Sue Thomas on the Collaboration Superpowers podcast

SUE THOMAS is a writer on nature and technology. Her books include ‘Technobiophilia: nature and cyberspace (2013), Hello World: travels in virtuality (2004), a travelogue/memoir of life online; and the novel Correspondence (1992). She most recently wrote Nature and Wellbeing in the Digital Age which focuses on practical activities to help you feel better without logging off.



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Her tips for achieving a tech-nature balance:

  • Stop feeling guilty about being connected online.
  • Be in nature every day – whether it’s virtual or in real life.
  • Bring nature into your digital life.


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Graphic design by Alfred Boland

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 Original transcript

Lisette: Great, and we’re live. Welcome everybody to this remote interview. My name is Lisette, and I’m interviewing people and companies doing great things remotely. And today I have something a little bit different. Today, Sue Thomas from Bournemouth, England. And Sue, you’re a writer on nature and technology and also a visiting fellow in the media school at Bournemouth University, I read on your LinkedIn profile. And we got connected because you wrote a book called nature and well-being in the digital age. And man, that caught my attention. And I really enjoyed reading the book. So I’m super excited to be interviewing you today. And let’s start with the first question and dive right in, and that is what does your virtual office look like. What do you need to get your work done?

Sue: Well, I’m very lucky in that just a few years ago, I moved very close to the beach. And I managed to get a flat where every single window has some view of the sea. So that is just such an amazing treat, really. So in terms of my virtual office, I live on the fourth floor of the [inaudible – 01:09] flats. And I tend to move around the flat quite a lot. So depending on the time of day or what’s going on outside, I might sit in the kitchen or the lounge or my study, which has two different views of the sea. And I just kind of revel in it really. There’s a kind of theory of blue mind, which is that views of the sea are especially calming and stress-reducing. So I’m very fortunate to have that.

Sometimes, however, I find that I long for the green. So sometimes I’ll take books or my laptop or whatever and go into the nearby New Forest. I think it’s 200 kilometers of forest [inaudible – 01:57], just the driveway, 20-30-minute driveway. So I’m quite selective about the places where I work, and a lot of them are based on the views or the kind of physical surroundings. And of course I’m trying to work on the beach when I can, but laptops and sandy things don’t really go together.

Lisette: I see all those pictures all the time and I think, “I don’t know.” I mean the sea and the sun just don’t seem like the right combination.

Sue: Well, that’s it. But we have got a really nice beach café. And we’ve got a [inaudible – 02:31] where you can sit in the shade. So one of the things about working [inaudible – 02:35], I guess, is this [inaudible – 02:37] of light. And with the laptop, often it’s difficult to work outside because of the way the light reflects on the screen. So I’m hoping somebody is going to fix that sometime soon.

Lisette: I keep hearing rumors of people making special kind of glass and monitors, but I don’t know of any yet.

Sue: But I like the idea of basically as an outdoor office, and I do know people who deliberately set up an office in the garden which is shaded by tree or whatever, and they call it their outdoor office, which I think is a nice idea.

Lisette: Indeed. Well, yeah, you’ve written a whole book about nature and well-being in the digital age. And I’m thinking we have the luxury. I also have a beautiful garden that I’m looking out at all day long. It’s green and there are flowers and neighbor cats are running by. I totally love it. And there are many people who don’t have the luxury of having that kind of environment. And I’m assuming that part of the book that you’ve written is for those people as a reminder that nature is important.

Let’s dive into the book. Tell us a little bit about the book and why you wrote it.

