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”Let us not look back in anger, nor forward in fear, but around in awareness”.

James Thurber

I have to admit that choosing Situational Awareness as a title for a post that will mostly talk of a stupid little gadget is a bit too much even for my own pompousness standards, but please bear with me.

Around mid-2018 I started to realize that whenever I am in a place that I am not familiar with (i.e., outside of Rostock or Turin) I spend an inordinate amount of time looking at the screen of my iPhone.

The reason is simple: no matter if I am there for something specific, like a Calligraphy seminar, or just visiting as a tourist, the problem is that not having inherited my father's preternatural gift for directions, I have to constantly (and I mean constantly) check my position and where to go next on Google Maps or similar apps.

Jump in!

I am usually wary about adopting technological solutions to solve human-nature problems, but on the other hand I am a bit old for radically changing my habits (and chronically starved for time to devote to new endeavours) so something more "natural", while apparently fun in itself was not really an option…

So I had to at least try something tech-based. I started investigating smartwatches. The idea was to find out something that was:

  • Cheap (this was an experiment, so it wouldn't make sense to invest too much in a gadget that could end up in a drawer somewhere).
  • Compatible with iPhones (most of my stuff, including the phone, is Apple)
  • Provided directions, possibly based on Google Maps (which - on average, at least in the places I usually visit, has better maps than anyone else),

In other words, I was looking for this.

Luckily for me, my friend Pietro came to the rescue by offering his own first-edition-but-still-going-great-except-that-I-do-not-really-use-it-anymore Apple Watch at what was a real bargain price.

Currently wearing...

Spoiler: the one pictured above is an Apple Watch series 3, so you can easily figure out that the experiment was a success…

Despite having been sunsetted by Apple, the watch worked flawlessly and curbed my tendency to constantly look at my phone. What I noticed is that the problem with having to look at the phone for directions is twofold:

First of all you are actually watching the damn thing all the time, so if you are walking (my preferred way to move around) you might miss interesting stuff around you. You potentially also risk colliding with other pedestrians or some physical obstacle but to be honest even decades ago I was often reading stuff like books or magazines while walking around my city, so I am fairly good ad avoiding mishaps.

The other problem is that the moment that you have your phone in your hand, even just to be sure you are on the right course, it becomes (at least for me) impossible not to also check out any notifications that arrived since the last time, or have a look at the emails and so on. (Notice that I am not even very much into social stuff like Facebook, so I am not necessarily bombarded by these, still, I find it impossible not to have a peek at regular intervals).

The watch helps a lot, not only because it gives you general directional advice without having to touch the goddamn phone, but it can also be configured to notify you about specific events. For me, it is much easier to say "ok, this can wait for when I stop for a coffee" just by looking at the admittedly brief text of a notification. In case there is something really urgent (pretty rare, but still) I can always reach for the phone and deal with it.

Ironically, I must say that the notification thing is probably giving me more value for the money because, let's be honest, Apple Maps is still lagging behind Google, so in some cases, I have to rely on more precise Google directions at least in the last 5% of a route.

After a satisfactory test period (but before upgrading to a Series 3) I also tried something else to increase my awareness when walking around. Specifically I finally ordered a copy of a book I had on my wish list for years: A Walker Guide to the Art of Observation.

The book's author (Alexandra Horowitz) set up walks around the block where she lives in NYC, taking each time a different "guide" (including a blind person, and entomologist, a font expert and her own little son) and tried to write down about how different people can reveal an enormous amount of information from scenes we take completely for granted.

The book is really interesting, but I am afraid it has little to offer in terms of direct applicable content… unless you have friends who are experts of various knowledge fields and can act as your own private Virgil.

There are a couple more books I intend to read on the topic, hoping to be able to get more from my strolls around various cities. Will definitely update this page when I come around at reading these.