Peripheral attention

KQED aired a nice reflection on our dog park. It’s very hard to spend time there without smiling a lot. Some dogs, like pugs and X-doodles, just have a direct line to the human smile reflex, but all the dogs are in heaven and show it.  Dogs are made to run, so being off-leash causes a lot of canine joy.  They also have a sort of metaphoric lesson for us.  I don’t think they have better morals than people, or any morals actually, but it’s striking how little dogs attend to what color or breed or size other dogs are. It’s all about smell for a dog; they’re not breedists or sizeists or colorists.

Acosta also notes that people seemed more willing to engage with strangers there than on a sidewalk or even an ordinary public park. I think this is probably true, and illustrates a more general behavioral principle, like the faculty common room, which no-one will enter if it doesn’t have newspapers or coffee, even though its value is chatting with colleagues, and the damage inflicted on family life by the dishwasher.   Maybe this varies across cultures, but few people I know will commit to a social interaction with anyone not already an intimate without a putative practical agenda, and the more important the interaction might be affectively, the more this is true. Even people who take the plunge to date usually put in a frame of eating or seeing a show (though the latter is surely the worst first date, as a museum is the best).  At the dog park, we have the dogs, and you can always ask the dog’s person what breed it is, or just compliment the pooch. I don’t see a lot of singles being coupled up by their dogs there, but it must happen.

Berkeley seems to be a much more integrated campus than Stanford, where it seems people  collaborate much less across schools and departments.  I credit our architecture: Berkeley is small and hilly, while Stanford is big and flat.  We walk, they bike.  I don’t know anyone who will get off a bike seeing a colleague approach on the chance the colleague wants to exchange a few words, any more than I will go into a faculty lounge thinking, “I wonder if anyone in here wants to talk to me?”  That’s what I’m hoping for, but I have to tell myself I’m going in for a cup of coffee or to read the paper.  On foot, I risk rejection a lot less; I can slow down, smile, and make eye contact, and we can almost subconsciously arrange to  pass by or not very quickly and with no scary commitment like going through a door or getting off a bike.

The dishwasher displaced a family ritual of washing dishes that has no good substitute (I wonder what kind of social interaction rich people with servants have/had?).  Sitting around the table at dinner, people are looking at each other and anything that comes up, especially if it’s at all risky or awkward, is an agenda item.  But washing the dishes, we were ‘officially’ doing a chore, and not face to face. It was a lot easier to bring up a touchy or risky question.  Not being face to face has a lot going for it in enabling honesty, I think. As in being side by side in a car seat, or sitting around spinning or sewing, as women used to do for hours.  Aaron Wildavsky was famous for having meetings on the hoof, which was a good idea partly because using large muscle groups seems to be good for mentation, but also because the setting was better than sitting across a table looking at each other, and on a walk, the time to the end is implicit physically, and the meeting can’t be ended unilaterally on either side. So one knows when there’s just enough time to open the kind of difficult issue that begins with “By the way, I was thinking…”

People manage this kind of stuff subconsciously, but architecture and social conventions might be more useful if we were more attentive to this paradox.  Hunters know that to see game stirring, one should not look where you expect it, because your peripheral vision is more sensitive to movement than your high-resolution central field.  People need structures in which important or scary stuff is peripheral and incidental to a putative, explicit purpose, and the purpose has to be fairly mindless, physically proximal, quiet, and reasonably private.  A lot of things we do ‘together’ don’t work (playing tennis, playing computer games, hearing a concert, watching TV) and things that do work (handwashing dishes, board games, painting an apartment, weeding, threshing, cleaning fish and plucking chickens) we do less than our grandparents.


