Our new blind spots: Technology changes how we see the world, and how we interact with it

Our surroundings affect our cognitive orientation, and technology is as influential a climate as the weather

Published January 15, 2020 6:00PM (EST)

"The Stars In Our Pockets" by Howard Axelrod (Getty Images/Beacon Press)
"The Stars In Our Pockets" by Howard Axelrod (Getty Images/Beacon Press)

An adapted excerpt from "The Stars in Our Pockets: Getting Lost and Sometimes Found in Our Digital Age" by Howard Axelrod (Beacon Press, 2020). Reprinted with permission from Beacon Press.

After my eye accident, I thought a lot about blind spots.  It happened on a beautiful May afternoon, two weeks before the end of my junior year in college. During a game of pickup basketball, in a scuffle for a loose ball, a boy's finger darted into my eye past the knuckle. His fingernail sheared my optic nerve, the cable that connects the back of the eyeball to the brain. Blinded in that eye, I lost peripheral vision, depth perception, and also a kind of firmness in the world, an unquestioning confidence in my sense of reality. 

After ten days convalescing at home, I returned to school for final exams, but everything looked and felt different. I stumbled often on the stairs, knocked over glasses of grape juice in the dining hall, would turn to my right with a full tray and crash into someone who had materialized out of thin air. Perhaps strangest of all, walls no longer looked solid. Everything in my dorm room had a subtle floating quality, as though I'd passed through a fairy-tale portal into a dress rehearsal for reality, as though nothing was really happening in the material world. Instead of going to breakfast, I began to watch the morning from my bedroom window, the patterns of backpacks and jackets shifting like schools of fish. I began to wonder about the tides guiding my friends' daily motions, about the tacit assumptions we took to be natural laws. 

I was 20 years old, trying to figure out what to do with my life, and what began to frighten me was non-physical kinds of blind spots. Seeing happened in the brain, my ophthalmologist told me, not in the eye, and I began to have odd daydreams during my appointments. What if Dr. Grosskreutz put up an eye chart for the inner eye—how would I fare on a test for seeing the big picture? Tell me how these sideways letters relate to the cosmos, she might say. The thought of being prescribed corrective lenses frightened me as much as the thought of being allowed to walk back outside with whatever blind spots I had. I imagined the old woman sitting next to me looking up from her magazine. "Walter's here for the racism screening. He insists he's fine, but I do think he could use a prescription."

What worried me, really, was missing some truth about life I'd always been missing.  What worried me was being blindsided and getting hurt again. 

So, not long after graduation, I moved to the woods of northern Vermont. My hope was that whatever shaped the way I saw would knit together again like so many broken bones. The house had no clocks, and I began to wake with the sun, to know the progress of the seasons by its angle in the sky. The woods around the house expanded; the nearest town drifted far away. On my daily snowshoe treks through the trees, I began to see and hear things I'd never seen or heard. The fibers of a maple tree constricting and keening in the cold. A camouflaged black-capped chickadee, its feathers tufting in the wind on a snowy branch. The days slowed. My attention opened, a windless pond taking in the trees on its banks. My memory opened too. I could snowshoe my way back to the house through drifted snow and miles of unmarked trees, ignoring my tracks, simply remembering the crumbling stone walls and the landmarks of birches and spruce. As I unloaded groceries from the village market, the songs that had been playing on the overhead speakers would follow, offering a kind of souvenir map of my market experience. When I lifted a package of ramen from the shopping bag one afternoon, Elton John's "Rocket Man" unspooled after it like a thread—each lyric giving me a precise image of my progress through the aisles.

Maybe this happened because of my long daily walks in the woods and my brain's new habit of absorbing everything it could as reference points. Maybe it happened because I didn't hear music anywhere outside the market, and "Rocket Man" is a weirdly memorable song. Either way, everything I encountered—or didn't encounter—was quietly altering my sense of time, my sense of place, and the quality of my attention and memory. What I was experiencing was changing how I was experiencing. Perhaps even stranger, there was no way to feel those changes being made; I could only register that they had been made once my ramen became a kind of radio.

When I returned to Boston, the sidewalk had changed. It was 2001 and people now walked talking into their hands. Cell-phone use had doubled in the two years I was away.  I felt like Rip Van Winkle—not gone for two years but asleep for twenty, awoken to a new kind of world entirely. A magical world where people could glance into their hands and see others far away and yet, because of an optical quirk in the atmosphere, where they had a hard time making out the people in front of them and so were uncertain whether they were never alone, or always alone, or somehow both. A world where urgent flashes of danger and outrage sparked through the mist at all hours, and where your sense of where you were, and who you were, required paying attention to these flashes, and flashing your own in return, so you wouldn't lose yourself in the strange way the air played tricks on you in this magical world, the nearby gone foggy and faraway, the faraway suddenly sharp and nearby, where you needed to tap out signals to remind yourself that you existed, to remind yourself that others could see you, to remind yourself that you were not lost.

