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Outside online

Alice Bennett steps outdoors, virtually, to ask to what extent a nostalgia for nature at a time of pandemic lockdown is bringing the outdoors indoors.
A giraffe on a computer monitor cranes through the screen to lick at a cup of coffee on the desk
© University of York (author: Alice Bennett)

For most of us living under lockdown, our screentime will have increased. Whether working or studying online, staying connected with friends and family, catching up with the news, watching a boxset, gaming… all of this enforced time indoors is taking a toll; many of us are just yearning to spend more time outside.

As we saw last week, finding the balance between the virtual and physical can be difficult. Encouraging people to take time outdoors, where possible (and within the social distancing and lockdown guidelines), can be a simple way of promoting self-care. There is a slight irony that messages extolling the benefits of stepping away from the screen and getting outdoors are being delivered via digital platforms. An example of this can be found on the BBC’s Tiny Happy People parenting site, with an article giving 18 ways to enjoy the outdoors – even if from a window. Whilst a couple of these ways make use of digital technology, most are designed to take you away from the screen.

One of the few screen-based activities suggested is getting children to engage with animals via webcam streams: if you are unable to go out to watch wildlife, you could do a virtual trip to the zoo, via the webcams at Chester, London, Edinburgh, Dublin and the like. There’s also webcams of non-captive wildlife too – for example the webcams of the UK Wildlife Trusts.

Scanning live feeds of clifftops in the hope of seeing a puffin emerge from its burrow is a total change of pace from the instant alerts and constantly refreshing timelines to which so many of us have become used. Whilst not marketed as such, it can be seen as part of the Slow Living movement – a deliberate move away from instant gratification. Whilst Slow Living does not eschew digital technologies, it does invite reflection on their usage, and a potential step back from reliance upon them.

This promotion of the natural world and rejection of an overuse of technology has a complicated relationship with digital media. For example, the cottagecore aesthetic has been popularised through the platforms of TikTok and Instagram. The idyllic images of a rural ideal are escapism for our screen-dominated lockdown indoors, becoming almost rebellious. For Millennials and Gen Z-ers in small flats or house shares it is even more aspirational, idealising a lifestyle set against rural homes most will never be able to afford.

This aesthetic can also be seen in gaming. The game which has dominated lockdown has been Animal Crossing: New Horizons, where you can explore a world of anthropomorphic animals while building up a home and garden on your own idyllic island. It is a violence-free world, where you work to improve and customise your environment.

A different approach, but another with a strong aesthetic of a nostalgic view of the outdoor world, can be seen in the multi award-winning Untitled Goose Game, a surprise hit of 2019. In this game the worst threat is the mayhem wreaked by a goose – the player’s avatar – running amok in the gardens and gentle streets of a quiet village. The mechanic of the game is the same stealth strategy employed in something like Metal Gear Solid or Hitman, but transposed to a charmingly animated rural setting where the violence is limited to spoiling picnics and the like.

So where does this natural yearning leave us? Locked down Luddites may be struggling in a pandemic isolation so reliant on digital technology, but one of the apparent benefits of that technology is that our screens and monitors can also be used as windows on the natural world. When lockdown lifts, will this trend persist? Will we put down our devices and go outside, or, as we have with so much television over the years (like the BBC’s popular prime-time magazine show Countryfile and so many David Attenborough documentaries) continue to experience the great outdoors virtually?

© University of York (author: Alice Bennett)
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