Sue: Well, I’ve been writing about computers and cyberspace for a long time. My first book was a novel called correspondence. And that came out in 1992. And that was really about two different worlds, one world of technology, of a woman who kind of turns herself into a cyborg. And the other part of the novel was about a woman who longs to live in the countryside. So even in that very first novel, without really understanding what I was doing, I was putting technology and nature together. And then in 2004, I wrote a book called Hello World: Travels in Virtuality. And that was a non-fiction book. It was a memoir about my life inside the space and about how I actually liked to inhabit both worlds. And I often see parallels between them. So that was a very personal memoir. So that came out in 2004. And at the end of that, I thought, “I wonder if I’m the only person who feels this connection.” So I set out on what turned out to be a long research project, which I can talk about later if you like. But that ended up in a book called Technobiophilia: Nature and Cyberspace. That was a fairly detailed academic study. And at the end of that, which came out in 2013, I thought, “Actually, I need to start thinking about making these ideas more accessible.” And that’s what brought about this newest book, which is a much simplified explanation of why it’s important to connect your natural life in nature with your [wide/wild life – 05:36], but also has practical tips on how to do it.

Lisette: Right. It’s true because the theory is one thing and the practical tips are another. And a lot of people are not necessarily interested in the theory behind it, but they know intuitively that this work-life balance… I think you said it’s not work-life balance anymore; it’s tech-nature balance. I love that. So people have intuitively [know/no – 06:02]. So I think a book like this is really appealing because it’s a good reminder of oh yeah. Oh yeah, let’s go back outside. And I like all your actionable tips.

Sue: Thank you. Certainly, whenever I give a talk about this – in fact, this week I’ve given two talks; I’ve asked this question twice – I always ask the audience, “On your laptop or your phone or whatever, if you have a screensaver or screen wallpaper, does it have a picture of nature on it?” And always, maybe about 60 percent of the audience, maybe more, depending on the type of audience, people say yes, they do. And if you like, my book is an explanation as to why you’ve done that, why you’ve chosen that.

Lisette: Right, indeed. My screensaver is the Hubble space pictures.

Sue: There you go.

Lisette: Yeah, exactly, [crosstalk – 06:55]. Something interesting that really struck me in your book… And you made a statement. I’m not going to paraphrase it correctly, but the statement was something like you get the same kind of benefits if you’re walking in a virtual forest as if you’re walking in a real forest. And that really struck me. I thought that anybody that’s experienced virtual worlds will understand what you mean by that, I’m sure. But for those of us who haven’t experienced virtual worlds, what is the theory a little bit behind that and what do you mean? It’s fascinating.

Sue: Yeah. I’ll say a little bit about the research because it kind of puts us in context. There is a lot of research by environmental psychologists who measure the way that we interact or connect with nature. And they can measure heart rates and pulse. And they do all kinds of cognitive tests to see whether you’re able to do math, for example, quicker or slower, depending on your exposure to an environment. So there are quite a bunch of different tests that will produce evidence to show that yes, if you’re looking at a picture of greenery or tree, then actually, your heart rate will slow down. There’s a lot of body of work in this area.

And in Japan, there’s particularly a lot of work around what they call “forest bathing” or Shinrin-yoku where people walk in a forest for hours and absorb the aromas of the trees and touch the bark and listen to the streams and the birds. And you can measurably show that it’s had a restorative and stress-reducing benefit to them. So there’s lots of research like that, some of which I’ve talked about in the book. I talk about it in more detail in Technobiophilia, longer book. So it’s just starting recently that people have started to try to replicate those experiments in virtuality. And most interestingly, when my last book came out, Technobiophilia, I did various articles about it. I had a piece in Slate about virtual nature and how it affects you. And the makers of FarmVille got in touch with me and they said, “This is really interesting,” because they do a lot of user testing, focus groups, this kind of thing. And they were very used to focus groups reporting. They played FarmVille to calm down, to regain some energy, to reduce stress. Lots and lots of people reporting that. But they didn’t know why until they read my article.

Lisette: Oh wow, because it wasn’t the actual game of it that was calming the people down necessarily. I’m sure some of them were calmed by just playing the game. It was the nature aspect of being in FarmVille.

Sue: Harvesting your virtual tomatoes or collecting your virtual eggs.

Lisette: Wow!

