Random finds (2017, week 19) — On the value of our built environment, the virtues of boredom, and the curse of the consultants

Blending the old with the new — Ten Broeck Cottage, a 1734 Dutch colonial building in Upstate New York, extended by Messana O’Rorke Architects.

“I have gathered a posy of other men’s flowers, and nothing but the thread that binds them is mine own.” — Michel de Montaigne

Random finds is a weekly curation of my tweets, and reflection of my curiosity.

The value of our built environment

In her latest book, Welcome To Your World: How the Built Environment Shapes Our Lives, Sarah W. Goldhagen argues that the buildings we live and work in deeply affect us, physically and psychologically, and that we can’t afford the soul-crushing architecture we mostly subject ourselves to.

“Because people are nonconsciously susceptible to environmental primes, and because our perceptions of the built environment are enmeshed in our human embodiment, skillful design rests on foundational knowledge about the operations of how we think and perceive. The way we apprehend our built environments — and their relationship to nature — is profoundly intersensory. Not only that: it also involves our motor systems as we interact, or imagine interacting, with the things and places around us. A principal reason the Salk Institute design succeeds is that [Louis] Kahn understood that one of the architect’s principal tasks is managing users’ attentional resources. He orchestrated an entry sequence that first emphasizes nature’s monumentality, then draws us into a relationship with the buildings through intersensory stimulation — vision, touch, sound — that also invites us to interact and imagine interacting with them. Understanding such fundamentals of human cognition can help designers create places that will long resonate in our memories, and become a treasured part of who we are.”

Salk Institute, by Louis Kahn (1965).

“The story of our relationship to our surroundings is revelatory, multilayered, rich, and, owing to the changing rhythms of the day and the operations of human memory, temporally complex. Experiencing the built environment involves more than how we process the swirl of sensory cues and impressions at the moment that we apprehend them. It also involves the prior knowledge we use to interpret these cognitions, as well as the way that we subsequently store them as memories, since, although what we think and experience usually seems wholly independent from the particularity of the place, when we remember such events, we unfailingly access something about the environments in which they took place. So we need to understand some fundamentals about the complex architecture of cognition — how people initially process sensory and mental impressions, as well as how we recall them. Through these fundamentals, we come to appreciate how pervasively the built environment permeates and shapes human experience.

[…]

We need to recognize three precepts to properly explore the nature of cognition and its role in built environmental experience. First: what our minds think is largely shaped and profoundly influenced by the human body. Second: this, along with the fact that our bodies are shaped by the environments in which we live and have evolved, suggests that much of our internal cognitive life takes place outside language and below the level of our conscious awareness. Third: these factors transform our understanding of how humans live in the world by making us less the sovereign agents over our experiences that we often believe ourselves to be. We are thoroughly environmentally embedded beings.”

Above and below: Salk Institute, by Louis Kahn (1965).
“Experience is grounded in our sensory perceptions and our internal thoughts, which together govern how we make sense of the information that comes to us from being in the world. And when something happens in the world or in our minds, that ‘something is always situated — in our bodies, in a given time, and in place.” — Sarah W. Goldhagen in Welcome To Your World: How the Built Environment Shapes Our Lives

Jason Gots recently talked with Sarah W. Goldhagen about Welcome To Your World and why we tolerate design that’s bad for us (Souls & Spaces — Sarah W. Goldhagen — Think Again Podcast #96).


Also: Conscious Cities: Bridging Neuroscience, Architecture, and Technology (Anthology №2 — publication of the 2017 Conscious Cities conference).

The virtues of boredom

“Boredom is, in the Darwinian sense, an adaptive emotion. Its purpose, that is, may be designed to help one flourish,” wrote classics scholar Peter Toohey in Boredom: A Lively History (2011).

