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Feeling as Data

Tapping into the information at our fingertips and melting the ice of numbness

November 14, 2022

I recently heard a story from a friend. 

She runs an architecture firm, and she’s been interviewing people for entry-level architect positions. Most of the candidates are fresh out of architecture school. 

During the interviews, the typical candidate will present some of their previous work. They will be quick to cite the technical specifications and functional requirements. 

Then my friend will ask, “What feelings were you hoping to evoke in the room or building?” 

Most of the time, the candidate will just stare back in silence. 

Eventually they’ll say something like, “I don’t understand what you mean.” Or simply, “I haven’t really thought about that.”

In Yellow, my colleague Rob and I are in constant creative response to what emerges. Because the program is not planned beforehand, we are always designing new sessions in response to what happened in the previous ones. At this stage we’ve run close to 200 online gatherings, each one of them unique. 

If you were a fly on the wall when Rob and I design a session, you’d hear the following language:

“Oh yes, that feels good.”

“That doesn’t feel quite right.”

“I am so excited by that idea.”

“It feels like we could use some more spice here.”

“I notice I’m a bit hesitant, but I’m not sure why. Maybe we’re missing something?”

We’ve learned that our radar for what is good – in the sense of quality and suitability – is how we feel about it. Our embodied sensations are reliable indicators for what choices to make. After the fact, we’re able to rationalize whether our choices make sense or not. But our first and most reliable data points are our feelings.

In university, I would roll my eyes when professors talked about “epistemology.” I couldn’t for the life of me understand what it was or how it could be relevant. 

Times have changed. There aren’t many questions I would consider to be more important right now than epistemology. 

Epistemology refers to “how we know.” It’s our filter for what we determine knowledge to be.

The young architects mentioned above have an epistemology that defines knowledge as rules, requirements, and constraints. Feelings are not considered to be knowledge, so they’re ignored completely. 

This is not to say that newly graduated students should be expected to have learned all there is to know about their craft. Subtlety and depth come with time and age. But what kind of world are we living in if architecture students aren’t taught to consider how spaces might make people feel? 

Similar trends are everywhere. Facts, objective measurements, specifications, deliverable outcomes, and KPIs are what are considered “real” in business and culture. Feelings, sensations, intuitions, instincts, are, at best, considered to be interesting yet unreliable add-ons. At worst, they’re written off as delusions that we should rid ourselves of. 

In today’s climate, knowing “about” things is the gold standard. But this is only one form of knowing. There is also a knowing “from” or “within”, which requires participation, engagement, and being aware of what you feel. Step into a random business meeting today and chances are people will be talking “about” things “over there.” There will be very little speaking “from” their embodied experience. 

Cognitive scientist John Vervaeke calls the “about” type of knowledge propositional knowledge. While acknowledging propositional knowledge’s value, he proposes that there are three other types of knowledge: procedural (knowing how to do something), perspectival (knowing through perception of context), and participatory knowledge (knowledge through participating). The latter three cannot be reduced to propositions or factual statements. They must be enacted and experienced first-hand.

Life consists of all types of knowledge. Propositional knowledge is just as important as the others. But we get into trouble when we only value one form of knowledge over the others. Everything is then all about surface, and not about depth or participation. Life becomes a flatland, stripped of its vibrance, aliveness, and movement. 

The consequences of these trends are clear. Look at any current crisis in the world today, and the depreciation of our capacity to feel, and to value those feelings, is involved. If we don’t feel ourselves, then we burn ourselves out. If we don’t feel each other, then we treat our fellow humans as tools, machines, or enemies. If we don’t feel the planet, then we relate to the world as a garbage heap. 

Spaces that allow and encourage all forms of knowing can therefore have restorative effects. By exploring different ways of knowing and increasing our embodied capacity to feel, we become capable of sensing more subtle information. Nora Bateson calls this Warm Data. It’s data – just not the cold, objective kind. It’s contextual, relational, and sensory. If our embodied instrumentation can notice more of this nuanced data, then we have more information at our disposal. We can then respond more appropriately to the challenges we face, individually and collectively. 

The solution is not, however, to simply force ourselves to feel more. There are plenty of good reasons why we’re not able or willing to feel more – reasons including everything from individual traumas to collective cultural expectations. 

Whatever the reasons, the first step is to feel how we don’t feel. Although this might sound like an impossible paradox, not feeling is an active process that drains internal resources. As Thomas Hübl likes to say, just as you pay the electricity bill to keep your refrigerator cold, you pay your own internal energy bill to keep yourself numb. By bringing attention to the process of freezing our feelings, we light the first flickers of a flame that can begin to melt the ice.

Which takes us back to the story of architecture students. Far from being a story of criticism or shame, it’s an example of realization and insight. Becoming aware of one’s numbness or blindness is always a step toward more aliveness and agency, no matter how uncomfortable it may be. A spark of consciousness enters the frozen world of unconscious numbness. Blurry sections on the map of reality come into sharper focus. The fog starts to lift.

Big Tech likes to claim that we need better technologies to see further and clearer. But maybe the technologies we need aren’t only the cold, hard, dead realms of satellites, processors, and code. 

Maybe the warm, pulsing, alive technologies of our very flesh and bones can take us further into the depths of reality than any microscope ever could alone.


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