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:

...one 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 w