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Art of Choosing (without apps) and Cultivating Awe

On the way to the Oregon coast for Labor Day, my partner used Waze a community-based traffic navigation app. Turn by turn directions and traffic alerts piped through the speakers. I am already familiar with Google Maps and GPS – short for global positioning system, which I had to look up because I’ve only ever used GPS to talk about GPS – but I was surprised, delighted, and even unnerved by the future-telling powers that Waze seemed to have: “hazard reported ahead,” “traffic cameras ahead.” Three times on our 1.5 hour drive, the Waze-bot alerted us to the po-po we had yet to pass. Two things came to mind. One: the app is amazing. Cops are a-holes – maybe not all of them – but a lot of them write up tickets just because they can, and now well-meaning drivers like my partner can avoid tricksy speed traps. Two: the kids’ game hide-and-seek, and the image of hiders popping up like GPS pins on a Google Map, and the horrible cheating unfairness of that.

Chance is a collision of time and space, and that feeling of awe, of finding something, and especially of discovering a thing that we weren’t even looking for, can increase our sense of well-being, stretch the perception time, and make us better people to others. In 2012, across three separate experiments, psychologists from Stanford and University of Minnesota found that “...jaw-dropping moments made participants feel like they had more time available and made them more patient, less materialistic, and more willing to volunteer time to help others.” In an Atlantic article reporting on this study, one of the cited psychologists, Kathleen Vohs, explained that the experience of awe is: where you are temporarily off-kilter in terms of your understanding of the world. People mostly walk around with a sense of knowing what is going on in the world. They have hypotheses about the way people behave and what might happen; those are pretty air-tight. It is hard to get people to shake from those because that’s just how the brain works. We are always walking around trying to confirm the things we already think. When you are in a state of awe, it puts you off balance and as a consequence, we think people might be ready to learn new things and have some of their assumptions questioned.

In this road of life, what do we lose if technology reports to us everything two miles ahead of our trajectories – which is what Waze does for commuters by surveying users in real time to confirm or deny whether traffic obstructions, hazards, and the police are still where they’ve reported to be. Now, I’m not criticizing Waze. I think the Google-owned app is incredibly effective at creating safer drivers. It’s also an amazing tool for getting people through the awe-less and soul-suckiness of traffic, faster. But what if technology predicted away serendipity, told us what and who we might pass in our already over-planned, over-scheduled lives? In many ways, it already has. Tinder and Grindr are hookup apps that use geolocation to notify you of who’s around within a square mile radius – you know who’s around you, before you’ve actually even met them – technology as a type of clairvoyance.

Granted, I design this kind of forecasting into my own life by keeping a stacked calendar; I know the events I’ll be at and the people I’ll see because I’ve scheduled-it-so. We all do it when we pour over reviews on Yelp before picking a restaurant, or we search reviews and ratings on Metacritc before we see a movie. In the romance department, people shop around on dating sites like OkCupid, Match, EHarmony and make their decisions on who to meet based on compatibility algorithms. We want to know what other people think, so we can make informed decisions on how we’ll spend our money and time, which just boils down to the idea of making efficient decisions.

In a New York Times travel essay, titled “Reclaiming the Age-Old Art of Getting Lost,” Stephanie Rosenbloom says that the ubiquity of map and navigation apps: “...can be a boon, but it also means that pedestrians can easily choose efficiency at the expense of discovery.” I think this also applies when we give too much credence to ratings or level of compatibility on things that are meant to provide experiences with nuanced and individualistic responses, including those of the culinary or theatrical variety, and especially on the intimacy front. What the average person likes or dislikes, could match my tastes, sure. Or not at all. I reserve the right to waste or entertain time without the influence of an average number pulled from a bunch of random people’s reviews. If the only things that we ever choose to experience, were the averages of what everyone else liked, it’s the easiest and most efficient way to curate an average life.

Last month, 99% Invisible, the architecture and design podcast out of Oakland, California, featured a 20-min episode titled “On Average,” asserting in their opening that “In many ways, the built world was not designed for you. It was designed for the average person. Standardized tests, building codes, insurance rates, clothing sizes, The Dow Jones – all these measurements are based around the concept of an “average.” In the 1830s, mathematician and astronomer Adolphe Quetelet was the first to take what astronomers had been using to calculate averages in tracking the orbits of planets, and applied that approximation of a true value, to people. Quetelet, after measuring the chest sizes of Scottish soldiers, found that the average chest size was 39 and three-quarters. To Quetelet, this was the “true” size of a Scottish soldier’s chest. He started tracking all sorts of human data, including marriages, suicide rates, and murders. He thought that human averages provided a certain moral mandate, and that for the improvement of humanity, society should strive for the continual improvement of the average of the group. The approximation of a true value, became the truth. Fast forward to the 1950s, after the United States Air Force experienced a drop in performance and ongoing deaths of pilots that couldn’t control their planes during trainings. The Air Force realized that the size of the cockpit might be to blame, and that maybe the average size of a pilot had grown since the 1920s to the 50s. They hired a young Harvard graduate student named Gilbert S. Daniels: “In his research measuring thousands of airmen on a set of ten critical physical dimensions, Daniels realized that none of the pilots he measured was average on all ten dimensions. Not a single one. When he looked at just three dimensions, less than five percent were average. Daniels realized that by designing something for an average pilot, it was literally designed to fit nobody.” And that’s how adjustable seats and foot pedals came to be part of our industrialized world. Our current clothing sizes of small, medium, and large are informed by the military’s uniform averages. In the future, don’t feel so bad because you don’t fit into a pair of jeans quite right – you might just not be average enough.

