Public space, Hannah Arendt and Toronto

“If cultural homogeneity is no longer an option, how do we live together? An indispensable precondition for peace and harmony is to have place and spaces where we tread the same sidewalks, see each other, simply walk to a park or public square to meet friends, take our kids to play, walk our dogs, and through unscripted interactions learn to cope with our inevitable differences and understand our commonalities. Virtual space does not replace that. As with many other earlier communications advancements – telephone, movies, television – new technological capabilities are absorbed and become complementary to this still-basic need for face-to-face encounters.

Encountering the “other” in public has something fundamental to do with self-actualization. As philosopher Hannah Arendt observed, humans appear before others in public in order to be recognized. Personal identity is exposed and revealed. This “revelation” of identity cannot happen in isolation; it cannot result from self-reflection alone. Our public self is revealed in a public place. In our city, we cannot help being aware that we have been born into a world that is inhabited by many others who are different from ourselves. We can also see that, in large part, we benefit form that reality and thus we consider it a positive condition of our shared lives as city dwellers.

A pervasive desire for some form of sociability in true public space seems to meet a fundamental human need. On a personal level, many of us have a longing for the unscripted possibilities – a life of absolutely “no surprises” is deadly dull. Too, the experience of seeing and being seen among our peers in public confirms our own place in the universe as humans and the connectedness of things. In true public space we can reveal and communicated our uniqueness as individuals and at the same time recognize the differing identities of others. These interactions, even when they provide something as simple as awareness and familiarity, speak to our collective viability as an urban society. In the absence of public spaces where such mingling can occur, problems of exclusion can easily arise. When citizens do not meet their fellow citizens – in all their variety – there emerges the very real danger that the unknown “other” will be seen as in some way threatening. In our heterogenous city, we have an obligation to ensure the existence of a space for communication and interaction among all citizens; and it must be inclusive enough to allow access and use by everyone.

There is an important political dimension, as well. The presence and stability of the commons is critical to democracy.We need space for political freedom, places where people can demonstrate, express dissent, and freely vice opinions in public.”

Counterpoint: Nathan Jurgenson in The Social Photo

“‘The Moment’ is not just a solitary experience. And, often, when people praise disconnecting from the digital in order to be ‘in the moment together,’ it really is a privileging of mere geography. The fetishization of contiguity has a long tradition and is echoed in our everyday language: each time we say ‘IRL,’ ‘face-to-face,’ or ‘in person’ to mean connection without screens, we frame what is ‘real’ or who is a person in terms of their geographic proximity rather than other aspects of closeness-variables like attention, empathy, affect, erotics, all of which can be experienced at a distance. We should not conceptually preclude or discount all the ways intimacy, passion, love, joy, pleasure, closeness, pain, suffering, evil, and all the visceral actualities of existence pass through the screen. ‘Face to face’ could mean much more than breathing the same air.

Geographic proximity remains important to whether we call something ‘close’ or ‘in person’.or ‘face to face.’ At times it is perhaps the most significant variable. But it certainly should not be the only one. To start from the prerequisite that co presence is solely dependent on proximity in space devalues so many other moments where closeness occurs and happens to be mediated by a screen. Physicality can be digitally mediated: what happens through the screen happens through bodies and material infrastructures. The sext or the intimate video chat is physical-of and affecting bodies. Video chat brings faces to other faces. You are aware of, learning from, assessing, stimulated by, and speaking through bodies and the spaces around them, as details of those spaces filter in and are noticed or foregrounded. This screen-mediated communication is face-to-face, in person, physical, and close in so many important ways, and distant in only one.

Likewise, being geographically close does not necessarily assure the other qualities of proximity. You can be in the same room with someone, but that doesn’t mean you are actively caring for or about them: maybe you are not listening; perhaps you are there out of obligation. You can be distant in all the ways you were close in the video conversation, not ‘in the same place’ at all. To be sure, mediated communication comes with miscommunication, degradations in the fidelity of the message, the loss of meaning. But to downplay mediated communication is to downplay the cultural and social possibilities of communicating with those who are far away, to exchange across culture, to send messages to those in the future, to speak to yourself from the past, to interface with the dead.”

The smartphone screen as railcar window

“With speed, there is quantitatively more for the brain to deal with. This is not specific to the railroad but part of modernity more broadly, including the rise of the city. The classical social theorist Georg Simmel described this urban perception as an ‘intensification of nervous stimulation,’ as opposed to slow, lasting impressions which ‘use-up, so to speak, less consciousness than does the rapid crowding of changing images.’ The modern condition was thought of as a general onslaught of things to pay attention to, newly positioning the urban railroad-riding individual as a kind of spectator to an existence slipping quickly by.

