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  • Makoto Shibuya

Facing Surprise

This image should look familiar. Yet something about it feels strange, uncomfortable, and perhaps even wrong. It may even take a second to realize why.

The universe knows no up nor down, no cardinal directions. So, what if we rotated it? How would that affect our perspective?

Our perspective of the world makes up our reality, and that can be unique to each of us. When our views are challenged, we tend to get defensive or brush them aside. If an idea doesn't align with our reality, we often dismiss it as "wrong."

How can a triangle possibly be mistaken for a circle?

It could depend on our vantage point. From some vantage points the object may look like a triangle, while from others, it would look like a circle. The truth is the object is shaped like a cone. Neither observation is wrong, it is just a matter of perspective. Disagreements can often come down to a difference in perspective.

How, then, could a circle or triangle possibly be mistaken for a square?

Again, it may depend on our vantage point. Say the cone is contained in a box. From the outside, the object would appear as a box. Alternatively, from inside the box, all we see is the cone. The box could be exponentially larger than the cone, and we may not even realize it is there.

The box in this example could represent a culture, religion, or language—any lens through which we view the world and extract meaning from experience. The same experience may vary in meaning depending on the lens through which we view it.

For example, when I slurp my delicious noodles in Japan, it shows appreciation and respect. However, slurping in many western cultures is considered to be rude. The same experience has two different meanings depending on whether I am inside or outside that box. While this can be brushed off as an innocent mistake, others are more nuanced, consequential, complex, and even controversial.

The box can also be a metaphor for time. The same bottle of wine has a different meaning after it has aged for a decade. The same place may be perceived differently before and after certain events have taken place. The same poker hand will have a different meaning each time the round of cards is dealt.

That is a reason your childhood home feels different later in life, or NYC carries a different meaning after September 11th, 2001. Generational differences in our perspective can stem from this—the same environment can have different significance thanks to the patina of time.

These differences in perspective can unwind into conflict, and the fear is that they get exacerbated by the increasingly difficult decisions we will collectively face. Historically, this tension has often escalated to violence before the dust can settle and we are able to make progress.

A breadth of experience helps to strengthen empathy by letting us step outside of our own experience. Experiences, sometimes uncomfortable ones, help to round out our perspective and avoid conflict. Through experience, we can gain knowledge and build perspective. We must actively flex this muscle; otherwise, it will atrophy. When experience isn't an option a strong imagination can help fill in the gaps.

Making small changes can trigger our senses and alter the things we notice around us. As trivial as it may seem, I occasionally take a detour on my commute home to get out of autopilot and trigger my senses.

Doodle by Makoto Shibuya

Viewing experiences from multiple viewpoints was a natural consequence of growing up in a multicultural environment. The array of cultures around me perpetually tested and reframed my perspective. I learned to pay especially close attention when an idea or belief felt "wrong" to me. As Adam Robinson effectively puts it:

"What surprise tells you is that your model of the world is incorrect." —Adam Robinson

This realization challenged me to see if I could create something that would trigger a similar instinct in all of us. Art can often alter the way we think, challenge our beliefs, and trigger our emotions. I wanted to evoke a sense of "that can't be right" while remaining provocative enough to question our own bias.

As a result, I designed the following GIF:

© Makoto Shibuya

I thought long and hard to find something we could all agree on to then change the way we look at it.

We are all used to seeing our environment mapped in a certain orientation. What if we grew up with a map of our solar system rotated 180 degrees? Nothing has changed except our vantage point, but how would this perspective affect us?

  • Would this influence our thinking? Our behavior? Our beliefs?

  • Would we have drawn different borders?

  • Would we have fought different wars?

  • Would this have empowered the global south?

  • If two people grew up with two different maps? How would it affect their relationship?

  • If two nations grew up with two different maps? How would it affect their relationship?

These are, of course, rhetorical questions I found myself asking. The next time you catch yourself thinking, "that can't be right," it could be a matter of perspective and a sign to pay closer attention.

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