See how we see

Nicholas Mirzoeff

Nicholas Mirzoeff’s How to See the World, a book that contains some fairly obvious observations, but also some less obvious ones, makes the point that that our culture is a particularly visual one, and that the way we are seeing the world changes. Note how mobile phones are becoming less about sound and more about images. Because of the multitasking nature of our contemporary world, we have better peripheral vision and can process images faster. Presumably, there is a corresponding loss of ability to think deeply about what we are seeing (witness Twitter).

There is a lot of widely roaming description, from the rise of the ‘selfie’ to visualising battlefields to civil rights struggles, which is interesting enough, but Mirzoeff’s goal is to help us see how we see, and how we don’t see. We are surrounded by information to the point of overload and so we filter, often in line with our likes and prejudices. Or we are taught what to see and what not to see. (It is interesting to observe children’s unfiltered looking.) In his descriptions of the Arab Spring and the Occupy Wall Street sit-ins Mirzoeff notes the way the ubiquity of shared information rubs up against the need for authorities to suppress information, though Mirzoeff is wary of any firm conclusions about what lessons to draw. It is an oddly open-ended book, with the author topic-jumping, perhaps in imitation of the way particularly our internet culture works. Reading the book is not dissimilar to the way clicking around the internet leads you from one topic to the next in seemingly simultaneously logical and random fashion.

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