Recently, I visited the Bay Area for vacation. I was laser-focused before I left, and I was not a very nice person. Anything that didn’t have to do with a project or work, was a nuisance. I was scheduled and task-oriented, I was vigilant and hit all my personal and work deadlines – my brain’s executive control center was on overdrive. I got everything that I needed to be done, done. Studies have shown that when our frontal lobes are overused, when we’re overly-coordinated, scheduled, highly analytical, this shuts down the cerebellum which hampers our creativity. My non-scientific hypothesis derived from the connections I’ve made between the different articles and research studies – which feels true to me – is that it’s nearly impossible to forcefully plan for awe-induced experiences or a creative state of being.

But we can certainly increase the chances of those experiences by making room for creativity and awe by blocking out chunks of unscheduled time. I encourage you to choose not to know what you’re going to do; choose to turn away from your smartphone apps; choose to look at Google Maps only when absolutely necessary. As journalists Sarah Estes and Jesse Graham suggest in their 2012 Scientific American article: “It might be time to pencil in ‘awe-cultivation’ on your to do list.”

On my first full day in Oakland, I decided to join a free walking tour of Uptown. I learned about the Paramount Theatre’s art deco design and depression-era beginnings. It even helped inform the font-style of a tattoo I’ve been wanting to get. I met a new friend the age of my younger brother and we lumbered around Oakland Chinatown on the search for Asian pastries. I gave him relationship advice. We talked about microaggressions, and he confessed that because he was half Japanese, he always defaulted to passing for White – he’d actually get offended if people considered him Asian. This new friend and I caught a free soul and funk concert by the 12th Street Bart Station. I probably won’t ever see him again, but he was nice company on a Wednesday afternoon. I had had the earnest intention of being “productive” and working on vacation, but what I was actually the most successful at was waking up late, wandering, finding a lot of different Chinese pastry shops – I just lived, for eight days, without an agenda. In Portland, I’m always feeling like I have to steal time, or else I don’t give it to myself at all.

In the Bay, I visited my cousins. I saw my aging aunt and uncle. On a hot Sunday, I strolled around Lake Merritt and ended up behind a saxophone player. When he stopped to sit on a bench, I told him “what you’re doing, it’s joyful – it brings me so much joy.” I wrote in my journal. I watched terrible movies. On the Bart, I tuned into the high-pitch squeal of the train over the tracks. I read. I visited with my friends that lived there, and then I hugged them “hello” and hugged them “goodbye.” I visited, and looked with purpose and wonder through the newly-remodeled SF MOMA. Drank wine by myself in the afternoon. I journaled again. I allowed myself to miss my partner; allowed myself to be lonely; to feel alone, and then-–not, lonely. Last month’s blog post was set in the adolescent memory of my parents restaurant named after the World War I fighter Ace Eddie Rickenbackers. Fifteen years later, after my parents long-sold the restaurant, I stumbled upon another Eddie Rickenbacker’s in SOMA (South of Market Street) on my way to somewhere else in San Francisco. Back in Oakland, I wandered onto the Moon Festival Celebration. On Tuesday, at 9 p.m. I accidentally locked my friend Sam and me out of her apartment. I was barefoot, with only a t-shirt and no pants on. She decided that breaking a window would be too expensive, and neither of us could fit through the doggie door, so we took apart the wood around the hole, bit by bit, until it was large enough for me to squeeze through. Another day, I found this restaurant called Small Wonder on Grand Avenue in Oakland that felt like a Hobbit’s home mixed with a curio shop, mixed with the scene in Disney’s “Alice in Wonderland” where Alice falls down the rabbit hole and she’s floating down, down, down. “Freedom is being guided by a mood, not a map,” asserts Rosenbloom from her New York Times travel essay, “Reclaiming the Age-Old Art of Getting Lost” – this feels true, as real as tattooing the question “Let’s go forth, shall we?” on my arm. I walked right into the tattoo parlor, there was no one ahead of me, and Kenny gave me my third tatt on Telegraph Avenue in Berkeley. No regrets.

I get that we have to work. One of my great personal pleasures is the feeling of knocking things off my To Do list. I actually love work, and feeling productive. I don’t want to entirely do away with the executive control center of my brain. But what if we also chose to make space for wonder, novelty, and surprise? What if the non-working, lived-in parts of our lives, were structured around “yes” or “no” responses to that general question “let’s go forth, shall we?” instead of being informed by this culture of preemptiveness and predictability and the need to consult our smartphone apps first before ever making a decision? What experiences could we take back for ourselves? What sort of subjective revelations could we have free from aggregate rating systems and customer reviews? What else could we find along the way?

Stay Backwords,

Jenny M. Chu

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