Social Changes: Silent
Social changes can come very self-consciously, as when a town changes its laws, or when a new social voice emerges as a group comes together. We make such changes all the time, in large and small matters. Asked where the change comes from we might say that it comes from reacting to other changes. Or we might say that someone had a new idea that caught on. These are the kinds of social changes the scenarios we’re considering have pictured. The scenarios imagine what suburban communities might decide to do in the face of changes in the availability of resources, the security of civil order, and especially in the speed and reach of the networks connecting us to other people and goods far away. (Depending on the speed of transportation, "far away" can change. In Jane Austen's novels, 25 miles is far.)
But there are other, more silent and pervasive kinds of social change that the scenarios only hint at. When considering alternative futures it is tempting to think that the basic furniture of our lives keeps its shape and meaning while people respond to external pressures and shortages. But this is not wholly true. A suburban house remains the same physical house, whether or not oil is plentiful, whether or not one can drive downtown at a whim, whether or not there are Internet connections. It's the same physical object, yes, but its meaning and its place in our lives might change so much that we shouldn't continue to call it the same house. As the house begins to relate differently to faraway events, as its place in our daily life changes and it becomes more or less of a refuge, feels more or less threatened, is easier or harder to operate, more or less of a burden, the meaning of the house as a physical object changes. The kinds of possibilities that a house opens to us -- the kinds of potential actions that occur to us when dealing with it -- shift. To use a philosophical term from phenomenology, as the horizon of possible activities alters, the meaning of the object shifts as well, because that meaning is partially constituted by that horizon of possible activities. A glass of water or a fountain pen or a soccer ball are what they are because of their insertion into a web of possible activities. So is a house. It may sound strange to speak of the being of the house changing, but, as Aristotle said, a house is not a house because of its shape and materials but because of its use. As uses change it becomes something new, and it will change again.
Newspapers, television sets, telephones, recorded music -- all of these have changed their meaning and their way of being in recent years. New ways of dealing with them altered their place in our webs of activities. The changes were gradual but looking back we can see that things aren't what they used to be. Automobiles are changing that way now, somewhat because of outside circumstances, somewhat because of planned change on the part of owners and producers, and somewhat in the unconscious way in which reinterpretation occurs when social meanings are passed on.
Changes in values and feelings can come about through new external circumstances which alter the set of possible activities. For instance, when trade and communication networks deliver foreign products and images, “our” products and practices exist in a new context and take on new comparisons and meanings. We don’t decide to create these new meanings. They are there, unavoidable, and censorship or blocking the foreign still acknowledges their presence.
Another silent change comes as people reinterpret their language or goals, or their tools and buildings. This happens when children receive a teaching in a changed context and so perceive it differently. A pattern of activity or a set of norms can be altered as it is passed on, not as a matter of conscious plan but through its insertion in new contexts and feelings. Even very explicit documents such as legal or philosophical writings take on different colorations when inserted into different religious and political contexts. This is even more true of highly symbolic and ambiguous documents such as the Christian bible.
So architectural surroundings may seem to embody a certain set of values, but a generation later those values may have changed and the "reading" of the buildings and spaces can be quite different. A suburb can be reinterpreted. For instance stronger shared concerns about the ecological and social health of a region might lead to a different perception and use of private buildings.
(Continue to Social Changes: Predicting)