We surf the net, stream our films and save stuff in the cloud. Can we get all the nature we need from the digital world?

by 1,600 words
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Getting back to nature: a visitor takes a photo of jellyfish in the aquarium in Wuhan, China. Photo by Reuters

Getting back to nature: a visitor takes a photo of jellyfish in the aquarium in Wuhan, China. Photo by Reuters

Sue Thomas is a writer and digital pioneer. Her latest book is Technobiophilia: Nature and Cyberspace (2013).

There are fish in my phone. Some are pure orange with white fins; others have black mottled markings along their orange backs. They glide, twist and turn above a bed of flat pale sand fringed by rocks and the bright green leaves of something that looks like watercress. Sometimes they swim out of view, leaving me to gaze at the empty scene in the knowledge that they will soon reappear. When I gently press my finger against the screen, the water ripples and the fish swim away. Eventually, they cruise out from behind the Google widget, appear from underneath the Facebook icon, or sneak around the corner of Contacts. This is Koi Live Wallpaper, an app designed for smartphones. The idea of an aquarium inside my phone appeals to my sense of humour and makes me smile. But I suspect its true appeal is more complicated than that.

In 1984, the psychiatrist Aaron Katcher and his team at the University of Pennsylvania conducted an experiment in the busy waiting room of a dentist’s office. On some days, before the surgery opened, the researchers installed an aquarium with tropical fish. On other days, they took it away. They measured the patients’ levels of anxiety in both environments, and the results were clear. On ‘aquarium days’, patients were less anxious and more compliant during the surgery. Katcher concluded that the presence of these colourful living creatures had a calming influence on people about to receive dental treatment. Then in 1990, Judith Heerwagen and colleagues at the University of Washington in Seattle found the same calming effect using a large nature mural instead of an aquarium in the waiting room of a specialist ‘dental fears’ clinic. A third experiment by the environmental psychologist Roger Ulrich and colleagues at Texas A&M University in 2003 found that stressed blood donors experienced lowered blood pressure and pulse rates while sitting in a room where a videotape of a nature scene was playing. The general conclusion was that visual exposure to nature not only diminished patient stress but also reduced physical pain. I’m not in pain when I look at my mobile, though I might well be stressed. Is that why I take time to gaze at my virtual aquarium?

A simple answer to this question is no. Katcher’s fish were real. Mine are animations. But there is increasing evidence that we respond very similarly to a ‘natural’ environment, whether it’s real or virtual, and research confirms that even simulated nature experiences can be remarkably powerful. In a 2008 study of Spanish energy consumers, the researchers Patrick Hartmann and Vanessa Apaolaza-Ibáñez at the University of the Basque Country examined responses to a new TV marketing campaign by one of the country’s leading energy brands, Iberdrola Energía Verde. The company was attempting to ‘green’ its image by evoking a virtual experience of nature through the use of pleasant imagery such as flying eagles, mountain scenery, and waterfalls. The intention was to evoke feelings of altruism and self-expression (‘Now, every time you switch on your light, you can feel good because you are helping nature’). The researchers found that consumers responded positively to the new branding, no matter whether they were already environmentally conscious or among the ‘non-concerned’. The ads brought the benefits of a ‘warm glow’ and a positive feeling of participating in the common good of the environment. The visual simulations were meeting a human desire to experience nature and reap its psychological benefits (pleasure, stress reduction, and so on). The research concluded that in societies where the experience of actual nature is becoming scarce, and life is increasingly virtual, the consumption of ‘green products’, especially those that evoke virtual contact with nature, can provide surrogate experiences.

The psychologist Deltcho Valtchanov at the University of Waterloo in Canada reached a similar conclusion in 2010 when he found that immersion in a computer-generated virtual reality nature space prompted an increase in positive feelings such as happiness, friendliness, affection and playfulness, and a decrease in negative feelings such as fear, anger and sadness. There were also significant decreases in levels of both perceived and physiological stress. Again, he and his colleagues concluded that encounters with nature in virtual reality have beneficial effects similar to encounters with real natural spaces. In other words, it seems that you can gain equal benefit from walking in a forest as from viewing an image of a forest or, as in my case, from watching virtual goldfish as opposed to real ones.

