04 December 2008

What do you notice?

There has been a flurry of activity on total recall lately. One set of reports arose in response to Der Spiegel's story about the travails of Jill Price, the 42 year-old California woman with perfect recall. Boing Boing's Mark Frauenfelder's post on the topic was followed in rapid succession by Andrew Sullivan's alert, and Jonah Lehrer's thoughtful follow-up, reminding us not only that it is hardly heaven to be saddled with perfect episodic memory, but that Luria described just such a case in his classic text The Mind of a Mnemonist.

At about the same time, James Fallows pointed out that #5 on IBM's list of "Five Innovations That Will Change Our Lives in the Next Five Years" includes technology that will allow smart appliances to record, store and analyze details of everyday life and provide them to us at the appropriate time and place.

In fact, it turns out that we already have the capacity to take in vast amounts of information. Aude Oliva and his students at MIT recently published a paper in PNAS with astonishing results. They showed people 2,500 photos over 5.5 hours, and then a clever psychological task was used to test whether they recognized images that they had seen. Remarkably, people could identify the image 92% of the time (for more information on how they did it, watch the video below from Science Daily). As it happens, the major challenge is not taking in information, but recalling it.

The paradox is that in the face of all of this information, we wander around in a state of seeming oblivion most of the time. We clearly have the ability to absorb it all, but to what do we choose to pay attention?


The deer that treat our property on Galiano Island as their own (I just have to finish that fence one of these days!!) love the leaves from our sumac tree. The other day, I watched as a small herd ambled across the yard, carefully picking out the sumac leaves but leaving the oak leaves behind. Earlier, I had walked across that same patch of ground and the presence of the leaves barely registered. They noticed; I had not.

A homeless guy wanders down the street, examining the sidewalk for anything of value. He knows which trash bins are likely to contain food, which recycling bins are best bets for bottles to return for their deposit, where useful items that have been discarded by the rest of us might be. He notices things I never see.

With all of our basic needs satisfied there is little that we have to notice about our surroundings anymore. And so we don't.

The people in our modern world who do notice things are artists. Take Mari Nakano for example (she created the image at the start of this post). She has devoted an entire installation to the subject of noticing things, and she tells us
When it comes to the news, images and headlines scream for our attention. But do we notice? Or do we just pass by because our eyes have grown accustomed to the facade of a newspaper? Do we go elsewhere to search for truth and stories? And if so, where are those places? We seek to know how the world is evolving around us, but are we really reading in–depth about the going-ons around us nowadays? If not, why not? And how, as designers, can we think of alternative ways of looking at the news? How, as creatives, can we better capture a viewer's curiosity in a way that will stimulate them the delve beyond a catchy headline?

What Do You Notice? was an attempt to reinterpret the way a viewer can enter the news. By adopting the goals of tenbyten.org, this experiential piece tried to translate the interaction that takes place on the web into an interaction that takes place in real life.
And then there is Bjork. Reticent and shy throughout this interview with Charlie Rose, watch how she lights up (about 8 minutes into the conversation) when he brings up the topic of sound. Bjork notices sound in a profound way.

The question stands.

What do you notice?

Cross Posted to Open Salon

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