Tom Gerhardt – Combining Nature and Technology

Within this growing digital age, the boundaries between technology and nature are being blurred. Do we still have a clear distinction of one away from the other?

Nature is commonly described as the basic roots of the world, focusing on everything away from man-made production. Technology on the other hand, emphasises the height of human success. Designer Tom Gerhardt has become fascinated with this distancing of technology away from nature throughout his work. As result he wishes to develop a connection between the two in which the user has a more organic and natural experience with the digital world.

He has used this idea as the overarching theme in three of his most successful works. The first is known as the ‘Mud Tub’ where people are able to control a computer through an experimental organic interface of playing in mud. It uses the actions of sloshing, squishing and pulling to allow the user to control games, simulators and expressive tools. Gerhardt created this work as a way to “close the gap between our bodies and the digital world…it frees traditional computer interactions of rigidity and lets humans use their senses of touch and gesture in a natural way” (Gerhardt, T, 2009). It combines a natural pre-digital action with the technological world as a way of reminding us of our original and basic roots. Gerhardt quickly grasps the hold technology has over individuals as “the notion that users are configured and that their actions are to some extent scripted by the technologies by which they interact” (Shove, E, 2003) becomes more apparent. The action undertaken by the audience “creates a “buffer” between the physical user and the digital result” (Mud Tub, 2009), allowing the system to become more linked to the body. The controls of the computer are adapted and shifted to the individual’s preferences in response to people’s unique movements. Having said this, the Mud Tub forces us into a new interactive and innovative age where the distinction between nature as the basic origins and technology as a human development are blurred. It begs us to question the separation between the two. Will we one day live in a world where there is no boundary between what is organic and mass-produced?

Stone Mouse, 2010, Tom Gerhardt

Following his experimentation with the Mud Tub, Gerhardt was seen to explore other ways of playing with the nature versus technology boundary. This resulted in the development of the “Stone Mouse; the transformation of any stone into a fully functioning computer mouse” (Stone Mouse, 2010). Small custom electronics are embedded into a slim ring, which acts as the base support for the stone of your choice. It enables the actions of clicking, dragging and navigating on the computer like an ordinary mouse. It steps away from the familiarity of mass produced technology and places us back in a world where the use of tools such as stones was an everyday norm. The incorporation of a basic object with a new universal necessity (a mouse), Gerhardt is able to comment on our reliance on technology by comparing it to essential tools of earlier eras. The response by the audience is an important factor driving the success of the experiment as the “users understandings and expectations are themselves structured and hence about what they bring to the design and appropriation of new technology” (Shove, E 2003). Furthermore, the Stone Mouse aims to comment on societies growing ideas of sterility as we are now found away from the organic grime of nature and in a world of sleek clean digital products. Technology consumes individuals and builds the society they live in as the basic roots of nature used to.

In continuing his exploration of this theme, Gerhardt looks at lighting and returning this technological development back to the basics of fire and wood. The “FireLight” (FireLight, 2015) functions as a result of an interaction between a wooden panel on the wall and candle module placed on a table nearby. When the candle module is lit, the “FireLight” lamp immediately turns on in response to the candles flickering. In a similar action, when the candle is blown out, the light switches off. It uses small “tea lights” as a source of energy with a recharge base station for the candle module. The organic nature of this lighting system can be seen in the flickering of light on the surface of the wood as a mimic of the candle controlling it. We see how Gerhardt has once again played with the distinction between natural fire and technology of electric lighting as an attempt to remind society of where we have come from within the digital age.

FireLight, 2015, Tom Gerhardt
FireLight, 2015, Tom Gerhardt

Technology continues to expand and develop as our knowledge of scientific processes increase. It provides many benefits to our world and unlocks exciting possibilities within the digital age. As individuals try to reconnect with nature, they experiment with ways to incorporate the organic into the new world, looking at possible relationships with technology. With this growing exploration, we will have to wait to see if a distinct boundary between digital and organic remains or if they end up becoming one in the same.