Digital, analog and our own perception of life are radically different. Our engagement with life, the intensity of experience changes according to the tools we use. The eyes, ears and other sensory organs were for most of our human history our major connectors with the outside world. Then, of course, the brain cooked it all into a ready meal. Negotiating, the middleman of sensations consults with the mind games and concludes in a deal that makes sense for that specific time and place in which the person stands influenced by the societal sensibilities, rules and culture of their era. Let’s abandon the past and zoom in to now.
The way we perceive the present profoundly affects our attention. The increasingly challenging ability to focus in the second millennium is an epidemic inflicted by technological advancement so fast that our brains run like an incessant river dealing with the rainfall of information. It may soon flood your world to the brims of its banks, spilling over in an irreparable damage.
The widely tested solutions employed for taming rivers work also for the mind. A dam-like containment by switching between the tools we use every day increases our awareness of how we are affected by technology and thus our control over it. By widening the space of the corridor, the flow slows, catching more that passes through its current of happenings. This is a holistic remedy for mental health, memory and overall well-being.
My recent rewinding into analog photography taught me a striking lesson. My engagement with reality or what I see has changed profoundly over the past decade. Ever since “smartphones” outsmarted us we imbibe on the ease of inebriation via our handy gadgets. We share ideas and emotions differently, we consume fast and do not linger long enough to evaluate things broadly and fairly. As a result of the virtual life teenagers develop carpal tunnel syndrome symptoms, anxiety disorders, relationship impotence, void of empathy, new forms of addictions, and time will only show more ills of the digital age. What used to trouble the middle aged typers and waitresses has entered the mainstream of youth. What is concerning is how our reactions and perception are changing under these daily lifestyle influences and how our environment including the people we deal with are affected by these shifts.
How is digital culture changing us?
How has our mind changed recently? The brain scans have documented that our cognitive performance changes with use of digital devices, but some studies seem to confirm that so far our brain has not changed physically yet.
One doesn’t need to zoom into one’s brain to notice the change. My self experiment in perception revealed immediately how I felt while snapping limitless digital snippets of my day — disengaged, aggressive, less controlled. An outdoor sculpture exhibition and earlier an architecture stroll around Paris (and stopping time at a Japanese tea room in Le Marais), Milan and Vienna, flashed how differently I perceived, memorized and felt about experiencing these via my phone’s digital camera versus taking my time with setting up manually my vintage Leica.
Still, using the only implanted recording device humanity naturally is equipped with – the brain – and trying to focus without any other tools felt the most indulgent and immediately satisfying. Yet, the limits of our memory and our desire to flash back after seeing an image or reading an old journal, often win over this in-the-moment-only reward mechanism. I realised that if I let it, that speed and draw of outer objects randomly passing by raise my anxiety. Without any recording tool in my hand, I barely stopped and only for a split of a second noticed the whole picture. The sixth sense was ruled out in my hasty experience.
On the other spectrum of attention — being limited by the film roll in my Leica, taking my time, observing patiently and using my own decision system by rating (and discriminating) how much is this worth being captured in the physical visual memento of a printed photograph. The material presence curbs our use, unlike the digital vastness that can rattle our minimalistic cravings for optimizing what we consume. And we indeed consume time. Our attention is given to its voracious abyss of calculable space in any living being’s lifespan. Limited as our time on Earth is (well our physical bodily existence) we’d better decide how we spend it. Mindfully reaping joys from tiny miracles we encounter daily or insatiably and unsatisfactorily grabbing more from the infinitude of options. Doing more, does not equal meaningful engagement with happiness.
