SXSW 2015

The More You Know, The Less You See

Photos by Yuki Kho

The doors of Salon 3 in the JW Marriott Austin open and people quickly find a place to sit. Most of them on chairs, some need to squat on the carpeted floor. Everyone’s equipped with a smartphone, extra charger and plastic badge around their neck. I am at SXSW Interactive, a large annual congregation of people interested in design, art and technology.

It’s Monday and SXSW has been on for a couple of days now. I’ve heard many topnotch speakers feed their specialist knowledge to a hungry crowd. When I step on stage, I know I won’t speak from a specialist perspective. The contrary. The title of my talk is “Unspecialize, the more you know the less you see”.

Once upon a time, I had a dream. A dream to live abroad. I went to intern in Japan. In Tokyo, I’d do a double take on every street corner. The merit of being somewhere for the first time is that there’s so much new to see and discover… Every day, on my way to work, I crossed a really big intersection. Thousands of faces I would only see once in my life. I realized I was surrounded by people I knew very little about. One day I thought of using the 47 seconds of green traffic light for what turned into the Intersection Interviews.

I enjoyed discovering so many new things, but while looking around I realized I was the exception, rather than the rule: most commuters didn’t pay any attention to their surroundings. To them, there was nothing new to discover. So what happens, is that familiarity to your surroundings also constrains your receptiveness to discovery. And that exact same thing happened to me back home.

In The Netherlands, I took the same tram, every day. The first few trips, I really enjoyed looking around. After a while, I lost the urge to curiously look out the window. Why would you, when there is no reason to expect anything new. I decided to change the daily journey for my fellow passengers and myself. I wanted to make something that turns what already exists into something very different.

Two stickers allow you to see even the most familiar places in a new light. To me, it’s interesting to be reminded that.. what you and I see isn’t the same. Even the same street, can be so many streets for different people. A biologist might focus on the threes, while a maintenance engineer directly spots a defect lamppost.

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Familiarity, but also knowledge constrain discovery. And then there is technology: the Man-Eater is played and picked up by many people. But, there is one group of people not playing: people on their phones. A group that only grows bigger, regardless of culture. That was my cue for a new project and so I started working on a game on your phone that prompts people to look up from their phone.

Cucalu challenges you to look for round, square and triangular-shaped things in your environment. Take a photo, then rate the discoveries of fellow players and be rewarded for your own findings. Cucalu rewards curiosity.

When Cucalu launched, I found it hard to predict how people would use it. Every day, I’d open my laptop to discover how people from different nationalities were actively changing their perspective. Step by step, we were, and still are, building the world’s largest collection of round things.

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Everyday I try to stay curious. And sometimes I manage to bring others into a mode of inquisitiveness. A mode of creating space to delve into subjects not in direct line with their own profession or daytime activities. But by looking at others and myself I don’t think it’s strange most of us have difficulties staying curious. Responsibilities in daily life and work can heavily weigh on our shoulders. Curiosity beyond your own specialism might also not seem rewarding. Have you ever found yourself talking to someone who is really knowledgeable about a subject that feels alien to you? It can be very intimidating, and you’ll never be on par with that expert anyway.

You can stay where you are, and go on the occasional holiday. Though, if you make space to unspecialize, I am sure you end up seeing a whole lot more in your everyday life.