Now fast-forward 18 years. Maybe I'm overly aware of the dynamic between vision and danger, but I'm hardly the only one aware that Silicon Valley is playing on our cognitive blind spots with a visual language ideally suited for manipulating them. Our 40,000-year-old brains were built for efficiency, for making quick, intuitive decisions about avoiding danger and finding shelter and food—which means they were built to take shortcuts. And the shortcuts that evolved to keep us safe, when manipulated, can begin to make us unsafe.

Without connecting the dots about digital life, Daniel Kahneman explains several of our cognitive blind spots in his book "Thinking, Fast and Slow." First there's the availability bias—if you've seen a few stories about tornadoes, you're naturally going to start fearing tornadoes and overestimating the probability of a tornado spiraling your way. Then there's the affect heuristic—if those stories featured devastating images of homes ripped open like dollhouses, you'll think the probability of an impending tornado is greater still. Kahneman explains, "The world in our heads is not a precise replica of reality; our expectations about the frequency of events are distorted by the prevalence and emotional intensity of the messages to which we are exposed."

Now more than 60 percent of Americans get their news from social media. The images flicker past on our feeds. The smiling daughter of a friend on her first day of school, a hellish forest fire in northern California, a car insurance advertisement, Trump making a windblown speech beside Air Force One—each image less real, less distinctive, all a part of the same simplified narrative, about what? 
Hypnotized by this visual stream, we fall back on shortcuts, on stereotypes, on sorting information by our fears, by the child's question of who are they and who are we, rather than by the adult questions of what is the situation and what can we do about it.  Algorithms keep nudging us towards more captivating, more extreme versions of our political leanings—show interest in conservative content and autoplay on YouTube will lead you from videos of Donald Trump speeches to white supremacist tirades to Holocaust denials; show interest in liberal content and autoplay will lead you from videos of Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders speeches to extreme left conspiracies about the U.S. government planning the September 11 attacks. We lose a common sense of the facts, and we can't use reason to debate issues based on fact, which leaves us to trust only our own clans.

Now throw in politicians' deliberate attempts to manipulate our biases. Our blind spots get weaponized into a kind of autoimmune disease of the mind—the very mechanisms that evolved to make us wary of threats are commandeered to turn us into threatening (and ultimately self-threatening) mobs.
As I discovered in the Vermont woods, the climates that surround us—whether acres of trees and snow, or screens blizzarding with information—are more effective at changing our cognitive orientation than we are at changing it ourselves. Perspective isn't a place outside you, a vantage point you can step away from and inspect from afar. It's not where you're looking from but what you're looking through. It's a lens you can't see because it's a part of how you see. It's your inner eye, the complex lens through which you look with your physical eyes to see reality. And it keeps changing as a function of how you're living, adapting to your daily habits and needs, using everything it can to navigate the deep snows and miles of unmarked trees, even when you're just shopping in an eight-aisle village market, tapping your thumbs on the shopping cart to Elton John.

I probably made the right decision in returning from the woods, but there's no way to know for sure. My morning walks along the community golf course are shorter and less wondrous than my excursions through the uninhabited Vermont hillside. I see more dogs, fewer deer. My mind is frequently less clear, less open, and, strange to admit, less loving than it was in the woods. But I see things here sometimes, small moments that remind me of all I've returned to.

A few days ago, one of the last golden days of autumn, I saw a girl in the park standing strangely still, her back to a massive oak tree. She was maybe five or six years old, in a sundress, and she stood looking down at the roots, or maybe at her feet. There were no other children in the park. Sun, a slight breeze, a faint stirring in the canopy of leaves. As I came down the sidewalk, I could tell she wasn't really looking at anything. She had a very quiet smile on her face, like she had the most beautiful secret. As I walked past her tree, she didn't move at all. Then I heard a voice counting, and near the swing set, hand over his eyes, I saw a man who was probably her father.

Knowing he would come looking for her, knowing she would be found, the girl could revel in her solitude, in her own way of seeing things. Her smile was so inward, so peaceful. As I sat down with my lunch, I imagined her as an adult, still having that faith, still trusting that those who loved her would be able to find her, or that she would be able to find them, even after she'd been alone with the trees and her own thoughts. And I imagined a boy in another park, behind another tree, growing up the same way. And then thousands of boys and girls, behind thousands of trees in thousands of parks, all growing up with this trust in being found, all allowing their own thoughts and eventually their own bodies to wander and get lost, and I thought about the experiences, and all the different ways of looking at things, they'd be able to share with each other once they returned. Their blind spots would be different from each other's, which means they would inevitably help each other to see more.
What I want us to protect isn't just the distinctive range of consciousness within each of us but the ability to share that distinctiveness with each other. That's the only way I've found to feel less alone. To recognize how fundamentally alone each of us is, locked in a separate body and a separate mind, and in that recognition to have the chance to feel all that reaches across that space between us, all the earth-deep connections among us that are real.

"Ready or not," the father called, taking his hand from his eyes. "Here I come!"

By Howard Axelrod

MORE FROM Howard Axelrod