In the third millennium it’s getting harder than ever to stay in place. Who hasn’t seen a driver almost crash while talking on a cell phone? Who hasn’t noticed children in a park staring down at a game-boy instead of romping about? Who hasn’t been to a dinner party and caught someone sneaking a glance at his handheld under the table and sending a tweet about the first course before even finishing it? Each week, it seems, industry comes up with new gadgets that help us to jump out of our bodies and flash out there to everything under the sun that can be encoded by electrical signals, pulses of light and binary values.
Few of these digital experiences would have registered before the 21st century and some have become widespread only in the past few years. We’re in the first stage of a transformation of our sense of place as momentous as that which occurred a couple of centuries ago, when products from smoke-stacked factories forged modern society.
Beginning in the 19th century with the railroad, telegraph and photograph, a stream of mechanized technologies revolutionized the rapport of individuals with place, permitting far-off locales to occupy, for varying lengths of time, the center of a person’s consciousness. Technology’s explosion of sightlines beyond the immediate wreaked havoc on societal mores and abetted the development of a mass individualism. As Marshall McLuhan wrote almost half a century ago, in Understanding Media, “in the electric age we wear all mankind on our skin.” 1
The contemporary convergence of mobile phone, camera, wireless Internet and satellite communication — the key ingredients of the digital handheld — accelerates the reconstitution of place from real, occupied space to a collage of here and there, past and present. But digital technology’s effects do not only blast us out of place; they also bore us into the sights right in front of us — those in our viewfinder. Our sense of place is augmented by information wired from the World Wide Web. Part of the information comes from media conglomerates. Much of it streams at us from our social networks and online acquaintances. The information allows us to peruse unseen depths of the place we’re in. We have the opportunity to gain a better or different sense of place anywhere we travel within the network’s reach.
Here I’d like to explore interconnected phenomena: the rise of recent on-line technologies like social networking sites and especially augmented reality applications, which are advancing pre-modern and modern modes of perception, in which people communicated and derived meaning through intensive, full-sensory encounters with their locales; and the explosion of the sources and venues of information and communication, which favors places of the individual and the mass over those of the community. My aim is not to argue whether the digital-knowledge handheld is beneficial or detrimental. Some find its effects deeply troubling, yet one more move away from an ideal of direct engagement with the world. Others take a more optimistic view, construing technological prostheses as integral and welcome components of human development. In any case, what’s needed alongside the avalanche of new product releases is critical reflection on their social and perceptual impacts. How do these tracking and communication devices change our sense of place?
Released in 1962, Alberto Lattuada’s Mafioso was the first film to portray the Sicilian mob. Mafioso also portrays some archetypal differences between pre-modern community and modern society. In the first scenes we’re introduced to the protagonist, Nino Badalamenti, played by Alberto Sordi, dressed in a starched white coat, striding past ranks of assembly line workers whose arms and torsos move in sync with steel jigs, levers and engines. Nino works as a chronometrist — an expert on time efficiencies — for a Milan automobile factory; his job is to check the pace of worker movements for safety and efficiency. 2 But after this exercise in Taylorism, the action shifts: Nino sets off for a trip to his hometown of Calamo, Sicily, and we start to make the connection to the Mafia and to Nino’s old-fashioned upbringing.
On the ferry, looking toward Messina, Sicily, Nino is bursting to show his family the place he comes from. Yet as the mainland recedes, his wife Marta looks out of sorts in the Mezzogiorno. One of her first Sicilian views — a set of open doors revealing a corpse on a table — confirms her despair.
Mafioso contrasts sleepy Calamo with frenetic Milan, south with north, ruthless feudal violence with hardworking industrial capitalism, tradition with progress, and community with society. As we observe Calamo’s buildings, bulging this way and that, as we move down Calamo’s streets, earthen and contorted, we recall the earlier scenes in the Fiat plant — the smooth concrete floors, the pristine glass-block walls, the precise geometries that rationalize building and landscape. In contrast to Nino’s sleek Milan apartment, filled by the stunning Marta with fashionable consumer goods, his Sicilian parents and mustached sister dwell amid a jumbled array of furniture that takes up not only the living room but also spills out to the terrace.
Modern Milanese place limpidly expresses function: factories for making automobiles; garages for parking them; roads for driving them. Wall and window flexibly serve the needs and wants of a rising middle class: opaque to foster privacy; translucent to divide space yet filter light; transparent to let in a maximum of light and view.
