At the turn of the millennium, children’s television programming was dominated by the Technotopia. In this virtual realm, digitisation traverses the human/animal divide, producing utopic visions of human absence. We were only accessible through a screen of consciousness—Teletubbies ingested visual stimulation through antennae, digested static in their convex tummies, and suddenly the sparkling lozenge came alive with the mundanities of human existence as they consumed, embodied and disseminated information across the gazes of an estimated two million viewers. The programme was shot in Stratford-Upon-Avon, but instead of Shakespeare, the set was populated by rabbits and invisible birds twittering from the tennis ball meadows. The wordless script met criticism for regressing young toddlers’ speech with overly simplistic dialogue; the baby sun gurgled and the Teletubbies cooed. Little did I realise at the age of four that I was crawling in a postmodern hall of mirrors, watching screens through other screens.
Ecological otherness refracts in kaleidoscopic mutations through the lenses of Technotopia. Jonothan Bignell writes in Teletubbies and Postmodern Childhood, ‘Teletubbies poses television as a mediator between human and inhuman.’ We receive many sanitised visions of Nature through a digital mesh; according to industry group Turf Australia, on an average day in 2017, children under twelve spent two and a half hours in front of a screen, and about one and a half hours playing outside. A special high-definition episode of the Teletubbies produced in 2015 is called ‘Go Outside’ and features three Scottish children who climb a tree.
Children since the 90s have wielded tactile power touching a smooth piece of metal and plastic. I was thrilled when suddenly a whole world flittered and expanded at my fingertips: fields of sunflowers in Plants vs Zombies, where campaigns are fought to protect the boundary between living and nonliving creatures in a zombie apocalypse; dense pixels in Minecraft, where boundless grids splay outward to terraform and mine the biome. When I was a toddler, strategy games were more focussed on deactivating unexploded ordnances in Minesweeper and avoiding running into your own tail. ‘Do you have snake on your phone?’ was my constant refrain, and my Teletubby a steady companion. I loved my Po doll, who I carried everywhere. Sometimes I’d become anxious about where I had left her, ransacking the house only to find her tucked under my armpit.
Remember Neopets, the pelagic Flotsams and archaeopteryx-like Shoyrus found in a Happy Meal™: for whom you created an account and promptly forgot to ‘feed’—who upon returning after ten years were still somehow alive and evolved with frozen tears pixelating on their faces. A simple way to fix an unhappy Neopet is to buy a toy and select:
Play with Elliot_313.
After a quick grunt from the PC’s internal modem, Elliot_313 says:
You are the best!
I am impulsively drawn to the easy reward systems of Neopets. During exams at law school, when I was kicked out of home and disinclined to study, I would go to the library and play Neopets for hours. I didn't last at law school long.
If you have depleted internal validation systems in your brain, the Internet can be a place of refuge, but it is not a stable place, even when you've had it your whole life. Nostos, home, is the etymological stem of nostalgia, and I kept feeling like my virtual pets were tugging towards previous places I'd lived, as well as previous people I'd been: in Sydney, among the throngs of five million people who I didn’t know; in Queenstown, the tiny mining hamlet where less than five thousand people lived, where we all seemed too familiar. No matter where I moved, the web was an ever-present safety net, and it drew me in when the world seemed on the verge of falling apart.
When I was eleven, my mother and stepfather’s relationship went south. The police came when a neighbour called them about the fight. 'He’s one that doesn’t know where to stop,' the bewildered policeman said to us. We moved four hours north/west to Queenstown, a remote mining town on the West Coast of Tasmania. It was devastatingly beautiful there: snow lay in the broken arms of Mt Lyell like crushed silk, and frost mixed with tar to glint on the gravel footy oval like beads of blood. The Queen River was a writhing brown rope soaked in the runoff of numerous gold and copper mines. Since the 1880s, around 150 million tonnes, or seventy-five Olympic swimming pools, of sulfidic tailings have been dumped into the river—the worst case of acid mine drainage in Australia. Copper Mines of Tasmania now owns the facility where three workers died in 2014, the year after my family left.
At Queenstown’s library, I remember pretending to read a book about a girl whose life is manipulated by reality TV programmers (it’s called Loathing Lola and it’s very good) while between the shelves I was punched repeatedly by a boy a head shorter than me. I went for a walk by myself once of an evening in the main street, where I was pushed and pummelled by a gang of classmates, and had rocks thrown at me by groups of children. Young people had no opportunities there: the local Polytechnic was defunct, and to finish school you had to travel 100 kilometres to Burnie. One day, I made friends with a thirteen-year-old girl at the local swimming pool who I had never seen before; she and her brother didn’t go to school because of the bullying. There was a large family who lived on my street who were ostracised from the town because they gleaned a lot of furniture from the tip. ‘Tip rats!’ a classmate snarled as two of the boys, a pair of sandy-haired twins snuck into art class for a period. I kept my head down and didn’t look at the twins as we glued plastic feathers onto party masks. I don’t remember seeing them at school again.
