Essay

Thinking In and Out of Boxes

By Duff McDuffee on January 7th, 2012 1

Boxes are useful things. Part of my job involves shipping books. The predictable sizes of the boxes I ship books in allows me to easily and quickly fulfill orders for customers. Shipping in boxes, the books arrive intact.

Most people live in boxes. It is easy to measure lumber and sheet rock and metal and wood for flooring, etc. in height, length, and width. This makes boxy houses easier to construct than rounded, wavy, or triangular domiciles.

Buckminster Fuller was an outside-the-box thinker. He invented many things including the geodesic dome, a kind of archetypal anti-box. Many people thought that in the future we’d all live in dome-shaped houses, but alas domes aren’t all that nice to live in. They frequently leak. Sounds easily travel from one side to the other of a dome, making for little privacy. And domes are difficult to furnish in a box-shaped world—nothing quite seems to fit. Indeed, few of Fuller’s inventions fit our boxy world either. Nobody drives a Dymaxion car.

Boxes can be limiting however. What we can easily measure, predict, and control can also control the possibilities we conceive of. You can’t describe the movement of planets with just height, length, and width, even if you add in time. The cosmos is curvy. So boxy thinking never quite describes reality accurately.

Some boxes are very spacious, complex, and beautiful—so much so that we don’t recognize their sharp angles and boxy nature at first. To think outside of a box we have to open at least one side to let fresh air in. This makes things more wide open, unbounded, yet conditional, context-sensitive.

It’s not necessarily always better to be unboxed and uncontained, but life in a box lacks the freshness of a summer’s breeze.

Recommended Reading
The Power of Mindful Learning by Ellen J. Langer
The Ecological Thought by Timothy Morton

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