‘Peter Toohey argues that boredom, unlike primary emotions like happiness, sadness, fear, anger, surprise, or disgust, takes a secondary role, alongside ‘social emotions’ like sympathy, embarrassment, shame, guilt, pride, jealousy, envy, gratitude, admiration, and contempt. He delineates between two main types of boredom — simple boredom, which occurs regularly and doesn’t require that you be able to name it, and existential boredom, a grab-bag condition that is ‘neither an emotion, nor a mood, nor a feeling’ but, rather, ‘an impressive intellectual formulation’ that has much in common with depression and is highly self-aware, something Toohey calls the most self-reflective of conditions,” Maria Popova wrote in The Cultural History and Adaptive Function of Boredom.

To many of us, a life without boredom might, on first glance, seem ideal. But consider it more carefully, writes assistant professor in philosophy Andreas Elpidorou in The quiet alarm. “If we did not have the capacity for boredom, then any situation — regardless of how trivial, banal, or humdrum it might be — would fail to strike us as boring. Nothing would be boring. Not the experience of listening to the same lecture over and over again. Not the seemingly endless time spent waiting in offices. Yet some situations should bore us.”

“We tend to reproach ourselves for staring out of the window. You are supposed to be working, or studying, or ticking off things on your to-do list. It can seem almost the definition of wasted time. It seems to produce nothing, to serve no purpose. We equate it with boredom, distraction, futility. The act of cupping your chin in your hands near a pane of glass and letting your eyes drift in the middle distance does not normally enjoy high prestige. We don’t go around saying: ‘I had a great day: the high point was staring out of the window’. But maybe in a better society, that’s just the sort of thing people would say to one another.” — The Importance of Staring out the Window

According to Elpidorou, boredom arises as the result of the perception of a mismatch: a gap between the need for stimulation and its availability. “We want something that simply is not there. Boredom is our awareness of that absence. […] Think of boredom as an internal alarm. When it goes off, it is telling us something. It signals the presence of an unfulfilling situation. But it is an alarm equipped with a shock. The negative and aversive experience of boredom motivates us […] to pursue a different situation, one that seems more meaningful or interesting, just as a sharp pain motivates us not to put pins into our bodies. […] When tasks with which we are currently engaged have lost their luster, boredom promotes the pursuit of alternative goals by its very character.”

Boredom motivates us to do something else, without necessarily telling us what to do, says Elpidorou. It can transport us from one psychological place to another.

Prince Charles with his Aunt, Princess Margaret (right), and his Grandmother, Elizabeth the Queen Mother, at the 1953 coronation of his mother, Queen Elizabeth II. (Photograph: II. Hulton Deutsch/Getty)

What is lacking when we feel bored, Mary Mann reveals in Yawn: Adventures in Boredom, is often something much deeper than entertainment. Feeling bored “doing work that didn’t mean anything to me in San Diego, a place I’d never meant to live, felt as if I’d slipped out of the role of protagonist in my own life, just fallen right out of the story altogether,” she writes.

In 2015, when Mann was still researching her book, she wrote an opinion in The New York Times, called The Other Side of Boredom.

“Doing nothing is often boring, and boredom is often crazy-making,” Mann wrote. Apparently, people prefer self-administering electric shocks to doing nothing, as researchers report in a study punlished in Science. This makes it all the more surprising that others actively seek boredom out, like Gertrude Stein, who famously wrote on developing creative genius: “You have to sit around so much doing nothing.”

“Boredom seems to result in creativity only when given the right conditions. Yet at the same time, creative thinking is what makes boredom tolerable: A factory employee dreams up home redecorations on the assembly line, a salmon fisherwoman plans the evening menu while hauling nets, a medical salesman decides in a meeting to start raising bees,” according to Mann.

But what turns doing nothing into creative fuel?

“While there are no conclusive studies on this,” she writes, “therapists and psychoanalysts I’ve interviewed tend to agree that the best way to really use boredom is to allow our bored minds to wander freely and to pay close attention to where they go, like watching a Ouija board supply answers under our own fingertips.”

