There was a particularly beautiful sunset over the Long Island Sound last weekend. I sat at the end of a pier with a couple of friends enjoying the scenery while a group of highschoolers snapchatted and instagrammed the entire spectacle, only briefly looking up from their phones after taking a picture. At first I was infuriated that they were missing out on something so beautiful – I couldn’t stand the fact that they were so absorbed in their phones – not truly appreciating the moment. Then one of the girls mentioned that she was excited to text the picture to her dad, who was bedridden in the hospital with a broken femur. “He loves bay sunsets,” she said, “He’ll be happy to see this.” I smiled and went back to minding my own business, feeling a little guilty for being so judgmental.
People love to be critical about the fact that millennials are so technology obsessed, becoming increasingly detached from nature and the beauty of the world that surrounds us. This is a valid perspective, and in many ways it’s true – but there’s a dichotomy that’s being overlooked. As much as technology can distract from the beauty of the natural world, it can also bring people closer to nature in new and different ways. Things like social media and better cell phone cameras allow people to experience the beauty of places they’ve never been to and discover new destinations. We’re able to watch a San Diego sunset from our bedrooms on a cloudy night in New York. We’re able to map out a backcountry road trip using locations our friends have checked into and geotags they’ve used. Although we often find ourselves absorbed in our screens and gadgets, I am a firm believer that humans have a fundamental desire to connect with the natural world and that no amount of technology is able to dull that instinct. We aren’t moving away from nature, just incorporating it into our lives in different ways.
Take, for example, the Electric Forest music festival in Michigan – a 3-day orgy of electronic music and art that attracts smartphone-addicted millennials from all over the country. It’s not just another warehouse rave in some urban wasteland nor is it a bunch of sweaty teens jumping in a crowded stadium; the festival takes place at the foot of the Manistee national forest in the middle of nowhere. The site is an overgrown patch of trees and grass, with spectacular light installations crawling up the tree trunks and hanging from the branches. This festival, along with a growing number of celebrations like it, offers plenty of outdoor excursions and activities for attendees to experience. It’s a beautiful marriage of nature and technology and a great example of how millennials are finding new ways to live with the land.
Tech is making it easier to experience nature in a more comfortable way, encouraging those who might be skeptical about getting their hands dirty to get out and try something out of their comfort zone. Things like trail map and field guide apps, easy to use water purification systems, super-light portable stoves, and even self-assembling tents have made it infinitely easier to go out into the wild and experience what the world has to offer. Not to mention ubiquitous trends in modern architecture that incorporate nature in different ways. From an increasing popularity of modern tree houses (as documented in Animal Planet’s series Treehouse Masters), to architect Elora Hardy’s sustainable and enormous bamboo residences in Bali, nature as playing an increasingly large role in modern building design and urban planning.
Don’t get me wrong, I still clench my fists at the sight of people in staring contests with their phones. I wish there was something I could do to help people strike a healthier balance between screen time and outdoor time – and the line between the two is becoming increasingly blurry. It’s important to be critical of the screen-obsessed generation, I pity the youth that stagnate on the couch in front of their devices all day– but it’s also important to acknowledge the different ways in which technology is bringing people closer to nature.