If your Internet browser of choice is Firefox, then you are familiar with the way it provides you with a selection of readings when you visit its home page. I presume that my selections are based upon data-mined algorithms based upon my search history, because I get a lot of stuff from the Atlantic and the New York Times, as well as a lot of science readings. I'm not complaining, because while a good deal of what I see is simply clickbait, I have also learned some useful stuff from time to time. But what is perhaps most useful to me is what I am learning by conducting a semiotic analysis of the general themes that dominate my "feed."
Probably the most common theme I see appears in all the "how to succeed in business" articles that are always popping up: how to ace that interview, how to find that perfect job, how to choose the career that's best for you…that sort of thing. Tailored to sensibilities of the digital age, such advice columns belong to a long tradition of American "how to" manuals calibrated to a competitive capitalist society. Calvin Coolidge (who once famously quipped that "the chief business of the American people is business") would feel quite at home here, so I don't want to read too much into all this. But I do think that the preponderance of such pieces may well reflect a growing anxiety over the possibility of attaining a rewarding career in a gig economy where opportunities for middle-class advancement are drying up.
Some evidence for this interpretation lies in the remarkable number of articles relating to mental depression that also appear in my feed. Some of them are scientific, while others are also of the how-to variety, mental health division. The latter texts have recently been emphasizing the healing properties of the natural world, and I'm good with that. After all, that's where I go to soothe jangled nerves. But what, semiotically speaking, does this trend tell us?
My take on the matter is that even as Americans worry (with very good reason) about their career opportunities, they also are becoming increasingly depressed in the face of a constant barrage of signals from the traditional mass media and digital social media alike, all pushing them to compare their lives to the lives of everyone else. David Myers, over in the Macmillan Learning Psychology Community, has been exploring this phenomenon recently, especially with respect to teen-aged girls, and I am quite in sympathy with his interpretation. I would simply expand the scope of the problem to include pretty much everyone, who, facing a daily bombardment of images and stories about the fortunate few who seem to have everything that life can possibly offer, experience a depressing discontentment with their own lives.
And here is where nature comes in. Nature is not only filled with beautiful forests, mountains, rivers, lakes, seashores, deserts, meadows, canyons, valleys (pick your own favorites), it is not filled with people—or, at least, isn't supposed to be. "Climb the mountains and get their good tidings. Nature's peace will flow into you as sunshine flows into trees," John Muir once said, and his words are even more cogent today than when he wrote them over a century ago.
But to achieve that peace, you need to get past the crowds, and, more importantly, all that social pressure that drove you to nature in the first place. It is therefore quite ironic that one often sees people in natural surroundings wholly absorbed in their iPhones, or taking selfies. This kind of hetero-directed behavior not only threatens to disrupt the healing powers of the natural world, it also signifies how, for many people today, social media have created an addictive spiral from which they cannot escape. Think of it: going to nature to escape the depressing impingements of social existence, only to seek approval from other people, and then, perhaps, to be depressed if you don't get quite the reaction you hoped for on Instagram.