Revolution in the Age of Distraction

Can we reengage with our built world even as technology threatens to remove us from it?

We’re in the Exhibit Hall of Boston’s Convention Center on a raw November morning, here for the opening keynote address of the U.S. Green Build­ing Council’s Greenbuild 2008. The Beatles’ song “Revolution” pulses through us as early arrivers occupy the front quadrant of the cavernous room. The rest of us can’t see the stage but observe the proceedings on large, strategically placed screens, where the words “Revolutionary Green,” the theme of this year’s annual conference, appear. We’re introduced to Archbishop Desmond Tutu, whose strong and moral voice for inclusion and human rights has been famously and resoundingly heard around the world.

In his soft-spoken, singsong cadences, Arch­bishop Tutu tells the morning’s 10,000-strong audience that we put the world “over the moon” on Election Day. Today, he notes, “People everywhere can say, ‘We can have a world where all people are valued.’ You accomplished that!” The room explodes in applause. We rise en masse, including the young man in front of me and the fiftysomething woman next to me. Why am I noticing these two in this sea of humanity? The man is writing e-mails; the woman is texting. Their preoccupied states makes me wonder: How much of what’s be­ing said is getting through to these multitaskers?

A few weeks earlier, a similar question haunted me as I was on my way to the National Building Museum, in Washington, D.C.—and I was lost. I spied a young woman nearby speaking on her iPhone and asked for directions. She looked at me as if emerging from a haze and said, clearly annoyed, “I have no idea,” and walked on. I asked two other people, both on their PDAs, both with the same distracted look in their eyes; both offered no help. As it turns out, the museum is near the corner where I had been asking for directions. These rude citizens were coming from its memorable vicinity—the impressive redbrick pile sits close to a busy subway stop.

The texter and the e-mailer were not alone in that room in Boston, nor were the three cell-phoners unique to our capital’s streets. Our distracted brothers and sisters are everywhere, removing themselves from our built and natural environments even as they literally fall apart. Everyone—including the design community—talks about fixing our buildings, our infrastructure, our air quality, the way we live, work, and spend. But I wonder if we’re up to these all-involving challenges.

Are we prepared to rally to President Obama’s call for action? On the evening of his historic election, he asked us—all of us—to help him “remake” our nation, “block by block, brick by brick, calloused hand by calloused hand.” He reminded us that Americans have been doing such heavy lifting for 221 years. But are calloused thumbs that are used to working small buttons capable of massive rebuilding? Surely, we’ll need our bodies, minds, and souls at full attention. The time has come for designers to embrace their role as world changers and use their skills at form giving, space and place making, and communication to help us reengage with one another and our environment.

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