28 Apr

Urban Spectator

For the last several months, I’ve primarily been working on revising my book manuscript. And I finally feel as though the introduction is reflective of the text. I’m posting the first few pages here to solicit thoughts or commentary.

On the corner of 34th Street and Fifth Avenue in Manhattan, there are dozens of people looking at little screens, typing on little keyboards, with plugs extending from their ears. Each of these people is having a different experience, customized through their personal media. The college student with his iPod selects his music to correspond with the weather and time of day; the businessman types an address into his GPS-enabled phone to find his next meeting; and the tourist stares through her mobile phone camera to capture the Empire State Building in the distance. Mediated by little devices, these people are shaping their experiences of the city. Nicholas Negroponte (1995) famously noted that the world of atoms (our bodies) would no longer need to correspond to the world of bits (data) – that physical proximity would cease to be necessary for public life. But as we can see on that street corner, the world of atoms and the world of bits come together in the city. There is little distinction between the practices of everyday life, and the technologies that enable those practices. The soundtrack, the map, the photograph: these artifacts of the everyday, are constructive of environments. The practices one adopts to navigate and comprehend any space can never be seen as separate from that space.
New communication technologies complicate accepted notions of urban life, including the nature and scope of public interactions and the corresponding design of the built environment. Can one truly be engaged in public space if they are looking through a viewfinder or tapping sweet nothings with their thumbs on tiny keyboards? Can the city, as an entity, continue to matter when digital networks enable public gathering without requiring the public to gather in physical space? The answer to all of these questions is a resounding “yes.” The modern American city has never been bereft of these complications – from the hand held camera at the end of the nineteenth century to the mobile phone at the end of the twentieth, the city has always been a mediated construct. The city enters into the cultural imaginary as a hodgepodge of disconnected signifiers, often organized by the technologies that produce them. When Kodak introduced its hand camera in 1888, it provided a tool for people to record and retain experiences through visual reproduction. Photographers produced images and, even more importantly, possessed them and organized them to manage their memories. Likewise, when Google introduced its mapping software in 2004, it enabled people to record and retain experiences by marking places on a map, keeping notes and connecting images. Google Maps has been implemented as both a wayfinding tool and a personal organizing tool; through its simple interface, it serves to manage an individual’s understanding of space. Communication technologies certainly produce new information about the world; but they also have the facility to organize that information through the literal or metaphorical storage capacity of photo albums or archives. They provide the spectator the unique opportunity to at once experience space and possess its traces.

These traces, and their inherent possibilities, have substantially altered the nature of media and urban practices in the twentieth century. I call the spectatorship structured around the desire for possessing these traces, possessive spectatorship – a way of looking that incorporates immediate experience with the desire for subsequent possession. And while this phenomenon has had implications for the modern city in general, in this book I describe how it has been uniquely important for the American city. What’s distinctive about the American context is the timing in which the city becomes central to the cultural imaginary. The American city grew up in parallel to the technologies that enabled its possession. Not until the late nineteenth century, corresponding to the introduction of the handheld camera and the cinematograph, did the American city take on a meaning outside of mere urban concentration. Prior to that time, while cities were of course present in America, they did not present themselves as unique constructs. I argue that emerging media practices transformed urban practices by naturalizing the notion that individual spectators could not only see the city, but also possess it. And most importantly, I argue that this spectatorship altered the material shape of the city as urban plans were drafted to meet the expectations of a spectator eager to take control of the city’s assembly.