But what do we mean when we refer to ‘nature’? It’s a common term that seems to have an assumed collective meaning, often romanticised and sentimental. We speak of ‘getting back to nature’ as if there was once a prelapsarian baseline before we humans interfered and spoiled it. Gary Snyder, the American poet and environmentalist, offers alternative definitions from which we can choose. In The Practice of the Wild (1990), he distils down to two ways in which the term ‘nature’ is usually interpreted. One, he argues, is the outdoors: ‘the physical world, including all living things. Nature by this definition is a norm of the world that is apart from the features or products of civilisation and human will. The machine, the artefact, the devised, or the extraordinary (like a two-headed calf) is spoken of as “unnatural”.’

The other meaning is much broader, taking the first and adding to it all the products of human action and intention. Snyder calls it the material world and all its collective objects and phenomena. ‘Science and some sorts of mysticism rightly propose that everything is natural,’ he writes. In this sense, ‘there is nothing unnatural about New York City, or toxic wastes, or atomic energy, and nothing — by definition — that we do or experience in life is “unnatural”.’ That, of course, includes the products of technology. This is Snyder’s preferred definition — and mine too. However, though it’s not always made clear, I’d venture a guess that environmental psychologists might have a preference for the former, human-free definition of nature.

Either way, it’s been claimed that the love of nature derives from ‘biophilia’, or the biophilic tendency. The term, coined in the 1960s by the German social psychologist Erich Fromm, was intended to denote a psychological orientation towards nature, but it became better known when popularised by the American biologist E O Wilson in Biophilia (1984) as an ‘innate tendency to focus on life and lifelike processes’. Note that Wilson avoids the ‘n’ word, referring to ‘life’ instead. Of course, today the digerati are deeply engaged in conversations about what ‘life’ will mean in technologies of the future, a debate that will continue for a long time to come. More recently, the concept of biophilia has been celebrated by the Icelandic musician Björk in her 2011 album and musical project of the same name.

Perhaps biophilia can soothe our connected minds and improve our digital well-being

The notion of biophilia draws upon a genetic attraction to an ancient natural world that evolved long before we did. It appears that our urge for contact with nature can, as shown in the experiments described, restore energy, alleviate mental fatigue, and enhance attention. It also appears to be surprisingly transferable to digital environments.

In 2004 I began collecting examples of metaphors and images of the natural world commonly found in computer culture — terms such as stream, cloud, virus, worm, surfing, field, and so on. I intended to find out what can be learnt from them about the intersections between human beings, cyberspace, and nature. I quickly amassed a long list of examples but found myself unable to suggest a reason for this phenomenon, until I came across Wilson’s theory. I realised that the story had been right in front of me all the time. It can be found in the images on our machines, in the spaces we cultivate in our online communities, and in the language we use every day of our digital lives. It began the moment we moved into the alien, shape-shifting territory of the internet and prompted a resurgence of that ancient call to life, biophilia.

Our attempts to place ourselves in this new world nourished the growth of a new spur, a hybrid through which nature and technology become symbionts, rather than opponents. I have coined the term ‘technobiophilia’ for this. It’s a clumsy word — probably not quite the right one — but for now it helps to spell out what is happening so that we can understand it better. Is there the possibility that perhaps biophilia can soothe our connected minds and improve our digital well-being? How can we harness and develop our technobiophilic instincts in order to live well in the digital world?

One option would be that rather than keeping the virtual and the natural worlds separate — turning off our machines, taking e-sabbaticals, or undergoing digital detoxes, in order to connect with nature — we think about them all as integrated elements of a single life in a single world. There is already a growing sense in the wired community that connections with the natural world are vital to digital well-being, both now and in the future. This same community needs to pay attention to biophilia and to its implementation in biophilic design. With the help of biophilic insights, we can connect the planet beneath our feet with the planet inside our machines.

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  • Gyrus

    Terence McKenna had a vision of people living in the future in what would appear to be a Palaeolithic style - very simple technologies, living close to nature. But they wore contact lenses powered by ambient electricity that superimposed on the visual field, when desired, digital graphics and information, hooking them up to their distributed web.

    I used to be really excited by this vision, but the more digital technology has advanced, the less appealing I find it. Perhaps there is a curve to this, where tech seems more and more alienating, but then as it becomes more integrated with the environment, starts to return us to a new form of harmony. I accept this possibility, but can't really see it.

