A major influence early on my project was reading an essay by Georg Simmel (1858-1918) called “The Metropolis and Mental Life” (1903). Simmel belonged to the thriving intelligentsia that existed in the Weimar Republic period in Germany, and his work studied the philosophical and psychological implications of the mass urbanization that was occurring at the time.
Despite his ideas being written in a time when the very notion of digital communication was purest science fiction, I found that his writing and subject matter involved studying the early stages of the birth of the metropolis as we know it, and as such, the natural home of the mobile phone. I decided to see if I could bring some of his ideas into a contemporary context, and apply them to the world of digital technology.One of the most interesting aspects that Simmel wrote about was in relation to the heightened amount of consciousness in relation to living in modern cities, versus living in rural communities.
This was an important distinction, and one that I feel carries even more weight today. Whereas in rural communities, or even suburban communities nowadays, people tend to follow a more relaxed pace of life, and tend to have more a more habitual structure to their day, life within a city demands even more focus from the individual, due to its constantly changing nature. We are forced to evaluate each new change that comes our way, and this leads to people being less likely to merely take situations at face value, and more likely to be more calculating and analytical about each and every thing that comes our way. Simmel compares this to using your head instead of your heart.
This is undoubtedly more stressful for the individual, as there is no longer and room for merely reacting with gut instinct, everything has to be calculated using cold intellect.
But it is not only the urban environment that subjects us to a greater amount of stimuli, but the very nature of modern living. We are permanently connected to a mobile phone, speaking to people on MSN or checking our e-mail on the move. There seems to be a trend in industrial electronic design towards always making communications smaller and more portable. Whilst there is nothing wrong with this, there has been very little consideration into what effects this has on people within the urban environment. The majority of people will have been annoyed at one point in their life by someone who spends more time on their phone than talking to you within a social situation.
It was whilst researching this subject that I came upon Paul Goldberger’s article, ”Disconnected Urbanism”. The essay looks at the erosion of the cultural atmosphere of particular places due to people being distracted by the constant presence of the mobile phone.
I was interested in the crossover of Simmel and Goldberger’s ideas.
Simmel laid out the reasons for urban isolation in big cities; separated from the established moral codes of ‘back home’, its possible to get caught up in the bright lights and distractions of the big city. However, I was interested in what happens when the bright lights and distractions are part of your understanding of life, part of the moral code your everyday? Mobile communication takes this feeling of space and place away. Could the mobile phone be yet another erosion of this familiarity with the space you are in?
My uncle mentioned that some New Yorkers believed the street was a quieter less vibrant place since the widespread adoption of the mobile phone. There is a loss of the feeling of shared experience that really was the definition of ‘public’. Goldberger is also critical of this.
It is interesting to note this, as its apparent that many people haven’t really missed this sense of community, instead relishing the apparent privacy that digital communication has offered. It was around this time I was reading several books by the fiction author J.G. Ballard. Ballard has always interested me, the hyper-real worlds he creates being a kind of critical design in itself: drawing upon one theme of modern life then hyperbolising its symptoms and effect until it becomes impossible to disregard. Through Ballard’s books, I got interested in Gated Communities, such as those in suburban Britain, and the British holiday retreats in the south of Spain. In the books, the residents of these places are always glued to the television, with visitors to the middle class fortresses always being scrutinised by security guards and CCTV cameras.
In Ballard’s world it is always the job of the brave/visionary/criminal/insane (delete as appropriate) protagonist to wake up the denizens of these places, to alert them to the things going on around them. Once again, this left me questioning whether we have truly questioned what we stand to lose by the adoption of technology lead convenience.
It was through reading up on these that I came up with my initial research focuses:
However, each of these could have been the basis for an individual project. I decided to focus on the loss of community aspect. However, later on in the project it became clear that each of the topics bled into each other to a certain extent, and I found myself once again re-examining the role of the mobile phone in removing the sense of individuality.