Statistical data indicate that in terms of numbers, American cities are in decline. Since 1950, the majority of metropolitan population growth, (around 90 percent) , occurred in the suburbs. Roughly two out of three Americans lived in the sprawl extending outward from cities (via the Washington Post). Many individuals who inhabit cities view this transition as a sign of a larger cultural deterioration.
- taken from my plane seat AFTER the captain had asked us to switch off all of our electronic devices
The cultural merits or limitations of suburban life aside, it is often asserted that one of the defining features of urban life is the regular potential for unpredictable and unintended interactions with a wide variety of strangers in a diverse set of environments. Jane Jacobs, in her book The Death and Life of Great American Cities discusses this in her theory of the “ballet of the sidewalk. She states:
[Sidewalks] bring people who do not know each other together in an intimate private social fashion and in most cases do not care to now each other in that fashion…yet if interesting, useful and significant contacts among the people of cities are confined to acquaintanceships suitable for private life, the city becomes stultified. Cities are full of people with whom a certain degree of contact is useful or enjoyable, but you do not want them in your hair- and they do not want you in theirs either.
The probabilistic contact that the sidewalk and other public spaces provide allows for a form of interaction that is by in large specific to centers of high urban density. Because of the frequency with which people in these environments encounter strangers, the majority of interactions are limited to temporary occurrences without lasting effect. Despite this, the potential for significant interactions that result in creative output for the individuals involved is much higher because of the rate of interaction itself. As Jacobs elaborates, the rate of meaningful interactions with a creative outcome is high enough in a city like New York, that it creates the perception of New York itself as a catalyst for creative processes and cultural development. If a creative outcome is a goal in spite of the apparent decline of urban environments like New York, the question becomes, what new spaces, virtual or physical, foster creative, spontaneous interactions?
- people on a subway platform
I propose that online,networked space has the saturation density and technical architecture necessary to facilitate a form of diverse, public interaction comparable to that found in a highly populated urban area. The current standard of online identity as anonymous increases the average individual’s willingness to engage in a communication framework with other people who are outside of their immediate community. In fact, some sites like 4chan and Chatroulette are predicated on this very idea. Despite the fact that these online spaces bring with them the cultural baggage of the Internet itself, they regularly facilitate developments that extend beyond the context of the sites they were generated in, and they defy the conventions of those sites in the process. Image macros developed on 4chan message boards have evolved into larger cultural Internet trends that reach astronomical distribution rates among online users, and are even referenced occasionally in offline culture. Whereas these occurrences are the exception rather than the norm, their persistent occurrence is a testament to the creative potential of certain forms of online networks in which spontaneous engagements take place.
The process through which these connections are made, discovered and reflected is the result of a form of semi-objective exploration. Research being done about communities like twitter, facebook and wikipedia demonstrate the emergence of a demographic of users who browse through these communities in a non-patterned, non-hierarchical fashion. Their objective is exploratory and abstract, and while there are connections between the media they view and individuals they associate with, the path they follow to access them is in many respects the digital equivalent of wandering. In her 2009 talk on social media use, media researcher Danah Boyd likens the exploration of the non-objective online user to Baudelaire’s concept of the flâneur (link), an individual who walks the city to understand it. These online users play a similar role as people who come to understand the space they inhabit by progressing through it without a determined purpose. Similarly, like the flâneur, their presence helps to shape the larger group behavior of the spaces they inhabit.
- hooray for flow charts! (click for enlarged version)
A project is currently in the works to study the parallels in public interaction between physical urban space and online network space. I intend to examine how the role of the individual unfolds in both of these situations. I specifically want to demonstrate any contrasts between risk and depth of connection, chaos and control mechanisms, security and surveillance, and levels of engagement. I will explore contrasts using time-based work created with a combination of animation (both traditional and generative) and video. The video will be taken of real physical urban environments and serve as the backdrop for an animation, which will define the individuals who engage in various forms of interaction.
The comparison between these two spaces will be achieved by viewing one in the visual language and mechanics of the other. In this case, the elements of the urban street network will be filtered through the structure of an online network. The differences between the way we actually experience these spaces and how they are conceived in the piece will be emphasized through massive and non-linear jumps in context- a practice that is naturally facilitated through the hyper-structure of the web, but realistically inconceivable in a physical environment where rules of linearity and travel time are explicit. The city will be treated as a database, and its elements will be organized in an indexed structure. The underlying narrative of the piece is of an uncertain search- a process of looking for something that the searcher has yet to define. The piece will trace the path of an individual as she travels through a fictional city on this search, documenting her encounters along the way. The points of interest along the journey and the interactions she has with other people will be familiar to an urban audience, but the way in which these points are referenced, displayed and changed will be in accordance with database and hyper-media architecture rather than the rules of physical space. Non-linear access, user variability, aggregation, and duplication will influence how the experiences of the individual are displayed.
stay tuned- Next week: Storyboards?!?