It was an oppressive feeling, being wasted youth. Neopets brought a surrogate source of freedom to the stuffy computer labs at high school, an institution where uniforms were policed, relationships were structured by unspoken hierarchies, and reward systems of educational attainment were called ‘pathways’. When I felt isolated, I turned to the game for a sense of belonging, a sense of prestige gained writing loosely plagiarised short stories for the online bulletin The Neopian Times, whose submission guidelines told writers that they weren’t allowed to discuss subjects from the ‘real world’. I wondered what they meant.
Neopets and other online realms constitute a very real psychogeography for some. Cher Tan writes in 'Recurring Amnesia', ‘In a world where the lines between ‘URL’ and ‘IRL’ become less and less stark, how can we re-imagine a universe where we can see ourselves in many rooms, yet aren’t completely disconnected?’ Tan expresses an important question: where does the internet stop and life—'real', 'wild', 'natural'—begin?
While the internet is not materially spatial or tactile, it creates inroads in our memory, algorithmic pathways that channel our psyche into echo chambers, rabbit hole tangents, Youtube binges, Twitter threads and Wikipedia trawls. The alphabet of light and dark that bonds the net is divisible into strings of code, as language and numerical order splits into chips to create Java, HTML, CSS.
Similarly, all living organisms are connected by a code. DNA is made up of adenine, guanine, cytosine and thymine, strung on a spiralling abacus. There are sixty-four possible combinations and infinite patterns of deoxyribonucleic acid that eventually spool into a tangle of chromosomic blueprints. Sometimes I feel scared that maybe one day the Wild will only exist in this code—DNA for captive breeding programmes, wilderness photography cached in the image stocks of Technotopia.
Walking home, Queenstown’s old railway sleepers were littered with leaf skeletons shuddering at the approach of the tourist train to Strahan where Macquarie Harbour now glitters with aquaculture farms, the water deoxygenated and nitrogenous from fish waste. Morton writes in Queer Ecology,
excluding pollution is part of performing Nature as pristine, wild, immediate, and pure. By repressing the abject, environmentalisms claiming to subvert or reconcile the subject-object manifold only produce a new and improved brand of Nature.There are few pristine areas in the sense that they are isolated from human activity – indeed, Nature has never been this way. (I’ll continue to use Nature and Wilderness as capitalised pronouns as Morton does, to emphasise their strangeness.) As Bruce Pascoe writes in Dark Emu, first peoples have practised land maintenance through firestick farming, seasonal burns and myriad farming techniques over millennia across a mosaic of nations. Ecologist David Bowman speculates on the role of Indigenous people 25,000–12,000 years ago in supporting endangered species through regimes of firestick farming: 'were it not for the presence of Aborigines at the height of the last ice-age, the combined effect of fire and aridity may have been the coup de grace for many species that had barely survived previous glacial cycles.' These connections between human and animal populations are partly symbiotic; through one’s actions towards survival, the other benefits.
Collective human impacts are often measured by inscrutable number crunching of damage zones. According to a report by the CSIRO in the journal of Pacific Conservation Biology, 1.2 million hectares of habitat were deforested in Queensland between 2012 and 2014, a rate proportionate to the deforestation of the Amazon in Brazil. This unseen threat to biodiversity cannot be addressed with offsets, as many consumer-targeted environmental campaigns tend to suggest; Jane Rawson says in a recent Meanjin podcast that even if we do curb our greenhouse gas emissions, the current extinction crisis is likely to continue. We need drastically to change the way we organise the economy around the environment. Australian biodiversity is on the front lines of the sixth major extinction event in recorded history—in March 2018, the Australian Conservation Foundation released a report finding that Australia has the world’s highest rate of mammalian extinction, with twenty-nine species declared as extinct since colonisation.
Even as it is divided up and commodified, the Natural environment is often treated as a monolithic entity, as a charity case that needs to be ‘saved’, deserving of undiscerning sympathy even as it is culturally erased. In her lecture 'The Quiet Revolution: Indigenous People and the Resource Boom', Marcia Langton says of environmental campaigning targets, ‘They are not wilderness areas. They are Aboriginal homelands, shaped over millennia by Aboriginal people.’ Erasing history from the environment does a disservice to communities living on the frontlines of ecological crises. It removes a collective sense of responsibility and agency towards the lands we inhabit, though this can go both ways: Technotopian impulses to colonise an isolated fragment of Nature often resemble Thomas Moore’s Eutopia. In games like Age of Empires, imperialism is eponymous; in Minecraft, extraction and dominion over other creatures is encouraged; in immaculately configured spaces like the Teletubbies’ rabbit-bitten meadows, all human activity is rendered invisible by its economic driver. As in the Real World, activities that damage ecosystems’ ability to function are usually externalised from the screen of consciousness.
