The ‘Cyberflâneur’ -Spaces and Places on the Internet Part II

The transitory figure of the Flâneur was a partly real and partly literary persona documented by Charles Baudelaire and Walter Benjamin. He, (and he was largely seen as a male figure at the time3 ), was a social type who flourished in the second half of the 19th C and frequented the arcades of Paris. His activity was that of flanerie -to stroll the streets and observe the bustling life of the modern city. Since his beginnings, the figure of the Flâneur moved on to Vienna (Robert Musil, The Man Without Qualities), Berlin (Walter Benjamin, Berlin Chronicle) and has been witnessed in Satre’s Nausea. The Flâneur would mingle with the crowd, endeavouring to remain anonymous, seeing and being seen, but not recognised. He “jealously guards his individuality and agency by obscuring it beneath the mask of the anonymous and insignificant ‘man of the crowd’, pursues a course which alienates him from even the possibility of a deeper inter-subjective exchange with the other members of the crowd scene. … flânerie is a sociability of Ones.(…) This is the life of watching the world go by, not ever exchanging a word acknowledging the presence of an Other. ” 4 Poignant is here the Internet figure of the ‘lurker’, defined as someone who reads newsgroup or Listserve messages without responding to them, thus remaining unnoticed.

If Bruce Mazlish asks “what serves as the analogue to the city for the post-modern spectator?” 5, I would posit that today’s Flâneurs can be found in Web space. The Cyberflâneur ‘strolls’ through information space, taking in the virtual architecture and remaining anonymous. To take an analogy from aerial photography by Chombart de Lauwe, s/he is “a voyeur of sorts, who not only enjoys the erotics of seeing all from his hidden vantage point, but also enjoys the erotics of knowing all.” If the Flâneur was a “decipherer of urban and visual texts” 6, then the Cyberflâneur is a decipherer of Virtual Reality and Hypertexts. S/he is the voyeur of the post-information age. To “the list of contemporary manifestations of flânerie adduced by Buck-Morss, for example the ‘aural flanerie’ of the grazing and zapping radio listener, the window-on-world flânerie of television news, and the insular package-tour flânerie associated with the mass tourist industry” 7 I would like to add the flânerie of grazing information space.

What the city and the street were to the Flâneur, the Internet and the Superhighway have become to the Cyberflâneur. Both here and there, there is “a beginning that does not threaten to solidify into a consequence, a beginning which can only be followed by other beginnings, and thus may be lived with the benign feeling of impunity.” Here “the flâneur finds reprieve from time.” 8

Of Malls and Cybermalls

In post-modernity, the refuge of the Flâneur had become the shopping mall, “a flaneur’s paradise if ever there was one.(…) And after all, to ‘get out there and away from it all’ was always the flâneur’s dearest wish. And as a means to do that ‘West Edmonton Hall (the worlds largest shopping mall) is as gratifyingly mind-rotting an experience as you could wish’.” 9 “…this implausible, seemingly random collection of images [West Edmonton Hall] has been assembled with an explicit purpose: to support the mall’s claim to contain the entire world within its walls.(…) Sealed off from the tasks of everyday life, shopping became a recreational activity and the mall an escapist cocoon.” 10 But the world of the mall, be it ever so huge, can’t compete with the world of Cyberspace, and as kids and adults spend ever more time in front of the computer terminal, the figure of the post-modern shopping-mall-Flâneur is being replaced by the Cyberflâneur of a new ‘recreational site’ and ‘escapist cocoon’ -the Net. Today’s Flâneur is no longer to be found in the arcades or the malls that mimic the arcades, but rather in front of an arcade game. S/he no longer cruises the streets in search of modernity, but rather cruises Cybermalls to do on-line shopping or in search of ‘freebies’ and Net sites -s/he has become a Cybershopper, Net Voyeur and Information Tourist. Freed from the dangers of physically moving around in the city, be they crime, pollution, traffic hazards etc., today’s anonymous immersion into the ‘crowd’ happens in Cybermalls, Multi User Dungeons, File Transfer Protocol or Internet Relay Chat. As Negroponte points out in his book, “The Internet surfers are the crazy kids on the block. The digerarti have moved (…) into something closer to a real life-style than an intellectual manifesto. Their nuptials are in cyberspace. They call themselves bitniks and cybraians. Their social mobility covers the planet. Today, they are the Salon des Refuses, but their salon is not a cafe in Paris (…). Their salon is somewhere on the Net. It is being digital.”

Distorting Perceptions of Bodily Space on the Net

This move into Cyberspace brings with it a negation of the body, ie when we enter the Infosphere, we leave our bodies behind. Instead, our mind interacts with and traverses virtual space. But not only do we become somewhat immaterial when we log onto the Internet, more and more activities which are normally the realm of bodily space are being digitised.

A good example of digitising bodily space is ‘virtual tourism’, eg. in the form of ‘The Digital City’, a Dutch cybertown, with links to real-life city Amsterdam. “The Digital City has 10,000 inhabitants. Its streets and alleyways are links of hypertext strung through the World Wide Web. On a good month 120,000 tourists pass through,” says Peter Hinssen in Wired (June ’95). The way we experience a digital city is going to be fundamentally different from actually being there, at least until Virtual Reality overcomes its infancy stage. Looking at an on-line image of Amsterdam’s town hall, can’t be compared to actually standing in front of the building, but its better than not seeing it at all and a whole lot cheaper than physically going there. Sound, video and VRML can add dimensions which make the experience of Virtual Tourism more real. How real can such a virtual city be? Peter Hinssen says that “The Digital City faces issues all too familiar to real-world boom towns. What sort of services should it provide? How can it pay for them? What is the proper relationship between public authority and private enterprise?” Well, at least as a Cybertourist in the “Digital City” you can’t get mugged, or can you?

