The world is an unbelievable place. You have to open your eyes every day to see it. Your waking moment anchors you to reality. From sleepy morning blinking, to the sharply focused motions of your working hours, eyes are our main resource for understanding: we see, we identify, we comprehend.
But seeing does more than show us the world around us, it allows us to place ourselves in context of what we see. It has a direct role in developing our sense of identity, drawing us to what we aesthetically like, repelling us from what we cannot bare to look at, showing us the limits of what we are able or unable to witness. We develop personal appreciations – some, of course, are universal, like sunsets. Instagram, we know, is lousy with dusks – but we are connected by the instinctive draw of natural beauty and this idea of the ‘real world’ being generally aesthetically pleasing. Sight unites us in a shared experience, it is perhaps the most connective of the senses.
Seeing also allows you to go beyond the physical. We ‘see’ the supernatural, ‘see’ through someone, ‘see’ the bigger picture. Using the verb of ‘seeing’ in these myriad idioms implies ‘seeing’ has a depth to it that belies biological limitation, transcending into mystical territory. Seeing doesn’t stop at the outline, it becomes a whole new system for feeling your way around and interpreting reality. There is no better example of this than the blind or visually impaired, who are able to use instinct and a combination of other senses to ‘see’. This version of ‘sight’ is so powerful a mechanism that in spiritualist religions and meditations they often speak of a ‘third eye’, used to navigate what goes beyond physical comprehension. ‘Eyes at the back of your head’ is another, if slightly unsavoury co-opting of optical ability. Heads up, future scientists: no thanks.
There is more. Some have the ability to show us what they see. Artists have long turned common scenes into stunning ones for audiences throughout the decades; metaphysical poets have famously conjured images for the reader, to burn forever on a shared mental retina. There is a shared gallery in our minds, so distinct, that if you mention them to a room of people, of any culture or creed, they will know: da Vinci’s Mona Lisa, Botticelli’s The Birth of Venus, neatly expressing the amazing human ability to share sight congruously. Technology, in its ruthless progress, has come to present its own imagined worlds. It often imitates the function of eyesight or hijacks it – VR headsets with games like the god-simulation of Sims, the brutality of Grand Theft Auto, have become the new shared markers situations and worlds we don’t know. These pictures don’t stay quiet and safe on a gallery wall, coming to life in every bedroom or living room in the world. Outside of the entertainment industry, military and athletic simulations also alter our seeing, for instance preparing soldiers for warfare far more successfully than soldiers of the past – how our seeing is used for dubious entertainments and social practices might soon be a new moral question.
We are increasingly confronted with an idea of ‘looking – but better’. Screens have got in the way of our natural view and in some cases elbowed sight out altogether. Take the experience of being in the crowd at Glastonbury Festival; 20,000 people at least can have a truly individual view of the spectacle via the 4:8 screen, the experience occurring between the realm of there/not there – surely in years to come the ease in which you can attend/not attend will have a harmful effect on the entertainment economy: why hold a concert at all if you can stay at home? We are literally taking ourselves out of real situations in order to see it through narrower, virtual corridors. At the same time, these screens begin to fracture: you watch a gig on the stage, the stage screen, your iPhone held in front of you, the other thousand iPhone screens in your line of vision, and maybe someone’s professional digital camera. Your sight is effectively cracked into shards that show you different perspectives, none of them the real one.
These obstructions of screens in front of screens create a life of smoke and mirrors. And soon, we may no longer be able to see by ourselves at all. By introducing children to blue light and pixels at their earliest infancy, a whole generation is facing a future with weak eyesight and suffering from ‘computer eye syndrome’ accelerating myopic issues that would usually occur in adults over 50. Globally, a child could spend up to 418 minutes in a day looking at their phone, and the harm is, as we know, not just physical. It’s also psychological. The emergence of ‘digital grazing’ or the ‘instagram effect’ is warned against by scientists at the Oxford Laboratory as it aggravates our natural instincts, and our unnatural ones, encouraging either overeating or not eating at all. Aesthetics, it seems, are just as addictive as sugar or fat and our eyes, as they scroll through imagery of symmetrical meals or colourful bakes, trigger us constantly.
Yet if we come to live in a world of augmented realities, will it be more than our access to sight that suffers? Perhaps our links to reality, and thus consequence, will suffer too. In a dream world, what could you possibly do wrong? While we are still adjusting to VR headsets, we are also seeing the introduction of Google and Snapchat glasses, which literally cover our eyes, blinkering our perceptions and showing us other worlds that remove us from our own, taking with it our sense of reality, trust and faith in what we see. The concern is that along with our eyesight, new tech will take away our other forms of sight. Our instincts, our intuition, our identity. It’s not all doom and gloom; there’s still so much out there to see, whether you go to the other side of the world to snorkel in a Sydney bay or stay dry and visit Monet’s lilypads in the National Gallery (side note: cannot guarantee London weather, might still be drizzly, sorry). But whatever the future brings, let’s remember that trading the blue light for the blue sky is always more likely to open worlds rather than lock us in them.