jeweled platypus


thursday, august 27, 2009
Grids of tubes and wires (the city and the internet)

art by another person
From an artist’s book by Amy Knowles; $16.

A few months ago I wrote an essay about how learning to use the internet is like learning to live in a city. This was for a class where we read urban critics/philosophers/sociologists like Walter Benjamin, Michel de Certeau, and Georg Simmel. They lived in the 19th and 20th centuries and talked about things like: what happens to people when they move to cities, how it feels to live in dense urban centers, and whether “the city” is an imaginary place anyway. Some of their concerns about the experience of mass urbanization are similar to concerns I’ve heard about the experience of mass internet use: dealing with information overload, wandering in a non-linear fashion, learning unfamiliar interfaces, developing less sensitivity to shocking sights, finding connections within fragmented communities, encountering thousands of strangers every day, and acting badly when anonymous.

OK, resemblance between physical and virtual worlds is not surprising. The class description said “The big city is an archetype of the human imagination,” and somewhere else I read that social aspects of the web are modeled on the places where many of its developers, entrepreneurs, and designers live: San Francisco, Los Angeles, New York, etc. I like those ideas, and I think they’re useful.

A while after I turned in my rambling comparison essay, I found this academic paper with some actual citations: From Flâneur to Web Surfer: Videoblogging, Photo Sharing and Walter Benjamin @ the Web 2.0, by Simon Lindgren in November 2007. Quotes, with comments from me:

Even though the flâneur moves around “in an uncoordinated, fleeting way” due to “the fragmentation of modern life,” he can still “redeem it through his ability to aesthetically link otherwise disparate phenomena.”

[The web surfer can make sense of her hypertext experiences by organizing them into a blog or shared bookmarks.]

Lefebvre’s theory on The Production of Space is…fitting in many respects when it comes to the ways in which web interactants, as well as commercial actors, employ a number of social strategies to render the rooms of cyberspace as physical realities.

[A group of friends keeps in touch throughout the day in a virtual chat room because we all agree that it is a real place where we should show up and talk to each other.]

Sites such as YouTube and flickr are in fact good examples of the temporal and spatial dissolution discussed by a number of postmodern writers…Benjamin addressed similar themes and issues when he analysed nineteenth century Paris as a composite of a thousand eyes and a thousand lenses, all of which acted as screens, reflecting subjects back to themselves as objects.

[Flickr’s geotagging feature collapses many views together on top of coordinate points; Google Street View offers a reflection of ourselves in a shared way.]

It is “almost impossible to summon and maintain good moral character in a thickly massed population where each individual, unbeknownst to all the others, hides in the crowd, so to speak, and blushes before the eyes of no one.”

[We call this the Greater Internet Fuckwad Theory, or more politely, the online disinhibition effect.]

If none of the above made sense, here are some other comparisons of the city to the internet:

Bright Lights, Big Internet (New York Times, July 2009)
“The experience of moving online actually bears quite a few similarities to becoming a New Yorker. Disorienting and seemingly endless…residents of the Internet do not suffer fools, or mince words in belittling them…the presence of an audience causes online residents to style themselves as outsized personae.” [See also: Newcomers Adjust, Eventually, to New York.]
Wikipedia: Exploring Fact City (New York Times, March 2009)
“Like a city, Wikipedia is greater than the sum of its parts; for example, the random encounters there are often more compelling than the articles themselves…Since their creation, cities have had to be accepting of strangers…’They wouldn’t last a week if we farmers stopped shipping our food!’”
World-viewing city walking (imomus, March 2009)
“I’m thinking more of the internet as a medium in which you can go for a daily walk, without really doing, or expecting to do, anything significant.”
My own private metropolis (Financial Times, August 2008)
“That freedom to experiment with personae, to play out fantasies of self, once the unique gift of the metropolis, is available on everyone’s laptop.”
Stephen Fry: The internet and Me (BBC News, March 2009)
“But the internet is a city and, like any great city, it has monumental libraries and theatres and museums…there are also slums…but you don’t pull down London because it’s got a red light district.”
The Internet as a City: Thoughts on the Connected Brain (Digital Natives, January 2009)
“Vast expanses to explore, anonymity, a nebulous web of connections, and of course, the many possible distractions…but give newcomers a few months, they’ll be able to navigate the city like any seasoned urban dweller.”
A person I asked (March 2009)
“You end up spending all of your time in like three places.”
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I’m Britta Gustafson.

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