Sue: Yeah, and they were absolutely used to it. But they never really wondered why this was the case, even though it completely fitted in with my theory of the connection between our love of nature and our love of technology can come together in a positive way. You asked about the experiment in virtual reality. I think there was an experiment then about ten years ago where students were taken out into a park. I think it was in Detroit. And they were measured, before they went into the park and when they came out of the park, of their mathematical, cognitive abilities and so on. And they performed much better after being exposed to nature than they did when they repeated the same experiment in city streets. Their exposure to nature helped them cognitively and also helped them focus their attention and concentration.

                 Seven years later, a Ph.D. student called [Dolche Volchinov – 11:19] repeated this experiment almost identically, except he used three different virtual reality environments for his test subjects. One was [inaudible – 11:32] junction in Tokyo, one was a completely geometric, abstract environment, and the third was a virtual nature environment. And he found the same, that the people who’d gone into virtual nature had better test results than the other two.

Lisette: That is so interesting because I would expect that there would be calming… I mean it’s not just then about being outside. It’s about being outside in nature. What about all those city people living in New York City?

Sue: [laughs] There’s a whole area of design and architectural design called biophilic design. Biophilia is a [inaudible – 12:17] of nature which some people say goes back to the very early days when we were having to survive and we were having to be very sensitized to the world around us for our own protection and surviving and so on. And the biologist E. O. Wilson says that this is actually a genetic thing. It carries with us even today. Sometimes he says it might go dormant, but it can be woken up by all kinds of things. So this is what he says is in play when, for example, you’re stuck in your tracks by the smell of strawberry that you remember having when you were a child, that kind of thing, or simply just enjoying a beautiful day or being in the forest. We all have those moments when we certainly feel really connected to the world. He would call this biophilia. And biophilic design is about trying to bring that kind of sense back into the designed urban environment. So in a couple of weeks’ time, I’m going to be speaking in Singapore. And I understand that this is the actual capital of biophilic design. And I’m really looking forward to seeing how they implement it.

So I guess you might say that we take it for granted that our cities are grey and have no plant life and so on. But there are two points to that. One is yes, they actually do if you look for it, even if it’s just [crosstalk – 13:52]. But secondly, a lot of people are deliberately trying to put that back into cities with parks and gardens and house plants and all kinds of things.

Lisette: True, I can imagine. Is there an amount of time that people need to be in nature in order to have effects? Is it our or…?

Sue: Well, that’s an interesting question. In the forest bathing community in Japan, they do actually prescribe a number of hours, maybe four or five hours, which is a long time [crosstalk – 14:26].

Lisette: It’s a long time [laughs]. [inaudible – 14:27].

Sue: Yeah. Technically, you can do the work while you’re sitting in the forest [inaudible – 14:33]. But there’s also that some people talk about researchers are looking – the answer to your question – for what is the best daily dose of nature. That’s what they call it, daily dose. And I think we can each find our own daily dose for that.

Lisette: That’s a very good point.

Sue: Yeah. So it’s up to you and where you live. But I suppose if you make an effort every day to say, “Today I’m going to have my daily dose of nature, and I will do it by going to the park in my lunch break,” if you consciously keep track of that every day, I think that could be helpful as to whether you stay in the park for five minutes or half an hour, it depends on you.

Lisette: Right, and what you need. That’s right. Everybody has a different level of social needs, for example. People can be alone for a lot longer than other people.

Sue: Yeah.

Lisette: Yeah, indeed. So we have to design it for ourselves. So why is it so hard? Why are people not doing it? There must be tons of research on this [laughs].

Sue: Well, I got a bit of hobbyhorse about this because I think that we’re kind of beaten around the head for our level of technology. And there’s a whole movement trying to make us feel endlessly guilty for the fact that we love our phones and our laptops and tablets. We don’t want to leave them at home. So that’s why we get the idea of the digital detox [inaudible – 15:58] you will be a better person. It will be better for you if you just leave your phone at home when you go out and this kind of thing. And I think that we’ve almost come to believe that. It’s as though we’ve lost confidence in ourselves. And the fact is that actually, we can choose. I’m not intimidated and dominated by my phone. I choose when to use it. And I’m sure you’re not either. But many people try and make us think that we are addicted or that we can’t cope. We can’t put it down. Well, we can. We can choose to. So we can choose when to turn off, and we can choose when to turn on. And if we choose to go for a walk and take our phone so we can take pictures and keep in touch with everybody else, there’s nothing wrong with that. So I think if we can actually just remove the guilt, we’ll feel much more relaxed and freed up to live a full, digital life and connect to nature while we’re doing it.