The railroad positioned the world for the traveler as some thing passing, distant, to be taken as scenery framed by a cabin window. Schivelbusch expands on philosopher Dolf Sternberger’s description of this way of seeing as a ‘panoramic vision,’ a view that foregrounds the back—the passenger barely noticing that which is most near, reduced to an incon sequential blur by rapidity—and detaches the passenger from this space immediately surrounding the train car. Opposed to slower travel, where the passing landscape can be lingered upon and seen in great detail, railway speed produced a panoramic vision where the landscape is not seen for as long or intensively, its particularities are instead taken in as a part of an ongoing flow instead of discreetly. Always quickly vanishing, the landscape becomes more impressionistic, evanescent; panoramic vision is seeing the world as montage. This panoramic vision produced by the rapid succession of imagery is a useful way to frame the contemporary type of vision that social photography encourages, both in how we make and consume the images. The social photo is often viewed through the grid, stream, or story to be finger-scrolled, swiped, and tapped. The images in their proliferation and rapidity create an emergent stream in aggregate, and for the person doing the swiping, there is a more panoramic view of social life, akin to the montaged scenery from the train window.”

A historical timeline of 20th century “mass culture”

“In retrospect, the rise of mass culture in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries looks like the development of national cultural markets. National culture industries producing mass-reproducible forms — films, vinyl records, radio broadcasts, and illustrated magazines with half-tone images — displaced the city as the site not only of live performance and exhibition, but even of book and newspaper publishing. They also enclosed the cultural commons as all sorts of vernacular art forms that had circulated as common property, or part of the public domain, were recorded, copyrighted, and sold as commodities.

Before the 1980s and 1990s, these ‘national media systems were,’ as Robert McChesney has noted, ‘typified by domestically owned radio, television and newspaper industries.’ Despite ‘major import markets for films, TV shows, music and books . . . dominated by US based firms, . . . local commercial interests, sometimes combined with a state-affiliated broadcasting service predominated.’ Nevertheless, the years after World War II saw the beginnings of a global cultural market, often experienced as a tide of ‘Americanization,’ because of the prestige of US films, products, and musics. Against this stood the powerful, if unsuccessful, alternatives posed by the Second and Third Worlds: the attempt to delink the culture of the Communist world from the world cultural market, and the struggle by postcolonial states to orchestrate a new world information order.

In the wake of the age of three worlds, a radical privatization and deregulation of mass communications established a global market in cultural commodities, dominated by a handful of world-spanning corporations, among them Sony, News Corp, Disney, AOL-Time Warner, Viacom, and Bertelsman.”

William J. Mitchell on mass media, context independence and facilitated immersion

“…the mass media of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries transformed the global information dissemination system by radically separating the contexts of message transmission and reception. Novelists writing for thousands of readers, musicians in recording studios, and radio performers at their microphones could not know all of the potential reception sites for their productions, and could not assume uniformity among these sites, so they could not count on site features to help clarify or elaborate their meaning. This condition favored the production of works that were not only repeated exactly at different times or in different places, but were also as self-contained and independent of the context of reception as possible.

A closely related outcome was a growing demand for places and devices that masked the consumer’s immediate surroundings in order to facilitate immersion in standardized, modular, mostly self-sufficient information structures: quiet places for undistracted reading; darkened movie theaters where all attention is focused on the screen; the white-walled, minimalist art gallery; the Walkman or iPod that plugs into your ear; and—at the logical limit—the immersive virtual reality installation. Open a book, enter a movie theater, or dial up a track on your iPod and your attention is instantly shifted to another place or time. The dense embedding of these discrete media spaces in the urban fabric yields a city that, like a film with jump cuts and flashbacks, is experienced and understood as a sequence of spatially and temporally discontinuous scenes—some of them expressions of the current, local reality, and others ephemeral media constructions.”

Notes: with smartphones, endless media spaces of one? (Williams’ mobile privatization?) “Addiction by Design” the ultimate immersive media space?

London’s super-rich: geography, mobility and visual exposure

Quoted from Alpha City by Rowland Atkinson

“The mobility of the alpha city’s rich is facilitated by a Möbius-like remaking of city space. The lifeworld of the city becomes a kind of a continuous strip over which rapid movement can be made, stepping from one zone to another, or from one mode of travel to another. These characteristics are important because being on the move also entails a kind of vulnerability in terms of feelings of exposure, unwanted attention or the security risks that may be experienced, although the latter may be influenced by national background. For the super-rich, visibility is often seen as a problem. This is particularly so in an increasingly synoptic age in which the many watch the few through social media, and where cameras, drones and mobile phones enable reports on the activities of the wealthy to be relayed far and wide.

The photographer Dougie Wallace highlights this unease in his series of portraits of the wealthy as they cross the last few feet of pavement -the vulnerable somatic world of the street- from a private car or taxi to the environs of Harrodsburg (London, not Kentucky). Many of them appear startled or on the cusp of furious indignation as they stare into the lens.”

Jane Jacobs on the death of “community”

“Two parents, to say nothing of one, cannot possibly satisfy all the needs of a family-household. A community is needed as well, for raising children, and also to keep adults reasonably sane and cheerful. A community is a complex organism with complicated resources that grow gradually and organically. Its resources fall into three main categories.

