Editor’s Note: This article originally appeared on Sherif Mostafa’s LinkedIn on January 18, 2021. Sherif is a Machine Leaning / AI Product Manager at A Fresh and frequently writes personal blog posts on careers, tech, and the impact it has on our world.
“Der Mensch ist ein Produkt seiner Umwelt”, preached one of my high-school teachers — a middle-aged Austrian man, who seemed to possess an infinitely vast intellect, and was typically frustrated by the classroom’s disarray.
The literal translation is: “A human is a product of their environment”. That would be a reductionist translation, however, as the word “Umwelt” — of German origin — has a richer all-encompassing meaning, inclusive of not only a person’s environment, but all influences that affect them. One could interpret that as every sight, sound, smell, touch and taste that they are exposed to.
In hindsight, it is a piece of wisdom that I’ve only come to fully appreciate more than a decade later; in a philosophical sense, digesting that we perceive and interpret a continuum of sensory inputs as a sequence of life experiences that fundamentally constitute who we are; in a practical sense, coming to the realisation that being mindful of our Umwelt, and proactively adjusting it, can in turn have an astounding cumulative effect on ourselves.
To make this philosophy more concrete and relatable, I would like to share how it resonates with me when reflecting on the past, as well as some observations on ways that it manifests itself in modern day-to-day life.
Our human Umwelt
In some ways, each human interaction we have with another person has some non-zero effect on us. Even seemingly insignificant interactions, such as walking past people who dress and behave in a certain way, tend to have a noticeable effect on us over time. For instance, I’ve observed people subconsciously starting to dress a little differently after relocating to a new place, maybe to assimilate with a local customary dressing style, or maybe to more expressively oppose it; or simply because different places offer different merchandise. A more discrete case, would be consciously noticing a stranger’s dressing style that we then get inspired to replicate. These may be simplistic illustrations, perhaps, but the prior case can be generalised to demonstrate how frequent and insignificant exposures can have a latent measurable effect on ourselves, while the latter demonstrates how a singular and more pronounced exposure can directly correlate to future decisions we make.
If a passerby can influence a form of our expression, such as the way we dress, then certainly the deeper and more frequent interactions we have with our families and close friends can leave a lifelong imprint on us. I, for one, consider myself very fortunate to attribute a large part of my self-identification to the alchemy of interactions growing up with my family and a very special and irreplaceable group of close friends. Early on, they collectively calibrated my moral compass and instilled in me a confidence and stability that I carry forward to this day, even more than a decade after relocating overseas. I am eternally grateful to them. Similarly, one of my early managers was incredibly empathetic and committed to my mentorship and growth, which has inspired me to be the same for everyone I get the chance to work with.
Not all my exposures have been positive and inspiring ones. There are many times where I observed a behaviour, or was more directly exposed to an interaction, that I pledged to never imitate. To the degree possible then, adjusting our human Umwelt by choosing who we spend time with, deciding how we spend our time with them, and selecting what to adopt and what to discard, has a lasting effect on our future selves. Finally, though it may seem as if our past human interactions are static and unchangeable, it is possible to revisit those, unpack them, and adjust our perception and interpretation of them; whether we manage to do so by ourselves, or with support from psychotherapy.
Our digital Umwelt
Recently, our digital Umwelt has been overshadowing at an alarming rate, infiltrating our social interactions, intellectualism, work, play, and basic daily functions.
Digital notifications are increasingly more invasive and unsolicited. The most frequently used digital products — usually free to use — have been recklessly architected by behavioural psychologist to subconsciously dominate our attention and ingrain in us a compulsion to use the product as frequently as possible; with the single goal of driving user engagement and boosting greedy advertisement revenue at the — nowadays well-known — expense of mental health and productivity. This makes it increasingly difficult for us to restrain our digital Umwelt.
Additionally, recommendation engines are algorithms that are designed to surface content to us that we are most likely to consume by spending time viewing or reacting to it. In its benevolent form, this means if you like tennis or dancing, you’ll get more of those videos in your content recommendations. There is nothing wrong in that. On more consequential intellectual content, however, such as critiques or news reports, we are only shown the viewpoints that naively and mindlessly reinforce our existing beliefs and views. There is no doubt that this contributes to the formation of echo chambers and clusters of parallel realities fuelling today’s higher-than-ever levels of societal Polarisation. This makes it increasingly difficult for us to ensure that our digital Umwelt has a sufficiently diverse representation of the world around us.
Lastly, due to the hyper-social nature of social media, the more shocking and consumable content — which typically correlates with shallow information at best, and incorrect facts or fake news at worst — spreads much more rapidly and broadly than fact-checked, thorough, and comprehensive content. This makes it increasingly difficult to rely on the most dominant digital umwelt as a source of intellectualism or a place for productivity.
This isn’t intended as a life-hack or self-improvement post, but I’ll share a few daily practices that have helped me adjust my digital Umwelt closer to what I would like it to be:
To tame the invasiveness and manipulative attention hogging, I avoid or minimise pretty much all forms of social media. In addition, all my notifications are turned off by default, except those from immediate family and friends, direct Slack mentions, and a few email accounts. Even most of those are turned off in the late evenings, early mornings, and on weekends, where I instead opt to scan for emergencies at my own discretion every hour or two. I never watch TV news, since I’m more likely to stay tuned for longer than I intended to. Instead, I will rely on time-boxed podcasts, that I can listen to at my discretion. I regularly unsubscribe from all unsolicited inbound promotional email that clutters my inbox, usually during toilet breaks .
To mitigate the selection and confirmation bias from recommendation engines, as well as the shallowness of viral content, I generally disregard any news or facts shared through social media or messaging groups. Occasionally, if something is sufficiently intriguing and believable, I’ll make the extra effort of fact-checking it. As my more regular inflow of information, I dedicate periods of time to read published content from select factual references, and make a deliberate effort to also survey sources from opposite sides of the ideological spectrum.
Our Natural Umwelt
I never feel holistically as tranquil in my Umwelt as I do when I’m close to nature. It comes so easily, that it makes me question the meaning or purpose of the digital one that — in contrast — requires so much effort to make it a healthy one.
My particularly cherished moments are when swimming in a sea with clear waters and a moderate temperature, where I can open my eyes and see both the sunlight refracting through the surface of the water, as well as the sandy bottom of the sea. Another one, is gazing into the vastness of an open mountain range after summiting a tall mountain, listening to the often-forgotten absolute silence, with the only risk of interruption coming from the occasional high-altitude birds chirping, or a mild wind picking up. Sometimes, these moments prompt me to humbly remember the vastness of the world we live in, the insignificance of humanity relative to it, let alone the insignificance of the individual — myself. This natural Umwelt does not need any adjustment, but rather adjusting the other Umwelts to better preserve what’s left of the natural one, and to expose ourselves to it more regularly; or perhaps move off-grid entirely, one day.
At the same time, connecting with our natural Umwelt does not require radical life changes, or venturing out to the most remote places. Taking a moment to notice the sensation of refreshing water running over our skin when showering, a breath of fresh air filling our lungs, or the warming sun comforting us during a daily commute, can go a long way.
I hope you find this part-philosophical, part-technological, and part-personal reflection insightful, and that it encourages you to be mindful of your own Umwelt. Perhaps, to contemplate the cause and effect relationships it has on yourself; or to think of the incremental ways — no matter how seemingly insignificant — that you can adjust your Umwelt, and your perception and interpretation of it, to strive towards a future self that is closer to whoever you aspire to be.