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16 August 2011
Air conditioning as cultural artifact

After a preternaturally cool summer in the northeastern United States, it’s finally AC weather, the morning air gauzy with humidity and heat shimmering above pavement in the afternoon sun. A suburban neighborhood is filled with the humming of condenser units. Further south, of course, the condensers have been humming for weeks or even months. Out west, record high temperatures last week had Seattle residents longing for a technology that they can ignore most of the time.

Once a novelty and a luxury, as air conditioning has become ubiquitous it has reshaped American society in countless ways. Whole regions of the country that used to slow to a standstill during the hot summer months have become viable habitats for the 40-hour-a-week office productivity that counts in a modern economy. On a smaller scale, neighborhoods have changed as well, as streets and yards that once would have been filled with children making the most of a hot summer day are now silent but for the whirr of the fans that make summer the best time of the year to stay indoors.

Air conditioning makes us cool, but what else does it make possible and impossible? What does air conditioning make of the world?

1. What does air conditioning assume about the way the world is?

The assumption is that we as individuals and as a people are comfort oriented, no matter what the cost. Brown-outs, black-outs and high utility bills are meaningless in the face of our comfort.

—Mary Beth Molnar

It assumes that natural summer temperatures are too uncomfortable for people to bear.  That people can and will exert their control over nature to make their environment the most comfortable temperature for them…unless you work in an office and someone else controls the thermostat!


It assumes, to a significant extent, that there is very little necessary connection between the indoors and the outdoors.  Further, it assumes humans were meant to live primarily indoors.

Matt Huggins

That the temperature can be too hot and that we can do something about it at the personal level.

Charles Churchill

That world is hot.  One should not be overheated.  Sweat is something to avoided.

Theresa Grosh

We can live in particular places throughout the whole year (itinerant lifestyle as some Native American is not necessary).  In addition, we can function continuously at relatively the same levels (i.e., strength doesn’t go up and down with the various seasons).  Note:  Heating systems are necessary in some form during winter throughout the state in which I live (Pennsylvania).

Thomas B. Grosh IV

It assumes that electric power is available and affordable.

—Peter Venable

It assumes that human comfort can be circumscribed in a narrow range of temperatures from about 68 to about 78 degrees Farenheit, and that temperatures outside of this range are “uncomfortable” and therefore are to be wrestled into submission by whatever means necessary.

David Greusel

That people will go to great technological means to insure that they are comfortable.


Air Conditioning assumes that we can and should control our environment to our liking. Or, in other words, it assumes that we are masters of our surroundings.


It assumes that old people don’t have to die in summer if, for a few hundred dollars, we can protect them from the extremes of heat (as in the winter, we do of cold).

That the world we live in is not in all ways conducive to human life and activity.

—James Paternoster
2. What does air conditioning assume about the way the world should be?

It assumes that, unless one is engaged in “fitness” activities (and takes steps to keep hydration and electrolytes at proper levels), one should not bear the signs of physical exertion.  Only those not qualified for desk jobs should endure the discomfort and indignity of perspiration.

Matt Huggins

Temperature regulated. Specifically, regulated to be cooler.

Charles Churchill

I agree with Matt that our society’s coming to see air conditioning as a right, something we’re entitled to.  Heaven forbid we sweat, have perspiration circles under our armpits.  How awful!

Theresa Grosh

It assumes that the world should be kept between 68 and 78 degrees Farenheit year round (except around swimming pools and ski runs, of course).

David Greusel

It assumes that the world should be comfortable and not extreme. It also assumes that our comfort should be a high priority.

Cody Alley
3. What does air conditioning make possible?

... for conservative businesses and churches to maintain a dress code involving multiple layers of long-sleeved apparel year round.


The massive population growth in the sunbelt over recent decades.

