The Second Eclectic

Technology changes how we relate to God and each other

Redecorating Society: The Cooling of America

“Everybody talks about the weather, but nobody ever does anything about it.” – Mark Twain

“Genius is 1% inspiration and 99% perspiration.” – Thomas Edison

Temperatures this summer in Chicago have been all over the place. No heat waves yet. Just storms and humidity. For about 3 weeks we have spring, and everyone walks their dogs and consider wearing their jogging outfits. Now, in late June, it's just damp. The sidewalks are quiet again.

We often overlook air-conditioning’s impact on our lives. Most of us have grown up with it and think nothing of it unless we have to pay the electrical bill. We shut all our windows and turn down the thermostat. That is summer in the Middle West. Inside our refrigerated houses. Air conditioning.

Still, I consider air conditioning an honest technology. More honest than most at least. Air conditioning is not a device you hold so much as it is an environment you inhabit. Other technologies, by contrast, are things—objects we use and hold and look at, like a car or a cell phone or a book. Their “thing-ness” makes them seem nothing like an environment, but because so many people use them those devices turn into an environment just as much as air conditioning. Those devices become the air we breathe.

Think about it this way: My sister loves decorating. When she decorates her house, she finds centerpieces that “draw the room together.” It’s that one object that “makes the room.” But what if it worked the other way? What if the room made the centerpiece? What if the room demanded the centerpiece and was simply incomplete without it?

This reversal often happens when technology is so widely used. Whether its cell phones or air conditioning, these technologies create new environments. Only we’re not talking about a redecorated room. We’re talking about a redecorated society. And that newly decorated society in turn demands new objects. 

Take Google Glass for example. Sergey Brin presented Google Glass as the solution to the problem of the smartphone. I quoted him and wrote this in another piece (link) a few weeks ago:
“Is this what you were meant to do with your body?” Brin asks. “You, just rubbing this featureless piece of glass [a smartphone]?” We’re forced to look down at a screen, disconnecting us from our surroundings. We’re also forced to use our hands. (youtube)
We all understand the problem Brin identifies. And it exists because smartphones are so widespread. Our whole society has been redecorated with them. But this redecorated society has created a new problem, and demands a solution. The room demands a centerpiece. Enter Google Glass. Because society has been redecorated with smartphones, we now have a society where Google Glass has even a chance at succeeding. Before smartphones, Google Glass had no problem to solve. After smartphones, we now need a better device for accessing the web. The redecorated society needs—demands—a new technology, a new object. Will Google Glass be the centerpiece that “makes the room”? Only time will tell.  

At other times, a redecorated society doesn’t add new objects; it removes objects. Those objects fade away over the course of a generation. Then poof. Gone.

The porch is an example of this. Porches disappeared once air conditioning reached the masses and redecorated society. They were no longer needed on the face of air-conditioned homes. People no longer needed to sit outside to stay cool. They went inside and shut the door. 

Inside the house, high-ceilings that one allowed hot air to rise came down. Ventilation disappeared. The old passive methods of keeping cool—porches and high ceilings—disappeared with central air. But actually the story is more complicated than that. There were market forces at work as well.

Although it seems unthinkable to us, Americans did not readily adopt air conditioning. In fact there was a lot of resistance to overcome. As Gail Cooper shows in her fascinating book, Air-Conditioning America, “Although consumers disliked heat, humidity, dirt, and pollen, few sought air conditioning as the solution to these problems.” (book)

Willis Carrier, the inventor of a/c, invented “process air” in 1902. By the 1930s, the Carrier Corporation was pushing it heavily. They saw money to be made; if only they could find a way to create the market for it. It wasn’t until 1952 that air conditioning really solidified its hold in the American home and business. Why? Because until then the cost of a/c increased home prices by 15 to 35%. So architects had to find ways of “making the whole house absorb the cost” (154). To do that, home designs eliminated other home features—porches disappeared, high ceilings came down, ventilation was replaced with air ducts, insulation became more critical, steep-pitched roofs flattened out, and cheaper building materials were used.

