#156: Like a Rolling Stone

One broad narrative about Western urbanism over the past several centuries is that cities have continuously grown cleaner, quieter, and more appealing due to deindustrialization and related developments like containerized shipping, which allowed less palatable activities to move toward the metropolitan periphery. Instead of the smokestacks, docks, and overcrowded tenements that once symbolized the urban landscape, the equivalent images today are glimmering office towers, redeveloped waterfronts, and entertainment districts whose names reference their grimier past. If contemporary cities have become more appealing in general, however, we should ask how evenly that appeal is distributed, and you can probably guess that the answer is “unevenly.” In fact, the very same phenomena that lured the affluent back from the suburbs put new kinds of pressure on other groups: Deindustrialization eliminated broad categories of urban employment opportunities, neoliberal policies from the 1970s onward weakened the social safety net, and gentrification caused urban space itself to be reallocated away from various constituencies in favor of others, sometimes violently. Mike Davis presciently describes a facet of the latter trend in his 1990 book about Los Angeles, City of Quartz: “The American City…is being systematically turned inside out—or, rather, outside in. The valorized spaces of the new megastructures and super-malls are concentrated in the center, street frontage is denuded, public activity is sorted into strictly functional compartments, and circulation is internalized in corridors under the gaze of private police.”

Thirty years later, no issue embodies the contradictions of the post-industrial American city more than homelessness, a problem that seems to grow increasingly visible every year. For many who are accustomed to an arrangement in which undesirable aspects of the urban landscape like heavy industry simply relocate elsewhere, the persistent visibility of homelessness—not its actual existence—seems to be the primary concern. The causes and potential solutions are far too complex for this three-paragraph missive but homelessness is important here because, being inherently centered upon the bodily presence of the people it afflicts, it is inherently difficult to make invisible, despite various efforts to do so (like the draconian interventions Davis describes). Earlier this week, Venkatesh Rao wrote an excellent (paywalled) piece about what he calls “online homelessness,” a condition defined less by the lack of permanent shelter than its psychological ramifications—the way homelessness gradually undermines one’s ability to maintain an integrated identity. Digital homelessness, Rao writes, flourishes in “online zones where, for whatever reasons, psychologically plausible and inhabitable personas have failed to cohere for a significant subset of people.” On a site like Twitter, this manifests itself as a frustrated search for a consistent online presence; on sites like YouTube, homelessness is much more common, as viewers have few tools with which to express themselves. “As YouTube comments sections reveal, it is far too fragmented a space for healthy people to meaningfully inhabit in any persistent way.”

The analogy between real homelessness and its online version is obviously limited in a number of important ways, but both produce a similar desire to avoid the problem or somehow make it invisible. Online, that is much easier to do and the stakes are much lower. Most digital spaces are structured as extreme versions of the landscape that Davis described so vividly in early-’90s LA: Public activity is efficiently compartmentalized, circulation is regimented by a platform’s affordances, and surveillance is built into the very fabric of the environment. Additionally, users themselves have powerful tools to make others disappear completely, ranging from blocking and muting to the feed algorithms themselves. Most importantly, you can always log off and step away from the internet entirely, a privilege that the physical world doesn’t offer, however much we pretend it does. Even in 1990, Davis noted that “the privatization of the architectural public realm…is shadowed by parallel restructurings of electronic space, as heavily policed, pay-access ‘information orders,’ elite databases, and subscription cable services appropriate parts of the invisible agora.” Those technologies have all matured significantly since Davis wrote that, yet surveillance remains a largely academic concern for the affluent in both its digital and physical forms, but for the everyone else, and especially the actual homeless, the risks are more acute. The greatest threat that online homelessness poses is in fact a serious one: making us believe we can effortlessly evade our problems and one another offline.

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This week I wrote about the illusion of lightness in contemporary infrastructure and why losing your iPhone is a greater tragedy than the Suez Canal being blocked for a week.