When you dance on the street, it is weird. When you dance on the dance floor it’s okay. When you eat food in bed it’s crazy, when you eat food in the dinner-room it’s fine. When you exercise at work it’s crazy, when you exercise at the gym it’s fine. In these examples it seems like doing activities in places that aren’t designed/used for that activity is considered wrong. If we follow this logic you should only dance on the dance-floor, you should only have dinner in the dining room, or exercise at the gym. It seems we argue (quite often) that certain activities are only allowed in the designated areas. You compartmentalize people’s activities with an associated area. This reminds me an awful lot of discrimination (remember Rosa Parks). Why can’t we just dance in the streets, have our dinner in the living room, or exercise at the office? In this blog post I will talk about the issue of thinking in compartments (aka discrimination). With discrimination I mean the “recognition and understanding of the difference between one thing and another”. When I talk about discrimination, I do not (necessarily) mean the discrimination of races and genders but you might find some similarities. For now, I rather use the word “compartment” to make the examples more clear.
Space & activity
In the examples above, we could already recognize how often we have places associated with activities. You often go to certain places to do an activity, but it’s not always the case that the activity is dependent on that place. For example, you could dance everywhere; at home, on the streets or even at work, a dance-floor is not required for this activity. But there are also certain places that are necessary for the activity; you can only go rock climbing at vertical rocks, you can only bowl in a bowling area, or cook on a stove. But even this is arbitrary, because you could also use some rocks and sticks to play bowling, or cook something on a fire. The more specific the activity is, the more specific the space needs to be for it to be right. To find logic in compartmentalization, you need to adjust both activity and space and make them very specific. For instance playing paintball with real paintball guns and specific rules in a proper area can almost only happen on a “designated” paintball area where they have real guns, identified rules, and a field that is made for paintball. When you think about this, both the activity and the place need to be very specific, to make a statement that is really true. I believe that space and activity are not fundamentally related, but spaces can be designed to facilitate an activity. Moreover, I think that activity should form the space, and not the other way around. A person should form the space around him and make it fit with the activity they desire to perform. If I feel like dancing, I should be able to do what I want, regardless of whether the place “fits” with it. There should be no place that allows me to do only do one activity.
The places we need
For everyone who wants to do something, a space should confirm with their activity. There are several ways to reach this. The first thing you could do as a person is to pick spaces where you can perform this activity. If you want to chop wood you should go to a wood workshop. When you want to write, you should go to a place where they have desks and pen and paper. However, if you are a building manager, how would you know what your employees need? The only way to find out is to ask your employees “what spaces do you need?” If they are able to give you an answer, you know they are intrinsically motivated, or they exclusively associate their job-activities with certain places. For example, a scientist might think he needs a computer to make up ideas because he thinks that computers are necessary for ideas, even though this might not be the case. If employees have no preference it is quite likely that the spaces of your building have formed the activities they are doing today. You could drop an inventor in a wood-workshop or at a computer and his outcomes will be completely different. So anyone who manages places, be it a building manager, interior designer, town- or country planner, should know that places form the activities that your inhabitants will do, and adapting your places to the needs of your inhabitants will result in a better fit. But how could one reach this? Information exchange should be the first step in this direction. Inhabitants can share information that will change the spaces, or “place managers” could share information and change places that will change the inhabitants.
The object of a place
A place is more than a coordinate. In our mind, places have objects associated with them. An office contains computers, a kitchen a stove, and a living room a couch. But this is not always the case. These prejudices are another form of compartmentalization on a different level. There could be no specific reason to fill an office with desks. However, we see this in every office, it is just a habit (read more). Rooms shouldn’t always be like they are “supposed to be”. An office might contain a ball pit, a kitchen might contain a bonfire if it accords to the activities the inhabitants want or need to do in it. Either way, our minds should be free to perform the things we want to do and not be restricted by the actual space. At least for your own home this is largely true; you are the God of your house, and you can do everything with it what you desire. A hot-tub with a dinner table in it? A TV in the ceiling of your bedroom? An entire floor of mattresses in your bedroom? Everything that you desire is possible in your own home. But here I need to note that social norms like “only cooking in the kitchen” also often have sensible reasons, e.g. hygiene or safety. In organizations, towns, or countries the balance between places and activities is more difficult because there are many perspectives within an organization, town or country. Usually, the manager has some need for activities at these places, so he makes designated places. Through this, inhabitants are constrained within their activities. Nevertheless, to make both sides (the managers and the inhabitants) flourish, mutual adaptation through information exchange is necessary.
