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.

[Cross-posted at Same Facts]

Michael O’Hare

Michael O'Hare is a Professor of Public Policy at the University of California, Berkeley.