In Thermocultures, Nicole Stariosielski mentions that engineer Willis Carrier invented the air conditioner in 1902 to solve a production problem at a printing plant in New York, which paved the way for dramatic changes in temperature regulation in all industries and many homes world wide.
This made me think of the times I’ve been in the USA and how insane their air conditioning culture is to me. Every home seems to have AC and it is, with almost no exception, put to a very low indoor temperature in relation to the outdoor one – the average indoor temperature in the US is (according to a few dictionaries) 20-22 degrees Celsius, which would make sense in winter and in Northern states, but demands extensive air conditioning in summer and in Southern states. The US consumes more energy each year for AC than the rest of the world combined. The total amount of electricity used by this one nation is more than the entire continent of Africa consumes for all purposes.
When I spent a few weeks on the East coast, most of the time I had to turn the indoor temperature up to prevent developing a cold or freezing during the night. The abrupt change in temperature when walking on a street and into a store felt extremely uncomfortable – especially when cold air was blown directly at you at the entrance, apparently to attract customers who want to escape the heat. I rarely found it unbearably hot outside, with temperatures in Florida ranging from 23-33 degrees C in August. To me this cold indoor climate seemed to be enforced by culture rather than necessity – I would love it if it was 25 degrees indoors and not 18 as is often the case during Nordic winters. This cultural phenomenon, born out of a need to stabilise production of printed media, is reinforced by the construction of the healthy indoor environment – clean, hygienic and cool. It corresponds well with Stariosielski’s explanation of “pure” materials and the quest to keep computer systems in a binary state through the right amount of impurification of silicon. Outdoor and indoor environments are to be kept in the same binary divisions – nothing from the outdoors is to come inside. I can hear my father’s voice when I stumbled in to the hallway during summer with feet all sandy from the beach, shouting “out and get that dirt off you”. In the same sense, people find it funny if you want to sleep outside but in an urban environment. Why would you choose that when you can have the comforts of a bed, a kitchen and a bathroom? But if one goes on a hiking trip far from the city, it’s considered completely normal, since you are in the “outdoors”.
In that sense, the AC of American homes, stores and offices symbolise this change from being in the uncomfortable, dirty, wild outdoors to the clean, comfortable indoors where temperatures are always kept at a constant. I guess that AC also provokes me since I grew up in a cold country, where heat is celebrated for the few weeks that it actually arrives, but where we use up extensive amounts of energy to heat our houses during winter season, something I would never question. Cool indoor temperature is seen as a luxury to Americans and many others, but as a norm to me, although lately I’ve noticed a change in attitude in the Nordics. Perhaps due to hotter summers in recent years, many people have bought AC for their homes lately. The extreme heat in the summer of 2018 caused a consumer’s rush for fans, resulting in fans being completely sold out in stores and second hand prices going through the roof. Ironically, the search for cooler air will have the opposite effect long term. Researchers at Arizona State University found that the excess heat from air conditioners at night time resulted in higher outside temperatures in urban locations with changes up to 1 degree Celsius (almost 2 degrees Fahrenheit for our American readers). This, in turn, would cause people to turn their AC:s to even lower temperatures, creating even more excess heat, and so on in a vicious cycle.