Lisette: Right. Oh, I love it. I’ll be guilt-free all day today [laughs].

Sue: Yeah, be guilt-free. I’ve decided the way to say simply is that instead of people saying, “You need to cut down on your technology,” and so on, I’m tending to think now it’s not that we need less technology; we just need more nature. And we can do that easily.

Lisette: It’s true. It’s not that hard to just get outside and walk to your nearest park. Usually, everybody has got a nearest park.

Sue: That’s right. Or have things in your home that feel good, biophilic wood things, stone things, make sure that you have plants around you, particularly around your desk and so on. NASA has a whole list of plants that are particularly good for your well-being but will work well in kind of electrified, electronic kind of work environments. There are plants that will the air up for you. I think I’ve got a few of those in the book. So it’s not hard, but we feel a bit beaten down by all of the negativity around technology use.

Lisette: So interesting. When I first started my career, I worked in an engineering firm in one of those cubical farm places, just cubicals as far as the eye could see. And I remember at the end of one project, I instinctively bought thank you gifts for everybody on my team. And I bought them plants. And I remember thinking like, “Oh, it’s a good thank you gift. It’s affordable and it’s beautiful. But it will also make the office much more beautiful.” And indeed, we have 20 new plants in the office. It really made a difference [inaudible – 18:34] struck by that.

Sue: Yeah, I can imagine that. But then of course if you can’t look after plants for whatever reason, you can still have pictures. You can have these wall decals, the transfers. You can put on walls or pictures or ornaments. If you’re just a bit kind of mindful about it, there’s a lot you can do even if you can’t look after real plants.

Lisette: So I can imagine that walking through a digital forest has surprising benefits. But it can’t be as good as actually walking in a real forest.

Sue: Yeah. No, I don’t think so, particularly in terms of the sensory experience, obviously [crosstalk – 19:22] smell and touch and all that kind of thing. But I’ve got various pictures of me when I go to Second Life and go into Chakryn Forest, which is a really beautiful forest with a flowing river. And I sometimes have that run in the background while I’m working and get a sense of time I’m there in the forest as well as actually in my office [inaudible – 19:47]. So I think it’s partly to do with our imagination of how much we bring to it and how we’re kind of reconnected with that sense of well-being from being in nature. I mean there’s some interesting research showing that this can be very powerful, and we have to be aware of that because it could be used in a negative way. There’s a little bit of research showing – I don’t think I have room for it in the book – that there was an advertising campaign in Spain some years ago that was for an energy company. And they used beautiful, natural views of soaring eagles and that kind of thing. And they discovered when they followed [inaudible – 20:33] campaign that these beautiful TV ads made everybody feel great, even the people who were not happy about having electricity generating stations in their locality. They were kind of overcome by the beauty of connecting with nature in these videos. And the researchers who looked at it said, “Hang on, this is a bit worrying because if virtual nature can have almost an equivalent, positive benefit, we need to be careful how we use it.”

Lisette: Wow!

Sue: Yeah.

Lisette: Oh, of course, the marketers jump right on it.

Sue: Exactly.

Lisette: It’s true.

Sue: Exactly. And if you start looking around to see how many industries that we consider are problematic, how many of them brand green? There are a lot, and there’s a reason for that.

Lisette: Yeah, indeed, it’s very attractive. What are some of your favorite tips from the book? I think probably, the first thing everybody would think of is going out for a walk. What’s something that people wouldn’t think of right off the bat that might be easy to do?