The Digital City also offers a ‘cyber bike path’, another example of how we are embracing virtual life to the detriment of physical being. Access is via the bike sign in the (digital) city square. For a nation of cyclists, it seems natural to have a representation of this transport medium in the Digital City. The cyber bike path will take you on cyber bike tours around the world, give information on bike races and link to other sites of interest to the bike fan. Does this mean that we are about to give up the physical activity in favour of the virtual activity? Probably not, but we are associating more and more body related activities with the on-line world.

Of Virtual Museums, Digital Art and On-line Galleries

An increasing number of Virtual Museums and Virtual Galleries are to be found on the World Wide Web. Images of art, that are otherwise inaccessible or only available in print form can now be viewed from the comfort of one’s own swivel chair. The implication may be that fewer people will make the effort to physically visit the museum building when a possibly much more exciting multi-media museum ‘site’ can be visited on the Internet -and that museum could be located anywhere in the world. Speaking on multi-media at the 1995 National Crafts Conference, Kylie Winkworth said that “multi-media does challenge the primacy of the object in the museum -both in terms of space on the display floor, and by replicating museums in multi-media form. (…) real objects and multi-media involve two inimical ways of looking that do not sit comfortably in the same context.”

The Virtual Museum of the Internet and its multi-media relative the CD-ROM loom over the user with potential information overload, leading to information grazing of the museum infosphere. Says Winkworth: “Multi-media invites users to scroll quickly through hundreds of images with the relentless clicking of a mouse (…) and does not encourage critical examination or analysis.” Will museums “teach us the skills of critically seeing the material world” while we become ever more “visually satiated with graphic overload”? Or will today’s graphic overload become tomorrows accepted norm to the detriment of experiencing the physical world? I think a survey amongst arcade game prone teenagers of the First World would throw light on the subject.

The on-line gallery offers the artist a certain freedom of expression and freedom from the constraints of physical materials. But those very freedoms from physicality are also its shortcomings: its difficult to see the rich texture of an on-line painting, or feel the rough surface of a woodfired bowl. Nonetheless, Nicholas Negroponte is of the opinion that “we are entering an era when expression can be more participatory and alive. We have the opportunity to distribute and experience rich sensory signals in ways that are different from looking at the pages of a book and more accessible than travelling to the Louvre. Artists will come to see the Internet as the world’s largest gallery for their expressions and as a means of disseminating them directly to people.”

Is the digitising of the Visual Arts and Crafts also taking place on the Net? The emerging field of Virtual Craft and CyberCeramics is a new expression of computer craft, which can only be experienced on a computer terminal or at its molecular best be printed out as a laser print. Still, Virtual Craft is a valid form of expression which can invigorate thought processes that may feed back into physical art and craft practice. But while there is a trend to increasing numbers of artists getting involved in digital art, I’m still not sure that crafts practitioners are fleeing the material world in increasing droves and that we will be witnessing a “crafts diaspora”, as Kevin Murray has stated.

When more and more people are looking towards digital self-expression and digital consumerism, does this mean that we are developing from a nation of ‘couch potatoes’ to a nation of ‘Netheads’, that we are trading one screen (the TV) for another (the computer terminal)? There is a danger on the Net of mass information consumerism. The less discerning information consumer could become tomorrows cybergoat, downing every digi-morsel that comes across his or her path. The fact that there is a popular list of ‘Useless World Wide Web Sites’ on the Internet seems to support this idea. In the meantime software developers are constantly refining applications, eg. Voice Mail, CUSEEME Video Conferencing, VRML Virtual Reality…While the developers are keeping up the momentum, the average user is usually lagging one or two steps behind. But the above examples do point to an ever increasing dematerialisation of bodily space and growing playground for the Cyberflaneur.

Memories of Cyberspace

The spaces and places that we experience in Cyberspace remain as memories in our mind, over time metamorphosing into a multitude of potentially experienced realities. Bachelard observes that “of course, thanks to the house, a great many of our memories are housed, and if the house is a bit elaborate, if it has a cellar and a garret, nooks and corridors, our memories have refuges that are all the more clearly delineated.” The rooms we visit in the virtual architecture of the Infosphere create the virtual house that we decorate with virtual art and furnish with modules of information. The Internet becomes a story, a mixture of fact and fiction, that we add to every time we log on. As Cyberflaneurs we go ‘window’ shopping, admiring the glitz of 3D graphics and on-line video and animation. The potential for discovering new niches and drawers in our cyberhome makes us want to come back. The cyberhome’s cellar is the Multi-User-Dungeon, its main entrances the search catalogues Alta Vista and Infoseek and its emergency exit the ‘disconnect’ button. Its doors are hyperlinks that lead to other rooms, other realities. Sometimes we can’t go any further because the house is ‘under construction’ and sometimes rooms have totally disappeared, leaving only a vague memory -Alvin Toffler’s shock of the ‘missing supermarket’ can now be found on the Web, exemplified by the message “URL not found”. It is not a house but a mansion, and it is constantly metamorphosing. It is alive.

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