November 23, 2020

VISUAL NATIVES

40,000 BC

The brutal summer sun scorched the landscape bone-dry. The bull elk was reduced to licking a puddle of muddy water where the riverbed once was. She raised her bow, taking aim. Suddenly the elk bellowed, and bolted. Her brother stood up, desperately cursing the missed opportunity. He failed to notice the tawny feline form just 20 feet from him. From the corner of her eyes, she caught the slightest change in the tone of the grass. Before she could scream, the lion launched its 250 kilo body onto her brother. He never had a chance.

She lay face-down in terror. The lion raised his bloody maw, and sniffed the air.

She peered through the grass, but the beast was gone. How did an animal so large melt into the flat landscape so easily? She slowly got to her feet, but her legs shook uncontrollably as she pulled her bow string tight. The lion’s ears twitched at the creaking of her bow. In a split second, the killer hurled itself towards the sound, letting out a deafening roar.

Comic illustrated by Alan Chen


Her vision narrowed, catching sight of the beast, and her hands let loose the arrow. The lion’s body fell at her feet, the arrow buried deep in its eye socket.

WE EVOLVED TO SEE

Since our early dawn, we have been using our sight to make sense of the world around us. From identifying predators, to understanding weather patterns, to following herds of grazing animals, and recognising medicinal herbs from poisonous ones. Our very history as human beings is rooted in how we see and perceive the world. Our vision went through a process of selective evolution in order to become our primary sensemaking tool. And while our spoken word and gestures were developed some 500,000 years ago, it wasn’t until much later that we transcended these ephemeral communications with the use of symbols and imagery. With the advent of drawn imagery, we suddenly developed the power to communicate over time.

Today, our ability to communicate visually is as essential as it was back then. From street signs, to emojis, emails to videos, graffiti to post-it note sketches - these are part of the human experience. Try to imagine a world where none of this exists; we would be removing an essential ingredient of who we are. And yet, despite its value  and the nearly half million years of development, most of us only use our eyes to sense rather than to observe. Observation is about discerning. It allows us to purposefully take in data, organise that into relevant information, and then distill it into knowledge. 


The dissemination and consumption of knowledge is a lengthy process, which often starts with specific intent. It is the opposite to aimlessly scrolling through social media, or producing densely packed colourful ads. Knowing what to look at, and how to reach people visually starts with observing and understanding. The problem is, in this modern world, we don’t feel that the stakes are about life and death. With so many channels, mediums and methods to communicate, we don’t have to pay as much attention to the details or deeper intent - right?


Picture a reality where green is the only colour available. Other colours simply do not exist. The sky is green, the water is green, you’re green. Now try to find a way to visually attract someone’s attention. Your message is likely to disappear into the background by virtue of the visual ubiquitousness. Research shows that we use our eyes to manage 80% of all the information we will ever use, yet it is estimated that today we see on average 4000 - 10,000 ads per day.

We cram our eyes with stuff almost every minute of the day, getting to the  point of visual and mental saturation. Everything is green.

Everything is green - Illustrated by Diana Ayoub


THE DIGITAL JUNGLE

Now that we’ve created this digital jungle for ourselves, how do we navigate it? Walking through any jungle requires caution and focus. Blundering through is not only foolish, it’s dangerous. There are numerous health issues we are only beginning to understand by being constantly “plugged in”. In many ways, our eyes are the first external barrier to what enters our system. It makes sense to train ourselves so we know what we’re looking for and what we should avoid. 

Plugged in - Illustrated by Diana Ayoub

If we are to believe the average screen time statistics - 3.5 hrs daily average for adults, 4.75 hrs for children, and 7.5 hrs for teenagers- then our ability to filter what we see is more important than ever. 


So what happened to our brave  survivor? Her genes are alive in us, passed down over successive generations. It helps us when we drive,  hunt for specials at the supermarket, or swipe left when we don’t like the ‘look’. It is actually a matter of life and death. We just have to learn to see it that way.


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