Author: Michael O'Hare

Professor of Public Policy at the Goldman School of Public Policy, University of California, Berkeley, Michael O'Hare was raised in New York City and trained at Harvard as an architect and structural engineer. Diverted from an honest career designing buildings by the offer of a job in which he could think about anything he wanted to and spend his time with very smart and curious young people, he fell among economists and such like, and continues to benefit from their generosity with on-the-job social science training. He has followed the process and principles of design into "nonphysical environments" such as production processes in organizations, regulation, and information management and published a variety of research in environmental policy, government policy towards the arts, and management, with special interests in energy, facility siting, information and perceptions in public choice and work environments, and policy design. His current research is focused on transportation biofuels and their effects on global land use, food security, and international trade; regulatory policy in the face of scientific uncertainty; and, after a three-decade hiatus, on NIMBY conflicts afflicting high speed rail right-of-way and nuclear waste disposal sites. He is also a regular writer on pedagogy, especially teaching in professional education, and co-edited the "Curriculum and Case Notes" section of the Journal of Policy Analysis and Management. Between faculty appointments at the MIT Department of Urban Studies and Planning and the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard, he was director of policy analysis at the Massachusetts Executive Office of Environmental Affairs. He has had visiting appointments at Università Bocconi in Milan and the National University of Singapore and teaches regularly in the Goldman School's executive (mid-career) programs. At GSPP, O'Hare has taught a studio course in Program and Policy Design, Arts and Cultural Policy, Public Management, the pedagogy course for graduate student instructors, Quantitative Methods, Environmental Policy, and the introduction to public policy for its undergraduate minor, which he supervises. Generally, he considers himself the school's resident expert in any subject in which there is no such thing as real expertise (a recent project concerned the governance and design of California county fairs), but is secure in the distinction of being the only faculty member with a metal lathe in his basement and a 4×5 Ebony view camera. At the moment, he would rather be making something with his hands than writing this blurb.

11 thoughts on “Peripheral attention”

  1. One of our funny family stories is about “The Talk” with my then 13 year old daughter. I realized that a 2 hour drive home from a soccer game, on a largely rural interstate in northern New England would be ideal. The setting meant that it was natural to avoid eye contact, in fact it was easy for her to look out the side window, and I of course had to keep my eyes on the road. Also, she couldn’t get away (perfect!). This was before ipods and widespread ownership of cellphones by teens (she did not yet have one), and we did not have a dvd player in the car, so it may no longer work quite so well.

    She has an older brother, and my wife and I were pretty clear that, up to a point, we took pride, even felt joy, not so much in being able to embarrass them (anyone can do that with suitably bad behavior), but more in being embarrassing to them and their teen aesthetic; that we were amused that things that they had adored about us when just a bit younger now embarrassed them in front of their peers. This was part of that.

    A couple of years later, She told me that in her HS health class, the teacher asked how many children had had “The Talk” with their parents. She raised her hand, described the situation, and got a big laugh in the class.

  2. Your observation seems valid. I think there may be a substantial neurologic component working along with psycologic distraction of busy work.

    My wife reported that her young riding students would share their deepest secrets with her while on horseback. This aspect of riding she later developed into a very effective therapeutic riding program.

    It turns out that walking and horseback riding both stimulate the same neuro pathways and have the effect of stimulating speech centers in the brain. This makes those activities perfect to enhance speech therapy as well as just talking things out.
    The biggest advantages to Therapeutic horseback riding for kids are:
    1)The client thinks it is play so they are open and relaxed.
    2)The parent/social worker think it’s play (so they butt out).
    3)The session is moving so the parent/social worker have limited access (see #2)

    As well as taking meetings for a walk in the park I’m sure education could benefit from a mobile approach. With the advent of mobile digital devices the class “room” could be revolutionized into a walking chatauqua.

    I susspect that all busy work kinds of activities have a similar effect on the human brain. They are also good at stimulating singing as my family knows when I’m puttering. Warning: If you sing while pushing a lawn mower be aware that your singing is much louder than you think.

  3. 1. Dogs do have morals. They observe canine property rights, for example, distinguishing between theft (not so bad) and robbery (verboten). They’re just not the same as human morals. They’re more tribal than even we are.
    2. All observations on human interactions comport with my experience, but I’m not sure that they are very universal. Faculty members are a fairly ill-socialized tribe, although individual exceptions exist.

  4. I once spent an afternoon cleaning dirt off potatoes under a farm shed. The day was hot, but there was a breeze off the summit of the next field. My companion and I told stories to each other about our families for two or three hours straight. I would never have sat still for that without the hand work we were doing.