    The Valtchanov study you mention seems to make a leap from "similar" benefits from simulations to "equal" benefits. Is that right? Even putting every sentimental, essentializing part of me aside, it just seems bizarre to claim that digital simulations could rival actual nature in terms of complexity and visceral engagement. The argument here seems to rest on polarization - "benefit" on one side, "no benefit" on the other. I imagine that as soon as you accept a spectrum, you begin to notice the radical gap between simulations and reality. Is there a "digital" aspect to the methodology here, too? That is, the experiment being a relatively isolated sampling of experience, failing in its simplicity to perceive the compound effects of, say, a lifetime spent with easy access to a forest, and a lifetime spent in Tokyo being exposed to simulations of nature.

    My intellect loves the idea of nature embracing all human creations. But the reality of the feelings and perceptions that leak into my experience when I "digital detox" in the woods, that reality isn't easily dismissed. I just find it easier to forget about, the more I'm inured to the digital environment.

    • Gyrus

      One aspect to this that always strikes me is that those who can afford it, usually have a home in the country as well as in the city. I'm suspicious of efforts to denigrate the value of actual nature which, while coming from a place that has admirable motivations of trying to combat excessive romanticism, also feeds into the concepts of "development" that prioritize artificial environments because they make more money. Leaving less and less actual nature, more and more reserved for those who are making the money - but who themselves deeply value the forests and meadows.

    • Sue Thomas

      Thanks for your thoughts on this. As I understood it, Valtchanov had conducted similar tests before and was concerned that the restorative effects he had found earlier might have been caused by the virtual reality environment itself, so he designed this experiment to test it out. He decided, however, ‘it is virtual nature that is responsible for the observed restoration and not virtual reality itself’. More at: Valtchanov, Deltcho. ‘Physiological and affective responses to immersion in virtual reality: Effects of nature and urban settings’. PhD Thesis, University of Waterloo, Ontario, Canada, 2010.

      Re the Paleolithic reference, I realised only recently that some of my research links in quite closely to the current interest in 'Paleo' lifestyles. More to learn!

      • Gyrus

        Thanks Sue. On the Palaeolithic thing, obviously by "style" I didn't mean "lifestyle" in the sense of faddish adjuncts to modern life. McKenna's vision is a long way off viability. But the general principle I can see as looming large here. There's a James P. Carse quote:

        When we use machines to achieve whatever it is we desire, we cannot have what we desire until we have finished with the machine, until we can rid ourselves of the mechanical means of reaching our intended outcome. The goal of technology is therefore to eliminate itself, to become silent, invisible, carefree.

        The goal, then, is more allowing technology to vanish into nature, rather than nature becoming an experience simulated by technology. There's obviously grave issues with the rise of the "ambient" digital environment, regarding privacy and civil rights, but short of a literal return to the Stone Age, the Carse / McKenna vision is worth keeping in sight.

        • Sue Thomas

          Thanks Gyrus. I'm not familiar with Carse, will look him up. I guess my concern here is with what we mean by 'machine' and 'technology', especially at a time where we're racing towards ever more sophisticated bioscience. Rather than vanish into nature, I think the two might just grow closer together until the distinction is forgotten.

          • Gyrus

            I think that quote was from the book Carse got known for, Finite and Infinite Games.

            I agree about the potential for a merging of tech and nature, at some point in the future. An aspect of this that fascinates me is the revival of animism on the fringes of AI theory. But we're still at a point where tech is gross enough to be usefully contrasted with nature, and simulations of nature presented as replacements for nature can be useful to agendas that don't care about ecology. And while tech might begin to "merge" with nature in a limited sense in this century, at local scales, any technological emulation of or replacement of large ecological systems will probably need millennia to unfold, and will probably include many disasters. I guess it depends what our intentions are, what our ambitions are, and how cautious or (over-)confident we are.

          • Sue Thomas


        • Agga

          The quote here really startled me. I have only recently come into contact with McKenna's ideas, and they are absolutely fascinating. But compare his quote to one I read yesterday (from Tao Te Ching: stanza 80)

          "A small country has fewer people.
          Though there are machines that can work ten to a hundred times faster than man, they are not needed.
          The people take death seriously and do not travel far.
          Though they have boats and carriages, no one uses them.
          Though they have armour and weapons, no one displays them.
          Men return to the knotting of rope in place of writing.
          Their food is plain and good, their clothes fine but simple,
          their homes secure;
          They are happy in their ways.
          Though they live within sight of their neighbors,
          And crowing cocks and barking dogs are heard across the way,
          Yet they leave each other in peace while they grow old and die."

