Oct 3, 2012
This is the first part of a textual reconstruction of the talk I gave on Benjamin at SUNY Albany.
1.The Death of the Cyberflâneur
In February 2012 Evgeny Morozov’s published an opinion piece in the New York Times entitled, “The Death of the Cyberflâneur.” Evgeny Morozov is a researcher and critic who wrote a book, The Net Delusion, in which he calls into question the cyber-utopian tendency to see an inherently liberating power in the web and social media.
With an eye sensitive to decline (Verfall) and the darker side of things, Morozov lamented in the Times the lost days when one would go on the web to “surf” and explore a sometimes surprising, even shocking world. Those were the days, in his view, of the cyberflâneur, the digital doppelgänger of the Parisian flâneur.
Today, he claimed, the web had found its Haussmann in the figure of Mark Zuckerberg. Facebook, according to Morozov, had brought an end to cyberflänerie. Facebook is essentially an infinitely extensible couch where we sit with our friends, exchanging photographs and found objects, texting, and commenting on the shows we’re watching. Facebook is the bourgeois interior realized in cyberspace and, hence, the grave of the cyberflâneur. After all, you can’t be a flâneur if you never leave the house.
Although a domestic space, however, Facebook is also thoroughly commercialized. We are targeted with ads based on our whims and inclinations and Facebook has also made it possible for our likes to be incorporated into ads targeting our friends. If they are shown an ad for Zappos, for example, then, unless you have adjusted your privacy settings, that ad could be accompanied by one of advertising’s most coveted endorsements: the recommendation of a trusted person.
Benjamin, who saw the “sandwich-board man” as the final incarnation of the flâneur, wrote, “The flâneur sabotages traffic. He is not a buyer. He is a commodity.” Unwilling or unable to support commercial interests with his money, he ends up doing so with his body (which, in Benjamin’s view made him akin to the whore).
This fate mirrors that of the contemporary Facebook “friend.” As they say in the social media marketing world, “If the service is free, then you are the product.” Facebook’s business consists almost exclusively in selling access to an aggregated audience. We, the Facebook users, are that audience and thus what Facebook brings to market (although the market has been taking a dim view of this ware’s actual value).
Facebook fosters and completes the micro-commoditization of human consciousness.
2. Incipit Twitter
While I agree with Morozov that, at least on Facebook, which Wharton’s Peter Fader referred to as “a wasteland of meaningless crap,” the cyberlâneur has died (or is dying), there is another social platform where cyberflânerie still flourishes: Twitter.
I say it flourishes there because I consider myself a cyberflâneur and the “place” of my flânerie is Twitter. What makes Twitter a “flânerie-able” locale is it’s status as “street,” which is exactly how William Gibson has characterized it, saying, “Twitter actually feels like the street. You can bump into anybody on Twitter.”
The traditional flâneur maintained the paradoxical position of a public privacy. Although out there “on the street,” the flâneur was, at the same time, monadically lost within himself, his privacy maintained by the unobserved anonymity he perpetually sought (Benjamin highlights this paradox by pointing out that, while hidden (Verborgen) the flâneur was also a suspicious character and continuously subject to police scrutiny).
On Twitter we encounter a hyper-refinement of the flâneur in that, as cyber-flâneurs on Twitter, we are not window-shopping or people-watching so much as browsing the interiority of other flâneurs. This was captured in a recent exchange between @aardvarkwizard and @scrublord, in which the former wrote: “aside from obvious gimmick accounts etc twitter is p stream of consciousness, it’s literally designed for you to be yourself”.
@aardvarkwizard also points out in this exchange that, on Twitter, you can have “any level of anonymity you choose.” This is crucial. In his essay, Morozov highlights Zygmunt Bauman’s assertion that the anonymity coveted by the flâneur is removed by Facebook, where you need to be friends (or a friend of a friend) in order to observe others. (Facebook also reportedly is moving in the direction of including your Facebook searches in your activity log, thus allowing every old girlfriend to know you’ve been looking them up.) On Twitter, thanks to the search function and the fact that so few people protect their accounts, you can potentially eavesdrop on anyone’s timeline without revealing that you are doing so.
Twitter’s preservation of anonymity makes it street-like; you can be a stranger in a public space more easily than in a private one (try as you may, it is difficult to be anonymous sitting, as I have suggested, on a couch in someone’s living room). It is also preciseely what has made Twitter home to “professional conspirators,” political activists and even criminals. (I will return to this in a later installment.)
Next up: Benjamin on Twitter, Part 2