Monday, February 13, 2012

Morozov's "Death of the Cyberflaneur"

Evgeny Morozov's article, The Death of the Cyberflâneur (NYT, Feb 4, 2012) conveys a greatest-hits version of some my personal passions: urban design, modern art, retro-futurism, and a critique of the contemporary public sphere. Heck, there's Caillebotte's "Paris Street; Rainy Day" right at the top! Before I finished reading the piece, I'd already shared it on Facebook. And that, the author says, is the problem.

Launching with a brief description of flânerie, Morozov argues that while today's social networking aggregations fill our screens with countless threads of endless content, they squash the pleasure of wandering through the web's funkier outskirts - and of being present where we are. One source of particular concern: frictionless sharing, that seamless transformation of impulse to flow that anesthetizes conscious engagement:
"This is the very stance that is killing cyberflânerie: the whole point of the flâneur’s wanderings is that he does not know what he cares about. As the German writer Franz Hessel, an occasional collaborator with Walter Benjamin, put it, “in order to engage in flânerie, one must not have anything too definite in mind.” Compared with Facebook’s highly deterministic universe, even Microsoft’s unimaginative slogan from the 1990s — “Where do you want to go today?” — sounds excitingly subversive. Who asks that silly question in the age of Facebook?"
I get the idea, but only to a point. While I appreciate the article's clever allusions, I don't share Morozov's nostalgia for 90s-era modem-screech. Yes, those lengthy periods of waiting for a page to download produced a Yoda-like sense of where-I-was-and-what-I-was-doing [Do you remember your first time?], I don't recall enjoying that moment at all. Nor do I agree that we are bounded into vacuum-sealed mediocracy by our increasingly efficient search tools. Indeed, I found this essay through precisely the kind of flânerie that Morozov celebrates, using Zite to wander electronic boulevards of chance and serendipity.

Even so I agree with broader claim of this piece, that we are less inclined to wander these days, less able to enjoy the pleasures of getting lost in the labyrinth. In my own meanderings through various omnitopian portals, I find this phenomenon less a cause than an effect. Our fear of ambiguity leads us to seek the blandly familiar. And this fear is borne, I think, in something more substantial than the transformation of our tools.

Forgoing further contemplation along those lines [this is a blog-post; the blog is the book], I still think that Morozov makes a reasonable point. We do not "surf" the web, and few of us care to become cyberspace pilots. We prefer the simulacrum of the world to the real thing, customizing it into our own cocoons, mirrors of our preferences and our delusions, as we passively receive the flow. And from time to time we click "like" as a wave (or a courtesy), knowing that our ripples do not run too deeply.

What would our lives be like if we expected more?

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