A subject/object dichotomy necessarily does violence to the subordinate outsider, says Judith Butler. But like the virtual realm of Technotopia, Nature is sprawling, hybrid, constantly evolving. It can be discomforting to acknowledge the stories embedded in the spaces around us: the violence of colonialism in Australia, where dominant White narratives of Nature often convey a sense of dislocated malaise, is pervasive as the cover-all ‘bush’ that is used to describe its varied ecologies. In An Anthology of Nature Writing from Australia and North America, Mark Tredinnick writes ‘it is impossible to overestimate the sheer otherness of this place.’ Like colonial landscapes where tree branches corkscrew like Medusic snakes and mountain spines arch like caterpillars, the storied inscrutability of frontier landscapes can be unnerving, and denial of interdependence between different organisms is often strengthened by the exoticisation of this unknowable Other.
Derrida writes that ‘to us other life-forms are strangers whose strangeness is irreducible: arrivant, whose arrival cannot be predicted or accounted for.’ A bit like the internet, Nature is rebelliously arrivant. It spurts through the asphalt crevices of our roads, dwindling through the corridors between extractive regimes, flourishing and cartwheeling in our blind spots. There can emerge a kind of deranged freedom in the simulated economy of Technotopias like Neopets, just as there is variability among the ignoble backwaters where pollution transforms. In Chernobyl, verdure has reclaimed the abandoned nuclear towns of Pripyat and Kopachi; in Fukushima, fields of sunflowers are planted to absorb caesium, breaking down radioactive compounds scattering the Pacific. These mechanisms cannot assuage largescale pollution without our engaging in wartime-scale collective efforts to reduce anthropogenic emissions, but it is an extraordinarily normal phenomenon how Nature regenerates in everyday mutation.
‘I am renewal,’ says Larapinta, in Ellen van Neerven’s Water. Larapinta is a plantperson, a mangrove and ancestral spirit and love interest to the novella’s protagonist, Kaden. The novella queers the boundary between past and present, natural and cultural, human and animal relationships in a 2028 Australian Republic. Place is enmeshed with history as plantpeople galvanise to oppose the islandisation project of Australia2 – a repetition of the colonial exiling of Indigenous people, by amalgamating islands and removing diverse groups from different regions to the archipelago. Kaden’s reconnection to land is illustrated by the trees taking root between the sea and the land. Mangroves are integral to many coastal ecosystems; their roots help maintain the salinity of their surroundings, by turning salty water to fresh. Larapinta can do this with her hands. The language van Neerven uses to describe the plantpeople is subtle, familiar and stark, bringing proximity to the reader: ‘She has a face that’s like me and you.’
Contrastingly, in The Narrow Road to the Deep North, Richard Flanagan describes the emaciated human bodies of POWs as mangrove trees, forgotten soldiers languishing in a medical tent where recovery is impossible:
Dorrigo Evans examined the strangely aged and shrivelled husks, the barked skin, mud-toned and black-shadowed, clutching twisted bones. Bodies, Dorrigo Evans thought, like mangrove roots. And for a moment the whole cholera tent swam in the kerosene flame before him. All he could see was a stinking mangrove swamp full of writhing, moaning mangrove roots seeking mud forever after to live in.Far from their birthplace, the dying men become trees in their desire to sense home. In Samoa, the word toa means warrior, or a Pacific tree of the Casuarina variety, which are now strategically planted in some areas of South-East Asia to prevent erosion, the disintegration of land.
Vigour and health are often associated with the Wild, but the English language struggles to convey Nature suffering beyond biological jargon, gendered depictions of Mother Earth and lacerating terms like ecocide. On the other hand, we can imagine computers getting sick with a virus – another supposedly ‘nonliving’ entity, as Timothy Morton writes, human and animal viruses are not supposed to be alive (technically, they are almost pure information, made up of DNA, membranes and the ability to promulgate themselves). Anna Krien’s metaphor in The Long Goodbye is powerful as it envisions the earth experiencing climate change as a human body with a fever. Krien notes a 2017 mass bleaching of mangrove forests in North Queensland linked to rising sea temperatures.
When I was seven, my family lived in a housing commission flat on the outskirts of Sydney where mangrove swamps rimmed the nearby wastewater management facility beside a sprawling golf course. Some of my best memories are of walking our pet chickens before school among the Medusic root systems and stalagmitic tendrils of ancient trees as they alchemised the effluent. Our chicks, Peatree and Hobo, would stalk the mangrove jungle like tiny, feathered dinosaurs.