Matt Huggins

refrigerators, super markets, indoor ice skating rinks year round, large computer systems/supercomputers/data centers in places other than the arctic/antarctic - (huge implications)

Charles Churchill

I confess air conditioning is a luxury.  At present I’m willing and able to pay for it.  It is a priority for me and I looked forward to the opportunity of having central air when I moved several years ago [from Pittsburgh to Mount Joy, PA]

I think it’s better appreciated when you can work outside and then come in to enjoy it.  Air conditioning makes me a much more pleasant person to be around after having worked outside for a long time.

Theresa Grosh

It makes it possible to enjoy a bowl of ice cream in the middle of August for much longer than would be possible without it.

David Greusel

Delicate electronics working properly despite being baked under the mid-day sun. 

Remember that indoor lighting wasn’t solely for comfort; it enabled factories to work through the night - convienence cuts both ways :)


It makes it possible to make fewer adjustments to the pace of life in hot weather. In developing nations where the weather gets unbearably hot, life simply slows down for everybody. In Afghanistan, for example, my friends have days where, for the middle hours, they rest; little work is done. Not so here. With A/C we expect the dog days of summer to be just as productive as other times of year. And that’s really too bad, if you ask me.

Christy Tennant

It also makes strange allergies, colds and sinus trouble in the summer, when we go between extreme temperatures and humidity levels throughout the day.

Christy Tennant

AC lets people with allergies enjoy the summer without having to have the windows open, and being miserable.


Air conditioning has made it possible for Phoenix, AZ (where I live) to become one of the largest cities in the U.S. A/C allows people to get through the high summer temperatures (often 110 degrees or more) to reach the truly mild (and enjoyable) late autumn/winter/early spring months.

Cody Alley
4. What does air conditioning make impossible (or at least a lot more difficult)?

it makes it impossible to sit in a hot room without saying to yourself “why don’t they have A/C in this place?!”


Air conditioning has made it impossible to open the windows in most modern office buildings.

Matt Huggins

Listening to the outdoor sounds of kids playing, street traffic (Pittsburgh experience), or night time sounds (rural Lancaster County experience).

Theresa Grosh

It has made it impossible to stay connected to the outside world. Similar to central heating, air conditioning has sharpened the distinction between “in here” and “out there” to such an extreme degree that many people now consider “out there” positively evil, a thing to be avoided at all costs. So for many, the very idea of spending time out of doors has come to be impossible.

David Greusel
5. What new culture is created in response?

It creates a culture that turns to various media during the day for the latest information concerning weather they’ll likely never experience first hand for in excess of 30 seconds.

Matt Huggins

Through the years, many have found refuge from the heat in the cool of movie theaters, libraries, and malls.  Some have and continue to spend their whole afternoon in such places!  Our family did when in Pittsburgh with open windows, some fans, and 2 Air Conditioning unit (the house couldn’t take more than that, they only served 1 bedroom and the dining room).

In addition, more indoor activities with more energy exerted than could if held outside, i.e,. unless in a pool party. 

People used to sit outside on their porches and talk with friends in the neighborhood, now people are more comfortable being inside.  Note:  Porch conversations and playing in yards was still occurring where we lived in the City of Pittsburgh.

Thomas & Theresa Grosh

Interesting to think about the culture that was created by _scarce_ air conditioning…the culture of cool movie theaters, of families huddled in one room of the house.
Ubiquitous air conditioning creates a very different culture: the culture of living indoors. We have trained ourselves to sense outdoor ambient temperatures below about 65 degrees and above about 80 degrees as “too cold” and “too hot” to be outside, and have therefore become a building-dwelling species. This, in turn, has made us more than ever the victims of our indoor environments: the glow of fluorescent lights, the whoosh of air systems, the (toxic) aroma of carpeting, where we now spend 99 percent of our time. Sadly, it has not made us more attentive, for the most part, to how we can make those environments more wonderful.

David Greusel

Well with the right air filters you can blockout a ton of dust est..We use MERV 13 rated filters. My girls has dust allergies and this has helped us out.



You have the ability to become more productive.

furnace filters