How much do we ever really see? In today’s ever-hectic society, with its never-sleeping cyber world and a thousand different tasks to do at all times, our eyes and our every sense are becoming too distracted; there never seems to be a moment to spare. A moment to step back. To observe our world. To see.
Interestingly, we are becoming, quite literally, more and more short-sighted, with up to 60% of the world’s population now requiring glasses or contacts. Indeed, eye strain is an increasing issue with proven links to alterations in lifestyles, particularly the constant virtual pressures on our vision. Many studies over the past decade have shown the undeniable connections between the plummeting rates of people with perfect sight and society’s soaring addictions to all types of technology. Research by King’s College London in 2015, for instance, documented the rising number of diagnoses for myopia in the UK, with those of us between the ages of 25-29 most affected (a frightening 47.2%) and with the majority cases recorded in those with higher education post-16. The study concluded by deducing the central contributing factors: we spend more time studying and reading texts, we spend less hours outdoors and, most worryingly, we spend more and more time tied to computer screens.
This escalation of literal eye problems, however, could be the start of a whole different article. It could kick-start a persuasive piece about the ever lucrative laser eye surgery market, for instance. Or perhaps rant about how reading books offline and online is actually a health hazard. By spending more time indoors, buried in books and, crucially, stuck to the glaring screens of laptops, phones, iPads and whatever other gadgets have most recently hit the headlines, we are becoming dangers unto ourselves.
Perhaps one particularly prevalent learning point here is the extent to which our fading eyesight is symptomatic of wider societal concerns. We are, it seems, living in a world with a population less and less able to step back and see the details of its experiences and environments. This article, though, is of course far from being a warning against too much reading! Books are a beautiful gateway into exploring other ideas, experiences and emotions, into developing empathy and a wider cultural understanding, into escaping our own fraught and faulty surroundings by diving into all sorts of imagination-firing fictional worlds instead.
However, this recent research is a wake-up call; it is a warning that we should consider what other factors are stopping us from stepping back in order to see and to sense the streets of our habitual comings and goings. Our incontestable collective addition to all sorts of screens and smartphones suggests that such overwhelmingly addictive technology is not, perhaps, all that smart after all. Proven to make stress levels sky rocket and to skew self-perceptions about the importance of our own individual problems and priorities, our societal short-sightedness runs far deeper than just a statistical report of the rising number of myopia sufferers. Whatever the condition of our corneas, we are failing, not only literally but metaphorically, to see the details of our everyday existences.
We live in a country scattered with all sorts of sounds, sights and smells, with so much for our senses to make sense of that it can be hard to know where to start. Although this is particularly apparent for the busy bees bustling through London’s streets, it is apparent in all sorts of urban and rural locations across the country. With faces forever glued onto gadgets, everyone’s eyes remain diverted onto email checking and social media obsessing and away from observing any of society’s often spectacular specifics. What about the magical colour conglomerate of an autumnal sunset? Or the mysterious expressions of a row of city centre gargoyles glaring down on the pedestrians below? Or that one gorgeously flourishing evergreen, still growing strong along the side of an otherwise empty fence, despite the cruel winds weathering attempt’s to tear it down?
It is an increasing concern that we are too absorbed in our omniscient online world and too dangerously distracted by the tens of thousands of things we assume we have to be juggling at any one time that we forget to ever really see. This is not to say, of course, that we are not continuously overloaded with tasks and to-do lists, or that it is wrong to use commuting time to cram in as many catch ups as possible. There are quite palpable pressures to meet deadlines to be to available long after hours or to manage fast-paced family life alongside work’s difficult deadlines and do-now demands. And, after all, if we can tick off our admin and odd jobs whilst walking from one meeting to another, or when travelling from the office towards whatever more relaxing post-work destination awaits, or whilst taking a train from one stress to the next, then we can, theoretically, get everything done and put away the work later on, focusing entirely on an evening with a partner, family and friends, or simply to soak up the change of environment and the headspace it should bring.
We can all see, figuratively, that this is simply not reality. Not only do we miss actually looking at the little details of our routes by trying to reply to those last minute requests or complete that one final chore– from architectural anomalies, to the magical skyline and its magically moving shades, to protesting posters and paint patches that scratch out heartfelt messages – but our inability to notice is so ingrained that it stays with us even when we’ve met up with friends and family. Even when we have supposedly, but only superficially, switched off our devices and switched off all other demands on our thoughts. Even when we’ve arrived at the time that we’ve theoretically decided to set aside.
But would benefit would this article be if it simply complained about the state of society, without making even the simplest suggestions about how to make us start seeing once again? Let’s celebrate the already evident attempts to awaken us to the world. From tour buses to themed walks to free exhibitions across many cities’ most spectacular sites, there are opportunities for us to get observing. However, whilst such examples allow us to nominally notice what’s happening around us, they can actually encourage us to actively hide our eyes behind a screen, camera-shot or smartphone; we can become too busy tweeting, texting and taking pictures of what we’re seeing to really take time to see it. Whilst there’s nothing wrong with snapping away in this way (indeed, photos are special ways to keep our memories alive), we must make seeing, and not selfie sticks, the new normal. Like taking up exercise after a long stretch of lethargy, or cooking fresh new recipes rather than falling back on the same tried and tested dishes, observation will only happen when we make it a habit. And, like any new hobby or habits, change takes perseverance but it can absolutely be learning, improved and enjoyed.