Mud and mire are noticeably absent from the Internet: a place where nothing disappears forever as information is immortalised in caches and supercomputers, data mapped and filed away. Virtual pets won’t die if you leave them for years – they just remain frozen in a state of pixelated malaise. Simulated waste can be artfully digitised in Technotopia: Neopets has lots of dung available for purchase, sale or acquisition through random events, including rainbow dung. In contrast, Teletubbies probably don’t have arseholes; the only embodied non-Teletubby inhabiting their Tubbytronic Superdome is Noo-Noo, the anthropomorphic vacuum cleaner employed to keep Teletubbyland spotless.
Sealing off clean digital space and external ruggedness is a forcefield of relatively recent philosophy that frames our view of 'the natural world'. Rather than making the heart grow fonder, absence seems to be a virtue to the idealised relationship, or separation, between humans and other organisms. According to Tom Griffiths in Forests of Ash,
Ecological science as it first developed in the early twentieth century tended to seek out equilibrium, harmony and order in nature. Every biotic community was expected to reach a certain state of maturity or climax which was stable if left undisturbed. Often the source of disturbance was human. This definition left humans outside of nature, and nature outside of history.On a micro level, we can probably all relate to the guilt of killing a cactus or a houseplant through over-attention to watering. ‘It’s weird knowing life thrives more when you exit,’ raps Aesop Rock in ‘Tuesday’.
In 2016, Tasmania became the first state in Australia to reduce their carbon dioxide emissions to zero, mostly through changes in land use and forestry practises. The island state is on track to achieve overall greenhouse gas emissions 60 per cent below 1990 levels by 2050. An imperceptible but fundamental shift occurred in the way industries physically occupied Nature: by preserving old growth forests which sequester pollution, the state facilitated practises which are crucial as we collectively face the challenge to heal ecological damage. Technotopia might satisfy our attentions for a short while, but in an era of climate change, we have to shift our depth perception of ‘Nature’ and its tractability from our lives.
On the seven-hour drive to the Wild, I am bored by the frieze of vision strips limping by matchstick trees posted as windbreaks along blood-spattered bitumen. I like the sound of wind soughing through living trees, and the Saturn-like rings of bracket fungi feeding on dead trees, but travelling feels impersonal and detached. I wish I could stay on my outcrop of dolerite and rosebushes, where an occasional firework of palm tree erupts from the suburban shadow of the mountain beside a thundering overpass. It’s familiar and beautiful, chaotic, and not a little ugly.
Does it render something less integral if it has been damaged beyond an image of stasis? I think sometimes the notion of ‘untouched wilderness’ is necessary to the fragmentation of habitats, by divorcing the process of existence for the product of ‘wilderness’, replacing sensory connection with branding, and denying Nature’s adaptive agency. Our personal histories are not passive, and the ecosystems that cradle us have histories. They respond to crises and support life amidst catastrophe.
Queenstown is famous for its ecological degradation. My route to school ran along a prehistorically glacial basin punctuated by the King River crossing, where the rusted bridge shuddered above a pumpkin riverbed, flanked by turmeric yellow rocks. Quartz-studded conglomerate boulders littered the banks of rivers and waterfalls churned to wash away the dust from the bald hills. Slowly the green scrub started coming back, adding velvet trimmings to the gravel rugby field. As the town grew less and less like a wasteland, tourists stopped coming for the dark tourism and started flocking to its biannual arts festival: hosting experimental music, literary and artistic programmes, The Unconformity is a nod to the geological conflict zones between underworld and overworld formations of rock strata. Sponsored by MMG mining, the festival’s ad campaigns feature the orange Queen river as it diverges from its unpolluted twin, taking on a strange beauty.
Technotopia exists somewhere between a place and a feeling, between the 'real' world and the virtual. Rather than purifying the cultural divorce of ecology and humans, perhaps the Teletubbies and Neopets reveal an underlying nostalgia for Nature, sanitised and packaged in digital forms.
The binaries between natural and technological are necessarily unstable, where life is implicated in both. As we near the end of the critical decade for action on climate change, maybe we can “get back to Nature” by revisiting the sacrifice zones, the Technotopias, and the old homes which continue to live on in our absence.
Zowie Douglas-Kinghorn is a young writer living on stolen land in lutruwita/Tasmania. Her work has appeared in Meanjin, Voiceworks, Cordite Poetry Review and Cutcommon magazine. In 2018 she won the Scribe Nonfiction Prize for her essay on fracking and climate, 'The Invisible Sea'. She tweets @earthlingstory.