BY Robin van den Akker in Opinion | 12 MAR 14
Featured in
Issue 161

Bytes & Bricks

How social networks are changing the city

BY Robin van den Akker in Opinion | 12 MAR 14

Esther Polak with Jeroen Kee and Waag Society, Amsterdam RealTime, 2002. Courtesy: the artists.

Around the turn of the millennium, the artist Esther Polak equipped 75 inhabitants of Amsterdam with a gps-enabled tracking device (Amsterdam RealTime, 2002). Over the course of 40 days, the device sent out signals detailing the participants’ whereabouts, which were then displayed as illuminated dots on a large black screen. Over time, as the contours of the city gradually appeared in chiaroscuro, these dots became lines showing the habitual trajectories and occasional divergences of the Amsterdammers taking part. Amsterdam RealTime has become one of the canonical works of the first wave of so-called locative media art, exploring the tension between location as monitored position and as lived space (Christian Nold’s project Emotion Mapping, 2004–ongoing, also comes to mind). What made Polak’s piece so interesting was that it prompted a vague sense of dread at the emergence of yet another means of monitoring our behaviour. Amsterdam RealTime provoked genuine excitement at the technological possibilities offered by what we have since come to term smartphones.

Fast-forward a little over a decade, and this sense of awe has been completely lost. Smartphones have become as ubiquitous as they have become banal. While some of us may still have mixed feelings about the trade-off between what used to be private data and the marvels of apps that can show us the whereabouts of our friends, the location of the nearest whiskey bar or even the mood of an entire city block, most of us have already happily accepted that giving up our privacy is part of the bargain. Over the years, for the purposes of academic research, I have conducted dozens of interviews with smartphone users – from digital illiterates to tech geeks, from teenage girls to gay men – and, without exception, each of them accepted this technology as a fact of life.

In the intervening years, smartphone users have been putting the possibilities of mobile- and location-based social networks, games and services to very creative use. Polak’s Amsterdam RealTime confirmed the longstanding insight that we are creatures of habit. Yet, apps such as Foursquare, Find My Friends and Grindr, in addition to the more ‘conventional’ ones such as Facebook and Twitter, are enabling users to browse the cityscape for, or be alerted to, interesting people, places or activities that happen to be just around the corner – the corner you might never normally have turned. In London, I spoke to users of Grindr, which has entered the popular imagination as a hook-up app for gay cruisers. Yet, the ways in which these men have incorporated Grindr into their everyday lives is varied. The app, which can be likened to a radar displaying the profiles of, and the distances to, other Grindr-ers, has enabled them to forge a wide range of social relationships in real life – neighbourliness, friendship and love, as well as sex – with people who were once random strangers flashing up on their screens. Sitting on a bus, for example, they would use the app like a giant fishing net they could drag across the area of town they were in to source interesting-looking profiles for the purposes of chatting or dating (in which case they would file the profile under favourites), or cruising (in which case they would quickly get off the bus for their liaison). On another day, however, they might simply discover that their next-door neighbour is a very nice guy.

While Grindr offers the possibility of meeting new people based on shared interests, other apps exist that serve the opposite function. For a couple of years, I studied a group of ten teenagers who had been lifelong friends but who had subsequently moved from the same suburban high school to attend different universities. To keep the social fabric of their group intact while they pursued their new routines, they shared details of their lives with each other on a near-constant basis using the messaging service WhatsApp, sending out roughly 150 messages a day each. By describing every other moment of their lives, these teenagers created a kind of ‘ambient awareness’ – to adopt the term coined by internet critic Clive Thompson – of the whereabouts, thoughts and feelings of each member of what must have seemed to them to be their own little group of exiles scattered across a close-range, urban diaspora.

All of these examples show that the smartphone is not only dramatically changing our social environment, but also how we move through our physical surroundings. An app such as Foursquare enables users to share their location with friends so they can more easily meet up – as well as providing them with a means of carefully constructing the ‘online’ version of their spatial identity. It also allows them to map the physical environment with semiotic layers of popular knowledge, such as critical reviews, practical tips or poetic observations. The Foursquare app brings us closest to what it might be like to walk through a city in the near future by constantly sending users notifications alerting them to the presence and preferences of people who are ‘close’ to them: friends, users with similar profiles and fellow commuters who travel the same daily route. Foursquare persistently shifts your attention, foregrounding what normally would have been in the distant background.

In his classic essay ‘On Some Motifs in Baudelaire’ (1939), Walter Benjamin mused on the shock of the urban experience, arguing that our consciousness is constantly bombarded in the city by stimuli that we cannot process because they simply don’t make sense to us. Nowadays, of course, we can filter them with the apps on our smartphones. Indeed, a 21st-century app developer might say that we’ve outsourced this cognitive capacity to software that filters the urban environment for data with personal relevance. The paradoxical effect of this new urban experience, in which we travel through a hybrid space composed of bytes and bricks, is that we are now forced to process the stimuli bombarding our senses. The social scientist Sherry Turkle, among others, has argued that this has created a state of permanent distraction which undermines our ability to engage in genuine human contact or to hold a proper conversation. To older generations of readers more accustomed to print media, this may indeed appear to be the case. Yet today’s young people seem increasingly well equipped to navigate this hybrid space. I recently observed a large group of teenagers sitting on a terrace in the sun, phones glued to their hands. Attention constantly shifted from the screens of their smartphones to the friends sitting around the table. Their thumbs continuously updated statuses and posted pictures, but they had no problem adding to the conversation well-timed, meaningful remarks – on anything from the latest pop stars to cheating boyfriends. Their phones simply enlarged their environment, increasing the number of conversation partners and providing relevant information when required. The phones, in fact, were part of the group.

Robin van der Akker is Lecturer in Continental Philosophy and Cultural Studies at Erasmus University, Rotterdam, the Netherlands. He is co-editor of Metamodernism: Historicity, Affect, Depth (forthcoming June 2017).