In other words, the house was reengineered around one specific object: central air. By reinventing the home, the air-conditioning industry found a way to sell mechanized air. Central air remade the house. 

Central air turned the open-air Southern home with its veranda into the porchless, suburban tract home with a sealed picture window. Passive cooling was replaced by mechanized cooling, and utility companies like Commonwealth Edison in Chicago saw their winter heating bills surpassed by summer cooling costs. In fact, “As early as the 1930s utility companies had recognized air conditioning’s potential to provide a summer load to offset winter heating peaks” (Cooper, 178).

Eventually the meaning of porches, high ceilings, and steep roofs changed: Today, because they are no longer a necessity, they communicate luxury. Verandas and high ceilings are signs of high class, not high temperatures.

Home designs were changing despite consumer resistance to air conditioning. And even though most new-home construction in the 1950s included air conditioning, its social impact took longer to play itself out. Up to that point, many Americans preferred more traditional ways to beat the heat: “From air domes to swimming holes, outdoor amusements ranked high in hot weather. For the more sedentary, simply sitting on the porch or stoop was a favorite pastime. . . . Folkways of dealing with the heat often involved getting out of the house”  (168). In other words, social rituals were used to beat the heat instead of mechanical systems.

Even The New Yorker lamented the changes introduced by air conditioning. 
“We have long argued that in our youth, summers in New York were supportable without air from air-conditioning . . . . The dodges for coping with the heat that New Yorkers learned in three centuries of summers have become superfluous . . . The long drink is an irrelevancy; if you arrive in a bar, after a few steps in the street, longing for a Tom Collins, half a minute of the temperature inside influences you to change to a hot toddy. Cold foods lose their charm as quickly; at the first blast of frozen air, the customer decides to stick to steak.” (Cooper, 169; The New Yorker issue)
Eventually, mechanical air made old social practices obsolete. As Cooper makes clear in her book, “the acceptance of air conditioning turned on a transformation of values” (169). As people turned and went inside, neighborhood interaction began to decline. People talked with their neighbors less and less. Eventually, they no longer even knew their neighbors. This shift didn’t happen overnight, but over a generation or two. Children grew up inside their homes. Getting out and meeting the neighbors was a lost habit, and eventually a lost art. It was a luxury, not a necessity. And soon it became an inconvenience. Communities cooled off.

In 1954, the National Association of Home Builders and the Department of Architectural Engineering at University of Texas built 21 air-conditioned homes and called them the “Austin Air Conditioned Village.” Cooper summarizes their preliminary report from 1955: “Families in air-conditioned homes cooked more, baked more, ate heavier foods, drank more warm drinks.” Doing more cooking meant that “Women . . . . baked and cooked more than in previous summers, serving their families more hot food” and “spending more hours on housework rather than less” (174). Continuing with the findings, families “attended fewer movies, organized fewer picnics, stayed home more, entertained at home more, and kept the children inside more” (170). 

This last finding about children was considered among the best benefits: children grew up safely inside. Today, with video games and television, parents struggle to get kids outside to play at all. Various initiatives by organizations as wealthy as the NBA (NBA Fit) and the NFL (Play 60) encourage kids to play outside. But what power do monied campaigns have in the face of ubiquitous environments like air conditioning? Indeed, air conditioning transformed the values of American culture. It redecorated American society.

Today, cell phones and the Internet are redecorating society in their own ways. Those shifts will have their own social impacts. By the time we understand them, we’ll be past the point of alternatives. We probably already are. Whatever social rituals we had before cell phones and wifi are already gone.

Gail Cooper’s analysis was published more than 40 years after air conditioning solidified its place in the American home. But there were hints already in that 1955 report. Today, we’re simply stuck paying summer electric bills. Sure, we could choose to turn off the a/c, but our homes haven’t really left that option open. Society was redecorated with air-conditioned homes, and societal expectations changed with them. Now, this is just the way it is. Keep cool and carry on.

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