Technology gave us quantums of opportunities, ways to fill or kill our time through gaming, snapping, uploading, liking and commenting on tabloid feeds (most of social media), applauding friends’ baking show-offs, angering us over apparent injustice and violence, traveling us through light, shape and sound around the globe without leaving our sofas, well the screen, and boundless more. As we are skimming voraciously the content like kids watching cartoons, we never get bored, no crosswords are needed to entertain our brains, no physical walking into the photo lab, no random bumping into an old friend on our way there and sharing a bottle of wine or chatting over a coffee consequently. Now we do it all on our screen, just cross off the coffee and wine pleasantries. I’m guilty too. Writing part of this musing while strolling on a mossy forest path, I stared on my mobile, typing, stumbling over expanding tree roots and only for a handful of moments lifting my head to the changing sky. I think better while moving in the open space and my mind is perhaps more open too, so this is a tough dilemma for me, a chance to write something that won’t hop into my head while sitting at a desk.
The process of photography
And so it goes with photography. Capturing that “decisive moment” as Cartier Bresson famously professed with a pre-calculated synchrony between an analog and the photographer feels very different from a random clack of a button on the go. Nevertheless, the digital editing process has an added value in the reflective depth of the captured moment. Our perception is shifted into the later moment.
From my personal experiments I learned that while analog required more technical skill, patience and focus than taking photos with my phone camera, I was most struck by my direct vision. The old school gaze. The only tools being my eyes, brain deciding to focus and appreciate, to take in the bounty for one’s own benefit of immediate joy. Not later, now. Now is only now in front of you. Take it, live it, savor it every time you encounter something worth photographing.
Observing certain museum goers, their future-oriented fast in and out digital snapping walk through the galleries knocks on my sense of presence. This moment of direct engagement will not repeat itself by simply scrolling over the last June in Paris folder in my cloud library. Who does it anyway? With over 100k photos I’m terrified of the reckoning one day with every single item. I do not feel the same overwhelming endlessness leafing through my childhood photo albums (pre-digital era at least in the former Czechoslovakia).
As we don’t trust our memory we fall into this trap of becoming tools rather than the beings engaging in and processing the feelings and lessons taken. Life passes so fast and we try to catch it all. Mistake. Documenting does not have to interfere with everything we do. I mean I take photos of almost every proper meal I cook, of each canvas I am smitten by, a wall with intriguing street art, video that squirrel hopping across the road, stop, honey! I must snap your eyes before you kiss me. Well, I do not go that far, yet I repent.
The pill is in your head
Musts this unique, perhaps once in a lifetime experience, halo itself at our older selves? To look at it when you cannot do that young stuff anymore? Think about this the next time an opportunity to hug that tree, wholesomely savor that flaky warm croissant, to stop your mind & body, arises in a communion of a wonderful coexistence. It doesn’t have to be hippie cum mystical. Just savor this Sunday morning, a walk to work, grocery store or a library (finding books and leafing through them in a real place where you are standing, squatting or leaning on that standing shelf, feels so much more engaging and physical than clickbaits with a thumb on a screen, doesn’t it?), inhale, smile, exhale, wonderful world!
Even when it rains, out there a gray day, I feel marvelous, my own experience cheekily whispers into my with raindrops occupied ears. Za zzaaa I wrote a poem on that experience once.
On my way through the forest I noticed a plastic and glass bottles, so picked them up and properly disposed in a recycling bin in town. Connected with my genuinely mindful experience of walking I realised that shinrin-yoku offers karmic benefits! Perception shift made me a better person.
This brings a disconcerting idea, what would you do passing by a violent action of someone imposed on another? Would you call the police or film it all to share on social media? Bystander reactions are surely complicated further with our egoistic opportunism. Numbers of viewers, likes, call it virtual fame. How vain can technology transform us.
Our current dilemma of choices to be made between quantity versus quality does not make life easier. America went for the loads, Japan for precision, Italy staled and mingles between the two antipoles, while China seems to want it all these days, rapidly and inevitably with an extra cost to those innocent bystanders — my metaphor for the environment.
This essay was obviously not meant to be a scientific overview of perception. While I studied psychology and read on neuroscience, I believe that one’s own experience with something as universal as perception is the best guide to useful awareness of the differences. We have lived through profound shifts in the tools we use to engage with and document the world around us. Such a curvy span of changes positions us best for an engaged reflection on the differences inflicted upon us by technology.