For millennia of human history, body and location were inextricably connected to experience. The worship of God, the cultivation of friendship, the conduct of business, and the expression of anger and hostility, the pursuit of romantic affection, the experience of the natural world all presupposed physical presence. The expressions on the face, the gestures of the hands, the body's mien, touch itself--by their nature, worked together to limit, expand, and shape communication and relationship. Place mattered no less. The towering reaches of a cathedral, the foreboding form of a fortress, the warmth and intimacy of a home or hostel, the beauty and power of the ocean or landscape, for example, were all inwoven with the experience within these places.
Both physical presence and place continue to matter to us, but neither matter as much as they once did. We are, of course, present in time, but less and less present by virtue of our physical presence. For example, when one can communicate with anyone at anytime from anywhere--whether through a cell phone, the Internet, or some other technology--presence and place simply matter less. They matter less to the cultivation and maintenance of relationships and less to the work we do. We are in a sense, released from the gravitational pull that presence and place once necessitated for both relationship and labor.
What is more, when the physical places we inhabit--whether homes, offices, gyms, shopping malls, interstate highways, airports, parking lots, cities--look alike, place seems to matter even less. What was distinctive about a place etiolates into space and we end up with what James Kunstler has called "a geography of nowhere"--where every place looks like no place in particular.
The development of new technologies of information and communication are clearly one of the sources of this cultural change. In a time such as ours, more and more of us inhabit our relationship to the world--at least increasingly so--through these technologies. Whether work, friendship, romance, rivalry, hostility, the natural world, or specific places in the world--all can be and indeed are increasingly mediated through programming. Consciousness, experience, identity, physical presence, and the landscape around us, in short, are disembodied through these technologies.
The weakening significance of presence and place is but one way in which what we take as reality has dissolved. Like most things in the world, there is ambivalence about this turn of circumstances. There are ways that the technological changes that brought this about can be and are liberating and empowering. But they are not with cost, for in their net cultural effect, they can also be profoundly disorienting and, in ways, deeply incapacitating. As it bears on faith, the weakening significance of presence and place brought about by the broken trust between word and world cuts to the very core of what it means to believe--the reality of what we believe and the implication of our belief for how engage the world we live in.
Hunter, To Change the World, 238-239
- How does your physical space shape your values and actions?
- How do you shape your physical space?
- How do you experience cultural shifts as liberating or disorienting?