Can Biology Catch Up to Technology?

As we read Walden and followed Thoreau’s journey through living in the wilderness, we heard how he used his natural senses–sight, sound, smell, touch, taste–to understand the natural world around him. He saw animals, felt the air, tasted berries, listened to the sounds of the forest, and smelled the foliage. There were some things, however, that he couldn’t learn using his most basic senses. He couldn’t sense how deep Walden Pond was or how its shape changed. He obviously didn’t sense that the Feild family wasn’t interested in his advice before he gave it. His sensory perception was limited to the elements of nature that his senses were designed to understand, as it is with all people.

But what about those things that nature didn’t create? What about the things that are undeniably part of the human environment–the internet, the economy, the machinery that we use daily–that doesn’t respond to the senses that nature gave us? Can our biology catch up to technology?

I watched a couple of Ted talks that suggest that not only can our senses be modified to adapt to the technological environment, but that this process is already in the makings. Take this talk by David Eagleman, for example:

His experiment started as an attempt to allow deaf people to feel the words that the people around them are speaking via a vest that created vibrations on the subject’s back. These vibrations, with some practice, would be subconsciously understood as words by the subject’s brain. Eagleman and his team took this technology to the next step and tried to see what other senses they could add to the human repertoire. They took a subject and used the vest to stream information from the internet, information that the subject couldn’t make sense of, and train the subject’s brain to gain a sense of it through a series of tests. The subject would receive the vibrations, then make a seemingly arbitrary choice, and then recieve positive or negative feedback. Little does the subject know, the information being fed to his brain is from the stock-market, and the decisions he is making are whether to buy or sell. In this case, Eagleman’s team is trying to develop an entirely new sense–a sense of the economic environment.

Another Ted talk, by Michael Rubinstein, involved a sort of enhancement of senses that humans already possess.

Rubinstein’s team used cameras to record and magnify the things that the human eye normally can’t pick up on. This included changes in a person’s face color that corresponded with their pulse, the rise and fall of a baby’s chest as it slept, the movement of a person’s throat as they sang, and the vibrations that sound waves caused in a chip bag. They were even able to take the images of the chip bag and reverse the process, analysing the movements to remake the sound that had caused them. Rubinstein points out that this magnification process can be used to find problems in modern machinery and analyze how buildings and architecture sways in the wind.

These two talks open a whole new world in sensory perception. If the natural world and the technological world are as separate from each other as some–including Thoreau–might think, perhaps the importance of having technological “senses” is something that deserves more attention.

IPAT or IPA(1/T)?

If there’s one big thing we can take away from English 340, it’s that there are two things that we humans treasure: technology and nature. As we study Thoreau and programming side-by-side, we begin to see how these two very different (arguably opposite) things can live in harmony and even advocate for each other. But we’ve been looking at the interaction between nature and technology through a very narrow lens thus far–that is, Thoreau’s lens. When we look at the relationship between nature, or the environment, and technology on a broader scale, things get a little fuzzy.

Who could live without their cellphone, really?
Who could live without their cellphone, really?

There’s no question that technology and nature are good for humans. We use technology everyday, from our cell phones and computers to hospital equipment and obtaining the fuel that runs our cars. It makes our lives easier, helps us be creative, fosters learning and communication, and simply keeps us entertained.



And who wouldn't love to see this?
And who wouldn’t love to see this?

Nature, too, is our ally in getting by. How would Thoreau have written Walden if not for nature? How would we go camping and hiking and escape from our hectic lives for a while, if not for nature? Where would we get the resources we need to develop and share our technology–if not for nature?


But what about the final leg of this little love triangle? How do nature and technology feel about each other? It’s a question that environmentalists debate and struggle with everyday. There’s even a little equation–or, rather, two equations–they have to describe this relationship. It’s called IPAT or IPA(1/T) (depending on your stance).

Not yet, at least.
No, IPAT is not the newest technology by apple.

IPAT stands for I = P x A x T. The “I” stands for the total impact on the environment, “P” stands for population, “A” for affluence, and “T” for technology. Basically, this means that the bigger the population, the more that population consumes, and the more technology they use, the bigger their impact will be on the environment. The argument for this is pretty well known; more technology means more oil (to build your devices), more pollution (a byproduct of production), more habitat loss (to house that production), and more waste (from when we’re done with our technology). The list goes on and on, and the process is outlined pretty well in this “nice” cartoon by Steve Cutts.

However, not everybody feels this way. In the alternative equation, IPA(1/T), all of the letters mean the same thing, only the “(1/T)” means that with more technology, the total impact on the environment gets smaller. The idea behind this comes from all of the good things technology has done for protecting the environment: solar power, hydro power, wind power, and all the alternative resources that scientists are trying to make use of. We use technology to get rid of wastes more efficiently and to attempt to repair the damage that we’ve caused in the past. We use technology to protect habitats and wildlife and advocate for the environmental cause. We use technology to find solutions to the very problems that it causes. Take this video, for example, that talks about turning our roads into solar panels.

So which one is right? T or (1/T)? It’s technology versus technology, and nobody has the answer. A lot of people say that with technology we can fix anything. But what about the costs of new technology, both monetary and environmental? What about the oil and energy that goes into developing new devices and solar roadways? Can those things be circumvented, or will they pay themselves off overtime? Does it matter in the end? Will we ever stop using technology, even if it turns out that (1/T) isn’t accurate?

I don’t have the answers, though I like to think that we can find a way to make IPA(1/T) a reality. The secrets of relationship between the environment and technology might be something that only time can tell. Until then, we can only struggle to keep a balance between humanity’s two loves.