Like most college students, I’ve never lived completely by myself. I’ve shared my home with at least one other person. But this doesn’t mean my home has never felt isolating. The air inside has often been marked more by the stench of competition than by the sweet fragrance of community. Recently, I’ve come to believe that this has less to do with my own character or that of my roommates and more to do with the intrusion of technology into living spaces, and with the design of the spaces themselves.
The type and placement of electronic appliances tells a lot about household interactions. For example, a single television in front of a well-used sofa suggests that roommates spend time together sharing an experience, while multiple televisions in different rooms signal that roommates spend a lot of time alone. It is not that television is bad, it is that the social trend is toward the latter scenario rather than the former.
This trend is peaking in a small rectangle, the smartphone. As Marc Barnes observes, the smartphone has replaced the TV. The smartphone is portable and personal and has enticed us to enjoy our shows in our private rooms. The ubiquity of the smartphone is an artifact of our own loneliness.
Some of my oldest memories involve going to Blockbuster, picking out a VCR tape, and watching it on my family’s single television, surrounded by loved ones. When I mentally fast-forward through the years, I see the introduction of satellite television with its thousand channels, the invasion of streaming services with their ten thousand shows, the end of Blockbuster and the VCR tape, the beginning and end of the DVD, the multiplication of televisions in my own home, to the era of the smartphone. A pattern emerges. Entertainment companies tailor their products for the smallest unit of consumption, which is the individual. As a result, my own home evolved from a place to gather with others into a place where I occupy myself and only myself. My family became more isolated from one another because, naturally, we’d rather personally pick what shows we watch than compromise.
Kitchens and kitchen appliances are also good examples of the trend away from community. Consider the stovetop. In every home I have lived in, there has never been room for more than one person to comfortably stand in front of it. The stove is almost always placed against a wall and enclosed on two sides by counters. If community is our standard, the stovetop is a regression from the open hearth. The open hearth can be easily surrounded and permits multiple people to cook at the same time. Since only one person can stand at a stovetop, stoves breed competition.
The oven is another example of an appliance which has exacerbated this trend away from community. Its advantage, which is to cook at a specific temperature, is also a disadvantage for community. By an open hearth, temperature can be regulated, though not perfectly, by how close one holds their food to the fire, which allows multiple people to cook at once. In an oven, the food is cooked at one temperature, which rarely allows two different cooks to overlap their time using the oven. As the time in our days is limited, this specificity breeds competition.
Cooking and eating are becoming increasingly viewed as obstacles to get around quickly rather than opportunities to spend time with each other. Modern kitchen products are designed to get us out of the kitchen and back to our work or to our recreation as soon as possible. For example, the microwave’s advantage lies in its smallness and its ability to cook food in a short amount of time. Also, it understandably allows for people, who are easily stressed in cramped and crowded places, to avoid spending too much time in the kitchen.
Again, the pattern emerges. The design of our spaces breeds competition, which breeds the multiplication of devices in the kitchen, which then leads to isolation. On top of stovetops, ovens and microwaves we now also have pressure cookers, rice cookers, crockpots, toaster ovens and air fryers, among the many other novel appliances. It can even be difficult these days to share recipes with people because they may not have the specific kitchen appliance required by the recipe. Housemates are losing the opportunity to foster community in the kitchen – traditionally the social center of the house. We are more likely to cook alone, armed with our own private, internet-transmitted information, than to cook with our housemates on the basis of common knowledge.
Of course there are plenty of good reasons for the modern arrangement of the home and its appliances. The stovetop is clearly less of a fire-risk than the open hearth, and its placement makes sense given that it needs to be near an outlet. And it is not necessarily bad to cook on your own, in your own way. The microwave is great for those in a time crunch. The oven is useful to those who need to multitask, like if dinner needs to be made and kids need to be watched. These devices have clear pros. The problem is that they all have the same con, which is that they are alienating us from one another.We are increasingly alienated from one another not because these technologies are inherently alienating, but because they are increasingly designed with the smallest unit of consumption in mind, which is the individual. Designing for community is less profitable.
In order to combat this trend, we need to be cognizant consumers rather than cogs. When buying or renting a home, we should think about how the layout might foster or hinder community. A stovetop placed inside an island with at least one large burner is more conducive to communally cooked meals than a stovetop placed by a wall with only small burners. The kitchen itself should be large enough to allow multiple people to move about. Televisions should be few in number, and should be placed in common spaces and in front of big couches. And if there is a fireplace– the original community-building technology – we ought to take it as a good sign.
We are constantly being buffeted by external forces which are pushing us away from one another. To combat these forces, we need to be more aware of how our surroundings influence the ways we interact with one another. Winning this fight does not require a return to the Middle Ages. We do not need to shun technology per se. We need to make conscious choices with the interest of our community in mind. But we may need to make sacrifices. We have to be willing to do away with the small conveniences that highly individualized appliances supply. To simplify our lives is to make room for others to enter it.
Image credit: “Living Room Interior” via Wikimedia Commons