  • Archies_Boy

    It's no wonder nature calms us. That's where we came from, and that's where we belong. Thousands and thousands of years of evolution made the perfect fit between ourselves and nature — we're part of it, and it's part of us. Any division is false.

  • Lester


    The virtual/digital world is a subset of the natural world. The digital world is a product of and reliant on the economy, which in turn is a product of and reliant on the environment. In a simple hierarchy this makes both the economy and its offspring the digital world subservient to the throughput provided by the only environment deeply intelligent enough to sustain everything else. There is no equivalence on this front.

    Nor on the "per-lapsarian" front, because there was a time before humanity increasingly industrialized the rate of environmental destruction. As the Kogi say - little brother has done and continues to do damage to Mother Earth, whilst other philosophical approaches/cultural behaviours tend to the cycles of and protect Mother Earth. We don't need to dress it up in romantic pre-lapsarian terms to agree that the impact of later stage agricultural economic societies have wrecked destruction at an alarming rate. There is a before and an after.

    Neither on the "whatever has happen has happened so must then be natural" front. This is just a kind of deterministic nihilistic solipsism that refutes all morality and responsibility. Our cultural systems make huge efforts to create human dominance and have built-in myths about the dominance of humanity over nature, and yet when our cultural systems are seen to destroy the environment instead of altering them we say - yeah well shit happens man, and because it happened it's natural. - That's a cop out of biblical proportions.

    Better to say that potentially anything can happen so lets manage our behaviour so that some things don't happen. Of course that would take a level of cultural introspection that we seem incapable of politically - but the potential is there - instead of watching everything go to hell with a handy pocketbook philosophy that justifies it why not challenge the potential to make anything happen to the good?

    All this is just an extension oif the narrative that humanity has separated itself from nature. One that places humanities relationship with the planet in sharp definition and began far into the human past when, amongst other increasing complexities, the development of human consciousness and the ability to verbally communicate enabled humans to begin to take nature apart, to dissect it into its constituent parts and label each as a separate and isolated entity. And in doing so, humanity began to slowly see itself as both separate and isolated from the natural world, and master of it. We increasingly began to see ourselves as being separate from and not part of nature, until finally we cleaved ourselves from the Earth itself.

    But this is a specific viewpoint rooted in the scientific west - also of biblical proportions - and one which has led us to a disastrous place where the extinction of man by his own hand is a true possibility. We are not separate from the natural world - and the digital world does not replace this subtle immeasurable process. We do not have the tools to make sense of the reality of our relationship with nature, so we substitute this with philosophies based on what we can measure.

    As Alan Watts said, we did not come into this world, we came out of it, and trying to cut the final tie and leap into a dualistic stimuli only world is foolish beyond foolishness - remember the stimuli has to come from somewhere and you can't unplug nature.

    • Sue Thomas

      Thanks for the Watts quote. I like it a lot.

      Re your comment that 'the virtual/digital world is a subset of the natural world' - Is this correct? To get there, I think you first need to define what you mean by 'natural', and it's once we start to do this that the tangle really begins. When I was researching the book I got quite bogged down in the myriad interpretations of 'nature', and what it has meant to us throughout the ages. I think that its use as a throwaway, often sentimental, concept has got us into a lot of trouble since the Romantic period.

      Also, I may be naive, I don't think anyone seriously plans to cut the final tie and leap into a world comprising only of dualistic stimuli, but I do think engineers and designers are fascinated by the process of trying to do so, and many of us certainly enjoy watching them try ;)

      • Lester

        Thanks for the reply Sue.

        Well, I'll try to make a pretty dramatic analogy (he he).

        The stage is a place where the actors can do their thing. The relationship between the stage and the actors is complex (in a sense they are integral to each other) and they have a constant feedback loop which strengthens their relationship, but let's say that the stage is essential for the actors but the actors are not essential to the stage. The stage can sit there in perpetuity offering the potential for a play but is just as happy being an empty stage. Actors come and go.

