My new, non-automated life


October 4, 2012 by anelim

One of the most fascinating effects of moving to a new place is that for a few days and weeks nothing is obvious and everything requires attention. The same happens when migrating into a new language, but right now I’m thinking of my interaction with physical surroundings – something Goffman would think about, if he hadn’t been so preoccupied with micro-interactions with humans. I have to admit that I am a bit of a Latourian, after all.

I grappled with this sensation a bit here, but today I want to be a legislator (or a car mechanic) instead of a poet. Here is a blunt list of the minutiae of my new, non-automatised life, quoted from my internal conversation – think of these as citations from an ongoing interview with myself which I record in my memory in lieu of a voice-recorder. In fact, you don’t need to read the list.

  • How far is work? How far is home? How on earth do I cycle in the middle of the road? Ah, that’s a bike lane and everybody does it. OK then…
  • When are national holidays? What happens when there is one? (one happened to be on the very next day, 3 October and I was dying to find out).
  • What kind of stuff can you buy in a pharmacy? What does it mean when someone tells you that “private healthcare in Germany is very cheap”? (I did ask. It turned out that a “simple consultation costs no more than 70 Euro”. I was so shocked I almost choked on my tea).
  • What time do shops close in the evening?
  • How do I ask the shop assistant, well, anything?
  • Are bags free in the supermarket?
  • How cold does it get in the evenings?
  • What does the S-Bahn ticket say – I mean, I understand the words, but somehow the meaning doesn’t quite make sense. Can I really take any type of transport within 2 hours? Let me read the instructions again…
  • Which way is the exit from the metro? Yes, I see the arrow. But it is ambiguous. Everything is ambiguous. I feel stupid and slow.
  • How many bikers are likely to overtake me on the bike lane at 8 pm on a weekday? How fast and how impatiently are they likely to be? Will they honk or will they just whizz past?
  • How much pressure do I need to apply on the bike lock in order to lock or unlock it?
  • The key in the front gate doesn’t turn. A moment of panic as I turn it again and again in the dark, my hands full of shopping bags and a bike.
  • I’m in. How long do I have before the light in the staircase goes off?
  • Ah, the light has now really gone off and I’m already up the stairs. How many steps are there between floor 1 and 2? How high is each steps? Where is the banister?
  • Where are the light switches located?
  • Is this thing my fingers have just found on the wall in the dark the light switch or the neighbour’s doorbell?
  • Which of the two keylocks should I unlock first, the top or the bottom one? Which way to turn the key?  And which of the two round keys belongs to which lock?
  • How fast will the water evaporate from the pot with boiling potatoes on this cooker?
  • In which drawer are the tea spoons?
  • When I get up at night, do I turn left or right to get to the kitchen?
The mystery of an everyday object never seen before (Photo: Idle Ethnographer, 2012)
Actually,  I hope that you didn’t read that list. Just looking at its length should be enough to appreciate how much of our normal everyday life is routinised and automatised.  We tend to think of ‘automati(sati)on’ as something pertaining to mechanical apparatuses used for efficiency, but in fact we all use multiple simpler automatisation techniques all the time. Part of the problems encountered e.g. by people with Alzheimer’s disease or stroke survivors is that they begin to forget how to do things usually seen in our culture as simple. Understanding what happens when we face a radically new environment can also help us understand, for example, autism. Lots of interesting neurobiological research has been done on the automating functions of mirror neurons (e.g. Fan et al 2010). E.g. this article article by Williams, 2008 makes interesting links with autism which the author defines as an ‘impaired development of embodied aspects of cognition’. I guess it is similar with dyspraxia (e.g. this Dowell et al’s 2009 article about dyspraxia in autism). Moving to a new place provides a useful fringe experience and reminds us that interacting not only with people, but also with the environment around us involves complex social – and neurological – labour.  If you look at each of those boring sentences above, you will see that in all of them I zero in on one particular, usually man-made, element of my reality that under normal circumstances remains invisible, hidden, and unacknowledged (Cresswell & Hawn recently wrote a cool article about the epistemology of lived experience using Goffman and Bakhtin and applying it to online gaming!). In a way, I prefer all these invisible elements to be visible. They are mostly ugly, irritating, and they slow me down, but if I know they are there, they cannot take me by surprise. This heightened attention is a way of managing a new, scary world. But even fully automatised worlds which we have inhabited for a long time hide the possibility of surprise.

See also:

T. Wheatley and D. M. Wegner (2001) Automaticity of Action, Psychology of (online pdf, very informative entry in the International Encyclopedia of the Social & Behavioral Sciences)

Russell J ed. 1997 Autism as an ExecutiŠe Disorder. Oxford University Press, Oxford, UK

Bargh J A 1994 The four horsemen of automaticity: Awareness, intention, efficiency, andcontrolinsocialcognition. In:Wyer Jr.

R S, Srull T K (eds.) Handbook of Social Cognition, 2nd edn. Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, Hillsdale, NJ, Vol. 1, pp.1-40

4 thoughts on “My new, non-automated life

  1. What a list! I actually did read…ahm…and enjoyed it 🙂
    Thanks f. sharing your experineces in Berlin…what a great city…only visited it once, but loved it


  2. […] shoshin, in a previous post). In effect, my management of language is less automated (see also the recent post on automated everyday life).  The words, some of which I know and others I don’t, are building blocks from which I build […]


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I will be no longer Berliner in..

July 31, 2013
October 2012
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