Technology and nature

Authors: Jonathan Grudin
Posted: Fri, November 06, 2015 - 4:00:07

The black water mirrored the tropical forest above it so perfectly that the shoreline was impossible to pinpoint. The reflection included the palms with cannonball-clustered fruit that had stained the water. We kayaked for hours, seeing no sign of other human presence on the network of channels and lagoons that drain the marshes along the Caribbean coast. Or so we thought.

Costa Rica ranks first in sustainable ecotourism, with a plan to be the first carbon-neutral country by 2021 and a carbon-neutral airline already flying. Costa Rica ended deforestation and draws 90% of its energy from renewable sources. It long ago disbanded its army and recently banned recreational hunting—good news for its panthers, tapirs, sloths, monkeys, sea turtles, and colorful birds. It has the world’s highest proportion of national park and protected land (25%), and fifty times the world average biodiversity per hectare.

Technological support preceded our two-week visit. Anywhere Costa Rica provides online booking with an informative 24x7 chat line. It was effectively free. Our prices for hotels and services were what we would pay walking in off the street; Anywhere Costa Rica receives commissions. Telecommunication was reliable: Pickups were on time and convenient. The company even accommodated a spontaneous schedule change. 

Costa Rica’s three principal tourism zones are the Pacific coast, inland mountains including Arenal volcano, and the Caribbean coast. We skipped the Pacific with brand-name resort hotels nestled in coves. Inland and on the Caribbean, we found only small hotels and restaurants reportedly owned and operated by Costa Ricans. Fast food franchises were virtually non-existent. Technology again played a key role: The small enterprises rely heavily on reviews. The surrounding tourism-dependent communities actively contribute by providing uniformly excellent service.

Subtle uses of technology included the coordination of national park, private enterprise, and non-profit wildlife personnel in preventing poaching and enabling us to observe sea turtles beach, lay eggs, and leave, with minimal distraction. Young guides enlisted for short excursions were the best-informed and the most talented at human relations I’ve ever encountered. Many have university degrees in tourism, an attractive career option in a country where tourism accounts for more revenue than coffee and bananas.

Why we travel

Why didn’t our ancestors who moved into Europe and the Western Hemisphere all settle on the Mediterranean and California coasts? Some moved to the arctic, to deserts, or settled high in the Andes and Himalayas and deep in festering Amazon jungles. Times of scarcity that affect any region could motivate people to spread out, but which ones left? Perhaps a combination of curiosity and antisocial tendencies were decisive. 

In any case, our species has always traveled, and technology changed the experience, from ships, trains, and planes to radio, telephone, and satellite telecommunication. Traveler’s cheques gave way to ATMs. For decades, a staple of my day abroad was a search for a copy of the International Herald Tribune. I paid extortionate prices for a 4-day-old copy in some remote places. Today, the search is for an Internet connection, usually not hard to find.

In 1989, there were few computers and no Internet access between Cairo and Cape Town. On a hot, sunny day that year, looking out over a bustling, colorful Mombasa street scene, I had an epiphany: “Not one of the hundreds of people before me will ever be affected by computer technology! Their lives will be unaffected by my work.” As epiphanies go, this was not impressive. Today, the home page has links to tourist information, insurance and shipping companies, estate agents, and the answer to the question: The jinis of Mombasa: True or myth?

Technology and travel continue to evolve in tandem, for better and worse. British travelers said that helped them overcome timidity toward complaining about poor service. But we also heard of travelers threatening a bad review to blackmail merchants who depended on ratings.

Similarities and differences

I expected to be met at Kano International Airport on my first visit to Africa, in 1983. I wasn’t. No one knew I was coming. My destination, Jos, a large city in the temperate highlands of Nigeria, had no international phone service or telex, and my letter had not arrived. Nor was there local phone service—the one phone at the airport was a long-dead relic. Later, to phone his hospitalized wife in Kenya, a university colleague of my host drove for hours at night to a telecommunications relay station.

Travel back then was often like parachuting in with the clothes on your back. It evolved. In 1998, my wife and I visited Madagascar. We saw a satellite phone in use in a remote corner of the country. While we were there, the English-language newspaper in the capital announced the country’s first public demonstration of the Internet and Web, led by the students of a technical high school. When we pushed into the interior and lost outside contact, we emerged to discover that Frank Sinatra had died and the Department of Justice was suing Microsoft. In contrast, on a 10-day African camping safari in July 2015, we had to choose to stay out of touch. (Less dramatic news greeted us on resurfacing: Greece was still struggling and Donald Trump was still rising in the polls.)

I haven’t been to Scotland

“When you have made up your mind to go to West Africa,” wrote a 19th-century traveler, “the very best thing you can do is to get it unmade and go to Scotland instead; but if your intelligence is not strong enough to do so, abstain from exposing yourself to the direct rays of the sun, take 4 grains of quinine every day, and get an introduction to the Wesleyans; they are the only people on the Gold Coast who have got a hearse with feathers“ [1].

