We Shape Our Buildings
On October 28, 1943, Winston Churchill gave a speech in Britain’s House of Commons. The purpose of the speech was to address the topic of the rebuilding of the House which had been destroyed by Axis bombing raids during World War II. In his speech, Churchill made a particularly insightful statement: “We shape our buildings, and afterward, our buildings shape us.”
This statement reveals a principle that has been understood by scholars and thinkers throughout history and was summarized by Marshall McLuhan in the famous aphorism “The medium is the message.”
Churchill addresses the idea of an environmental or architectural rhetoric — the power of an architectural environment to structure and form how certain practices, thoughts, and business can or cannot take place.
It describes how a building functions as a medium to shape and form the thoughts and practices of those who work, live and move within it.
Seventy-two years later, MIT professor of the Social Studies of Science and Technology Sherry Turkle wrote the book Alone Together — an investigation of the advance of technology in robotics and artificial intelligence. In her book, she rephrases Churchill’s original 1939 quote about the House of Commons and substitutes the word “building” with the word “technology.” In her words, “we shape our technologies, and they, in turn, shape us.”
Sherry Turkle similarly sees technology as an environment/architecture that influences and reforms those who use it. How is this happening?
Productivity at the Speed of Light
Richard Sennet, in his book on architecture, the body, and civic order — Flesh and Stone — reflects on a common occurrence in our culture: sensory deprivation. He believes that over the course of Western civilization, we have begun to feel one another less and less. An interpersonal distance with other people has occurred, according to him, due to our interaction and infatuation with speed.
At some point in our history, speed became an end instead of a means to the point where now, speed drives everything in our lives. We are consumed by it. It surrounds us as a systemic environment in which we live. Jacques Ellul referred to this as La Technique and recognized its influence over 40 years ago.
Today, we have accepted “speed” in all its iterations. We are infatuated and addicted to it. If it’s faster, we want to have it. If it’s slow, we want to make it faster. If there’s a new phone or computer or car or smart appliance that is faster than the one before it, we line up around the block to be the first to get it.
The entirety of technology is about speed, efficiency, and progress. Machines were designed to do things faster, to produce more products, gadgets, cars, etc. at a faster rate.
Today, the entire productivity realm revolves around the principle of speed — how to get more done in a faster amount of time. We find ways to “hack” human behavior — to make it more like the machine so that we can be “high performers.” I’ve heard prominent success gurus talk about setting “triggers” to hack their thinking patterns to become faster and more efficient at producing whatever it is they produce.
One of the most popular blogs, Lifehacker, is based on the premise of finding ways to “speed up” your life based on a premise that when you speed things up and perform at a higher level, you have more time to do the things you really want to do.
This article is not to bash people who want to be high performers or who want to increase their productivity. I do that regularly and have even written about a 5-minute routine that can 10X your productivity. But it is a call to look a little deeper at what the uncritical acceptance and adoption of the values of the machine might be doing to us.
As Churchill, Turkle, and others have stated, we form our buildings/technologies and they, in turn, form us. The technological world we have created with all its speed and techno-beauty is and has been for decades, in the process of reforming us in its own image.
A Spiritual Response
What can we do? One suggestion is based on an ancient religious ritual practiced for thousands of years — the Sabbath. The ancient Hebrew law prescribed a Sabbath. It demanded that each person take one day out of seven to rest and honor the Lord. The Sabbath was a time for Jews to break from their work and enter into a different realm — one of spirituality, reflection, and community. They were so guided by this that they set up elaborate rules and guidelines for what actually one could and could not do on the Sabbath. But the Jews were not its only practitioners.
Christianity also adopted this practice and taught its disciples to practice the Sabbath — to take a day of rest and worship God. Islam proclaims Friday as a day of prayer for the faithful and Buddhists have the Uposatha, a day dedicated to the cleansing of the mind. In fact, many other spiritual traditions have similar practices and point to something we might consider in our speed of light culture.
Regardless of your religious perspective, a regular break — a disconnection from the systemic underlying structure of speed/technology can have huge benefits.
- It allows for renewal. Steven Covey, in his book The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, suggests the habit of Sharpening the Saw. A prominent quote attributed to Abraham Lincoln states, “Give me six hours to chop down a tree and I will spend the first four sharpening the ax.” The point being that renewal is important. In a technological world, we might be tempted to believe we are machines. That we can perform on full power indefinitely. We can’t. Even machines break down and a life of continual speed without rest is one out of balance. We need time to renew and refresh ourselves and a period of disconnection allows for this.
- It allows for re-prioritization. When we implement a regular period of rest, we re-prioritize our lives based on what we choose rather than what society or culture chooses. The seduction of technology is subtle. It tells you it has all the answers for your life. It tells you it will make you successful and financially independent. But like the serpent in the Garden of Eden, its promises are cloaked in half-truths and hidden consequences. It doesn’t tell you that in the process it may very well steal your soul. When we choose to disconnect, we put “speed” back in its place. We determine what’s important. The technologies we use have been designed on purpose to keep us on their platforms and we don’t realize it, but psychologically, they are purposefully enslaving us. An intentional disconnect helps to restore our personal freedom and bring balance.
- It allows for reflection. Life at the speed of light leaves little time for contemplative thought. Many times in life, we get on this train and fail to realize the destination isn’t where we actually want to go. A period of disconnection doesn’t mean we don’t ever use technology but simply that a regular disconnection provides space for thought. It enables us to reflect on what we really want to do and where we really want to go in life. The speed of light culture rarely provides this opportunity for us so it’s important that we do it for ourselves.
Please don’t misunderstand the point of this article. This is not a rant on the destruction of humanity being brought about by evil technologies. I’m not a technophobe and I regularly use technology (probably more than I should). This is rather a call for balance. This is a call to freedom. Just like any other ideology, we can be consumed by our technologies and this practice of disconnection allows us to proactively “shape” ourselves as much as possible in our mediated environment.
What to Do:
- Shut off the gadgets, shut off the computer, and disconnect. Disconnecting means disconnecting so shut them all off.
- Start Small. Life without technology can bring about unsettling feelings. You will inevitably experience anxiety, nervousness, and FOMO. This is typical and may even resemble the stages of addiction withdrawal (in which case you may need this more than you care to admit). So start small. Instead of a day, take 4 hours and work up from there.
- Be consistent. At the beginning, you will find this difficult, but when you cultivate a practice or habit, over time it becomes easier. Consistency is the key and though you may not feel the benefits right away, you will in time appreciate what you are doing.
- Do Something Else. Read a book. Take a walk. Connect with Friends. Find Solitude. It’s important that you replace your disconnection with other practices that allow for renewal, re-prioritization, and reflection. If you just sit around, you will inevitably be drawn back to the technologies you are seeking to escape. So find something to do instead — meditation, mindfulness, prayer, reading, etc.
In his essay, Communication at the Speed of Light, Frank Macke suggests that human meaning cannot be grasped outside of a concept reflected in Greek poetics — the tragic perspective that everything must be understood in terms of the fact that we are all going to die. Speed distracts us from that perspective. Disconnection can help us to refocus on what’s important in light of our temporality.
Technology may be promising that you will live forever, transcending physical reality through the uploading of your consciousness into a virtual avatar at some point in the future. However, the latest statistics on death are pretty grim. One out of every one. In light of that, what do you really want to do with the time you have here.