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Gut of the Quantifier
In a recent issue of the excellent Vittles newsletter, Jonathan Nunn wrote about the decline of the restaurant review and its replacement by the restaurant map: “In the last decade, Anglophone food media has seen the review decline and the map rise as the form through which most restaurant writing is mediated.” This shift, Nunn writes, is partially a result of declining budgets, as well as the internet’s democratization of taste. “Now, every restaurant website…has to relentlessly produce these maps, lists, and guides to survive. The review is too discursive, too expensive to produce, written by people who demand to be paid properly. Far better to shop it all out to a freelancer who can Google a bunch of stuff and stitch it together without context.” Of course, these restaurant maps are also the natural result of the technology that mediates our engagement with the world—the map has been our primary interface for finding restaurants since the dawn of the iPhone era, with Yelp and Foursquare paving the way for a more diverse array of recommendation apps (Google Maps has also fundamentally transformed our relationship to urban geography, making maps more central to everyday life, even on familiar turf). The restaurant map’s appeal is undeniable, but Nunn points out that it has also accompanied a degradation in writing quality and a loss of context.
Although we may still pretend otherwise, the internet is no longer able to provide information about the world without also shaping it in increasingly fundamental ways (to the extent that the internet and “the world” are even separate at all). Nunn notes how maps “visualise what is central and what is peripheral to culture, how they have been used to claim, circle and enclose land.” Maps are a way of making the illegible more legible to a broader audience, and while this is not inherently good or bad on its own—many restaurants obviously welcome the attention and business—in practice it often comes at the expense of the most local constituency, for whom the original illegibility was never a problem. In short, Nunn writes, “these maps are rarely written for the benefit of locals.” As a content type, moreover, restaurant maps can easily become checklists or urban scavenger hunts, content queues that run parallel to our open browser tabs and Netflix shows and podcast episodes, imploring us to “catch up.” In a recent issue of the Dirt newsletter, Terry Nguyen catalogs an emergent crop of apps that facilitate in-person meetups (“more like Tinder than Twitter”), speculating that “the future of social looks more like an IRL playground than a scrollable feed.” Given the inversion of the digital-physical influence arrow, there is a corresponding risk that IRL life will instead become more like a scrollable feed.
The internet is increasingly a set of protocols* for distributing people in physical space (among its countless other functions). That maps that Nunn describes are one such protocol, opening up new territory for smoother access in a global marketplace. Heightened consumer awareness of supply chains and the rise of e-commerce conceal the awkward fact that we are being guided toward our destinations as efficiently as our packages, increasingly optimized for this digital supply chain like shipping containers. In my last post, I described the rise of the urban NPC, referencing Sarah Schulman’s observation that new gentrifying businesses “would open one day and be immediately packed, as though the yuppies were waiting in holding pens to be transported en masse to new, ugly, expensive places.” Her hypothesis is truer now than when she wrote it a decade ago. In 2016, the impact of Pokémon Go on public space seemed novel, routing throngs of gamers into previously empty park edges and liminal spaces, but today that same logic pervades many categories of urban experience, from dining to retail to entertainment, with similarly inscrutable lines wrapping around blocks and crowds suddenly popping up anywhere, all guided by the invisible hand of virality—a recent recommendation made to a huge online audience, or just an effective corporate marketing campaign. A TikTok real estate influencer has recently convinced hundreds of people to move to Peoria, Illinois. In the ‘00s, people formed flash mobs as a whimsical experiment enabled by new technology; now we form flash mobs because we have no choice.
*Starting next month, I’m going to be part of the Summer of Protocols researcher cohort, working with an excellent group to expand the definition of protocols and better understand what they actually are. My research will focus on themes I’ve been developing here—the protocols that underpin cities and public spaces in the digital age. Stay tuned for more!
Here’s an essay I wrote for design agency Modem Works, speculating about augmented reality as an interface for physical reality and the future of AR eyewear as “the material symbol of collaborative human-machine vision.”
Also last week, I appeared on a brief segment of NPR’s All Things Considered, talking about being addicted to Twitter and why I’ll probably stick around as it gets worse.
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