SOME digital habits persisted even after Covid-19 lockdowns began to lift this year.


GROWING up in Chennai, India, I had the unusual privilege of being raised in a house that was actually designed by an architect, and not simply constructed.

The house had access from all sides, with fluid connections between the interior and exterior, and life revolved around a central space that was the heart of all our interactions. I remember standing there, looking up at the skylight, and thinking about the space around me not just as space, but as something that helped shape who I am. It was a protagonist in the formation of my being.

Now I am an architect and artist whose mantra is “form follows feeling”. I work with the poetic potential of a space to evoke emotion, exploring concepts such as embodied cognition – our body-mind response to the world around us – and neuroaesthetics, or the study of how our environment and aesthetic experiences affect us.

Our surroundings are not simply passive backdrops that protect us from the elements; the way they’re designed, and how we interact with them, molds and shapes our feelings. The power of this idea, made palpably clear by life under lockdown as people spent weeks or months in the same few rooms, has the potential to become a call for equity in the quality of all our environments — public and private, physical and digital.

HeraldScotland: A visitor uses a virtual reality headset during a technology show in France in 2018. (Jean-Francois Monier/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images)A visitor uses a virtual reality headset during a technology show in France in 2018. (Jean-Francois Monier/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images)

Humans are molded, down to our biology, by our surroundings and how we interact with them. Whenever we make spaces we address people’s emotions, and their socioeconomic and cultural circumstances. In our cities, ZIP (or post) codes are among the best indicators of our health. Architects and designers have the power, in both public and private space, to physically shape either an oppressive or empowering environment.

During the pandemic, the nature of our connection to space came into sharp focus and was amplified exponentially, not only in its manifestation in our physical lives but also in our digital lives.

We came to accept the digital realm as an essential part of who we are and how we live. Through technology, we tried – both in work and play – to go on with our lives as we did before the pandemic, albeit in new ways. We attended virtual happy hours, adjusted to telemedicine, played digital cards with friends.

In my first Zoom webinar during lockdown in 2020, as I was coming to terms with my new digital public life, I talked about an installation I worked on at the Salone del Mobile in Milan in 2019.

It integrated design and technology to demonstrate to visitors, through real-time data and metrics, how the nature of the space they were visiting physically affected them.

Guests wore wristbands designed by Google and spent 15 smartphone-free minutes in three different spaces that were similar, but different in atmosphere – in color, texture, furnishings, sounds. The wristbands tracked the guests’ physiological reactions, and upon exiting the exhibition, the guests received a watercolor graph printout that told them in which space they had been most at ease.

HeraldScotland: Suchi Reddy (Chloe Horseman)Suchi Reddy (Chloe Horseman)

After my presentation, one participant asked how they could use the power of space to combat depression. It wasn’t surprising. After all, during the pandemic, when access to our normal resources was cut off, more than one-third of New Yorkers reported symptoms of anxiety or depression, which is more than triple the rate reported in the United States pre-pandemic.

Many of us have had to contend with that new reality of isolation, making us hypersensitive to our environments.

Hunkered down in our homes, connected to the world and others through our computers, the technology we perhaps once bemoaned has created a new space for our beings: a hybrid of our physical and digital worlds that is now our new normal.

Rather than merely being a realm of entertainment, a distraction from reality, a network for information or a helpful tool for how we do things, the digital world is now a necessity for many of us in continuing our daily lives, whether we’re required to work from home, making ends meet by juggling part-time jobs for delivery apps or keeping in touch with loved ones whom we can’t travel to see in person. More than that, it plays just as large a role in shaping how we feel about our physical environments. A broken web page or a buggy app might have been just annoying before, but can now have a real impact on our quality of life.

Most importantly, as our emotional connector, technology is a vital space for our humanness. During the pandemic it was our lifeline to our loved ones, our doctors, our support systems and a place to catalyse social change. It secured a newfound space in our psyche, a habitat with its own power to affect who we are at a deeper level than ever before.

But technology has also been designed to target our weaknesses – testing our attention, playing on our fears, fanning our materialistic urges and heightening our self-consciousness. Grabby headlines, unrealistic or retouched content on social media and pop-up ads promising quick money are primarily meant to get us to click, or at least to linger, because, in the eyes of tech companies, we are no more than our data, useless but for our habits. The world of digital data is where money can be made and power gained.

That attitude holds serious implications, given how intertwined the digital has become in our daily lives. We know that the new physical-digital world is here to stay. From fashion to art to architecture, our digital avatars are now becoming part of our physical reality. In exploring the potential of this hybrid terrain, of both our public and private lives, we’re still learning how to engage it with self-awareness and the knowledge that what we put out in the world changes how it affects us.

It’s a feedback loop similar to what we see in good architecture or design – if a well-designed home or neighbourhood encourages people to live happier, healthier lives, they might then redirect that positive energy back into their community.

As we spend more time in a digitised world, we slowly change it, as we have slowly changed the internet over the past few decades. But if we continue to use the digital world as an outlet for our fears and anxieties – using it as a place to reinforce our prejudices on social media or spread conspiracy theories on message boards – or as a platform to acquire money or power, then I believe it will just grow to encourage more of those actions in the future.

As we embrace the increased presence of technology in a post-pandemic everyday and with a long-term look to the future, we’ll safeguard our well-being only by remembering the power that spaces – physical, digital and hybrid – have on us.

That starts with humanising our technology.

I believe that by designing our physical spaces to reflect how we want to feel and interact with each other, and shaping our digital spaces through the lenses of equity and empathy, we can shape a future in which we co-evolve with technology into a better version of ourselves.

© 2021 The New York Times Company and Suchi Reddy