Sue: I quite like the idea of having wooden and stone things around that you can hold in your hand. And I did treat myself to a wooden mouse. I know lots of people don’t use the mouse anymore, but I love using the mouse. So I’ve got one that’s made of wood. So when it’s in my hand, it’s kind of warm and pleasant and feels quite different to a plastic mouse. That’s one thing.

I’m also very fond of having little aquariums on my phone. I’ve got a Galaxy S6. You can get live [or PayPal – 22:27] with little goldfish swimming around. And as you touch them, they’ll go and hide behind the weeds. Or you can pretend to feed them with virtual fish food and that kind of thing. And it’s that kind of sense of your connecting with something that’s kind of live, even though we know it’s not. So I’m very fond of my fish wallpaper. And I like the idea of remembering that there’s a body beyond this brain that’s connecting with cyberspace all the time. And then I can reconnect through natural materials.

Lisette: I really like that. And it seems very simple to do, in fact. Just find wooden objects, wooden mice. What you think people’s hesitation is to virtual worlds? They’ve been around for so long. I’m always surprised by how few people try them out even. And I just, “What do you think that is?”

Sue: Well, I’m not a gamer. I don’t know if you’re a gamer.

Lisette: No, I’m not.

Sue: Right. I find gaming really hard. And I suspect that’s part of the reason. And I managed to get into Second Life, and I can totter around. What I really want to be able to do is getting to Grand Theft Auto because I don’t know if you know but there’s a whole group of landscape photographers who spend all their time taking beautiful landscape photos inside grand theft auto. Now the landscapes are all based on California landscape. And I’m a huge fan of California. I go every chance I get. And I really want to visit those landscapes. But because I’m such a useless gamer, I can’t get out of the city. I’m very, very frustrated. I can’t even drive the cars properly. But I still haven’t managed to get out of the city into these beautiful mountains. So I think that kind of illiteracy like mine really puts people off. It’s so hard. It’s hard to get there. And now we’ve got more VR. I’ve got a Google Cardboard, and I can do kind of very simple VR visits with my Google Cardboard. I really want to get into those mountains and Grand Theft Auto, and I just can’t get there. It’s hard.

Lisette: I have to say it’s a really, really good point because some things are very simple like going on Facebook, and these kind of things are simple. But actually, when you start to get… I mean when I first visited Second Life, I was surprised by how confusing it was because all of a sudden, you find yourself on a beach with random people, also not being able to walk or navigate. And you try to move limbs and talk and do things. It was hard. It was very intimidating, even that first step. Yeah, agreed.

Sue: And in the ‘90s, I was part of the [Mu – 25:21] community, which your older audience might remember. It was like Second Life, but it was all in black-and-white text. There were no pictures, no sound, nothing, just writing. So it was perfect for writers because wherever you want your environment to be, you just write it and that’s where you are. That’s suitably really well. But Second Life was too hard for me, really. So yeah, let’s go back to the old days of no pictures, just the words.

Lisette: Indeed. I have total faith that these things will become easier and easier and easier over time. Luckily for us, the gaming community is moving a lot of these technologies forward. And it’s just a matter of time before the interface becomes really simple. When I listen to the VR podcast and I listen to what’s happening, the technology is hard. [It’s tense – 26:23] technology. It’s very sophisticated stuff that they’re doing there.

Sue: Yeah, absolutely. I do feel quite illiterate in somewhere like GTA or Second Life. And I think that is the biggest barrier. So I’m sure there are cultural barriers. People just say, “No, games are waste of time.” But if you actually sit down like I did and really try, you still find it really hard.

Lisette: Right, I agree. I had the same experience. It’s just that the potential is so exciting, I mean to be able to meet in a virtual world. I mean I went to a conference with “AgileBill” Krebs. I don’t know if you know him. He’s also a virtual worlds guru. I [inaudible – 27:06]. I will introduce you. You’ll love each other. He took me to a conference in Second Life. You immediately see the applications. He took me to a room where police were training with various demos, sort of their meeting room. And I immediately see like, “Oh my God, think of the things we could do if location is no longer an issue.” Like wow! Wow!

