In May, Silicon Valley will host the Augmented World Expo (AWE). There, entrepreneurs will showcase devices — from headsets to holosuits — that promise to produce awe by creating virtual and augmented reality. Yet the awe these devices produce differs from the awe earlier generations of Americans experienced. In the past, Americans felt awe at forces beyond their control — at things bigger than themselves. Their awe was mixed with reverential fear. Today, Silicon Valley suggests awe happens when we create our own realities. Why does this matter? Why should we care about where our awe comes from?
The answer is that awe is an important emotion. After all, who wants to live without experiencing the wonder it provokes? If awe makes life more enchanted, psychologists suggest it also makes it more peaceable. When we’re awed, we feel our own human limits and the power of something greater than us. In those humbling moments, we’re more apt to feel solidarity with others with similar limits. We need awe for its personal and social benefits.
For almost a decade, as researches and professors of technology and history at Weber State University, we’ve been examining how our past and present technologies, from the telegraph to Twitter, have reshaped awe, loneliness, anger, boredom and narcissism. We’ve found that devices at the AWE expo, like so many that preceded them, may diminish awe.
Our forefathers looked up at the Milky Way and comprehended how small they were compared to the vastness of the heavens, but light pollution denies us that experience. Where earlier generations believed forces outside themselves controlled reality, and were awed by them, today, programmers at the AWE expo suggest they can create artificial realities, elevating humans’ sense of their own power over the universe. In the 19th century, Americans experienced the awesomeness of the wilderness directly; in the 21st century, those experiences are mediated through screens. Very likely we are suffering from what one clever psychologist dubbed A.D.D. — Awe Deficit Disorder.
But are contemporary Americans really more awe deprived? To answer that question, we read diaries, letters and memoirs of 19th and 20th century Americans. We also interviewed dozens of modern Americans — many of them here in northern Utah. One telling conversation was with Greg, a project manager and former game designer in Salt Lake City. Did staring at screens dampen his capacity for awe? At first, Greg told us his screens, in fact, increased the feeling: “Entire worlds are contained in this little smartphone that you carry around in your pocket. Having entire galaxies … invites me into an experience of awe,” he said. “It’s just mind blowing. I can’t possibly experience these things outside of this context, and yet, I can pay $100 for this phone, and suddenly I am invited into this unimaginable experience.” However, when we interviewed him 18 months later, in 2018, he had changed his mind, observing that in contrast to his screen, direct encounters with the world offered a more “full, sensory-rich experience.”
Like Greg, we find it difficult to say categorically that awe is rising or declining. But we can say it’s changing shape. Our forefathers’ awe of nature humbled them. Remembering tales of Prometheus, some 18th and 19th century Americans wondered if they should even try to harness forces like electricity, believing these were the possession of the gods. To possess such forces might transgress divine limits. Awe of our own technology, in contrast, has mixed effects. To be sure there are circumstances where technology humbles. For example, in science fiction, it is often depicted as an overwhelming, autonomous force, dwarfing and jeopardizing humanity. But conventionally, we see technology as increasing our powers.
These tensions are visible right here along the Wasatch Front. F-35s scream overhead. Interstate 15 gets wider. Near exit ramps, glass and steel boxes, adorned with names such as Instructure, Vivint and Adobe, advertise that Silicon Valley and the AWE expo have nothing on Utah. In such contexts it’s easy to feel the raw, surging power and ambition of humanity. But standing on a bluff on Antelope Island, looking back on our metropolis, you will notice our lives are squeezed into a narrow corridor between the Wasatch mountains and the desert.
The juxtaposition makes us wonder: Can we continue to expand the metropolis ever outward and upward? Or are we already overreaching and transgressing our human and environmental limits? Our awed ancestors were quick to ask these questions. In contrast, in our modern metropolitan cocoons, we are perhaps less inspired — less awed — to do so. But we should.