Note: This post first appeared on Huffington Post‘s front page.
Heading home last week after a walk in Central Park, I saw a bearded man on his hands and knees, peering at a patch of plants poking up between the sidewalk’s cobblestones. Lost key or contact lens? I stopped to ask. No, he was just looking, he told me, running his fingers across a tuft of grass and over a mossy cushion of green. Two plants that normally flower in April and August were blooming simultaneously in May, he said. Are you a botanist, I asked. He stood up beside his bicycle. No, he said, just interested.
You never know what you might see if you look down, or around, or in any new direction. Take a minute and you might notice something unexpected – evidence of a tiny glitch in a seasonal rhythm, or a bonsai-size bit of wilderness breaking though a stony byway.
Yes, we often hear this exhortation to ‘wake up.’ Immersed in virtual worlds, we particularly miss much of the earthly wonder budding around us. In her intriguing new book On Looking, the animal cognition expert Alexandra Horowitz takes 11 city walks with experts such as a geologist or an artist in order to make the “familiar become unfamiliar.” Her book is timely. With our finite attentional capacities, we do miss so much in life.
But as Horowitz would attest, the topic of awareness can be a Pandora’s box. Why should alert awareness matter when we have so much ‘coming at us’ all day long? Isn’t the real problem honing our focus, rather than trying to drink more from the experiential firehose? The question of exercising our awareness is complex, and yet matters more than ever today, I believe. Here is why:
First, we are creatures of habit, prone to see, hear and think the familiar and expected – whether online or on the sidewalks we cross each day. This is in part why babies amuse us. They exude delighted interest in everything, since nearly everything is new to them. We can’t exist child-like, open to everything. But turning off our ingrained ‘eyes of habit’ once in a while makes us more inventive. People who live abroad or are bilingual are more likely to be creative, simply because inhabiting a new country or language inspires what psychologists call ‘cognitive flexibility.’ Knowing two ways to drink tea or multiple words for love expands our horizons of understanding. We need to look up from our humdrum commute or from our same old stomping grounds of the Web.
Even more importantly, truly seeing anew isn’t simply a matter of glancing around. It involves noticing, and then comprehending what’s familiar and what’s new on multiple levels. Two blooming weeds in the pavement may cause a moment’s admiration for their unexpected beauty. But understanding whether or not their cycles of flowering are askew and so further evidence of climate change demands effort, not simple snapshot observation. Exercising our awareness involves probing and testing our assumptions.
Today, the popular idea that our devices should fade into the background – exemplified by Google’s aim to make technology that ‘gets out of the way’ – is alarming. As I told the Huffington Post’s Bianca Bosker in a recent interview, if technology becomes invisible to us, we lose sight of how it shapes us, for good and for ill. We will stop noticing the ‘google effect’ – the complacency we show while searching online – and sadly keep assuming that Facebook-style template identities can express our whole selves.
We can’t see our devices and their torrents of information anew each moment. Our tools invariably will fade into the background of our lives. (While reading a book, I see its content, not the print technology I hold in hand.) But we must sometimes step back and try to comprehend how new, powerful digital technologies influence us, as well as what they deliver to our minds. Waking up to the world is a two-fold responsibility: seeing, then understanding. If we don’t manage this with our digital and earthly habitats, we will be abdicating a role in the making of our future.