November 3, 2020  |  David R. Novak

Awareness Sucks, Long Live Awareness

Awareness Sucks, Long Live Awareness

People talk a lot about using communication to make people aware of things. “We communicated it to them.” Awareness. What is being aware, really though? It seems to me that awareness is a recognition of some amount of information having moved from a source to receiver. Hopelessly generic. Difficult to measure. And almost surely a sign that a sender mostly wants to claim they’ve told somebody something. A marketer could ask someone if they’ve heard of a product or service and if they say yes, you could claim awareness. But is that really anything?

I suppose it definitely could be, but it doesn’t seem like much. Or at least it doesn’t seem far enough.

Awareness of something might end you — rock your little worldly existence — leave you forever changed. Awareness of other things only serves as a starting point.

As its commonly taken up, awareness is mostly a measure of information transfer. This is my main umbrage with the idea. Communication only begins with information, it doesn’t end with it. And “awareness” in that sense is little more than a vague, gloopy marker of whether some small fragment of information made it from here to there (or not). That’s it.

This seems like a pretty low bar for humans communicating to me. While it is true that the only way anyone ever becomes aware of anything is through communication, I think we should aspire to more. Could awareness be more than just the proof that information has moved from here to there?

Deeper on Awareness

So, at some basic level awareness is information transfer or movement. It is acknowledgement in the brain of someone else of some other thing. Pretty vague.

We should take scale into account. Awareness at scale is one of the main charms of mass communications. At this level, we can actually begin to entertain ideas of message efficiency, spread, distribution, etc. In the future, we’ll probably have eye-tracker sensors that will literally be able to decipher what content it is we have our brains on and have been made aware of. Creepy.

Awareness is at scale, but it is also about the personal. Communication always comes back to the relationship. Interpersonally speaking, awareness can be a serious expression of feelings — someone then truly understands where you’re coming from. Or the point could be important information (“I’ll be by your house in 10 minutes to talk!”).

These sorts of aspects of awareness are completely different than “Hey, I’m aware that a pizza with a hotdog baked into the crust is a thing” or that the McRib is back.

If we’re talking about awareness in a team setting, the meaning changes still. On a team or group, awareness could be thought of as everything that group needs to successfully complet a task. How many teams have you been on where it takes 3 meetings just know what the problem is? These are, in essence, awareness meetings. Everyone gets their chips out on the table so the group can win at this weird collaborative game (teamwork) that we’re playing.

In this kind of context, awareness is like playing chips of information out into the group for all to benefit. The communication game changes as we go yet somehow we manage to stick mostly to the rules, norms, expectations, and conventions of human interaction. The chips put in and played are hopefully done so for the benefit of all team members so that the group may succeed. In reality, we always make decisions with partial information awareness.

Awareness can be outward-looking just as it is inward-looking. Surveying the environment constitutes awareness as well. What are other people out there doing or saying? We’re always communicating, so is everyone else, so it never really hurts to be “aware” of others are doing or saying. This goes especially if you’re hoping to interact with someone but is a good general rule for surveying what’s going on in the human zoo.

And at the end of the day, awareness isn’t really enough. It’s the reaction after the awareness that matters. What behavior or outcome results from awareness? Yet while awareness might never be enough itself, we should recognize that awareness is also the intimate sharing of ourselves with each other. And sometimes, awareness of some small little thing can completely change your view of another person. Awareness can be a switch that flips — the change from which bigger things grow.

Every conversation is like it’s own little game. Awareness isn’t enough, but it can be a start. In and of itself, “awareness” is little more than basic information transfer. But it is from there that meaning can grow, evolution can happen, things can change.

Artwork by Dimitri Houtteman from Pixabay.

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