Sicilian place is more complicated, confusing outsiders like Marta and enveloping natives like Nino. She can neither anticipate the unpredictable encounters that occur everywhere nor appreciate how they stem from codes of conduct reaching back centuries. The architectural forms that appear turgid to a cosmopolite constitute a common book for the villager: the gilded baroque ornaments and sculptures are a tie to ancient ecclesiastical sacraments; the overwrought ceremonial rooms of Don Vincenzo’s villa are a Sicilian amendment to genius loci — in this case, it’s the Mafia, not just the divine guardians of Jesus, Mary and the Saints, that rules over the town.
In pre-modern times, a village and its environs were practically the world for the inhabitants. Most of the knowledge the largely illiterate people needed for life was learned in woods and fields, paths and plazas, buildings and outbuildings, the skies and waters. People were embedded in age-old perceptual practices that allowed them to read meaning into the kinds of human artifacts and natural conditions a modern individual would easily miss. Instead of cruising in the atmosphere of economic and technological progress, villagers observed the minute details of their surroundings and neighbors. Place changed diurnally and seasonally and yet, from the vantage point of the years or an out-of-towner, evidenced imperceptible change. One apprehended the subtleties with the full complement of senses: the sights of spring accompanied by the smell of flowers, the squish of mud, the songs of migrating birds, and the taste of sea air carried by the winds.
Of course such richness of feeling depended on a deprivation of larger sensations and limited knowledge of other places. People with an embedded sense of place in a community lacked a separate and potentially estranged sense of self — that constellation of individuality instigated by new horizons. Privacy was hard to come by when people could barge into one’s home, paddock or workshop, and everybody knew each other and each other’s affairs. Choice too was in short supply. Conduct was supervised by customs, monitored by authorities and enforced by rigid hierarchies.
Since the Middle Ages, the phrase Stadtluft macht frei nach Jahr und Tag — city air makes you free after a year and a day — has referred to the liberating qualities of the metropolis. Up until 1800, a tiny percentage resided in cities and could have enjoyed those cathartic breezes. A hundred years later, urban societies were becoming the dominant modus of settlement. Leaving the village for the city was a momentous occasion that involved sacrificing familiarity and stability for novelty and change. People could now glean the facts and figures of life from a mesmerizing, if oftentimes incoherent set of sources. Their rapport with place in urban society would never be the same.
In the industrializing city, architecture’s styles ranged across eons of history and its shapes were revolutionized via new constructional technologies like iron and glass. Walkable towns now stretched along railroad corridors and later sprawled around automotive highways and byways. The appearance of artificial natures — or parks — highlighted the city’s scale and citizens’ separation from their natural surroundings. So did new infrastructures. The rivers from where water was collected and treated, the land where refuse was dumped and buried, and the geologic strata where energy was extracted and piped: these were no longer experienced firsthand. Food and most material goods came from afar. Systems of plumbing, waste disposal, and electricity, and an alstounding array of stores, constituted the new urban grammar.
Industrializing cities offered a spectacle of themselves and of other places — untold new attractions near and far, made available via images and ideas. Siegfried Kracauer remarked that the new city dwellers were addicted to distraction, with the peripheral perceptions of the metropolis flooding consciousness, and entertainments, like motion pictures, promising a temporary, if illusory, return to a unity of self and place. 3
Moving beyond the fixed collective locus of a village, place in the city sprawled into myriad individual excursions, and in these new expanses the moderns began to experience information overload. There was too much to apprehend and the only recourse was to filter some of the view and dampen some of the senses. Who could read each and every part of such enormous and complicated places?
In any event, among a population no longer farming their food or crafting their clothes and houses, what reason was there to be intimate with the furrows of pastures or the joinery of lumber? Specialization now characterized one’s occupation, one’s purchases, one’s perceptual geography. As urbanites’ lives — residences, workplaces, houses of worship, sites for leisure — fragmented, the organic character of everyday place dissipated. People realized that opportunities and thrills arose from the incipient and distinctive aspects of the world, not the stagnant or repetitive ones. The distant or striking became more alluring than the proximate and common. Perceptually speaking, the bulk of the city turned into a collective blind spot, a terrain upon which little attention was focused, a fullness of place noticed most by children or artists like Charles Baudelaire, who wrote that urban perception was “to see the world, to be at the center of the world, and yet to remain hidden from the world.” 4
In the 20th century, architecture’s modern movement was not just a reaction against muddled and sprawling urban growth. It was an assault on the division of place into the noticed and the overlooked. The division of the city into functional zones was an attempt to reorder the built environment into a collectively legible place. Citizens would understand the workings of the urban system by perusing its constituent parts, like highways or apartment blocks, and the resulting intelligibility would foster a sense of purpose, belonging and delight.