Sue: Yeah, yeah. But interestingly, I gather that the tourism industry is really heavily into this because that tourism industry is producing a lot of VR tasters and say if they want to persuade you to go to the Alps. They will now produce a VR taster of what it’s like to be in the Alps. And hopefully, you’ll buy a ticket.

Even on cruise ships, you know on cruise ships, the inside cabins have no views. But on an increasing number of cruise ships, they now have a virtual balcony. And you can look at this balcony. You can see a live stream of the see as it actually is going on outside and hear it too and see the curtains blowing in the breeze, but it’s all virtual.

Lisette: Wow! Really, when you see these things happen, you can’t deny the power of the effect that it has because if it didn’t have any effect, there wouldn’t be this much money and time being spent on the [research – 28:33]. Clearly, you’ve hit on something here.

Sue: Well, there’s a lot of power in it. I think there’s a lot of power in nature. And we’re just finding ways in which to kind of harness it together with technology. And we have to get over our project desk that the two are completely separate because they’re very intertwined.

Lisette: Right. And stop feeling guilty [inaudible – 28:58]. I really like that. I feel uplifted [inaudible] like, “Oh, yeah.”

Sue: Yeah, you can walk in a forest with your phone in your pocket. Nothing bad will happen to you. Have your phone in your pocket.

Lisette: Right. And what about unplugging completely for a short period of time? Do you feel that that’s unnecessary? The total detox for a week or these kind of…

Sue: I’m quite skeptical about it because I think that there’s quite a lot of mythology around it. Personally, I prefer to stay connected all the time. Like everybody, I really hate the times when I want to be connected, but there are some problems that I can’t quite be connected. I think it would be easier to just say, “Right, turn off and stay away from [inaudible – 29:45].” So that interim thing is really frustrating. But I just think there’s a lot of sentimentalism about that. My favorite story is that people always talk about [inaudible – 29:28] world and how that is the perfect experience that he went. He went to live in a hut by [inaudible – 30:05] for nearly a year, and he was learning how to live in a disconnected way. But the truth is that [Waldon – 30:12] used to go shopping in town every week. He used to [inaudible – 30:15] washing [inaudible]. He used to go and read the newspapers. He was not disconnected. You will often see that [inaudible – 30:23]…Did I say [Waldon]? [inaudible]. You will often see [inaudible – 30:27] held up as being the perfect digital detox person. But he never was. He never was disconnected.

Lisette: Right, right. So there you have it [crosstalk – 30:38].

Sue: It’s a fantasy. No, no guilt.

Lisette: You’re right. It is a fantasy. And people should be choosing for themselves what it is that they need.

Sue: Yeah. And they can work out their own what I would call a tech-nature balance. What suits you? What suits your family? And choose it for yourself and control it yourself and don’t be intimidated.

Lisette: Indeed, love it, love it. A couple of final questions, and one is I see that you are also the co-founder of The Kids’ Nature Shop in Bournemouth. I wanted to know just before we go what is that. That sounds lovely.

Sue: Well, that’s a little bench [inaudible – 31:19] with my daughter. And I’ve got four grandsons, all of varying ages. One of my daughters has two of the grandsons. And we’re very interested in trying to get together a shop that would enable people who wanted to buy nature-focused things for their kids to go and choose from the shop. It’s a very small shop, but the idea is that the spirit behind it is that we will select things that we think your kids would enjoy and that will connect them to nature.

Lisette: Wow, love the project. [We have – 31:55] time for all of this.

Sue: [laughs] Well, I just like working online and doing things online, so this all suits me well.

Lisette: Yeah, I can totally relate. Thank you so much for talking with me today. I think that you’ve given people a lot of food for thought. And I know that I will be going out for a walk in the sunshine right after this interview because it feels like the right thing to do [laughs].

Sue: If you keep your phone in your pocket.

Lisette: [inaudible – 32:22] my phone, indeed. Thank you so much. And until next time, everybody, be powerful.


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