… all these things exist already. “Nature deficit disorder” is not the fault of machines, it’s the fault of parents who keep their children inside and sedentary.

  • Nikki Olson

    Hi Reg_robson!

    I agree with what you say, but adults with jobs indoors encounter the same problems. However, just posted recently, ‘Mark’s Daily Apple’ offers some tips on how to avoid the perils of industrialized world occupations in this article: http://www.marksdailyapple.com/16-tips-for-desk-jockeys-what-to-do-about-sitting-all-day/

    -Nikki Olson

  • http://deanjbaker.wordpress.com DeanJBaker

    Interesting to see the points of view in this – I will be reading more.

  • Lu Lu

    There is truth in your speculation. Thank you for being wise.
    The following news confirms your belief in the coming trend of “Merging Machines and Nature”
    http://www.kurzweilai.net/easing-brain-fatigue-with-a-walk-in-the-park/
    We should develop (and use) Virtual Reality simulation of natural environment.
    Will help the humanity tremendously.