        All kinds of plays can be put on the stage. But any single production that gets put on does not own the stage. Other productions are possible. Other productions are put on. Some are more successful, some less. The critics write about the plays and forget about the stage. Eventually they forget about the stage completely and suggest that each play is the totality of the production. In fact the critics have become part of the plays. They say the
        stage can only be understood through the plays.

        Then someone says "look at the state of the stage, it's
        falling apart, what should we do?" They begin trying to define the stage. It's difficult because they tend to use the plot of the plays to define the stage. They come up with all kinds of definitions that way. Then they try to use ideas that define the stage objectively. They dismantle the stage and look at all the little pieces. They become experts in stage bits. Then the arguments really begin. They give up and say it doesn’t really matter; the plays are all that counts. They say that because the plays are all that counts the stage must
        be there to support the plays. They subordinate the stage and begin to live only in the scripts of the plays.

        When the entire concept of “natural” is a linguistic conception
        built through the filter of culture it becomes a shimmering and ungraspable reflection of language and historical culture.

        When the entire concept of “natural” is a scientific
        construction it becomes limited to the measuring tools and philosophies of science, and to the linguistic/cultural filters.

        Does this mean that there is no such thing as natural?
        Surely it means that we are forever limited in understanding and description. Surely it means that each insight we have builds upon every other insight, but none of them manage to completely describe nature because they are all constrained in the first place.

        Can’t we say that the undefinable is not the same as the
        non-existent? Nature and “natural” are the real stage upon which we continually fail to fully comprehend them. And when our play is over the stage will continue to be full of potentialities and possibilities and other production will be staged. It’s only natural ;)

        • Sue Thomas

          Nice thinking but I have 2 problems with it!

          1. You haven't defined what you mean by 'nature' and 'natural' so we may be thinking along different lines

          2. Your analogy seems to assume that the 'stage' is largely static and unchanging, but that's not the case with the planet, or Gaia, or whatever we want to call it.

          Also, you say 'Can’t we say that the undefinable is not the same as the non-existent?' to which I would reply that you're right, with the addendum that there is never 100% proof that anything is fully non-existent.

          • Lester


            Thanks for your reply because you prompted an extremely interesting walk to work this morning where I intensively reflected upon the definitions of nature and natural again.

            I'm going to narrow the definition down to "nature" because natural seems to be secondary - something formed by nature.

            So, here goes...

            "Nature" is the seemingly apparent manifestation of a flow of actualised potentialities that (from an undefinable state of conscious awareness that resides within this flow) appears to create a pattern of observable and temporally orientated phenomena which in themselves facilitate an increasingly complex continuation of that same phenomena.

            That's it. Then you could go on to suggest:

            Any definition that separates humans from nature or assumes nature can be defined as a single separate entity is false. So thinking about nature as material systems and calling them trees and ecosystems is useful from a practical perspective but far from a good definition.

            All definitions are limited. All analogies are limited. The "stage" in my previous analogy just referred to the scope of potential through which things happen. The "stage" is just an analogy for the facilitator that allows events to occur. It is neither static nor chaotic because those terms assume parameters, but those kinds of definable parameters are only applicable to potentialities that have become actualised, not to the underlying facilitator of potentialities.

            So when we ask for definitions of nature we are making an error in the question because nature is not a separate body of material that can be packaged and pointed at. Humans are not separate entities that look back at nature but instead humans are integral manifestations of the whole process.

            (So although I'm happy with my definition above, the only real definition is that I am nature and nature is me!)

            That's why whenever I read articles which suggest that there is a thing called nature and a thing called humans and humans can organise nature or even substitute nature for something else I feel uncomfortable, hence my first post.

            I hope this makes it clearer. I think it's difficult to try and give communicable meaning to states of intuition and I most often fail!

          • Sue Thomas

            Thanks for your definition Lester. I was going to post a section from my book to outline my ideas about it, but it would be a bit too long for here!

            However, one important thing: you say 'whenever I read articles which suggest that there is a thing called nature and a thing called humans and humans can organise nature or even substitute nature for something else I feel uncomfortable, '

            I agree with you, and I suspect your interpretation comes from the title of this article, which asks 'Can we get all the nature we need from the digital world?'. The thing is, that's not my title, it was devised by the magazine, and it's not a question I address in my book. I can see why they'd think it addresses the issues I wrote about as well as raises debate, but it's not a question I'm actually asking. Sorry for any confusion!

