One of the longstanding criticisms of social media is that there seems to be a dearth of critical thinking, both in the posts and and in the comments. I agree, and after wasting many hours browsing my Facebook news feed, I now understand why.
At the risk of sounding polarizing, I’ve noticed that most posts fall into one of two categories: they either appeal to our intellect, or to our emotions. Unfortunately, it’s not a 50/50 split – the vast majority of what I see is designed to elicit an emotional response, rather than convey information. Whether it’s tugging at our heartstrings, appealing to our nurturing instincts, or evoking a sense of nostalgia, when we are emotionally engaged, our critical thinking skills seem to fade away.
Here is a recent post from my Facebook news feed:
This is a lovely photo, with a heartfelt sentiment. For those of us of a certain age, it’s obvious that this photo takes a direct aim at our collective sense of nostalgia. In a society where everyone is staring incessantly at their phone, and few of us even know the names of our neighbours, who wouldn’t long for a return to a simpler time, free of these modern, inward-looking distractions? Neighbours walking down the street would see you sitting on your porch, and then stop by to chat, while you offer them a glass of lemonade. This is also a magnificent porch, large enough for a family and a few neighbours, in a serene, pastoral setting. This photo, to me, symbolizes Norman Rockwell’s America – a happier, stress-free time, when people understood the importance of forging relationships. However, before you are tempted to like or share this photo, let’s examine it with a critical eye.
First, let’s look at the obvious errors in the description. This isn’t a front porch, it’s a backyard porch. A front porch would have a walkway adjacent to it. In order to see your neighbours, it should be also visible from the road. This porch looks like it’s in someone’s backyard. Personally, I wouldn’t recommend walking onto someone’s property and suddenly appearing unannounced at their back porch… in fact, in some states, this might even get you shot!
Next, let’s examine the statement itself, which employs a Field Of Dreams sentiment “If you build it, they will come“. It’s a lovely intention, but building more porches will not change society. In fact, a little research will uncover the events that led to changes in residential architecture and the disappearance of porches.
The Gradual Disappearance of the Front Porch
Cars: According to Renee Kahn, author of the book Preserving Porches, cars are to blame for the demise of front porches “The front porch was no longer an idyllic setting where one could relax and commune with nature” for the “exhaust fumes and the noise of a steady stream of cars and trucks had rendered it inhospitable and unhealthy.”
Air Conditioning: Danielle Keperling, in an article entitled Historic Porches: Their Evolution, History and Significance, suggests that the air conditioner was a catalyst of their decline, especially in the southern states, since one no longer needed to go outdoors in order to stay cool on a sweltering day.
Radio: The front porch used to be the focal point of the evening’s entertainment for many families. After the radio became commonplace, family members could entertain themselves indoors, listening to a wide variety of radio programmes.
Television: The increasing popularity of television sealed the demise of the front porch, by shifting the entertainment indoors. According to the book Swinging in Place: Porch Life in Southern Culture, Americans watch about 1,000 hours of television each year, and combined with air conditioning, the family’s evening entertainment is now firmly entrenched in the living room.
These technologies eventually influenced the architecture. After the entertainment moved indoors, people no longer needed a a house with a front porch, and fewer home builders were including them. Technology not only moved the family indoors, but also changed the way we interact from person-person to person-machine. House designs were merely a response to this technological and social change.
Even if we could resurrect the front porch, it won’t change anything. In addition to television and radio, we now have DVDs, home theatres, video games and computers to keep us indoors and interacting with machines instead of people. During the past two generations, our neighbourhood networking has also deteriorated to the point where many of us aren’t well-acquainted (or in some cases, don’t even know) the people on our street, or even our our next-door neighbours. This makes serendipitous foot traffic highly unlikely.
The porch photo is still a lovely sentiment, but it’s just not going to happen. Technology has changed moved our entertainment indoors, changed the way we interact with our neighbours and ultimately, influenced house design. Unless we can rid ourselves of these distractions and spend more time interacting with people face-to-face, then the front porch will remain a wistful memory.