Here are two examples of recent London events that focused on encouraging participants to really observe. The first was an Alternative London street art tour, winding its keen walkers through East London’s streets to see all sorts of rather talented graffiti and to learn about different artists and genres of graffiti. Whilst there is an overload of tourist-attracting walking tours to choose from in the capital, what made this particular event stand out was the walking group leader’s insistence that we keep phones silenced and, most importantly, refrain from camera-clicking. More than just off-putting fellow participants, our guide made clear just how much it would stop us really seeing. And how right he was! We spotted small and intricate designs on the edges of lampposts, in the hidden bits of buildings, as well as patterns or repetitions in the art as we walked along. Having arrived with next to no knowledge of well-known graffiti artists or what graffiti meant beyond some late-night spray paint on street walls, we soon found ourselves able to recognise the unique style of certain artists and to see where faded designs had been drawn upon with new ones, with such layers giving us insight into how London itself has changed over time. We saw, too, political angst and injustice-driven anger behind many pieces of art and became able to detect tiny shifts in messaging or tone, depending on the street or sign or wall or window that the work was created on. Although the attendees of the walk will inevitably go on to wander East London’s streets with heads buried in social media and sending messages, when there is no longer a guide to bring us out of ourselves, such events undoubtedly help to change perceptions of what it means to see.
The second example also took place on a similar section of East London, but with a creative writing focus. We were given observational foci on each new road. For instance, what eclectic examples of red do you see between here and our next stopping spot? What do those different shades mean? This second walk was so creatively engaging, it also served as a sad reminder of how much our imaginations can ebb when we don’t let our eyes mindfully soak in our surrounding sights more frequently. Nevertheless, these examples are undoubtedly replicable across other boroughs, other cities, other counties and, hopefully, other countries, making more reflective behaviour a regularity.
It can be easier to start honing our observational ways in a new place, where each detail is a new discovery. We often overlook the intricacies of our home environments and experiences simply because we assume we know the details of our doorsteps. However, approaching familiar faces and places like a stranger can help our minds to reimagine and to start to see all the finer sights we have somehow previously missed, engaging with our environments through new, more thoughtful eyes.
Even if we have to force ourselves, at first, to properly pay attention to the details of our daily grinds, it’s still a start. It is such a habit to be too busy bouncing around inside our own minds that forget to be present. We are simultaneously sorting out the day ahead, whilst worrying about our loved ones, or a heated conversation we had with a flatmate or friend the night before, whilst also making sky-high plans for the trillions of as yet unmade plans, such as squeeze in that run, or re-learn the dust-covered cello from your childhood, or sort out the pile of half-nearly completed knitting projects that have grown over the months – or years. We are too busy ovr-thinking to step back and notice how distracted we’ve become.
The advantages of taking time to observe are too many to mention in detail. This is the simplest of starts: we are, contrary to what our stress-soaked brains may think, decreasing our risk of burning out by buying time to see, we make smarter, more thoughtful decisinos and, as one study by the University of Amsterdam excitingly revealed, a more mindful attention to detail makes us more creative. With attention fully aware, we have far more descriptive capacity and our imaginations are almost instantly released.
We have, due to the draw of creating cyber connections rather than connecting with the world around us, become worryingly too secluded. Now, that
And we have become a species that spends too much time secluded! Now, this isn’t to say that we should be skipping work hours to stand around outside just absent mindedly observing. But being outdoors a little more is not only a huge victory for our health (fresh air, Vitamin D, the sun’s nourishing effects on the eyes… the evidence is pretty solid). but being outdoors psychologically alters the way we see things. Staring at a screen plays damagingly with our eyes, whereas outdoors, observing, things tend to present themselves in clearer ways. We can re-connct with our creativity if we leave the screens inside just for a while.
Finally, perhaps the biggest gain from taking more to observe is the impact on our emotions. Our online obsession does, it seems, makes us far too self-obsessed – and often without realising it. By taking time to see and sense and soak in our surroundings, we can move away from becoming unhealthily absorbed in our own lives and can gain perspective beyond all those individual situations and stresses. Slowing down helps to boost our memories of life’s moments, as we take the time to step outside our minds and experience the world and its wonders vividly and meaningfully.
I have – until this sentence – refrained from overdoing the ‘I’. By replacing our ‘Is’ with our ‘eyes’, after all, is the central message. Let’s step back and really see the details of who and what we have around us; let’s experience the wheres, whens and whys of our surroundings; let’s see if seeing more can help us become a happier and healthier society.
alicempen on Graduation
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