          • Gyrus

            The titles here are certainly designed as "stimuli for debate", to put it politely :)

          • Lester

            It would of course be interesting to read your definition as well Sue.

            Regarding the title of the article, those pesky subs can be meddlesome fellows I agree, but in this case it wasn't the title so much.

            I was sort of reacting to the content where you mentioned the interpretation and instrumental use of the concepts of nature by the Spanish energy comnpanies ad campaign, and Valtchanov's ideas that digital immersion can be as "real" as immersion in a a real natural (evolved over millions of years etc) environment, and especially Snyder's claim that everything is "natural".

            I was sort of under the impression that you were suggesting that a link could be drawn between experiencing life in a cyber/digital world and the experience of life in a natural setting.

            Anyway, thanks for an interesting dialogue.

          • Sue Thomas

            ah I see! Re the Spanish study, that was their conclusion, which I thought was rather alarming! but as for the rest, yes I *do* think there are parallels, and in my experience of being deeply immersed in online life since about 1995, I have encountered them myself. In fact that's what my last book Hello World was all about. So perhaps this indeed is where our opinions part company.

          • Lester

            Or our dialogue begins?

            I suggest there is a qualitative difference between on-line life (isn't that just interaction mediated by technology) and off-line life (something natural in as much as you can only unplug it once - the great unplugging).

            And that on-line interaction is a sub-set of off-line life because, not only is there a technology/energy requirement from the real world to facilitate it, but because there are non-obvious communication going on between organisms that is not replicated in technologically driven relationships.

            I agree that it may seem like the same thing, but it isn't, and it's definitely a sign of our techno-drenched times that it we've drifted so far from recognising the difference.

            Finally, considering the fact that we're conversing in the written word I'd just like to reiterate that I'm saying all this in the most agreeable and thoughtful manner without any demand for , whatever. But it's the nature of on-line communication that mistakes are made that are at least lessened in life ;)

          • Agga

            Lester, have you read the short story by E. M. Forster; "The Machine Stops"? In it he describes a world where people have exchanged direct experiences of the world for virtual ones, and where humans live their lives through - and even in- a machine. It is a brilliant foreshadowing of our own age but even more so our possible future. I much appreciated your thoughts on this article. I felt that, though the author perhaps didn't intend it, it nevertheless seemed to suggest that the virtual is equal. I have read some of the studies and several others, and I think we are very far from being able to conclude, or even seriously suggest, that virtual nature is equal to the real thing.

          • Lester

            Agga, thank you for the tip. I will seek out and read that story.

      • drokhole

        Some more (on topic) Watts for your listening pleasure:

        It all goes together (clip)

        Man in nature (lecture)

        The Myopic View Of The World (lecture)

        • Sue Thomas

          Thanks very much for these links. I watched 'It all goes together' and found it very powerful. The other two are too long to watch tonight but I've saved them to view later. It's strange how sometimes it takes a long time to get round to discovering thinkers that are already deeply known to others. I've known of Watts for many years but for some reason never spent time on his work. I will now.

          Sue Thomas
 @suethomas Bournemouth, Dorset, UK.
          New book coming 26 September: Technobiophilia: Nature and Cyberspace

  • Brent Eades

    In my own life, nature and the digital world are growing ever more entwined. I have a city job as a web manager but spent most of my leisure time photographing birds and other wildlife throughout Ontario.

    Photography these days is of course a largely digital and frequently social-media undertaking, so I spent a lot of time when not in the field post-processing my photos and then sharing them with various online nature communities. This has led to several real-world friendships -- people with whom I now go hiking and shooting.

    Conversely, the digital world comes with me into nature. I always carry, apart from my digital camera, a GPS unit and my smart phone, with which I track routes, consult birding apps and make notes.

    For me at least, the two worlds co-exist and meld quite pleasantly and productively, each contributing to the other.

  • Agga

    Very interesting article, it raised a lot of questions for me, almost of which were well articulated by some one else already (esp. Lester). Just want to say that I really appreciate how the Aeon authors often are so open, gracious, active and curious in the comments. It is a shining example for the web and one I hope will spread. Thanks Sue Thomas, and other authors on Aeon!

    • Sue Thomas

      Thank you, Agga, and also for your insightful comments.

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