Searching for Awe in a Digital World
“The world is full of magic things, patiently waiting for our senses to grow sharper.”– W.B. Yeats
Antoine Hennepin was the first European to witness and recount the commanding magnificence of Niagara Falls. In today’s age of TripAdvisor and Trivago, it is nearly impossible to fathom what this experience could have been like for a Dutch-born missionary in the 17th century—a man who had not only never seen Niagara Falls but didn’t even know it existed. Hennepin spent the first half-century of his life in the Netherlands, a country renowned for its “consistent” geography, before he boarded a 75-foot caravel and sailed for New France. He was—in a manner that can no longer be paralleled today—a true explorer.
Hennepin arrived in Québec City in 1675, and three years later embarked to explore the West. He sailed along the Saint Lawrence River and arrived in Niagara on December 6, 1678. He lowered the boat’s anchor off the shore of Lake Ontario, continued through the forest, and stepped out onto the Niagara Gorge. From there, Hennepin watched as a river “about a league wide” rushed towards a cliff and tumbled over into a “waterfall which has no equal.” He gazed at the “vast and prodigious” outpouring as it cascaded in “a surprising and astonishing manner, insomuch [as] the Universe does not afford [a] parallel.” He was, in much simpler words, in awe.
Throughout much of history—and up until the 18th century—awe was understood as a spiritual or religious experience. The linguistic origins can be traced back to the 13th century Norse word “agi,” which translates to “fear” or “trembling.” This initial understanding tied together two components: a presence of something vast and uncanny, and an unfamiliar experience. The former is destabilizing and the latter generally provokes one towards religion as a sort of existential reflex.
It was not until the mid-18th century that this religious emphasis on awe began to evolve. As the age of enlightenment progressed, philosophers began to consider awe as an experience that was capable of being inspired by the natural world. With the average person unaware of Niagara Falls existence, this was radical thinking. Edmund Burke, an 18th century Irish politician and philosopher, was the first proponent of this belief. He suggested in his 1757 book, A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of Our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful, that thunder, artwork, and music were all capable of producing feelings of awe.
Today, awe has been almost entirely removed from its earlier spiritual associations. It is instead thought of as a feeling inspired by viewing beauty or strangeness. In the past 20 years, awe has become a (small) matter of scientific interest. Research by Dacher Keltner, a professor of Psychology at Berkeley, suggests that awe plays a crucial role in promoting a “state of accommodation,” in which our beliefs “are revised to make sense of the awe-inspiring stimuli.” This “state of accommodation” suspends us in uncertainty, which, however terrifying, is crucial for scientific, philosophical, and individual thinking.
“Awe is a destabilizing emotion,” he states. “It is elicited by something vast, either physically or metaphorically,” which creates an uncertainty that is reconciled through this “state of accommodation.” Traditionally this process would be resolved through religious answers. And while the historic and dogmatic pressures of religion suggested this reflex to be further evidence of God’s existence or grandeur, researchers from the University of Southern California have revised this, explaining that “when feelings of personal control are low, people turn to supernatural explanations as a means of restoring such control.” In other words, this tendency to turn towards religion in moments of awe is simply a way to rid oneself of the uncertainty the experience produces, or to avoid the responsibility of seeking tangible explanations.
When was the last time you felt awe? As Hennepin did watching 3,000 tons of water crash down from Niagara Falls, or a Spanish sailor did seeing the glistening shore of the Caribbean after months at sea. Chances are, if you’re totally honest with yourself, it’s been a while. Or maybe you’ve never felt awe. Perhaps you’ve wondered why you didn’t feel it sitting on the beach in Tulum over spring break or watching the sun set over the Appalachians. Those are both unfamiliar experiences, each beautiful in their own uncapturable way. Each is unique, and moving, and likely earns a spot amongst your greatest memories. So, why didn’t it feel like you’d expected it to?
If we round up the earlier definitions of awe, we can isolate one critical component: an unfamiliar experience. But how easy is it, in today’s age, to come by something unfamiliar?
In a world of blockbusters and budget films; TikToks and Twitter trends; Spotify Premium, YouTube Shorts, and Instagram Reels; blogs about travel, or food, or health; Netflix and Amazon Prime; Google Maps, Google Earth, Google Search; Red Dead Redemption 1, Red Dead Redemption 2, and Red Dead Redemption Online; Fox News, BBC, The Washington Post, The New York Times. In a world with advertisements on billboards, benches, and the backs of buses, we are relentlessly targeted as consumers—either directly through commercial advertisements, or indirectly through media, where our attention acts as a form of consumption.
In 2007, a market research firm named Yankelovich revealed that a person living in a typical city is exposed to nearly 5,000 advertisements a day. That number was up from 2,000 in the mid 80s. Today, the average city-dwelling, social-media-using person is exposed to almost 10,000 advertisements a day. And in addition to a rise in advertising, a 2020 survey revealed that 96 per cent of users consumed more online videos than they had the year prior, spending an average of 100 minutes a day watching video content. When we consider that someone who consumes more media consumes more advertisements, and someone who consumes more advertisements is bound to consume more media, these statistics become even more revealing.