Yet the modernist program ended up further fragmenting the city. Face-to-face communication disappeared from streets that were transformed into high-speed circulation corridors. Dwellings, workplaces and leisure sites were segregated into separate districts. Ravishing in plan, model, map, and statistic, the modernist city was less smashing for those going about the town on the ground in everyday circumstances. The public didn’t or couldn’t acquire the abilities to read modernized urban space the way architects intended. In the 1960s, Modernism’s last hurrah, aptly named Brutalism, brought forth towering buildings, stadiums, bridges, air terminals, and highway interchanges, works meant to inspire awe and delight. Like many aspects of the modern city, their impact was both thrilling and alienating.
Let’s go back for a moment to Mafioso. The film poses a choice of place that few people in 1962 would have wanted to make. Return to pre-modern conditions like those of Sicily, where you can read every place and your every move is monitored and directed. Stay as a cog in the machine-works of a large corporation like the Milanese factory, where your life flows anonymously like the traffic along a highway lined by identical apartment blocks. Toward the end of the film, the director Lattuada posed a third possibility that was on the minds of adventurous sorts in the postwar era. Escape.
In this tragicomedy, however, Nino is no Dean Moriarty. First off, he has no desire to hit the open road. Second, he has been dispatched faraway — to New York City — on a dastardly mission that’s central to the Mafia codes of his village. Nino is flown to New York stuffed within a closed crate, sensing nothing but the foreboding of the favor Don Vincenzo’s friends will ask of him. Unboxed at the airport, shoved into the backseat of a car between two beefy hoodlums, he has no idea where he is.
With the top of the convertible rolled down at his request, Nino is taken on a jolting drive around Manhattan, and for a short while, his senses fly out of the coop into which they’d been boxed in the airplane and, by analogy, both northern and southern Italy. Accompanied by the jazz rhythms of Piero Piccioni’s score, the camera’s acute angles launch his (and our) eyes toward a sequence of hovering, slicing skyscrapers. Editing ricochets the view from this sheet of glass to that wall of brick, from semi-old towers to brand-new ones. Nino becomes deliriously happy, as if his perceptual faculties had miraculously merged into that of the machines he worships and as if those machines had taken themselves on a bouncing joy ride. He’s no longer in the village community that birthed him or the urban society he was helping to craft. Rather, he’s privy to a truer representation of his times, a jump-cutting perception of endless cityscape that knows no order or familiarity.
Alas, the city snippets he’s experiencing liberate his senses without liberating his situation. After crossing into New Jersey, the car stops, and Nino is handed a gun and told to murder a man in a barbershop chair. Like a robot following instructions, he goes ahead with the job. As the movie rolls to a close, we’re lead to believe that no escape is possible, either from the earth-bound ties of pre-modern community or the mechanized routines of modern society.
If the history of our relationship to place in the last decades of the old millennium hasn’t been quite as bleak, it nonetheless confirms the folly of most dreams of individual liberation as well as of those schemes that try to dig a depth of place into modern society’s boundless and ever changing reaches. The discipline of architecture cycled through the histories, pop stories and ironies of postmodernism only to wind up, by the late 1990s, with the Bilbao effect: a new era of monument-making premised more than ever on the audaciousness of select architectural works and the invisibility of the larger urbanized environment. Architecture’s turn to context-less, globalized vision bytes mirrored what had been happening in the mass media for decades. Celebrity and spectacle have long been stronger anchors for the public’s attention to place than the structural totality that makes up everyday life. Blockbuster architecture of the late 1990s and beyond has been merely following blockbuster cinema of the late 1970s and, a few decades earlier, the media blockbuster of them all. Television.
In a New Yorker column from 1948, E. B. White anticipated McLuhan’s theory of sprawling consciousness, writing that: “Like radio, television hangs on the questionable theory that whatever happens anywhere should be sensed everywhere. If everyone is going to be able to see everything, in the long run all sights may lose whatever rarity value they once possessed, and it may well turn out that people, being able to see and hear practically everything, will be specially interested in almost nothing.” 5 White’s prescient comment, penned at the dawn of television, was only slightly off the mark. It’s not that the public became interested in nothing. They became interested in place as a zone of consumption, not production. Stripped of those meanings and relationships that were part and parcel of productive activity, everyday place became an unseen zone and we, its inhabitants, became experience addicts — constantly on the hunt for a flashier, more entertaining sensorial fix.
What’s remarkable is that by the end of the second millennium, in a time when everyday place was receding further than ever from our short attention spans, technology, as it had almost two centuries earlier, reshuffled our sense of place.