In 1983, expats still liked to talk about diseases in the region once called “White Man’s Grave.” I spent time with some who were ambulatory with malaria and worse afflictions. When my health faltered, I searched for garlic, whose curative powers were not yet recognized by medical science but which I’d come to trust a decade earlier in Guatemala. In 1983, diseases in Nigeria were rarely fatal if one could fly out for treatment by a knowledgeable doctor, but finding one could be a challenge. One colleague had returned to England with an illness, but was unable to convince doctors to prescribe the right drug until he had lost over 30 pounds and was close to dying. Expats advised me to load up on drugs—no prescriptions were required—before I returned to England, so I could self-medicate if I was harboring a parasite.

This might remain good advice, if prescriptions are still not required. This July, shortly before we left Africa for England, a spider bite sent neurotoxin into my back and around my thigh and triggered fever and hives across my body, and a tick lodged behind my wife’s ear and infected her. Web searches identified our assailants—a sac spider and African Tick Fever.

We arranged clinic visits in England. My problem was new and interesting to our young British doctor. “Is that s-a-x spider?” she asked. She told me to watch for secondary infections. She did not suggest applying an external antibiotic to reduce the odds of needing a skin graft later, advice I found on the Web. My Neosporine, previously used on monkey scratches and bites, seemed to do the trick. There is not much else to do for a neurotoxin. The lumps and fever dissipated. Gayna was not so lucky.

The Web said doxycycline would resolve tick fever in 48 hours. The doctor prescribed amoxicillin. When my wife’s fever exceeded 103 degrees Fahrenheit a few days later, we returned. An older doctor now on duty was convinced that she had malaria. No mosquitoes survived the cold South Africa winter nights, and we had taken anti-malarials anyway, but he wouldn’t prescribe doxycycline. Later, we got a call—someone at the clinic had phoned around and found a doctor from South Africa. They let Gayna pick up doxycycline after working hours and 48 hours later her fever was gone, although side effects of the antibiotic persisted for a week.

I guardedly consider this a success for technology in travel, thanks to Wikipedia and the Web.

Beyond being there

Travel to experience nature and different cultures is not the same revelation it once was. Hundreds of beautifully produced documentaries are available online. You can spend time and money to travel and look at a field, and see a field. Or you can watch a program that distils hundreds of hours of photography and micro-photography into a year in the life of a field, accompanied by expert commentary. Sure, travel provides a greater field of view, texture, nuance, and serendipity, but often less depth of understanding. In addition, distant lands now come to us—foods, music, arts, and crafts from around the world are in our malls.

The encroachment of science and technology on the natural world is eloquently lamented by Thomas Pynchon in Mason & Dixon and other works. We are indeed “winning away from the realm of the sacred, its borderlands one by one.” Agriculture, extraction of minerals, and the housing needs of growing populations fence in land that was available for animal habitation and migration. Wildlife is increasingly managed. If a zoo is a B&B for animals, national parks and reserves have become B’s: Bed is provided and the guests find their own food. With migratory paths blocked, animals that once trekked to sources of water during dry seasons are accommodated by constructing waterholes. When smart cats learn to drive dumb herbivores toward fences where they can easily be taken down, we build separate enclosures to keep some herbivores around. Vegetation along roads is burned so tourists can see animals that would be invisible if the forest came up to the road. Wild animals become accustomed to humans and willingly provide photo ops. Guides know where animals frequent and alert one another of sightings. Many animals have chip implants; geolocation and drones may soon ensure successful viewing.

These are all fine adjustments. Not everyone is content driving hours with no animal sightings. It provides a sense of wilderness spaces and makes sightings special, but viewing throngs of animals along rivers and waterholes is undeniably spectacular, and many tourists are in a hurry to check off the Big Five.

And Africa remains wild. Hippos are second only to mosquitoes as lethal animals on the continent. Hippos are aggressive, fearless, can outrun you, and they ignore protestations that as herbivores they shouldn’t chomp on you [2]. 

Implications for design

The debate is not whether to reshape the natural world, it is how we reshape it. And it turns out that this is not new. Charles Mann’s brilliant book 1491 documents humanity’s extensive transformation of the natural world centuries ago. Prior to the onslaught of European diseases, the Western Hemisphere was densely populated by peoples who carefully designed the forests and rainforests around them. Reading 1491 as we traveled in Costa Rica, I realized that prehistoric inhabitants would not have let those palms grow along the waterways. The black, reflective water conceals edible fish, lethal crocodiles and caiman, and venomous snakes and frogs. Such palms would be consigned to land far from water, their fruit used for pigments or other purposes. After the Spanish arrived and disease depopulated the region, untended palms spread to their present locations.

One reading of Mann’s message might be that since “primeval” forests were landscaped, why should we constrain change now? A better reading is that we have a powerful ability to design the natural world around us, and we should do it as thoughtfully as humanly possible. Technology can surely help with this.



2. Hippos can hoof it 20 mph. A fast human sprints 15 mph. Olympic sprinters reach 25 mph. Since hippos don’t organize track and field competitions, perhaps one lives that could outpace Usain Bolt. Hippos have taken boats apart to reach the occupants. Zulus considered hippos to be braver than lions. Crocodiles and water buffalo are also fast and lethal on land.

Posted in: on Fri, November 06, 2015 - 4:00:07

Jonathan Grudin

Jonathan Grudin is a principal design researcher at Microsoft.
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