When seeing becomes social: How the network is changing the way I look at the world.

In response to the 2010 Edge Annual Question How Has The Internet Changed The Way You Think? classicist James O’Donnell proposed that his fingers have become part of his brain. That “the sign of thinking is that I reach for the mouse and start “shaking it loose”… My eyes and hands have already learned to work together in new ways with my brain in a process of clicking, typing a couple of words, clicking, scanning, clicking again that really is a new way of thinking for me.

That finger work is unconscious. It just starts to happen. But it’s the way I can now tell thinking has begun as I begin working my way through an information world more tactile than ever before.

I, too, often kind of “type” my thoughts into mid-air; a kinetic response to thinking. Is this just a direct response to the time I spend in front of a computer, thinking, and to the devices I use? Possibly. But it isn’t the only response to what O’Donnell terms “the living presence of networked information.” My greater response is far more encompassing than that. Because of my direct connection to my networks – to you – to people with shared interests and frames of reference with whom my buy-in to conversation is the input of interesting content or comment, the way I actually look at the world, the way I listen, and the attention I pay, is shifting. It is as though the network itself is a giant amorphous creature, and I am merely one eye that can see for it; a scout whose role is to look at the world for the information that will benefit the network itself, and bring it back.

When I last visited a museum, you were there with me. I carried you, reader, in my thoughts; in my pocket; in my devices. Though you had no eyes of your own, you stood behind my eyes when I looked at the objects; when I observed the space. Your presence changed my looking. How could I translate what was in front of my eyes and make it meaningful for you? My looking was looking on your behalf as much as my own. Simultaneously, I took note of what interested me and what might interest you. I tried to pay attention to the sorts of things you might want to know, so that if you asked questions, I’d have answers. I did so to have content for this blog; to have reasons for connection. I did so to ensure that I’d have something to contribute to our conversations; something to talk about.

My network, of which you are part, is shifting the way I understand the world. In one way, this is because much of the information that I encounter comes through you. You link to articles, you share news, you provide new perspectives in comments and discussion. You filter forward those things that you think are worth paying attention to, and in so doing shape the way I, as part of your network, understand the world.

But this is not the only way your presence is reshaping how I negotiate or interact with the world. It is actually changing the way I see, and hear. The sorts of Tweetable phrases stories I now listen for, the photographs I take, the anecdotes I file away that might be of use or interest for this blog, they all shape the kind of attention I pay to the world. When I attend a conference without Twitter, I hear entirely different nuance in the presentations from what I hear when I am seeking to translate and Tweet the ideas. The looking that I do; the listening. It is all changed as a result of my interactions with the network; with you.

The perceptions that we have of the world shape the way we understand it, and new technologies lead to new perceptions. Perhaps my greatest shift in this direction came once I had an iPhone; once I began to carry in my pocket a device that would allow me to capture and share what I was seeing or hearing instantly via tools like Twitter – tools that were simultaneously personal and not directed at any single other person. This device, these capabilities altered the way I experienced the physical world. I no longer had to be stuck behind my desk to share content, to make connections; I could do so from the wild. This started changing what I saw by changing what I looked for.

I now see socially. I listen, not just for myself, but for what I can translate and share to my networks. I pay attention to the ideas that you, my network, is interested in, and in so doing, I encounter the world through that lens. The things I notice are not of interest to me alone. I notice those things that I think you would be interested in too, and I think of you when I am noticing them.

When I am in situ in the museum, I encounter the space through the framework of shared assumptions that my digital networks use. My network, who I am connected to, what their interests are, changes how I see and understand the museum and the world. It changes the way I encounter and read objects. It even changes where I go, because I attend events that will be of interest and relevant to the people in my network.

What are the implications of this? We know that the museum visitor does not encounter the object as a tabula rasa, a blank slate. He or she constructs meaning based on existing knowledge and past experiences. But if I’m right about this change in looking, if looking is now taking place socially, then there are new elements and influences at play as well.

What do you think? Are you aware of changes that connection to the network has made to how you look at and interpret the world? Is this any different from the way you encountered spaces or events prior to carrying a networked device on your person?