Facebook Urbanism: “Death of the CyberFlaneur”

In a fascinating if somewhat deflating opinion piece in the New York Times this week (Feb. 4, 2012), “The Death of the CyberFlaneur,” (link) Evgeny Morozov makes the case that the change in the way people inhabit the virtual space of the internet is analogous to changes in the way people inhabited the physical space of the modern city. Or at least that’s what he’s suggesting by focusing on the idea of the flaneur, that emblematic figure of modernity for Walter Benjamin.

Gustave Caillebotte's "Paris Street; Rainy Day," 1877.

Morozov came across a 1998 essay which predicted that the internet would herald the advent of the “cyberflaneur,” who would stroll through this brave new digital world “brimming with playfulness, intrigue, and serendipity.” What the street was to the flaneur, the superhighway would be to the cyberflaneur.

Passage Choiseul, Paris

The flaneur aimlessly and leisurely strolled the streets (mainly of Paris, the cultural cradle of the flaneur) absorbing the sites, sounds, and people of the city. He had no goal nor destination; quite the contrary. The art of the flaneur was to observe incognito and feast with his eyes on the sites of the modern city and its emerging consumer displays. He moved alone, in solitude, down the public and semi-public spaces of the city, in particular the new covered arcades, a kind of precursor to the department store. Heterogeneity, rich sensory experiences, disruptions and urban ambiguities were observed and accepted, even celebrated, as part of the culture of the city, and the friction of a burgeoning modern world.

Boulevard in Paris

Morozov then relates the familiar story of the birth of ‘modern’ Paris, such as the rise of the department stores, those private temples of modern consumerism, and the “Haussmanization” of Paris, in which the historic, narrow, crooked, often dark and mysterious streets were demolished to make way for the modern, wide, transparent boulevards. The openness, clarity, and linearity of the boulevards, later combined with the rise of the department store where consumer goods became categorically displayed within private temples of consumerism, made the flaneur’s vocation difficult; the pleasurable and anonymous ambiguity of the stroll was replaced by the purposeful walk within the “rationalization of city life.”

Much the same is happening on the internet now, claims Morozov, where the lack of privacy and the emphasis on social media ‘sharing’ has created a digital world far from the early promise of a kind of anonymous virtual spelunking. Rather than aimlessly “surfing the web,” following crooked sidestreets in the virtual world, users are much more likely to be tethered to their social media portals, and venture off them for specific utilitarian purposes only. He cites the rise of “apps” in support of single-purpose use, eclipsing the browser with its world of heterogeneous possibilities. In the modern city the advent of zoning regulations, which legislated the dedicated use of land upon a seemingly chaotic industrialized sprawl, was not so different. Today, are not large pods of single-use buildings, like shopping centers, corporate parks, condo developments, and single-family suburban sprawl the product of these analogous urban “apps?”

The tyranny of Facebook, that behemoth of all social networking sites, is the “tyranny of the social” according to Morozov. Facebook’s advent of “frictionless sharing” where all is shared except what you specifically prevent and keep as private, promotes a transparent world of familiarity and connection at the expense of solitude, mystery, exploration, and observation. Strolling incognito in the world of Facebook is impossible, the notion of solitary adventure is scorned upon as some kind of atavistic mannerism in the new shared world. In other words, according to Morozov in his Times piece:

“…if today’s Internet has a Baron Haussman, it is Facebook. Everything that makes cyber flanerie possible- solitude and individuality, anonymity and opacity, mystery and ambivalence, curiosity and risk-taking – is under assault by that company.”

The pleasure of the derive, the “psychogeographic” remapping of the city as practiced by the Situationists, could never occur with the culture of today’s Facebook youth. Facebook curates its users lives and connections, regulating what is socially acceptable (popular) and presents a consensus of tastes.

The promise of glass was the promise of utopian transparency at the advent of modern architecture, critically heralded by Bruno Taut, Paul Scheerbart, and Mies van der Rohe, amongst others. But of course this promise never ‘materialized.’ Transparency, once thought to be the architectural metaphor of a democratic and open society, has become instead the means of creating an uncurated public circus of private lives.

Still from Jacques Tati's 'Play Time' (1967)

Jacques Tati lampooned such cliches of transparent modern city life in Playtime. Almost fifty years later, perhaps Richard Meier’s elegant towers on Prospect Park or the Hudson River, are only more elegant embodiments of Tati’s circus stage set. Without the notion of veils, virtual or architectural, the Facebook generation gets the transparency of the Standard at the High Line, with the voyeuristic array of hotel bedrooms framed within its glass facade.For a generation of sexters and bloggers, that publicity is just accepted as part of Facebook’s ‘frictionless sharing’ (certainly a most apt euphemism for voyeurism!). Many architecture students today, whose social lives are transparently mediated by Facebook, default to glass buildings, regardless of use or urban context, seemingly as unaware of architectural notions of enclosure, threshold, shadows, or even the more metaphorical sense of Colin Rowe’s “virtual transparency.” I have experienced this with students at USC for years as well as other schools of architecture in Los Angeles, or in the popular architecture design blogs. A world in which all is open and on display, with little curatorial or critical understanding of transparency, in which lines between private and public are often unexplored, is undoubtedly a condition of both architectural design and online life today. Facebook architecture. Facebook urbanism.

At least below the Standard, that screen of frictionless sharing, is the High Line itself. Now that might have been one stroll the flaneur would have enjoyed, even from start to finish.