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"Distance Effects" mind matters
October 21, 2002
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Starting with our childhood years, we reach for things, exerting our influence as far as we can.

When I grew up, I could measure the span of my arms by stretching them across the length of the piano keyboard. I have some recollection of first reaching across ten octaves, then over most of the white keys, then all 88 keys, and finally beyond the keys to the painted wood and even the outside the piano.

As we get older, we learn to use tools to reach for things. Sometimes the tool affects our base, like standing on a ladder or strapping ourselves to a chair in a fishing boat. More often the tool extends our natural reach, like wire hangers and magnets. Whether itís a yardstick under the refrigerator or a child on our shoulders, itís hard to let things we want hover outside our grasp.

Our physical reach is only the beginning. We strive to extend our senses. Eyeglasses and telescopes improve our sight, letting us read books and study the planets. Parabolic microphones let us listen to birds and overhear conversations. Sometimes, our goal isnít to improve sensory input so much as to enhance the output: bright clothing and dog whistles, signal flares and fiber optics. With the growing proliferation of Internet and wireless technologies, our reach on and around this planet has never been greater.

What we need now is precision.

Swinging around the nozzle of a vacuum cleaner may be an efficient way to pick up broken glass, but itís a crude way to retrieve a small bead or a dropped screw. Turning up the volume on an orchestral performance wonít help you count the number of violins. Staring into car headlights doesnít help you identify the car.

With better distance precision we can operate our homes from the car, turning up the heat and washing laundry. From airplanes we can select theater seats and program our video recorders. We can go shopping, including trying on clothes and inspecting fresh fruit, without leaving the bedroom. We can perform brain surgery over the Internet.

Oh, wait a minute. We can do these things, in reality, though often in specialized circumstances. Virtual reality and fax machines enable for medical consultation; portable telephones connect us with personal shoppers; light switches run on remote control (remember the Clapper?). There are even tools that allow scientists to isolate the atoms on molecules and replace them with other atoms, manually changing chemical compositions on a seemingly infinitesimal scale.

Clearly this idea of precision is important. It deserves our attention. Given how precision helps us reach, why not use precision even more often? It is not enough to have more, do more, want more. We must select. Look at how many small and unusual specialties our society has generated. Have you ever counted the number of magazines on sale at Barnes & Noble?

Let us take this trend like the horns on a bull (and thankfully not the whole, indiscriminate bull, either). Let us exert our power as carefully and perfectly as we can. Not just in the space around us, but in the world around us, too. Exercise your reach, your influence, and improve everything you can, as best as you can.

The little things count. At large enough distances, you see, everything is little.

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Copyright 2002 Seth Maislin


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