“It takes a lot of time to be a genius. You have to sit around so much, doing nothing, really doing nothing.” — Gertrude Stein. (Detail from a portret by Pablo Picasso, 1905–6; The Met, New York)

More recently, Julie Beck spoke with Mary Mann about what boredom really means, and how it manifests in our relationships and in the stories we tell ourselves about our lives. It’s not a crisis if things aren’t always interesting. One of the questions Beck asked is, “How often does boredom come from a desire we have for our lives to have a narrative?”

“One thing I thought was really interesting in researching this was talking to Martin Demand Frederiksen, who had spent all this time with these young men in Georgia, the country, studying how they were feeling boredom. He was talking about this one man he interviewed, who hated being in the country. He thought it was boring to the point of depression, and he really wanted to be a musician. He didn’t have any outlets, he was sort of trapped where he was. And feeling trapped is a big part of boredom. People feel boredom a lot when they feel trapped and vice versa. And this particular guy, he preferred to do his interviews with Martin in the past tense. He preferred to pretend with Martin that they were in the future looking back at his current life as part of this trajectory that led him to whatever success he was going to find. So this boredom would be part of the story, it would be the struggle that then leads to the glory. It was a really good example to me of how things that are really good narrative aren’t necessarily things that anyone would want to live through. No one would want to be in this guy’s situation. He was really unhappy. But it did make for a good story.”

“But with boredom I think it’s also embarrassing. People don’t want to admit that they feel bored because there’s a judgment about it, right? ‘Only boring people get bored.’ It’s a sign that maybe you’re not as creative or as great or as fascinating as you would like to seem. So we just don’t talk about it.” — Mary Mann in The Other Side of Boredom

More on boredom and mind-wandering in An exploration into our wandering minds.

And this …

According to The Financial Times’ chief business commentator, John Gapper, the curse of the consultants is spreading fast. Once a niche for a handful of wizards in firms such as McKinsey & Co and Boston Consulting Group, it has turned into a thriving industry that keeps on growing faster than many of its clients.

Consultants now do many jobs that companies once performed themselves, and some businesses seem to have been entirely occupied by consultants. So, what is going on?, Gapper wonders.

“One answer is that they are needed. Many companies shed employees and retreated to their core after the 2008 financial crisis […]. Hiring expertise as required — management as a cloud service — is a natural next step.” But also the rise of digital technology and data analytics, which is currently upending many industries, is a boon for consultants. If the trends continue, companies could soon amount to just a handful of managers overseeing consultants and contractors.

Warren Buffett will go to great lengths to stop Berkshire Hathaway using consultants. “If the board hires a compensation consultant after I’m gone, I will come back,” he recently promised its annual shareholder meeting. It was a joke, but from the heart. (Illustration: Ingram Pinn for The Financial Times)

Gapper believes this could have serious implications for the nature of the company itself. “Consulting offers a substitute,” he writes, “the ability for companies to outsource chunks of strategy and operations. […] Hiring consultants who have undertaken similar projects elsewhere is reliable and fast.”

“But there are dangers, which can be overlooked amid the rush. One is that companies are buying off-the-shelf solutions that make them operate more like others. They are being sold similar ideas and similar methods for reaching customers. The curse of the consultants is that anyone can hire them, so their ideas soon spread.

[…]

The second danger is that consultants become a habit — once they get inside the building, they are hard to eradicate. They have an interest in keeping the relationship going, either by persuading clients that the challenges are complex, or by selling them more services.

A company that needs a few tasks done quickly can become enmeshed.”


Julian Agyeman, an urban studies and environmental policy scholar at Tufts University, believes the concept of a ‘sharing economy’ limits a very human value — sharing — to an economic transaction.

In Sharing Cities, Agyeman and the environmental scholar Duncan McLaren make a case for technology as a tool to transform cities into more equitable and more sustainable places — if applied correctly. However, when smart-city programs aren’t designed to correct social inequality, they end up furthering it. Talking with Grist, Agyeman explained how that concept could redefine our idea of what makes a city truly smart.