First, there are resources that all families need and that virtually none can provide for themselves, nor can any but the largest, richest, and most institutional households provide them. These resources are mostly tangible. They include affordable housing for all the community’s members; publicly funded transportation (even privately owned cars need roads, parking lots, and police forces); water and sewage systems; fire protection; public health and safety inspections and enforcement; schools; public libraries; large-scale public recreation facilities; parks; ambulances and other emergency services.

Items in the second category are provided more informally by a community but are also mostly tangible. They consist of convenient and responsive commercial establishments, plus noncommercial (nonprofit) services initiated and maintained by volunteer citizens’ groups. These last may, or may not, overlap with publicly provided resources, depending upon differences in government programs and local cultures: for instance, old people’s homes and activities; churches or other community gathering centers; concerts, festivals, sports tournaments; language classes; and job training centers.

The third and final category of community resources is thoroughly informal, thoroughly intangible, and probably the most important: speaking relationships among neighbors and acquaintances in addition to friends.

Everyone needs entrées into networks of acquaintances for practical as well as social purposes. Think what the adults in a nuclear family -just the two of them- are expected by society to provide:

Knowledge and experience sufficient to use simple home remedies in cases of trivial illnesses or wounds, and -more important- the ability to judge correctly and quickly when ills or wounds are too serious for home remedies, maybe even life-threatening. Ability to tutor children needing help with homework. Ability to be a soccer mom and a hockey dad. Skill and tact at training children to shun drugs and to be cautious of strangers but not to mistrust everybody. Ability to purchase responsibly, make bill and tax payments, and in general handle money realistically in spite of blandishments to gamble or become profligate. Make ordinary home and equipment repairs and keep abreast of maintenance chores. Deal knowledgeably with banks and bureaucracies. Pull a fair share of family weight in community betterment efforts and neighborhood protection. Deal civilly with people whose upbringing, cultures, and personalities are at odds with the traditions and customs of one’s own nuclear family, and teach children to be both cosmopolitan and tolerant. Without this last ability, nuclear families can be irreparably torn asunder when relationships develop between their children and lovers from other ethnic or religious backgrounds or, if the family is very stodgy, simply from other educational or income groups.

Who are the paragons that, unaided and unadvised, can earn a living and also provide all this and more? Few of them exist. Only membership in a functioning community makes handling these responsibilities feasible. Another thing: the neuroses of only two adults (or one) focusing relentlessly on offspring can be unbearable. The diverse viewpoints and strengths of many adults can be educational and liberating. Two adults who have too little adult companionship besides themselves can easily drift into isolation from society and become lonely, paranoid, resentful, stressed, depressed, and at their wits’ ends. Sitcom families and “reality” TV can and do fill isolated hours, but cannot offer the support of live friends and the practical information of varied acquaintances.

One can drive today for miles through American suburbs and never glimpse a human being on foot in a public space, a human being outside a car or truck. I have experienced this in suburban Virginia, California, and Massachusetts, as well as suburban Toronto. This is a visible sign that much of North America has become bereft of communities. For communities to exist, people must encounter one another in person. These encounters must include more than best friends or colleagues at work. They must include diverse people who share the neighborhood, and often enough share its needs.

Here is something sad: sometimes an unusually energetic and public-spirited individual in an American or Canadian social desert will start a campaign to improve the place: clean up a trash-filled creek and pond, for instance, or revive a defunct local market and community center. The neighborhood may even receive an award for the achievement. Then what happens? Sometimes the noble idiosyncratic effort lacks staying power; when the originator is lost to aging, death, or relocation, the project fades away, too, because no functioning community exists to carry it on. One of the great strengths of New York City is that its neighborhood community efforts typically have staying power; once under way, they tend to persist not only for decades but for generations. This cultural characteristic, moreover, is perhaps most marked in the densest part of the city, Manhattan.

Not TV or illegal drugs but the automobile has been the chief destroyer of American communities. Highways and roads obliterate the places they are supposed to serve, as, for example, highways feeding the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge wiped out most of the formerly large Bay Ridge community in Brooklyn. Robert Moses, the nearest thing to a dictator with which New York and New Jersey have ever been afflicted (so far), thought of himself as a master builder, and his much diminished corps of admirers still nostalgically recall him as that; but he was a master obliterator. If he had had his way, which he did not because of successful community opposition, one of Manhattan’s most vibrant, diverse, and economically productive neighborhoods, Soho, would have been sacrificed to an expressway. Other forces, acting in concert with automobile culture, have also been pervasive. Along came sterile housing tracts set in isolating culs-de-sac, and shopping centers whose only ties to localities were the dollars of local consumers. These, often enough, erased community hearts and landmarks, as if to make sure that marooned vestiges of what had been lost were also lost.

Of course, many people have opposed what was happening to former communities: thousands upon thousands have poured ingenuity and energy into opposition. Some who are fortunate enough to have communities still do fight to keep them, but they have seldom prevailed. While people possess a community, they usually understand that they can’t afford to lose it; but after it is lost, gradually even the memory of what was lost is lost. In miniature, this is the malady of Dark Ages.