No perspicacity
A column by Erlhoff Michael
Jun 4, 2015

What happens if we simply believe our eyes and always go by the images we see?

There is no denying it: Our social reality is determined by the pathos of vision. And most evidently many of the words used to describe knowledge are closely bound up with seeing: insight, perspective, enlightenment, aspects, farsightedness, and much more besides.

The reason for this is rooted in man’s upright gait, which for some reason persuaded us to think that we are distinct from the animals and able to dispense with animals’ immediate near senses. Slaves are in bondage, “having visions” is considered fantastic, “hearing voices” deemed downright off the wall. Indeed, there is a certain “school of vision” that appears to believe or make us believe that it is possible to see images without our being influenced by any of the other senses.

Now, you might argue that there is no escaping our near senses as human beings – our senses of smell, taste and touch are at work, inevitably and permanently. Far more exciting in this context is the shortsightedness that has come to the fore in conjunction with the pathos of vision. Take the urban space, for example, which from very early on caused our gaze to shorten, for all we were interested in were footpaths, roads (including the vehicles moving on them), and perhaps the shop windows. That’s all that was needed to survive in the city – and it inspired the architects at a firm in Cologne to run an amazing project. “Lift Your Eyes” is what they wrote on the city’s downtown sidewalks in an effort to prompt those who followed the invitation to be amazed by the new prospects opening up before them. Sadly, even this is now firmly behind us, for the majority of people today are busy studying the monitors of their smartphones. They are glued to the tiny screens, completely absorbed, attracted by the constantly changing facts allegedly displayed on them. People have become shortsighted and yet at the same time are convinced they are laying eyes on the whole world in the glow of their smartphone displays. Which in fact only shows their own personal realm, namely the world they have constructed for themselves through apps and Twitter, Facebook and other communication channels. The result: We are so preoccupied with moving around our own little bubble that we have lost the ability to notice what is boiling up around us.

It is very much by accident that the outer world occasionally puts in an appearance, and that is the case when we trip, bump into others, or fall flat on our faces. To combat this, cities like Hong Kong have introduced intercom messages displayed on all public escalators to inform users to take their eyes off their smartphones for safety reasons. After all, whether you like it or not, there is a hard-and-fast reality beyond the self-centeredness so promoted by the use of smartphones – and the shortsightedness that comes with it. Even if some of us nowadays have trouble keeping these two realities separate. “This morning I was shot,” a boy on the streetcar tells me. It baffled me to think how he was able to get on.

And the outlook is grim. The reason: Engineers and those working in design have long since pondered the possibility of using those glasses that are supposed to double up as monitors for the data delivered by the smartphone. And the rest of the world. This is something that will inevitably lead to a sensational blur of visions; after all nobody will be able to distinguish between play and external reality any longer. Life will become imagination – full of longings and fears, forever shaped by the information on our phone.

So be it. It was roughly 150 years ago that scientist Hermann von Helmholtz (correctly) stated that even though we believe to see, for example, right angles and parallel lines, this is merely an illusion, for the human eye is not actually able to discern them. It’s all in the imagination.

Michael Erlhoff

He is an author, design theorist, corporate consultant, curator and organizer; he has been, among other things, CEO of the German Design Council, Advisory Council member of documenta 8 and Founding Dean (and until 2013 professor at) of the Köln International School of Design/KISD. Erlhoff was founder of the Raymond Loewy Foundation, is a founding member of the German Society of Design Theory and Research and as a visiting professor heads projects and workshops at universities in Tokyo, Nagoya, Fukuoka, Hangzhou, Shanghai, Taipei, Hong Kong, New York and Sydney.