A recent study about modern, open-plan work and office spaces provides a lesson in unintended consequences and the limits of behavioral modification. The study found that “open plan offices actually make people talk less,” an outcome that is the direct opposite of their goal. This conclusion mirrors a lesson (un)learned from the 1960s grand experiment in urban design known as housing projects.

Modern work spaces have been trending away from individual offices and cubicles, to “open” spaces, where workers have no physical barriers between them. The noble purpose behind this is to encourage dialogue and collaboration in order to stimulate various positive outcomes. According to the study, and upon hearing it I can easily find reason to agree, the real effect is akin to fearfulness and paranoia, with workers feeling “exposed and vulnerable.” People are apparently more apt to fixate on their computer screens, lest someone from across the room witness the appearance of not working. Rather than interact personally, they are more apt to send texts and emails.

The difference is dramatic, with a drop-off from an average of 5.8 hours of in-person interaction in traditional, walled-office spaces, to 1.7 hours in open plans. People in the latter sent far more emails and messages, and the average message length was substantially longer. Ditto for cubicle spaces where the partitions were removed. So, instead of fostering greater face-to-face interaction, the open plans significantly reduce it.

All this is a reflection of human nature and the conditionings found in our evolutionary programming. Open spaces are traditionally dangerous, and “nests” are traditionally safe. We gravitate to having personal space, and to territoriality and possessiveness, and the wiring that makes us so is not going to be overcome simply by altering the landscape.

Half a century ago, urban planners designed housing projects with the goal of fostering a sense of community. Tightly clustered apartments ringed large common spaces that were supposed to promote interaction and friendliness. Instead, those common spaces became danger zones, controlled by the worst elements of society, residents huddled in their apartments, and those who had the means moved away. Projects, a grand experiment in behavior modification, proved to be a disaster that trapped and institutionalized many in poverty, and never produced the “community” they were meant to.

The similarities between these two examples of forced association should be obvious and instructive, and they should serve as a caution for those who continue to insist that the way to improve our society and our socialization is to herd us together.

Human behavior is an interesting thing. Many who would willingly and happily do something of their own free will become angrily resentful if forced to do that very same thing. This is true for interacting with one’s fellow human beings, for helping the needy, for acts of assistance and charity, and, broadly, for “doing the right thing.” It’s counterpart, prohibiting behavior, produces similar results: Ban something and many are more likely to want to do it, just because, and even if they know it’s bad or wouldn’t do it at all if no one told them they mustn’t. It’s an element of rebelliousness and resistance to coercive authority that’s so wildly prevalent around the world and in human history that it must be born of biological wiring.

Humans, for almost the entirety of their existence, have clustered in small groups, of dozens or perhaps low hundreds. It’s only in the last sliver of our multi-hundred-thousand-year history that we’ve expanded the size of our “tribes,” and that’s been abetted by positives such as agriculture, communication, innovations that elevated us above subsistence living and into the realm of free time and disposable income, and, lately, technology. These positives have worked best when they’ve enhanced individuality and human liberty, when they’ve been an influence rather than an imposition, a mandate, or a coercion. In the latter case, they’ve been turned into negatives, as the 20th century’s socialist and communist nations proved.

These lessons, old and new, reinforce the idea that property is a vital concept for humans, and that protection of property rights promotes a better society. We are territorial, we feel better and safer in spaces that belong to us and that shelter and shield us from the wild. That applies to our homes, to our work spaces, and, broadly, to that construct know as a “nation.”

They also illuminate, via the “nature abhors a vacuum” reality, the emergence of the concept of “safe spaces.” When society’s solons decided to monkey with our natural proclivities and inculcate behaviors that contradict them, they created fertile ground for the same sort of exposure, unease, and vulnerability that the open-plan office workers felt in the aforementioned study. That void was addressed by the social justice mandarins by the invention of the “safe space,” which is the modern, PC shelter from the wilderness of contrary thought. By disallowing a physical retreat from the stresses of physical wilderness, they’ve created a physical retreat from the stresses of emotional (I hesitate to call it intellectual) wilderness. This, by the way, has not been needed at all in the history of mankind, which has endless examples of people debating, arguing, and yelling at each other over intellectual disagreements and disputes, with only the occasional unfortunate pistols-at-dawn duel or indignant sword-kebabbing to mar the human record.

Forced association is seen by its proponents as both the righting of social injustices and the teaching of those who are “wrong,” but, as is almost always the case when someone tries to coerce behavioral modifications, it has made things worse.

Private companies are, and should be, free to run themselves however they wish, and it’s only through experiment that we can actually determine if an idea is a good one. Lessons of those experiments should be heeded, though, rather than waved off should they clash with theory, no matter how popular or “just” the latter. History’s a pretty good indicator that, if left alone, people evolve toward doing the right thing. Socially progressive types will question this, and I’d expect them to cite racism and segregation as a prime example, but they often forget that Jim Crow was itself coercion, that the Civil Rights Act was a product of a society that had evolved toward doing the right thing, and that government coercions, when they don’t make things worse, are typically “late to the party” in that they reflect what’s already starting to happen voluntarily.

The same can be said for women’s rights, for gay rights, and for similar matters. As often as not, the hindrances are institutionalized i.e. coercive, and the improvements have emerged from voluntary rather than forced interactions. Yes, government can play a role. Most notably, it does good when it protects our liberties and property rights. In doing so, it creates fertile ground for prosperity, for free association, and for the market forces that promote good associations. Beyond that, it serves us best when it gets out of our way. As I already noted, its past coercions have been the source of much that is or has gone wrong. And, since undoing government coercion is itself a lengthy and difficult task, it’s best not to have it in the first place.

It is quite understandable to perceive an injustice and want it righted. And, it’s understandable that some will translate that desire into a justification for coercion. But, unless the injustice is a real infringement of someone’s rights, like an assault or other physical crime against a person or his property, it’s best to be very careful about imposing a coerced solution. If the injustice is simply a lack of sufficient association or interaction with others who are “other,” the remedy has often proven to be worse than the problem.

Peter Venetoklis

About Peter Venetoklis

I am twice-retired, a former rocket engineer and a former small business owner. At the very least, it makes for interesting party conversation. I'm also a life-long libertarian, I engage in an expanse of entertainments, and I squabble for sport.

Nowadays, I spend a good bit of my time arguing politics and editing this website.

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