[Grist] How do most of us imagine ‘sharing’ in cities today, and how is the Sharing Cities vision different?

[Agyeman] “We need to reinvent and recreate the urban commons as a place where humans interact in a much more relational way, not just in a transactional way. In a sense, what we’re saying is we want to move from the sharing economy to understanding whole cities as shared spaces. Modern technology gives us a kind of intersection of urban spaces and cyberspace, which we think could be a platform for a much more inclusive and efficient society.”

[Grist] What are the opportunities, and pitfalls, to look out for as technology revolutionizes the way cities work?

[Agyeman] “A lot of people see this idea of the ‘smart city’ as just the city that is wired for automation and efficiency. But we’re saying it’s only ‘smart’ if it harnesses the capabilities and aspirations of the citizens. It’s not smart if it just sits there controlling traffic lights and streetcars. There’s a very great need to see technology as something in the service of solidarity and social justice.”

“So for people who want to get into this: Don’t accept your place as it is. Think about what it could become. In many ways, the sharing-city concept is a vision and a product — the sharing city — but it’s also a process, of remaking the city.” — Julian Agyeman

The interesting thing about news has never been its truth or falsehood but how it explodes our sense of onrushing time, Arthur Asseraf writes in What’s so new about news?

“The current panic around false news tends to blame new technologies such as social media. This anxiety is tied to the belief that technical innovation sparks cultural and intellectual revolutions — a view of temporality that emerges from 19th-century Europe, in which time was conceived as a linear progression, marching forward with every technological step. This was also the period that gave birth to the modern news industry, so perhaps it’s not surprising that most scholars have followed this particular way of organising time to understand news. They argue that news developed in eras according to the dominant medium: first there was oral news, then came the newspaper, then the TV, then the internet. This offers a comforting feeling of order and progress, of one thing leading to another in neat chronological succession.

But this picture obscures the many other ways in which we relate to time. Just as I did on that night in November 2015 [Asseraf refers to the 13th, the day terrorist attacked the Bataclan theatre in Paris], who hasn’t felt like time stopped when they heard a certain piece of information — or maybe that it slowed down, or sped up? As I delved deeper into the uses of news in the 18th century, before the emergence of the modern media industry as we know it, I realised that news can help us to grasp the manifold ways in which the present, the past and the future are entangled.”

Akhbar — a cafe in Cairo in 1986. (Photograph: Bruno Barbey/Magnum)

“Blaming any one technology for fake news is a bit too easy. In reality, news has never been settled or stable. The process by which people such as [the Canadian sociologist, known for his widely repeated, yet poorly understood mantra ‘the medium is the message’, and who believed that the media is the secret agent of history, because each new technology transforms our ways of thinking] Marshall McLuhan tried to place the past into a neat progression according to types of media is similar to the process that generates news itself: both are attempts to organise time to locate ourselves within a changing world. The current panic about false news, then, does not tell us much about the role of social media in sharing information. It reveals, instead, that we feel like change is accelerating unpredictably and that we are looking for ways to make sense of it.”


Around the world, Instagrammers are using drones to capture breathtaking new perspectives on their cities. The Guardian rounds up some of the best.

Drawbridge, Klaipėda, Lithuania. (Karolis Janulis)
Guangzhou, China. (Nick Chu)
Chongqing, China. (Nick Chu)

“The architecture profession thought not so long ago that it knew how to design cities and that its obligation was to design cities and to teach how to design cities. At the same time, we are surrounded by cities that you would call unpleasant. Nobody can design cities anymore, or rather the cities that people know how to design are completely different from the cities that architecture considers legitimate and organised. So, whether we want to or not, we are basically confronted with a phenomenal amount of evidence of the redundancy and even the absurdity of our profession. It’s a really deeply tragic situation.” — Rem Koolhaas speaking at a conference during Milan design week
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