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||| a drifters guide to physical and virtual urban space [part 1] |||
Graeme Murrell

||| [part 1] ||| [part 2] ||| [part 3] ||| [part 4] |||
On 6th June 2001 an article entitled 'Big Four Dominate Web' appeared on BBC News Online that referred to research indicating that Internet surfers were spending their time on a decreasing number of sites 1. The research, by analyst firm Jupiter Media Metrix, suggested that 50% of time spent online was occupied by visits to websites operated by four corporations. The figure had dropped from eleven since 1999. Further evidence of media consolidation was indicated by figures over the same period that pointed to a drop from 110 to 14 sites accounting for 60% of visits.

The terminology of both the BBC article and Jupiter's research is couched in the lexicon of business language that increasingly dominates the narrative of online space. Both fuse familiar discourse about mergers and acquisitions with economic newspeak. Advertising and media hype have conspired to present the Internet as digital prosthesis of the global economic order. The corporations and media conglomerates that have consolidated their presence in the online economic environment have done so both in response to this predominant narrative and in order to perpetuate it. In successfully attracting a majority of Internet users to their sites they have created virtual mainstream space. The connected public finds itself regularly engaging in the same activities in the same spaces, becomes familiar with those spaces and accepting of them. Corporate consolidation of online services in recognised places has formed a collective hub, which can be considered to form a digital town centre. Both are collections of networked spaces that provide predominantly economic mainstream services and are generally utilised by the public on a regular basis. The digital prosthesis holds up a virtual mirror to the spatial loci of consumption that are familiar in the physical environment.

Whilst the metaphor of town centre describes spatial and utilitarian similarities defined by economic language, it is also useful when considering other narratives that describe shared urban space. Two aspects of physical town centres are of particular interest: the existence, usage and enjoyment of public space; and the multiple, often unexpected, tangential uses to which urban space is subjected. The predominant economic narrative is punctuated by many others that may intersect in acceptable ways, question, oppose, avoid or play with it. In Society of the Spectacle (1967) Guy Debord defined this dominant economic ideology as spectacular and the mental environment it perpetuates as the spectacle 2. Spectacular society, based upon commodity fetishism and representation of culture in favour of lived experience, seeks to predefine individual behaviour in accommodation with its ideology. The spectacle isolates individualism and replaces it with consumerism. Recognising that the existence of public space renders the spectacle porous, Debord and the Situationist movement sought to play with urban space in interesting and creative ways 3. Beginning in the 1950's, playful Situationist occupation of spectacular space was manifested through a number of experimental techniques that stressed the relationship between events, the environment and participants. The pseudo-science of psychogeography was created to study the results 4. Situationist play was conceived as a revolutionary counter to the spectacle. It explicitly stated that the relationship between the individual and urban space is not tightly defined by commodity culture. It is mutable. One can drift through and relate to urban space in many creative ways.
The spectacle is the self portrait of the economy. Naturally, an information-based economy will create a digital self portrait. That self portrait is cyberspace.
Greg Van Alstyne (1994), 'Cyberspace and the Lonely Crowd'
Greg Van Alstyne applied Debord's critique to the Internet in 1994, presaging its current corporate transformation into virtual commercial space. It seemed appropriate to relate the commodified relationship between the individual and physical space to the online "planet-wide network of existing and promised digital commodities, services and environments" 5. Since then, the consolidation of an online mainstream akin to the urban centre is now much more indicative of the spectacle. The same questions can be raised about individual freedom within a dominant economic agenda, the ability to drift enjoyably through digital architecture and the potential for tangential play. Situationist methodology and terminology can be mapped from physical to virtual spectacular space in order to expose common issues, points of similarity and difference.

There are three further instalments of this piece. The intention is to refer to Situationist criteria while exploring the physical and virtual nature of the corporate agenda, to what extent it successfully dictates social narrative and what types of behaviour elude its embrace. Physical and virtual planes are treated as potential social spaces throughout, with reference to spatial metaphors and discussion of usage of space.

The city centre: commodified space as Situationist playground discusses the physical town centre, its social potential and suggests methods of playful interaction that make it vibrant and lively.

Digital mainstream space is discussed in The digital mainstream: drifting through the virtual shopping mall. It is presented as the apotheosis of spectacle, virtual corporate hegemony. The architecture of virtual spaces and its social implications tend to be discussed with reference to other online places, such as chat rooms and experimental three-dimensional spaces which have sociable intent. The digital mainstream is an attempt to relate the shape of mainstream digital space to its domination by corporate interests, suggesting that playful and creative enjoyment is enclosed by such domination.

Finally, Using the interface to enhance everyday life: Internet urbanism, digital commons, smart spaces suggests some alternatives to online economic monoculture, both in terms of ways of seeing and potential for progression. While Situationism often focuses on the negative nature and implications of the spectacle, it is its appeal to positive action in response that colours these suggestions. The objective is to suggest positive ways in which mainstream digital space can improve everyday life. Treading a middle ground between technophobia and technophilia, it is an attempt to suggest appropriate technology without necessarily accepting the discoloured agenda offered by corporate interests.

||| [part 1] ||| [part 2] ||| [part 3] ||| [part 4] |||

1. Mark Ward (2001), 'Big Four Dominate Web'

2. Guy Debord (1967), Society of the Spectacle, Black & Red

3. Situationist International (1958), 'Definitions'

4. Guy Debord (1955), 'Introduction to a Critique of Urban Geography'

5. Greg Van Alstyne (1994), 'Cyberspace and the Lonely Crowd'

Middlesbrough Institue of Modern Art

Middlesbrough Institue of Modern Art
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