90,000 Miles to Me

12,350 Miles • Distraction in Texas

Continuing east into Texas:

  • On an official yellow government sign: “High Anxiety Deer Crossing – Next 3 Miles” – Oh, how I regret not stopping to take a picture of this one!
  • Above a trash can at a rest area picnic site: “Garbage disposal for camping only” – sooo, can I not throw away my apple core?
  • On a bilboard in TX: “Honk if you love Jesus – Text if you want to meet Him”
  • Throughout Texas: “Obey Warning Signs – State Law” – Isn’t that a little like saying, “it’s illegal to break the law”?

In Abilene, TX, The Grace Museum is featuring an exhibit that I’ve been looking forward to by artist Shawn Smith called “Deliberate Distraction.” Smith selects 2D pictures of individual animals from the internet, highly pixelates them, and then recreates them in 3D by cutting plywood into small strips, painting and assembling them back into their original pictures. A gorilla, a deer springing, an eagle. I especially liked the rhino lying on the ground, decaying, covered in a wide variety of mushrooms.

Shawn Smith, “Harmony of Decay,” 2018
From the other side. The whole scene was about eight feet long.

I stood and sat near this rhino for quite a while, then went off and looked around at the other exhibits, and came back to it. I’m not quite sure what is drawing me to it so much. It is interesting, but the others he made are also interesting and I wasn’t drawn to them. I can’t quite put my finger on it, but it is something about how the scene feels peaceful. This huge rhino died and now is lying on the ground, becoming part of the earth again, feeding the mushrooms that once fed him.

That’s it. That’s the difference. Because this is a scene, not just the animal separated from any context. And this particular scene appeals to me as it so beautifully captures the cycle of life.

Smith said, ”My work investigates the slippery intersection between the digital world and reality. Specifically, I am interested in how we experience nature through technology.”

The exhibit is titled “Deliberate Distraction” because the two artists featured–Shawn Smith and Rusty Scruby–created objects through an overtly laborious process that is intentionally non-technological. Their methods and creations are specifically hands-on, in part to distract them from digital technologies.

The flip side is that digital technologies do distract, and often far too easily. Why was I itching for my phone while trying to commune with nature in the Cibola National Forest last week? This isn’t new, it happens all the time.

As I was preparing to leave on my grand adventure, I unsubscribed from almost every email subscription, podcast, company newsletter, etc. I only kept the very few that I needed alerts from (and unsubscribed from the rest of their marketing) and the couple that brought me joy when I saw them in my inbox. And I don’t have very many contacts that call or text me, no social media accounts, and not a single game, so when I’m not using my phone as a map or for travel planning, I don’t really need to be on it that much. I could check it twice a day and be fine. And yet I pick it up frequently just to see. Just to check if there is anything new. Even after close to a year on the road. Why do I do that?

A friend recently sent me this podcast episode that explains a lot of it. It is an interview of Tristan Harris, who worked for Google and was disillusioned about how the business model of digital content providers wasn’t built to let users have the freedom to control their time, it was built to take ever more of it. So he co-founded the Center for Humane Technology to bring awareness to how these companies—from the big names like Google and Facebook to every random tiny company making a game for your phone—design their layouts specifically to be addictive without our even noticing.

The podcast is just over an hour and well worth the time. Here’s one tip Tristan gave, and I’ve been using it for about a month and it has made a big difference in how much I itch to check my phone. He suggests turning your display to grayscale. That’s right, get rid of the colors. He explained that the bright colors activate the reward center of the brain so although we don’t feel “high” exactly, we want to keep our eyes on the screen.

Here’s the NY Times article that Tristan and Ezra discuss in the podcast. One quote from it explained this color thing well for me:

Bevil Conway, an investigator at the National Eye Institute, who researches color and emotion: “Color’s not a signal for detecting objects, it’s actually something much more fundamental: It’s for telling us what’s likely to be important,” Mr. Conway said. “If you have lots of color and contrast then you’re under a constant state of attentional recruitment. Your attentional system is constantly going, ‘Look look look over here.’ ”

When I turned my phone to grayscale, at first it looked ugly, but I decided to give it a fair try and within a few days I was used to it. At this point, when I turn the color back on for something, it feels overstimulating.

And that’s Tristan’s other big point. To make this grayscale setting work, you have to be able to turn the color back on easily to take a picture or watch a video when you want. On the iPhone, you can set your accessibility settings to let you switch back and forth with just a triple click of the home button. Here’s an article on how to set that up.

So now my phone is in black and white, and I’m really liking it better. It feels more like a tool that I can choose to use and less like something I’m itching for constantly. That itch isn’t gone, as there is a lot more to the addicting design than just color, but it is definitely reduced. And I can still turn on the color easily to take some pretty landscape photos for you.

Leaving Abilene, I’m heading toward Houston to visit some friends and pick up my new water pump, with a stop along the way in Waco, TX, to see some ancient mammoth remains. I’m very excited about this. And about the water pump.

More signs in Texas:

  • “Stink Creek”
  • “Bitter Creek”
  • In Dublin, TX: “Milk and Mud Soap Company” – Is this supposed to sound appealing?
  • In Meridian, TX: “Wrong Turn Ranch”