Three Rules

On Looking, by Alexandra Horowitz, is an excellent work of non-fiction with a premise that intrigued me from the first time I heard about it. 

Ms. Horowitz has written previously about dogs and how their sense of the world differs from ours, and On Looking is a natural outgrowth of that concept. In it, she takes a dozen walks, sometimes around the block where she lives, sometimes in other locations, but each time with a different person (plus once with her dog and once, at the end of the book, by herself). What each person sees is different; from her nineteen month old son to the geologist, the illustrator, the social worker and advocate for the blind who is blind herself, the president of the Project for Public Spaces, and others, she experiences her surroundings differently in every chapter.

Things she has seen but not seen, buildings she has passed a hundred times without going in or even knowing what work was being done inside, sounds pointed out by both the audio specialist and the blind social worker, the activities and clues about the presence of animal life identified by the animal behavior researcher who specializes in urban wildlife; every walk is a chance to expand her understanding of the world she moves through daily. Each unfolds at a different pace and includes unexpected pauses to examine, listen to, or feel some aspect of the environment.

The appearance of a flock of birds in flight leads to an explanation of the three rules that govern much of animal group movement, from birds to fish to insects:

Don’t bump into others.

Follow the one in front of you.

Keep up with those beside you.

Computer models programming a group of discrete points on the monitor to follow these three rules result, when the dots are set in motion, in a display that looks remarkably like birds in flight. There are interesting parallels at work in Horowitz’s book; from the rules governing the movement of animal groups to the sophisticated micro signals smoothing out the movement of people using the sidewalks of a major city, both of which function to allow large groups to move smoothly in the same specific area.

I also wondered, and still do, how much of human group behavior can be explained by the three rules, and how much conflict results when one or a group of us ignores or sabotages them. Stepping outside the rules is also how progress is often made, of course, so there’s that.

The book left me more sensitive, at least temporarily, to the nuances of the world around me and how much more there is to experience than I usually let in as I move through the day. I know the unconscious screening process we all use helps keep us both safe and sane, given the staggering amount of info there is out there. Still, it’s good to now and then be reminded of the existence of those filters so we can bypass them for a moment or two. It can surprise us and refresh the world, or at least our view of it.

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