coromandal


in the countryside and down the hole
December 19, 2010, 8:01 pm
Filed under: brave new world | Tags: , , , , , ,

In architecture school in the mid 90s, a hip faculty faction spoke of virtual space, by which they meant the burgeoning world we were just falling into, through the computer screen looking glass, out into new places of media, commerce, friends, fantasy.  Most of us clung to old world sticks and bricks, finding how paper models and renderings and drawings could support our earnest visions of social and urban enhancement and change.

About 10 years ago, a colleague who hailed from Ireland related going back to the old country for a visit.  He said the difference between the 80s and 90s was stark because of cable, not internet:  evenings once spent on rotations between friends houses for drinks and banter were finished as people kept their doors shut to watch their favorite shows.

In this essay, Lewis Lapham, in proper critical form, shows us how the virtual world has been sold us as a viable substitute for real civic space.  For him, the virtual world is a logical end game in the American pursuit of space and distance from one another.  He describes how American power and cultural elites have always occupied exurban environments, and even distrusted the ‘foreign’ elements that come to the country through urban ports of call.  And how our developing virtual world is the logical next step.

The big screen Steve Jobs Apple roll out show is the unchallenged sign of the times, brilliantly seared into the collective consciousness.  Is it the only thing we do and think about any more – our shiny phones, our social networks, thumbs up, thumbs down, streaming and faster downloads?  No doubt, incredibly seductive.  And clearly we think about other things.  But we don’t like thinking about the things we did back in architecture school:  making our cities better, improving infrastructure, education, medicine etc.  So we naturally turn back to the bright shiny objects and the virtual world.  Into the rabbit hole.  Curiouser and curiouser!

Lapham:

What suburban opinion deplores as abomination (traffic, crime, noise, confiscatory taxes, extortionate rents), the urban disposition regards as the price of escape from the tyranny of the small-town majority, as the cost of the blank canvas (i.e., the gifts of loneliness and privacy) on which to discover the portrait of oneself.

/…/

During the 1980s the synonym for America’s wealth and power moved south to Washington, DC, which, like Los Angeles, possesses both the character and sensibility of an expensive suburb. As was true of their Puritan forbears in the New England wilderness, the nation’s ruling and explaining classes regard the urban temperament as the port of entry for all things foreign and obnoxious. Over the last thirty years the government bureaucracies have come to employ more people than lived in seventeenth-century England, planting the bulk of their intelligence operations in the Virginia countryside with the fruit trees and the birds; our larger corporations retreat to pastoral compounds bearing a postmodern resemblance to the manors in medieval France; artists and writers of note drift away to villages in Connecticut. The projectors of the urban future meanwhile define the Internet as the civilizing agent that replaces the need for the New York Stock Exchange and the Broadway theater, and the great, good American place, under the protection of the Department of Homeland Security and safe behind a gated perimeter, comes to be imagined, as was John Winthrop’s City on a Hill, as a refuge from the storm and wonder of the world rather than as the progenitor of its energy and the locus of its desire.

-Lewis Lapham, City Light, Lapham’s Quarterly