Designing a Physical-Digital Hybrid Future

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 experiences affect us.

Humans are molded, down to our biology, by our surroundings and how we interact with them. During the Covid-19 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 conduct our lives as we did before the pandemic.

In my first Zoom webinar of the lockdown, as I was coming to terms with my new digital public life, I talked about an installation I worked on that 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. 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 severe anxiety or depression, which is more than triple the rate reported in the United States pre-pandemic.

All of us, regardless of ethnicity or socioeconomic differences, 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 continuing our daily lives. And more than that, it plays just as large a role in shaping how we feel as our physical environments.

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 catalyze social change. It acquired a physicality in our psyche as a space that it did not have before, a new 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. Clickbait headlines, supernatural retouched content, and promises of quick money-making have only the intent of eliciting digital interaction, because, in the eyes of tech companies, we are no more than our data, anonymous but for our habits. The world of digital data is where money can be made and power gained.

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, can we engage it with self-awareness and the knowledge that what we put out in the world shapes all of us?

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 wellbeing only by remembering the power all types of space—physical, digital and hybrid—have on us. They affect our ability to imagine ourselves in our futures, which is key to our evolution. That starts with humanizing our technology rather than trying to technologize humans. 

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 an equitable future where each of our voices carries weight. If we do that, a world in which we co-evolve with technology into a better version of ourselves can become a reality.

Read Suchi Reddy's Op-Ed in the NYT.