“The Death of the Cyberflâneur”: Misplaced grief in Sunday’s NYT
You’re probably familiar on some level with the idea of the “flâneur”: the urban wanderer, attuned to the rhythms of the streets, both one with and set apart from the crowds he inhabits. The term dates from Haussmann-era Paris, when modernity ignited a churning cityscape of steam engines and carriages, dandies and factory workers. Many of the urban manners we now take for granted—for example, avoiding eye contact on the subway—have their origins in this time of Industrial upheaval.
In this Sunday’s NYT we have an ode to the “cyberflaneur”, reading that “the very practice of cyberflânerie seems at odds with the world of social media.” And what is “cyberflânerie,” exactly? Evgeny Morozov’s op-ed opens with a parallel between Parisian streets and our own information superhighway, the Interwebs, and then takes us on a meandering technophobic journey that misrepresents both contemporary social media and historical flânerie. I’ll take on two of the claims here.
Online communities like GeoCities and Tripod were the true digital arcades of that [pre-Facebook] period, trading in the most obscure and the most peculiar, without any sort of hierarchy ranking them by popularity or commercial value. Back then eBay was weirder than most flea markets; strolling through its virtual stands was far more pleasurable than buying any of the items.
And the second:
The implications are clear: Facebook wants to build an Internet where watching films, listening to music, reading books and even browsing is done not just openly but socially and collaboratively. Through clever partnerships with companies like Spotify and Netflix, Facebook will create powerful (but latent) incentives that would make users eagerly embrace the tyranny of the “social,” to the point where pursuing any of those activities on their own would become impossible.
As I read it, Morozov is arguing:
- that the act of socially-informed consumption, as opposed to detached observation, destroys our ability to wander while maintaining an open mind; and
- that the social web rewards mainstream culture at the expense of culture’s long tail.
While each claim is in some way appealing, particularly if you harbor “dreams of the Internet as a refuge for the bohemian, the hedonistic and the idiosyncratic,” neither holds water.
For the first, it’s important to distinguish between the actual activity of wandering/ surfing and the purpose behind it. Morozov’s flâneur is fixated on the world’s bric-a-brac, but the true flâneur is an observer of people. Indeed the whole project of flânerie is an attempt to understand the individual amid the anonymity of “the crowd,” that teeming mass of urban humanity that first sparked fear and fascination in Victorian writers and continues to occupy our imaginations. Take Elizabeth Bishop’s “The Man-Moth,” a poem she wrote after moving to New York City. It dates from 1935 and still feels fresh and relevant:
Then he returns to the pale subways of cement he calls his home. He flits, he flutters, and cannot get aboard the silent trains fast enough to suit him. The doors close swiftly. The Man-Moth always seats himself facing the wrong way and the train starts at once at its full, terrible speed, without a shift in gears or a gradation of any sort. He cannot tell the rate at which he travels backwards. Each night he must be carried through artificial tunnels and dream recurrent dreams. Just as the ties recur beneath his train, these underlie his rushing brain. He does not dare look out the window, for the third rail, the unbroken draught of poison, runs there beside him. He regards it as a disease he has inherited the susceptibility to. He has to keep his hands in his pockets, as others must wear mufflers.
What’s more, the flâneur was a gentleman and a dandy: with no real occupation, in a sense his whole existence was one of fashion and “society,” in the higher-brow sense of the word. And Morozov would have us think that social consumption had no part in this lifestyle? Having an open mind (or not) is a choice: our online/ offline social graphs and wanderings are more likely to reflect that choice than they are likely to change our tolerance for the new or obscure.
As for the second assumption, media and technology operate in cycles. When a technical innovation is still relatively new but adoption is relatively widespread, you see the kind of centralization that so irks Morozov. This phenomenon of a tack to the middle in the medium-term has affected books, newspapers, radio, TV, and so on. If you read Fred Wilson’s blog, then you know that he thinks social media is already primed for the dispersion that these older technologies once experienced. That view is consistent with my hunch that we’re moving toward an era of loosely defined “tribes” organized around cultural beliefs and behaviors. Once we reach a point of greater dispersion, ranking by popularity or commercial value becomes quite a useful tool for navigating across tribes/ platforms. With any luck, it could even break us out of the “lifestyle enclaves” that have dominated post-Cold War society.
Maybe at some point the Times will publish a piece on technology that the history (e)books will quote with respect. But don’t hold your breath.