Deviation from the norm creates risks
I am still bothered by the question “Why don’t we do everything we would like to do at any place we like?” I would love to skate across the highway, the broad pavement would be very fitting for it. But there are many reasons why I shouldn’t do this. As I mentioned early, many social norms are based on logical hygienic, safety, or efficiency reasoning. Logical reasoning recommends that we don’t cook in bed, have airports in the city-center, or have sex in the top of a tree. Through logic, social norms have formed which make us don’t really think about things that people don’t do. That’s why I never thought about having sex in a tree until today (really!). We are used to not doing it. But if we think about them, we can find some “playing area” where we can play with the rules. In open spaces this is a little bit more difficult, because the social norms are often so embedded within behavior that deviation evokes risks for the individual. If you start to talk in a “designated” silence area people will be annoyed by you. Similarly, when you skate across the highway, the chances are likely that you’ll die. Breaking the social norms often evokes risks for the individual but also for its peers within that area.
Loss of structure when decoupling activity from place
Imagine you see someone dancing in the mall. But you are a “designated dancefloor-dancer”, and you have only seen people dance on the dance-floor. Then you might think: “Dancing is supposed to happen on the dance-floor, and nowhere else”. So when you see someone dancing at a mall where you supposed to walk normally, this is confusing to you. As a response to the confusion, you might be inclined to find a reasonable argument to prevent this dancing from happening. It would reduce your confusion, and thus increases your comfort. So you make up reasons why the dancer shouldn’t dance in the mall (and some of them could be very unreasonable). Often people still dislike the nonconforming behavior, even when there is no reasonable threat by activities at a place where the place is not designed for. Some people despise people having naps at the office, singing people in public, or cycling people in a (calm) walking path. What I believe is happening in the mind in such a situation, is that when you see “weird/different/strange behavior”, you realize that things don’t need to be the way you think they should be. Alternative ways of doing things suddenly become possible. This causes confusion, because you then realize that you have always been doing things (normally) which might not be the most efficient or fun way. For you, the behavior was always normal and stable, but suddenly new paths appear and you see multiple options. In the mind the realization of this weird event is a bifurcation, your one path splits in two. A cycle lane fit for cycling suddenly becomes a place where you can also dance! How weird! The bifurcation in the mind feels like a loss of structure. People who experience this bifurcation are suddenly less certain what to use their designated places for. It can be quite frightening to realize that you can do everything almost everywhere; sleep in the office, have dinner in bed, or scream in a busy area. And thus you could argue that it’s better not to; it’s a loss of structure. People might go crazy when they lose structure, and this is literally what we call crazy. Nevertheless, crazy doesn’t mean that it’s bad, it is just different from normal. Crazy implies having more variations than usual for a given situation, even though some of the variations might not be useful. Crazy can thus be also very inspirational; “How could someone think of something that weird, creative, and innovative?”. Some craziness is needed to innovate and to work a way around the common social norms and activities. Crazy is realizing things can be different. (read more).
People living in 3018
As a treat, you can watch the video below. It’s a meme called “people living in 3018”, and the video contains many examples of people who disassociate assets/products/places with activities. Many of them use objects or places for activities that aren’t associated with each other. The people in this video mold their objects and places around their needs. If you watch this video, I encourage you to recognize the confusion, disapproval or disgust of some solutions you encounter when watching the video. These responses are quite natural but not always grounded and depend on your current mind.