Engine of More: Broken Window
The following is intended to be part of a chapter on “Sacred Spaces”.
When you work, do you need silence? When you work do you need music? I like music to concentrate and get into a rhythm of work, not podcasts or the radio. Music preferably something like Phillip Glass, specifically Koyaanisqatsi is my go to for concentration. That’s how my brain works, honest it is. Others I know need pure absolute silence.
What about mess? I can’t concentrate in a messy room, at least I find it very difficult (I can manage if I have my Koyaanisqatsi music). Yet I know makers who basically work surrounded by avalanches of stuff. Disordered, dusty, stacked on every flat surface and piled against every wall (you know who you are).
Mess and noise are powerful psychological cues which, tell our (very different) brains “its time to work!” These environmental stimuli can affect us in all kinds of ways. We behave differently in different spaces. Think about how you act in a bank, a church, a workshop, a stadium, the countryside. Most of us when we get home and want to relax might take some time to make things comfy. To draw curtains, put on low lights or even light candles or add aromas. We tend to adjust our environments to fit the state of mind we’d like to be in. Or we can choose to set the space up in the one way we like it and never change it. With our own spaces this can be fairly easy and we take it for granted.
So what about in a Hackerspace? Can the way a space is affect our behaviours?
Picture an environment, with any of the following. A broken windows, littering or fly tipping, burned out car, graffiti & tagging, a distinct lack of maintenance & dereliction and the appearance of little regular care. If you’ve ever seen an area like this develop from a cared for to an uncared for environment, you might have noticed how it can change rapidly once some damage occurs. Such areas are said to attract crime and further vandalism, spurred on by a perceived or subconscious understanding that THIS area is below the radar of authority and imminent retribution. It stands outside an area of socially understood norms of behaviour. It becomes a bad land so to speak. This is called Broken Window Theory.
During times of austerity, when a nation supposedly needs to tighten its belt and set its face grimly towards a recession, the deferred maintenance program takes hold. Money must be “saved” and so maintenance and repair work doesn’t happen. I don’t have a factual set of numbers here, but deferred maintenance ultimately costs more money than it saves. The broken window matters. Certainly in terms of perception and human behaviour an uncared for environment changes behaviour. You might be thinking, “But OH, NOT ME!?” I would ask you to think very carefully about that. We’ll take it as read that at no time have you committed an act of littering right? Are you male? Did you ever have a quick wee in a public place? How did you choose where? I would argue that you do change your behaviours based on the environment you are in maybe only by a tiny amount. We take cues from the environments we are in. We feel differently about spaces we feel some ownership over in terms of our own comfort as well as how we feel in other peoples spaces. Have you ever been to someone else’s house and been asked to take your shoes off and ended up in your socks unexpectedly? Did it feel disconcerting and a little weird?
When we present someone with a Hackerspace that is filled with broken objects, junk, damaged tools, half-finished projects and looks like it has a general lack of order, we send a very clear message directly to the subconscious of most people. It gives the observer signals about the norms of the collective. A thermometer for the behaviours and standards acceptable within that space. Signals which are wildly open to interpretation based on the observers own spectrum of acceptable personal behaviours. These subconscious signals are the cues that allow an otherwise perfectly good person to think it’s okay to leave large amounts of useless off cuts laying around, not tidy a workbench, break a tool and not report it or leave a half-full coffee cup on the table saw. It also gives a fairly clear message that this is a place to bring your junk and pile it up.
We could take a lesson from the work done to eradicate graphite on the New York Subway. In the late 80s a task group was commissioned to tackle anti-social behaviour that was effecting the Subway. People didn’t feel safe on the trains, because the trains weren’t safe, or clean or well maintained. A general air of neglect and a lack of attention pervaded the system. This in turn allowed the system to become the domain of gangs and criminals. As a result the income from ticket sales virtually disappeared as people fled from the badly managed, dangerous and unreliable subway. An intensive program of maintenance was instigated, but in a desire to have a highly visible change on the system, they instigated a program of “zero graphite” pulling trains from the timetable for cleaning the instant they got “bombed” by spray-paint artists.
This is actually a delightful rabbit hole if you’d like one. There are a few key players and a bit of a timeline here:
The New York City Transit Authority (responsible for the Subway in NY) head David Gunn hired George Kelling, author of “Broken Windows” to address the problems they were having with reputation and crime. The Subway was no-go for most people in the 80s. You can hear about this at 99% Invisible episode “Clean Trains”
A little after this, Kelling inspired the head of the NYPD transit police and later police commissioner William Bratton who hired as his deputy Jack Maple, a modern day Sherlock Holmes who developed analytical approaches to law enforcement. You can hear about Maple’s CompSat in the 2 part episode “the Crime Machine” on ReplyAll podcast.
In conclusion, what behaviours are stressing us at our Hackerspaces and what “Broken Windows” do we have that may subconsciously be causing people with otherwise reasonable judgement to make decisions that do not aid the collective?
Todays thumbnail (not visible on the mobile version of this post unless you click the link at the top of the page) is a picture of a fire escape at an office unit in Oldbury, UK where its become the norm to dump unwanted stuff under the stairs.