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DRIVE TIME


This Thanksgiving, I, like many of you, will be on the road, driving to see family and hoping to arrive at a socially acceptable interval before the turkey is carved.

SeeingJean Baudrillard’s imperious visage peering out from the Sunday Times Magazine this past weekend (“France is a byproduct of American culture,” he said. “We are all in this; we are globalized.”) and thinking about that long drive reminded me of an old essay of his in Hal Foster’s The Anti-Aesthetic, which was kind of a po-mo bible during my college years. He writes about the automobile and the shift in our concept of driving from one of psychological projection to one of bio-mechanical symbiosis: “The vehicle now becomes a kind of capsule, its dashboard the brain, the surrounding landscape unfolding like a televised screen.”

For the contemporary flaneur, the modern cityscape is also being transformed into a landscape of screens. Tom Vanderbilt has a great article in Artforum about the role of digital display screens in modern urban architecture. “As the glass-curtain wall was to modernism, the screen is becoming the iconic facade of the digital age,” he writes.

Vanderbilt’s essay references the ’80s futurism of Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner to describe what screens used to do in the futuristic city:

“The screen, along with the skyscraper, has for some time been one of the particular features of Asian modernity. The screen-centric vision of Los Angeles famously depicted by Ridley Scott in Blade Runner (1982) was, the director has noted, inspired by his time in 1960s Hong Kong, a paradoxical city whose pulsating electronic skyline overlooked a harbor, as Scott has described, filled with nineteenth-century fishing junks. But those screens were merely static vehicles for the transmission of commercial messages, mechanical upgrades of an older public-advertising tradition. What is most interesting about the screens I found in Seoul was that they were not merely architectural appendages broadcasting messages but architecture itself; not simply vehicles for delivering one-way information to a passive public but an active layer of the city’s matrices of networks. To stand on a street was to stand on a street of a hundred screens, and by ‘screens’ I mean the external manifestation — the collective user-interface — of the unseen digital flow pulsing down that same street, invisible but as much a part of the city experience as the concrete of the sidewalks.”

As the essay progresses, Vanderbilt proposes that the bricks-and-mortar city the virtual world is presumed destined to replace may actually be a more robust creature than we had thought:

“The irony of the city of screens is that the screen itself was supposed to make the city obsolete: The World Wide Web would become a kind of metaurban nonplace, the computer screen our constant interface with this locationless, 24-7 realm. And yet, as [William J.] Mitchell writes: ‘Contrary to once-popular expectation, however, ubiquitous digital networking has not simply ironed out the differences among places, allowing anything to happen anywhere, anytime. Instead, it has provided a mechanism for the continual injection of useful information into contexts where it was once inaccessible, and where it adds a new layer of meaning.’ In other words, the city and screen have fused, each informing the other…. The screen does not so much kill the city as absorb it.”

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