What does this have to do with awe? Remember that an important component of awe is one’s unfamiliarity with the experience. Through mass media, we are continuously exposed to an array of what I’ve chosen to call “micro-experiences.” A micro-experience is what we get when we watch a 15-second clip of a stand-up comedian, or a 30-second montage of a friend’s summer vacation. They are fundamentally different than the primary experience, which is to be in the audience or on summer vacation. It is a momentary glimpse into the life of another that comes without the immediacy necessary to elicit awe itself, which is why people’s faces are generally blank when they’re scrolling through their phone. When we are consuming micro-experiences, we are consuming bite-sized portions of the primary experience, which is crucial—otherwise watching a movie about World War 2 would leave us traumatized and take six years to finish.
Regardless of how brief and simplistic these micro-experiences are, they do communicate an idea of what that primary experience would be like. This is why if I asked you to imagine what it would be like to travel to almost any country in the world, you would be able to come up with a vague idea quite quickly. And even if your vague, generalized idea is nothing like the actual experience, your expectations would still affect your trip. While we scroll mindlessly through news articles, advertisements, and social media, each of them influences us in some manner. The TikTok we watch of a girl in a linen dress eating strawberries on a Greek island informs us in some way about that experience—about what it would be like to travel to Greece, or at the very least, what the island of Santorini looks like.
Consequently, through media, social or otherwise, we are being continuously informed about a vast array of experiences. We become familiar with different people, see different places, and learn about different cultures. The spectrum of what the average educated person with a smartphone is familiar with today is exponentially higher than what it was 50 years ago, let alone 200 years ago. The consequence of this is that one of the criteria of awe—the demand for an unfamiliar experience—becomes a lot harder to fulfill, because even if we’ve never seen the Pyramids in Giza or heard Beethoven’s “Piano Concerto No. 5” in Carnegie Hall, we’ve seen photos or heard recordings. And so, the experience, in all its primary magnificence, is still not entirely unfamiliar, at least not in the way seeing Niagara Falls was for Hennepin.
To illustrate this point a little further, let’s take a quick look at some Yelp reviews for Niagara Falls and compare them with Hennepin’s earlier account where he used words like “vast,” “prodigious,” and “astonishing.” Adalia remarked on August 25 of the 21st century that Niagara Falls was “a nice family getaway.” By no means is that a negative review, but this is one of the seven natural wonders of the world—I believe it deserves a little more than just “a nice distraction” for your kids. Joern, quite poignantly, stated that the Falls were “not a surprise, but another must do.” And Guarang, always a stickler for safety, warned that “[Niagara Falls] could be better if more sign indicators and utilities were available.” Now before you stop reading and rush over to Yelp to prove me wrong, I’ll acknowledge that these were picked with some agenda, but regardless, “another must do?” The fact that someone could have anything less than positive to say about the Falls reveals that something is having a profound effect on the way we experience the natural world.
I don’t wish to suggest that this is an inherent issue with media, as though any representation devalues the original, but I wish to suggest that mass media, and our continuous and relentless exposure to micro-experiences, dramatically hinders our ability to be awed. And if you’re questioning what the importance of awe is, consider its ability to destabilize our beliefs. No matter what side of the political spectrum you may situate yourself upon, I believe you can recognize the importance of people adjusting their perspective.
So where does this leave us? Unable to be moved by the beautiful world that surrounds us? Well sort of, but not entirely. It is true that digital media has overly familiarized us with the world, making it harder for us to encounter unfamiliar experiences, and thus harder to be awed. However, it is important to note that media, and especially social media, is only able to satiate certain senses. We can’t taste a TikTok or feel the Caribbean sun in an ex-girlfriend’s thirst trap, and consequently this over-familiarization is largely limited to our visual and auditory experiences. In other words, seeing Niagara Falls on a field trip is not going to be the same as it was for Hennepin, but feeling the mist on your face certainly will be.
It is also important to note that I do not wish to suggest that, at large, our emotional experiences are softening—rather our emotional experiences to stimuli that can be reproduced through digital media are. Watching a romantic comedy isn’t going to shrink the grandeur of falling in love, just as watching 15 episodes of Hot Ones won’t mean you can eat a Carolina Reaper without being rushed to the hospital. So, while digital media has certainly affected our real-world experiences in many profound ways, there are aspects of our life that are unable to be reproduced through media, and thus, remain entirely our own. Since Meta and Elon Musk have yet to invent a way to stimulate the nerves of a first date or the excitement of a first kiss, we can hold onto those experiences as entirely authentic (for now).
But for the time being, try to appreciate the beauty of the familiar as though it were entirely unknown to you. In the next week, stop for a moment—whether you’re on the streetcar or in the office or sipping champagne on the Amalfi Coast—and watch in modest appreciation as life unfolds around you. And maybe, the stillness of your expectations will let the world move you.
Copy Editor (Volume 49) | firstname.lastname@example.org —Aidan is completing a major in Professional Writing and Communications at the University of Toronto Mississauga. He previously worked as the Associate Editor for the Arts and Entertainment section of The Medium, and currently works as the Copy Editor for The Medium. When he’s not catching up on course work or thumbing through style guides, Aidan spends his free time exercising (begrudgingly), singing (unmelodically), and trying (helplessly) to read David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest. The latter of which has taken 3 years to reach the 16th page. You can connect with Aidan at email@example.com.