Tedeschi spoke in a room around which flowers had been scattered to welcome the warm weather, with the windows overlooking an afternoon distinctly colored with spring—the asphalt roads warm gray, the sky flushed generously blue, passersby walking without wintertime’s wind-defying shoulder-clench. The strange surprise that came with her question, the reconsideration of a space I frequent, felt inextricably associated with the season.
In recent weeks, however, I have been reminded yet again that there is a tremendous inconsistency in the world—or maybe just a horrifying consistency—that at one point I ran alone, at night, essentially blind, not only without dire consequence but with a sense of exhilaration, while for others even the ground is a constant source of existential terror.
I can’t blame the students. I never used a laptop in school until I came to Harvard, but the habit is easily acquired, and I’m typing this during a lecture. I can’t imagine what it would have been like, and how I would be different, if I had grown up with a screen in all my classrooms. Beyond the (deservedly researched and debated) sub-question of whether we learn better in digital or analog is the question of how screens have eroded our crucial relationship to the spatial and temporal world. The ability to devote sustained attention to the place and moment at hand is not only valuable to our pursuits, but also key to having autonomy in and enjoying life. It is also something that all of us are increasingly relinquishing.
We sight-dependent humans love to describe things in terms of vision, and windows—that enchanting marriage of visual transparency and physical impenetrability—occupy a special place in our imaginations and metaphorical landscapes. One of the most recognizable American paintings is Edward Hopper’s “Nighthawks,” which depicts a late-night view into a diner. The streets sulk browns and turquoises, but the diner’s walls radiate pale yellow, and the blond bartender is dressed in white. A couple sits side-by-side at the bar with faces toward the viewer, hands resting close to each other on the counter; the third customer, another sharply-dressed man, sits a few stools down.
The HMNH features bright hallways of animals taxidermied and fossilized, extant and extinct. Hummingbirds float in neatly pinned columns. South American armadillos rear twelve feet into the air. Crustaceans glow in the buttery distortion of preservative jars. Soft-bodied sea creatures, impossible to naturally preserve, attain immortality as glass recreations by the Blaschkas, the father-son duo also responsible for the museum’s acclaimed glass flower collection. In a room dedicated to geology, white shelves offset the glittering fractal palettes of rock specimens.