Our physical surroundings affect everything from our mood and stress levels to our ability to think, remember, pay attention, and make decisions. Among the most interesting of these effects are those that relate to our ability to meet and get to know other people. Architects and planners spend countless hours trying to figure out the right spatial equations that encourage social intercourse in public spaces, propel fruitful exchanges in office spaces, and make hospitable environments for meeting and greeting in places of entertainment.
But what about spaces that encourage more intimate encounters? Are there design features that might encourage us to overcome our native inclination to protect ourselves inside our private bubbles of personal space? To reach beyond the bubble and make contact with another human being can feel risky and awkward, even when it is something that we might very much like to do in order to meet someone who looks interesting or attractive. We’re very much attached to our zones of safety even when we know that the rewards of venturing beyond them can be rich. One of the most compelling demonstrations of the power of the bubble that I’ve experienced came courtesy of performance artist Ryan Brennan. In one of his pieces, entitled “Bubble Bursting,” Brennan sets up a simple scenario in which participants are invited to walk towards one another and make a very close physical approach in a completely neutral context—an open room with a few markings on the floor—all the while making eye contact as much as possible with the stranger they are approaching. When Brennan was invited to set up an installation of Bubble Bursting at the BMW-Guggenheim Laboratory in New York in the fall of 2011, I not only had a chance to experience the explosion of my own personal bubbles at the hands of strangers, but I was also able to convince some of the participants to wear physiological monitoring devices that could measure their levels of arousal during the experience. It was a remarkable happening. Some participants’ faces exploded with joy and wonder. Others cringed or collapsed in gales of nervous laughter. Almost everyone whose experience I was able to measure showed remarkably rapid crescendos of nervous arousal during the approach. Bubble Bursting gives participants an objective awareness of their own personal bubble and allows a playful release from its strictures.
Some early amusement park rides, such as Coney Island’s Barrel of Fun, were designed explicitly to interfere with normal movement in such a way as to propel us towards physical contact with one another in unseemly, uncontrollable and often hilarious ways. The Barrel of Fun consisted of nothing more than a large, rotating cylinder whose occupants would lose their balance and often find themselves in one another’s arms, clinging to one another for support. In a way, you could almost think of the Barrel of Fun and of Brennan’s Bubble Bursting installation as being instances of a kind of environmental emotional prosthesis—a setting designed to encourage the kind of physical proximity with another person that we normally reserve for intimate friendships.
Something similar happens when we queue. Although line-ups are, of course, not explicitly designed to encourage social intercourse, this seems to be one of their few happy side-effects. Groups of people cordoned into small spaces, all seeking the same goal, often open up to one another and make acquaintance, share misery, trade jokes and sometimes even exchange contact details.
Now, in the age of all-the-time connectedness via electronic social networks, we have an entirely new set of environmental prostheses that no longer depend on physical proximity. We’re still learning how to negotiate these new invisible light-speed byways which have the peculiar effect of putting us right into the hands and eyes of strangers in ways that aren’t that different to two people touching noses in Brennan’s Bubble Bursting. Few of us who use Facebook, Twitter or even good old-fashioned email have a hard time thinking of at least one or two occasions where we’ve regretfully over-revealed our inner selves, possibly to thousands of strangers in one unguarded instant. But these Internet-based modes of communication may also be generating more widespread changes in our patterns of behavior that are somewhat akin to the Barrel of Fun.
For one thing, we’re having to re-think entirely the notion of privacy, which is no longer assured us by the presence of surrounding physical walls. For another, we’re making increasing use of social networks as a means of searching for mates.
A new study, just published online, suggests that there is a historical relationship between the availability of broadband Internet and marriage rates. The findings, gleaned from existing records of the emergence of broadband networks and fluctuating marriage rates in the United States, suggests that broadband Internet may promote marriage. Even after controlling for a host of other possible explanations, such as intervening variables related to economic and employment factors, the relationship is quite striking. Even though, overall, marriage rates are declining, rates of marriage have shown upward trends in synchrony with wider availability of broadband Internet. The author of the study suggests that the relationship exists because online dating sites make it much easier for one to find a compatible partner. A very interesting sidebar to this story, though, is that search theory would also predict that as the personal cost, measured in time and effort, of finding a mate decreases, divorce rates should begin to rise as well. So if the Internet is serving the mating game as a kind of virtual Barrel of Love then the question is whether rebooting one’s romantic life by shuffling partners could become almost as easy as stepping out of the Barrel for another journey down the Tunnel of Love.
What is most fascinating to consider is that the many fundamental ways in which our physical surroundings have been used to shape behavior now seem to be giving way to an entirely new type of environmental design, based on electrons and pixels. The walls, windows, and doorways of these designs are unfamiliar, often invisible, and can be erected and removed in an instant. Yet the influence of these cyber-designs may be no less profound and even more powerful than the walls of brick and concrete which have traditionally defined our lived spaces.