Wikimedia Commons

Maybe. Or perhaps it's the other way around.

At The Aporetic, a provocative post raises a vital question: Are our undifferentiated and anonymous public spaces a response to the ubiquity of cell phones -- or is it the other way around? Have cell phones become ubiquitous in part because of the featurelessness of our public spaces?

The post, written by the über-thoughtful uninomial Mike (who notes that he is one of our society's Great Holdouts -- he doesn't have a cell phone), seems to opt for the former, because it is built around the concept of "cell-phone subjectivity":

The architecture of the landline era was ordered and hierarchical: arrive here/go there/wait here. There were reception desks, ticket booths, clocks, doormen, statues; places that and landmarked and ordered space. Cell phone subjectivity disregards that hierarchy and order.

Consider a modern airport, which is architecturally hostile to prearranged meetings: Washington's Dulles airport is an excellent example. Passengers get dumped out at random undifferentiated doorways, in a long concourse of repeated equally undifferentiated features. You can't really ask someone to meet you at "whatever that nameless and faceless chain coffee shop is that about three quarters of the way down from the international arrivals." There's no obvious rendezvous spot.

And who needs one? Cell phone subjectivity is based on the idea that the person arriving will call you when he lands, and you'll both update each other until you come within mutual visual range. Or better yet, you will wait in your car, and they'll call you as they are leaving the building. There's no need at all for a grand, landmarked social space. The architecture of the cell phone is dispersed, placeless and oddly uniform.

Thumbnail image for mt-11_interior_space.jpg

An airport in Washington, D.C. Courtesy of MetWashAirports

All very thought-provoking -- but doesn't Mike have the causal direction reversed? After all, featureless public spaces like Dulles Airport pre-date the cell phone era by some decades. Might cell phones have become so ubiquitous at least in part because they help us to orient ourselves to spaces that, in their endless repetition of national and international chain retailers, transform America into Generica and leave us too few unique identifiers of where we are in the universe? In Generica, cell phones orient us primarily not to place but to one another -- which, perhaps, and to be fair, has its benefits.

Some years ago the architect and architectural theorist Rem Koolhaas commented that culture changes faster than architecture: "Any architectural project we do takes at least four or five years, so increasingly there is a discrepancy between the acceleration of culture and the continuing slowness of architecture." This is surely true, but the stability, the immovability, of built environments require that we adjust to them long after we might want to do something else. Perhaps, then, what Mike calls "cell-phone subjectivity" is really "airport subjectivity." And I wonder whether we can, or even want to, create public spaces that we can navigate without reference to our cell phones.

Top image: Before cell phones, travelers would agree to rendezvous beneath Grand Central's famous clock. (Wikimedia Commons)

This post originally appeared on The Atlantic.

About the Author

Most Popular

  1. Design

    The Curious Politics of a Montreal Mega-Mall

    The car-dependent suburb it’ll be built in wants to greenlight Royalmount against the city government’s wishes but it needs them to pay for the public infrastructure.

  2. Design

    A History of the American Public Library

    A visual exploration of how a critical piece of social infrastructure came to be.

  3. Multicolored maps of Los Angeles, San Francisco, and Tampa, denoting neighborhood fragmentation
    Equity

    Urban Neighborhoods, Once Distinct by Race and Class, Are Blurring

    Yet in cities, affluent white neighborhoods and high-poverty black ones are outliers, resisting the fragmentation shown with other types of neighborhoods.

  4. Design

    There’s a Tile Theft Epidemic in Lisbon

    With a single azulejo fetching hundreds of euros at the city’s more reputable antique stores, these tiles, sitting there out in the open, are easy pickings.

  5. Equity

    Capturing Black Bottom, a Detroit Neighborhood Lost to Urban Renewal

    “Black Bottom Street View,” now exhibiting at the Detroit Public Library, thoughtfully displays old images of the historic African American neighborhood in its final days.