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Eye Contact, or: Pay Attention to the Web Behind the Curtain.

Eyes in the sky

There is a strange and mighty power to eye contact, it seems.

I’m not talking about the effects of making — or not making — eye contact while talking to someone, though of course that does indeed have a great symbolic strength and communicative ability. Rather, I’m talking about the effect of making eye contact at a distance; specifically while cycling.

As you might imagine, cycling round the streets of London has its hazards. It’s not as fraught with danger as some believe (fear of the dangers is one of the main reasons people give for why they don’t, or wouldn’t, cycle; which is a shame, because it’s good for the individual, and good for the environment), but that’s another discussion.

Most potential problems can be avoided with a suitable degree of alertness. But the necessary alertness isn’t all on the part of the cyclist: it’s important for other road users to be alert to the presence of cyclists, too. Who remembers “Think once, think twice, think bike!“, the road-safety campaign on British TV during the seventies? That was intended to make other road-users more aware of cyclists (and motorcyclists).

That is where one of the biggest dangers lies: quite frankly, there are a lot of road users who just don’t notice cyclists. And it’s not just the BMW drivers and Royal Mail vans (in my experience the two most dangerous types of motorised vehicle, from a cyclist’s point of view (though all generalisations are false, of course)).

No, any motor vehicle can be a problem, and pedestrians and even other cyclists are almost as bad. Indeed , the two accidents I’ve had in all my years of cycling in London were both caused, at least in part, by pedestrians. There is, however, a simple technique that can — almost magically, it sometimes seems — make other road users notice you.

Look them in the eye.

That’s it. That’s all there is to it. Just make eye contact with the driver, cyclist or pedestrian, and suddenly they realise you’re there.

Which is not so surprising: it’s hard to not be aware of the presence of someone who is looking you in the eye. What is strange, though, is the way in which it works at a distance. You don’t have to be able to see the other person’s eyes, or even to see the person. Innumerable times I have been hurtling along a road and seen a car or van about to pull out of a side road and smash into me (or at least, make me brake sharply). I can’t see the driver because of distance or dark windows, but I aim a hard stare at the area where I know the driver’s head must be. And the car (or van) suddenly brakes, and lets me sweep past.

Similarly, a burst of laser-like staring swept across a group of pedestrians can stop them stepping off the kerb and into my path. It’s quite remarkable, really.

I’m reminded of the story of James Dean’s death. He crashed his car into another car that was pulling out of a side road, and supposedly Dean said to his passenger, (who survived the crash), “It’s all right, he sees me.”

Clearly, the other driver didn’t. Perhaps if Dean had just tried looking at where the other driver’s eyes were, the strange, near-telepathic effect might have happened, and he could have lived to make many more films.

The effect is, I suspect, related to the “feeling of being watched” that most people have experienced at some time. There’s no obvious mechanism for it, but it does seem to be the case that, when someone is looking at us, we become aware of the fact.

Attention surfeit disorder?

When some one is looking at us, or is paying attention to us. Which brings me to another angle on this. That is the idea of attention.. Up here in The Future, in the days of the development of “Web 2.0″ (which, by the way, is pronounced “two point zero”, not “two point oh”, as I heard them saying on Newsnight the other day; we are, after all, scientists) we are often told (though perhaps mainly by Doc Searls) of how important our attention is.

Indeed, the phrase “the attention economy” is in use by some. Of course, the expression “pay attention” has been around for a long time, but only now has attention taken on some of the other trappings of money. We can “pay” for a web site’s services with our attention. Any site with adverts effectively meets this model, though there are more direct examples, such as Salon‘s premium content, for which you can get a “day pass” by sitting through a short advert — as an alternative to paying actual cash for a subscription.

The force of our attention — of looking — is powerful in multiple ways.

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