The Non Place

Photo credit: Ayesha Islam

Photo credit: Ayesha Islam

There was a time when people explored cities with just an eye and a notebook or perhaps, even a camera. Today, however, explorers are more keen to remove themselves from their immediate surroundings and mediate the world through a digital interface. Consider this paragraph from Kazys Varnelis’s Networked Place,

“You’re in the café with your Moleskine notebook—a non-networked object ubiquitous among the digerati—trying to start an essay on the role of place in network culture and finding that the only way forward is to detach yourself from the network as much as possible. But the people surrounding you have other ideas. The man behind you is trying to commit himself more deeply to the network, purchasing a plan that will allow him to talk on his mobile phone for one-tenth of his waking hours every month. A woman next to you is browsing the Internet with her laptop, a late-career executive is thumbing his Blackberry,two students are studying together, and some teenagers are hanging out listening to music on their iPhones. While one texts her friends, the other downloads music from the iTunes store. A thirtysomething man is on his laptop working on a screenplay, while a few people are just reading books or the paper. You are all somehow drawn together by the lure of the generic (but branded) caffeinated beverage and the desire to share a similarly generic, but nonetheless communal, space with other humans with whom you are likely not to have any direct interaction.”

How has technology changed our cities? By converting them into non-places.

In her book, “The Death and Life of Great American Cities”, Jane Jacobs links the collapse of the public sphere to the lack of “architectural infrastructure” that encourages face to face interaction. What we have today are a profusion of transitory places – malls, supermarkets, airports, hotels, restaurants, cafes, modes of transport – purposeful, commodified and mediated by text rather than speech. Otherwise called the Non Place

Photo credit: Dilwin Kaur

Photo credit: Dilwin Kaur

Each place or (non-place) requires a certain protocol of behaviour, which minimizes interaction with strangers. Take the airport, for instance. After you’ve traveled once, the protocol becomes familiar. If you’re lost, look for the signs that lead you to where you want to go. Your identity is checked once when you enter and once when you leave. The airport is the perfect embodiment of the non place.

Coined by Marc Auge, and explained in this video about “Architecture and the Non Place” the non place is the most significant aspect of supermodernity. While places are created through identity and memory, are finished and ordered, non places are distinguished by the fact that they’re constantly changing, are created to meet a certain end, they’re mediated by text and are governed by spectacle (Auge, M (1995) From Place to Non Place. Non-Places Introduction to an Anthropology of Supermodernity”, London: Verso)

As Auge says, “it creates the image, produces the myth and at the same stroke makes it work”.

Today, most cities of the world build “sights” for the explicit purpose of attracting people to enjoy them for a brief periods of time. Their marketing machines go into overdrive, giving rise to a proliferation of literature that together produce the myth of the city. The experience of the city is then packaged as a product and sold to be consumed in a particular way. Today the world is a an interconnected network of non places.

The drawback of this whole operation is the inability of places to shake off the myth created so aggressively by their tourist offices. Even inhabitants of cities that are market aggressively, buy into this image and, in the process lose a deeper, more meaningful engagement with the city and its inhabitants. Interaction become purposeful and driven by expectation.Cities are now consumed and used like products to meet certain ends.

Photo credit: Marwa Chihab

Photo credit: Marwa Chihab

On the flip side, the confluence of globalization and the technology enabled networked economy that brings to life the non place, can also give rise to “place” in the most unexpected way. Like in this fantastic  TED talk by photographer Iwan Baan, “Ingenious homes in Unexpected Places”, he documents the lives of people who took over an abandoned high rise tower in Caracas, Venuzvela and how through ingenuity, creativity and a little hacking, have made it their home. In another Ted Talk, Robert Neuwirth talks about “Shadow Cities”, or squatter sites in which more than a billion people live.

Do you unconsciously endorse the non place? Are you ready to break out of structure and discover something truly unique about the city you live in and yourself?

Go for a drift today!

 

The Travelogue

Photo credit: Ayesha Islam

Photo credit: Ayesha Islam

Cities were first described in travelogues. Accounts of journeys were recorded as early as the 2nd century, when Pausanias, a native of the ancient city of Lydia undertook an expedition of Greece.

Several travel accounts or  “Rihla” which is Arabic for “Journey” were undertaken by prominent Muslim geographers and writers. The most important among them being Abu Jubayr and Ibn Battuta.

Photo credit: Ayesha Islam

Photo credit: Ayesha Islam

Abu Jubayr was a resident of Granada who accompanied the Muslim army of the Caliphate of Damascus to quell a Berber uprising in the area. He undertook a pilgrimage to Mecca which he chronicled in his “Rihla”, one the earliest pieces of travel writing available. Abu Jubayr’s journey takes him through Saladin’s Ayubbid kingdom which at the height of its power, included Egypt, Syria, Iraq, parts of Turkey and Iran, Kuwait, western Saudi Arabia, Yemen and parts of North Africa.

Ibn Battuta, often said to be one of the greatest travelers ever,  whose life and journey is chronicled in our local Ibn Battuta Mall, undertook a journey that spanned 30 years. He journeyed from Morocco, across Northern Africa into Somalia, stopped at Mecca for a while, and continued into Persia, India and China.

Consequently, travel writing became increasing linked to pleasure trips, the earliest account being Italian poet Petrarch’s account of his climb of Mount Ventoux.

John Eade, in his book, “Placing London: From Imperial Capital to Global City” often likens the traveler to an explorer, who has to “construct a narrative that will make this strange place familiar to the reader”. Travel writing allowed the reader to form impressions of a place, without ever leaving home. As travel became more and more affordable, the “guide book” became more popular. The birth of the tourism “industry”  warranted investment in a plethora of literature that allows the visitor to feel like he’s undertaking a journey unlike any other, much like the explorers of the past!

How travel has changed!

Photo credit: Ayesha Islam

Photo credit: Ayesha Islam

Once thought to be an adventurous undertaking, today the travel experience comes in a customized, carefully crafted, time bound, plug and play box which requires no effort, no research and no surprises.  In an increasingly globalized world, our conversations while on holiday  with “local” people might be restricted to hotel staff and tour guides who might be foreign themselves. We stay in hotels that make us feel “at home”, eat food which aren’t too unfamiliar to our own, and check off  “must see” sights which could include well rehearsed cultural programmes which give us just the right dose “of the local experience”.

To counter this growing commodification of the travel experience is the urban “drift” or “derive”. It is possible to experience uniqueness even in the most familiar neighbourhoods. Click here for a primer.