    I came home and I realized what an interesting person she was (that I normally would have thought a little boring, sadly). Also, that this is how every day used to be for most people. Also, that these settings were exactly where songs, poetry, stories, and myths were created — primarily, to pass the time.

    Now the only remnant we have of this is the time we spend driving with others (mainly kids) on a long trip. And we’ve diligently replaced communication (and songs … and poetry … and folklore) with Disney DVD screens in the back seat.

  5. Brilliant post. I think walking meetings are a fine idea, though I assume you could really only have two people? (And on a practical level, make sure one of you isn’t wearing heels. If so, that person is probably in pain and is only pretending to not mind.)

    Whereas larger groups can be very problematic, which is one reason I don’t always enjoy parties. Maneuvering skills don’t come naturally to some of us, yet they are crucial in parties or bars or at other events. They should teach it in school!

  6. Come to think of it, maybe they do teach it in school. I was recently at a hospital and when the surgeon came over to talk to us after surgery, he stood in front of, but sort of sideways to the two of us, not directly in front of us. It seemed a little odd, but not in any way unpleasant. I still haven’t figured it out.

  7. What a wonderful post. It seems more and more that as the pace of new forms of living quickens, we are challenged to engage in this kind of insight. As it becomes harder to rely on forms of living that we had previously gravitated towards unconsciously, or through vaguely tacit approval of traditional structures that may have lasted centuries or more, we can no longer rely on tradition to provide at least a benign guidance. Of course you could argue that tradition hasn’t always been benign, but if you’re going to embrace iconoclasty, you must first be *conscious* of what it was your were doing and what you are now going to do.

    And here maybe is where we all find ourselves faced with the existential angst of change and relativism. “Oh my God, I no longer wash dishes by hand – how can I replace that meaningful exercise?”, or “Why bother collecting records when everything is online, all the time?”. As the pace of economic and cultural change only seems to grow, our worlds can seem to unravel.

    This is also likely a function of age as well. Now in my mid-thirties, I think I’m just beginning to grasp the age-old lament of mid and later life: that the world seems more and more like the view out the window of a speeding train, and less like the view of the interior cabin. I suppose this has been classified as a fear of ultimate mortality. But it seems more a recognition of the transient nature of time itself.

    So what to make then of attempts to find stability – to find a sense of *real meaning* in this modern chaos? What if an increasing effort to be conscious of what we are gaining or losing as modes of life change, turns out to simply create a net increase in stress and anguish? Karen Armstrong and others have claimed that the extreme version of this sense of threatened rootlessness and assault by modernity is the driving force behind fundamentalism. Its hard not to see their point.

    Ironically, when one is in a permanent state of reaction, one would also seem to be quite rootless. The more one attaches oneself to moving targets, always allowing oneself to be framed by them, defined by their gravity, the more chaotic the world becomes. Like a boat caught in a fast-moving river, resisting the flow is a full-time job. Of course, the only alternative is to let go.

    And yet here we are again (in the same boat?), struggling to orient ourselves and try and steer however we can. It is an unavoidable fact that the modern river is all around us and there is no stopping it. I suppose the question to ask ourselves is how much worrying we can withstand as we sail into oblivion?

  8. Agreed, a museum is an excellent first date. It’s an especially great first date of one of the parties hates museums and the other loves them (in such a case, there usually isn’t a second date).

    But a movie (or concert or opera or play) isn’t that awful a first date, if it’s not the end of the date. If you go out for coffee/tea and pie/ice cream or dinner afterwards, the shared performance gives you something to talk about. If it was a thought-provoking movie (Hotel Rwanda or The Last Seduction) so much the better. I’m not sure where seeing Hangover 2 would leave a prospective couple.

  9. Scrumptious thinks, thanks. However, there’s an important if fuzzy line between subjects suitable for discussion in a car and those that drive the driver to distraction. My good wife has thankfully finally learned not to deploy the latter, mostly.

  10. Dennis: “I’m not sure where seeing Hangover 2 would leave a prospective couple.”

    The prospective bride would know if she needed to arrange for a ‘designated sane person’ to be in the bachelor party.

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