[OPINION] Peripheral vision in the age of technology

Once on a plane trip to Durban, a man sat next to me and as soon as it was okay to turn electronics on, he opened his laptop and started working.

Even though I was busy reading, I could not help but be intrigued by his screen. Without actually turning toward the screen and using my central field of focus, I could basically gather enough information to figure out what he was working on.

From my side eyes, I saw he had a heavy budget document open, outlining financial indicators for a list of clients. All of them were alcoholic beverage brands and liquor stores. Big ones, like Solly Kramers and Norman Goodfellows.

In another window he had his Microsoft Outlook open. All his emails matched the theme of the document. Back and forth exchanges between himself and representatives from the aforementioned companies and brands.

I made no conscious effort to look at any of this.

It drove me a little bit mad. I am a private person myself and I am always aware of the privacy of others. I don’t mind anyone’s business. Not actively, not passively. But this constant need for my peripheral vision to pay attention started to bother me. Why was I being so weird?

Then, I started thinking about evolution. I became very aware and conscious of the use of other devices all around me - phones, iPads, Kindles and the like. I watched other passengers and noticed how their eyes also strayed towards the screen. Everyone was doing it. Not just me. Have we become more inquisitive? Is this due to the fact that social media makes us feel entitled to all sorts of information, so we cannot help but look? Is our peripheral vision improving because of this? And if so, what could the evolutionary advantage of that be?

Homo sapiens developed peripheral vision as a tool for survival. Back in the day, our ancestors wanted to procreate - they still do. It’s what guarantees the survival of the human race. But there were a lot of baddies out there, actual physical threats. Animals, other tribes etc. Because evolution is based on survival of the fittest, if your peripheral vision was not developed, you died – basically. Peripheral vision falls under the “fittest” category. And so it developed over time and got added to the gene pool.

This vision allowed homo sapiens to recognise movement or irregularities in their peripheries. It still does, although not to the extent that it did before. In the modern world, we are made to feel safe by a host of things – like engineering, alarms – a bunch of stuff. We don’t live in the wild with no fences, for example.

But we still have peripheral vision. We can’t always make out what those blurry shapes moving on the sides of our head are because our brains are too busy taking care of our central vision. But our saccadic movement is pretty fast. That means: human sees blur from the side of the eye. Human recognises that blur is moving or irregular. Human changes focus quickly and precisely to focus central vision on said irregularity. The speed at which we can do this compensates for the poor quality of image we see from the side of our eyes to begin with.

Factually, we already use our peripheral vision for a whole host of things. Picking up our coffee while reading the paper - for example. We don’t need to shift our eyes to know it’s there. Our peripheries let us know this information and then our brain reacts. Or, in a more modern day example, how about when we’re bonding with friends? We don’t want to pull our phones out when we’re trying to be good friends and make eye contact with our buddies while they’re telling us about their latest walk of shame. What we do want to do is check our phones though. It has sadly become human nature. Peripheral vision allows us to place our phones on the table, turn it on silent out of respect and maintain eye contact. And without even thinking, we can be aware of whether someone has Whatsapped us, or whether a Tinder notification has just come in.

If this skill is embedded in us for the recognition of irregularities and possible threats, why do we do it with other people’s screen? Are they threatening? Do we want to know if these machines are tracking some kind of secure info and planning a destructive hack? So we look to make sure? They’re definitely not irregularities. Devices are the norm. In fact, they have become so normal they are actually quite boring. Still, we look. Maybe we’re preparing for the day when robots take over and the human race is under threat. Our peripheral vision will know they’re coming, be so advanced that we will be able to recognise what said robots are programmed to do and our brains will help us do what we can in order to survive.

I don’t know. I can tell you this though, the man sitting next to me as I type this is texting his wife to ask her if she needs anything from the store.

Haji Mohamed Dawjee is a commentator on gender equality, sexuality, culture, race relations and feminism as well as ethics in the South African media environment.