Space as Culture
Thinking about places as media
Hey friends, welcome back.
Last week, and really for the month of April, we thought a lot about time and how the way we relate to the past impacts the types of stories we most easily hear and tell. The way we think about time and the media we use don’t necessarily determine how we think, but they certainly give us “ruts” to fall into.
It’s here I want to take a turn and think about something a bit different: how is our thinking about space and media related? To start with something specific, let’s think about ruts.
What is a rut? A quick Google turns up:
a long deep track made by the repeated passage of the wheels of vehicles.
a habit or pattern of behavior that has become dull and unproductive but is hard to change.1
When I hop over and search for photos, I find images like these:
In all of this, we get the idea of a rut as a well-worn path—the path of least resistance. I normally think of a rut as a bad thing that needs to be overcome. The Google example sentence from the first definition of rut above gives away this tendency as well:
"a stretch of road made impassable by ruts, holes, or waterlogging"2
The implications being that there is a well-worn path, but perhaps my path needs to cut across this rut to get where I want to go, metaphorically speaking.
Thinking about ruts here touches on a whole world of metaphors that related our thinking and feeling to physical space.
There is a very tactile or “touchable” vocabulary of metaphors going on here. To name a few other common metaphors3:
She had a special place in his heart.
Education is a gateway to success.
On the road to peace.
He had finally come to the point of conclusion.
The CPU is the central hub of the computer.
He was hitting his head against a brick wall.
In a previous post, we also discussed metaphors and their powerful effect on how we think about the world, but I want to go further here.
When I launched this newsletter, I gave it the subtitle: Thoughts about our environments, how we shape them, and how they shape us.
So far, most of our discussion has been about more “proverbial” environments. But what if we flip the direction of our examination for a moment here. What does the frequency of our metaphors that use our physical world as a reference point tell us about how our physical world might really be affecting us in ways we don’t normally think about?
What is our relationship to our physical world really like?
Edward Hall, in The Hidden Dimension, elaborates:
…it may be profitable in the long run if man is viewed as an organism that has elaborated and specialized his extensions to such a degree that they have taken over, and are rapidly replacing, nature.4
This is a point where we recognize some language that McLuhan used a lot: extensions. McLuhan, as it turns out, likely derived a lot of this language from Hall, but alas, there is nothing new under the sun.5 Hall continues:
In other words, man has created a new dimension, the cultural dimension, of which proxemics is only a part.6
Here he throws out the word “proxemics,” which is a word he coined. In our world, it has come to have the definition, “the study of human use of space and the effects that population density has on behavior, communication, and social interaction.”7
So what Hall is getting at here is that the “extensions” humanity has used, all the technologies from language to computers, have created a “cultural dimension.” Proxemics, or humanity’s use of space as a tool, is a part of this cultural dimension, and this dimension is ever-growing as our technology expands.
The relationship between man and the cultural dimension is one in which both man and his environment participate in molding each other. Man is now in the position of actually creating the total world in which he lives... In creating this world he is actually determining what kind of an organism he will be. This is a frightening thought in view of how very little is known about man. It also means that, in a very deep sense, our cities are creating different types of people in their slums, mental hospitals, prisons, and suburbs. 8
So here we arrive at the big idea. While this book and Hall’s work is a study of those close, human spaces, Hall argues more broadly that our spaces shape—or provide the ruts for—the type of people we can become, even as we have made those ruts to begin with.
There are some tensions here that are not easily reconcilable. We have inadvertently arrived at the nature vs. nurture argument. Determinism. And how much control do we really have over our world? And even bigger than that, how aware are we of the way that the decisions and choices we make shape us back, especially in our built world.
I believe that these are not questions that have easy answers. Over the next few weeks, we can add a bit more nuance to this as we explore the ways the ruts of our world, both literally and metaphorically, impact who we are as people.
As always, thanks for joining, and see you again next week.