20 November 2020

Nature and Technology in Chapter 19 of The Outrun by Amy Liptrot

I've been reading and thinking about Nature and Technology for years, and one piece of writing that has really stood out and inspired me is Chapter 19: Online in The Outrun by Amy Liptrot.

The Outrun records Amy Liptrot's return to her childhome home in Orkney at the age of thirty, coming to terms with the deeply addictive nature of her personality while using technology, often her phone, to both remain connected to her wider life and to locate herself more deeply in her current life and location.

Why do I find Chapter 19 so useful? Firstly, there is a tone and fundamental approach that resonates deeply with someone who loves both nature and technology. Amy Liptrot is a digital native, someone for whom the internet has been a form of a home. She makes sure the "broadband was working before the hot water" when she arrives at Rose Cottage on Papa Westray - the tiny island that is the backdrop to Chapter 19. There is therefore none of the deep-seated suspicion or determined lack of awareness of technology that can be found in some nature writing. Equally, there is a strong recognition of the negative impacts of our use of technology: the loneliness and compulsion of our hyper-connectivity, the ways it feeds our addictions:

There's an emptiness. I've lost booze and I am desperately searching for what I need to fill me up. Is it coffee, sex, writing, love, new clothes or online approval? I read about how these beeps and notifications and vibrations affect and alter our brains, giving small jolts of dopamine, a little adrenaline. Searching for that tiny buzz, I am circling around familiar websites, like a migrating bird following rivers or motorways.

In this compulsion, with "too many tabs open in my brain", the external world is barely present, only partially noticed.

We spend too much time online and real life is just another window. What's the point in going out to look at wildlife when I can watch nature documentaries on YouTube, in bed with an electric blanket?

When I boot up my laptop, the login screen will often show a beautiful image from the natural world. Then I type in my password and it disappears and I'm at work, with another image of nature on my desktop that, if I notice it at all, keeps getting obscured by emails and documents. And of course in reality those beautiful natural scenes that haunt our screens are disappearing at pace, and that's probably part of the reason they are there, a reassurance that really ought to be a reproach.

What this chapter of The Outrun gestures towards is a way of using technology to reestablish a more meaningful sense of particpation with the external world and with nature. There is nothing particularly ground-breaking about the activities it describes. Indeed, what is striking at one level is the apparent simplicity of the methods: just a phone, just a few apps:

I begin to use a GPS app on my phone to track my daily walks around Papay, along sheep trails and high-water lines. I'm building a map , within the limits of the island revealing, the lines I am drawn along.

Of course, behind that apparent simplicity are a series of massively complicated, interconnected and ulitmately fragile infrastructures: internet connectivity and mobile networks, GPS satellites. And the phone itself as a highly complicated coming-together of tiny bits of natural materials drawn from the ground and transported across the world.

Yet all that complication is here in the service of something like a spiritual practice: a deeper awareness of and participation in an environment that uses technology in a wider context.

Overlaid on satellite maps, a story emerges. The GPS tracks show how my walks change. At first I stride out, covering good distances along the coastal paths, marking my territory. As the weeks go on, I become slower and more exploratory, covering smaller areas in greater detail: climbing down the stones into a geo, looking rockpools for treasures.

And the wider context that emerges is a profound sense of place and community. I'm obsessed by Orkney, and Westray and Papa Westray in particular. My great grandfather was born on Westray. When we visited Papa Westray last year, on an evening walk in the fog along its coastal paths, we came across the Old Churchyard, where many of the gravestones bore our surname. I had the eerie sense of being at home. Therefore, for me, reading about the area is boundlessly exciting in itself, and just reading the names of places and islands has a magical quality:

The Pow of Keldie looks like a potential spot to swim at low tide. Mad Geo is dark and intense. For me, these places - 'The Sneck', 'Errival' - exist both digitally and underfoot.

Who wouldn't want to visit Mad Geo and the Sneck?

In The Outrun, technology and place, nature and infrastructure, are intertwined: the wifi gets relayed to Papa Westray via "copper phone lines" having been replayed by "microwaves" from "Kirkwall to Shapinsay to Westray then to us". The mobile signal is "affected by the wind": "I'm waiting for the next gale to receive my text messages". Looking for whales from North Hill, a huge ship is spotted instead, and is tracked via a "marine-traffic website" as the "cargo ship Kuzma Minin", enroute to "Kadalaksha in northern Russia". Planets in the night sky (via the SkyMap app), sleep cycles, menstural cycles, migrating birds, orcas - all are tracked via phone or laptop.

Where does this sometimes frenzied, sometimes compulsive observation of multiple strands of reality lead? At times, clearly, it is an attempt to fill a void. When her phone runs out of batteries, Liptrot says she "can almost feel that I don't exist, my walk is no longer being tracked [...] I want to use all this technology for its benefits but keep it under control".

So what does it mean to have technology under control? The internet and its associated technologies give us a near-infinity of information, and our relationship to that information can be compulsive or overwhelming. Equally, it can be liberating: allowing us to see the same thing (for example a very small Scottish island) from hugely different and potentially contradictory perpsectives, allowing for the validity of each perspective to be perceived without seeing any one of them as a final truth. Effective ways of making sense of the world are key to using technology wisely.

To have technology under control is also to understand its purpose within a wider context. That wider context can be a deepening sense of community: when a "sea eagle" are spotted in Orkney, the message is spread quickly via "local birding forums or text message groups" Sightings of the Merry Dancers (or Northern Lights) "circulate on the social networks, and the next day, or the same night, people share their photographs". In a sense here, the precise technologies are beside the point. What is happening is the sharing of knowledge, excitement and wonder among human communities finding its appropriate contemporary expression using the tools that are at hand.

And if it is under control, The Outrun suggests, then technology can open up the deep, intertwined complexities of a place, feeding curiousity, providing new perspectives, allowing a sense of awe that, for all its activity and participation, has a sense of stillness and presence at its core.