- Mobility, Portability, and Placelessness
Introduction: A Danger of Electronically Mediated Experience
A few months ago I was sitting in a Chicago airport, waiting to make my connecting flight. Everywhere I looked, people were talking on cell phones, but the man across from me had gone one better. He had a cell phone and a laptop computer. He was talking on a conference call with two people who were at two different locations as they edited a document that appeared on his laptop. It was a contract that they would soon e-mail to yet a fourth individual for her agreement. In the midst of the conferring, the man across from me broke from the contract to look up something on an Internet Web site. He was able to access data that was needed for the contract work. There is no doubt something astonishing and wondrous about four people hooked up, converging on a document that exists—well, where? Nowhere yet, except in that fanciful ether called cyberspace. Although we need to describe this dimension in familiar language, we realize that the term is just a metaphor. There is no space in cyberspace and no time either for that matter.
The portability of information, documentation, and communication enabled the man in the airport to work with people in different places to edit a contract that they would then electronically send to a fourth person. The portability facilitated the individual's mobility since he did not have to be in a particular location to create the document and discuss it with others. The man could have been anywhere. He just happened to be in an airport. But the fact that he, and presumably his colleagues as well, could have been in a car or a park, at home or in a restaurant, rendered the actual place in which he worked—the airport—irrelevant. He did not have to pay attention to his physical environment and probably did not wish to. He was absorbed in his electronically fabricated environment comprised of information, voices, and documents. [End Page 38]
As such activity becomes more commonplace, this man and the rest of us become detached from our physical surroundings. When these environments become irrelevant to what we are doing, they will lose meaning for us and we will cease to inhabit them in any meaningful way. Anywhere is nowhere. Obviously, the electronic age of cyberspace provides enormous benefits, and I do not wish to minimize its advantages or seem overly pessimistic. Rather, I wish to call attention to what we risk losing in the hope that awareness of what is at stake can forestall the loss. Just as over-reliance on air travel can undermine our sense of movement through space and the aesthetic of such movement, so too can over-reliance on virtual, electronic connections erode our connection to actual physical places. The more electronically mediated activity replaces place, the more we become dis-placed.
In what follows I sketch three dimensions of loss that accompany this exciting new electronic connectedness. With loss of place, with placelessness, we are deprived of the aesthetic experiences particular places provide. Second, we lose touch—with our bodies and other people. Last, we lose a sense of place altogether. Our entire way of being in the world may undergo such a radical change that we foreclose important aspects of our humanity and with it corresponding aesthetic appreciations.
Electronic Displacement, Traditional Distance Communication, and Previous Revolutions in Mobility
Several years ago I wrote about the loss of distinctive places as a result of homogeneity in architecture. The sameness of design in restaurants, motels, sport stadiums, homes, and malls yielded a loss of regionality and locality in our built environment. But these were the result of changes within a pervasive dimension of life—architecture or the built environment. Even if the restaurant, motel, or mall looked the same as others, we nevertheless were functioning within a recognizable spatio-temporal frame. We were aware of it as such and even took some comfort in the familiarity. Americans especially liked the idea of no surprises: the Holiday Inn in Topeka, Kansas, looked and felt and smelled the same as...