• Sunday , 8 December 2019

De-spacing the Urban Experience

New York subway users all on smartphones

Digital and mobile media are without question, changing 
the way urban life takes shape and how we experience our
 built environment. The more time passes, the more we’re experiencing the city through the interfaces on our screens. 
Our everyday lives are becoming increasingly influenced by digital media technologies, from smart cards and inventive mapping systems to smartphones and social media. As a result, we should ask: how can we use digital media technologies to make our cities more social, rather than just more hi-tech? Since the beginning of the twenty-first century, a number of critics and artists have again raised questions about the future of the city. What are the implications of urban media on the city?

Johan Huizinga – historian and author of the renowned Homo Ludens: A Study of the Play Element in Culture – has claimed that play and technology are incompatible, which is debatable. It is also architectural critic Paul Goldberger’s view that the media and communication technologies that apparently make life substantially easier for people are a threat to the continued existence of urban society as a whole. Will city dwellers’ relationships with their physical surroundings begin to diminish? Will they still engage and participate in community life or will they ultimately recoil back into the ‘cocoons’ they create with their mobile phones, thereby transforming the city into an extension of their private realms?[1] Goldberger argues that people who use their phones while walking down the street 
are no longer engaging in street life. In essence, they are only present in body but not in spirit, and it is this exact mind-set that poses the greatest threat to how the city functions as a democratic, collective community:

‘… the street is the ultimate public space and walking along it is the defining urban experience. It is all of us – different people who lead different lives – coming together in the urban mixing chamber. But what if half of them are elsewhere, there in body but not in any other way?'[2]

walking lane for text addicts

Not everyone is as pessimistic as Goldberger. Many view the rise of technology and mobile media as beneficial to giving city dwellers more control over urban life. In some sense, the ‘Media City’ is not a new concept. It has in fact been a long time in the making, moving through a number of diverse iterations ranging from photography in the mid-19th century, to cinema in the early 20th century, shifting to digital media in the 21st century.

The city is the place where thousands upon thousands of stories crisscross and intermingle. From this, one can suggest that every street corner or every square or even every local
 pub, leads a double life in essence. The ‘experience’ of all of these places consists of not just their physical design, but also of the hundreds, if not even thousands of stories that are forever circulating about each of these places. Whether it be sentimental or nostalgic memories, the latest news stories, personal ambitions and desires, they all play a part in the way in which we absorb the world and places that surround us.

The 'explore by location' feature on instagram

Considering the recent rise of digital media – particularly the way in which they act as ‘experience markers’ for specific moments – these stories, experiences, or memories are shared with each other through varying social networks, be it Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, Snapchat etc. In some sense, by allowing us to share experiences with people who are not present leads to the ‘de-spacing’ of urban experience.[3] Simultaneous use of public space is no longer the only way in which urban publics are formed. They are increasingly forming through various online platforms, for instance, when we decide to share something with our ‘friends’ on social media, displaying where we are and what we are doing at a particular time. This in turn provokes a change in the perception of ‘presence’: it is no longer necessary for friends to be physically present in order to feel like they ‘joined in’ or experienced a particular moment.[4]

This ‘de-spacing’ theory suggests two things simultaneously. Firstly, that the spaces and atmospheres of contemporary cities are radically different to those described in classic theories of urbanism; and second, as much as the city has changed over time, so has media. Media can no longer be treated as something detached from the city and perhaps the urban public realm should no longer be considered as a purely physical construct. If we continue to view public space like this, we may miss important new ways in which city dwellers are brought together, take notice of each other, and form urban publics.[5]

1. Martijn De Wall, The City as Interface: How New Media Are Changing the City (Rotterdam, 010 Publishers, 2014).
2. Paul Goldberger, ‘Disconnected Urbanism’, Metropolismag.com, 22 February 2007.
3. Martijn De Wall, The City
 as Interface: How New Media Are Changing the City (Rotterdam, 010 Publishers, 2014).
4. Martijn De Wall, The City
 as Interface: How New Media Are Changing the City (Rotterdam, 010 Publishers, 2014).
5. Scott McQuire, The Media City: Media, Architecture & Urban Space (London, SAGE, 2008).

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