Placelessness in Parallel
2019 / 2022
The glass around you shatters as you glide through this infinite space, like a drone ready to exert a pre-emptive strike. Inhabiting plazas of chrome and marble, clinical, anemic trees shift in a cruel air-conditioned breeze. A space that formerly represents to us cleanliness. Vast anesthetic vistas of self, you were a protagonist in an infinitely looping trailer; like an avatar, you became immaterial. Now, this space, supposedly user friendly, intuitive, ever navigable, is a cacophonous maze of wrong-turns.
Rendered clean, crisp and placeless, providing us with a blank slate, a pristine palette through which we enact our most vital sense of self, individualized through consumption, content curation. Deeply moved by the motion of a scroll bar, our physical spaces become increasingly virtual, designed on digital rendering software and augmented with surveillance apparati. Like a screen, these architectures appeal to our eyes alone, silencing the other senses. With ubiquitous heating and air-conditioning units, they lull us into a consistent state of bodily ease.
As if someone used a clone stamp across an entire landscape. Stretching before you is an endless matrix of plazas, data centers, telecommunications networks, highways. Like an entire landscape has been selected and deleted, replaced by a content-aware fill, relying on that which already existed to be reassembled into perpetuity.
But what logics lie behind these aesthetic choices? these placeless parallels that create an endless continuum between a mall plaza, a social media feed, and a 3D rendering interface?
A new, quieter iteration of capitalist imperialism exists in digital environments; fibre-optic cables are run along telegraph infrastructure, tracing colonial trade-routes, privileging prosperous cities in the Global North (Tully). This digital enclosure enables surveillance, behavioral conditioning and data mining, all while relying on exploitative labor practices and the unsustainable extraction of resources.
Fiber optic cables translate data using a process of total internal reflection, where light is shone through a clear medium, hitting a less dense outer boundary at a critical angel and creating refraction, allowing light to internally bounce through the medium.
Broadband distribution too engages in a politics of internal reflection, reflecting existing global a-symmetries by privileging metropolitan areas in Europe and North America with better access. As a result, regions without fiber-optic connections are forced the rely on exponentially more expensive satellite internet which is often far less efficient. Until recent years, densely populated regions such as East Africa did not have any fiber optic cable links (Easterling, 95), while many remote communities in Northern Canada still pay “significantly higher premiums for slower internet” (Galpen).
Most of us are familiar with the rich military history of computing technology and decentralized networks. While its precursors dated back to second world war Brittan, the internet as we know it today originated in the United States during the cold war. ARPANET, created by an oligarchy of white western male scientists in the United states department of defense advanced research.
The body of the computer is a pristine monolith, devoid of sharp edges. A tangle of wires skillfully hidden within a defuse white cube. The desktop design leverages the supposedly “universal” experience of working at a white-collar desk job by employing a visual vocabulary of file folders, postage stamps, clip boards and writing utensils. The early Macintosh desktop computer was made by and for the middle and upper classes in its purposeful designing out the signifiers of precarious labour. An interface many of us now navigate was designed by predominantly white, middle-class cis males who ….“mistake (the) ‘European’ and ‘North American’ for ‘universal” (Austin 113).By upholding linear order, left-to-right reading strategies, hierarchical structure and singular, linear perspectives, web dynamics implicitly reinforce hegemonic power.
This is compounded by the consistent use of hygienic motifs; clean my macbook and virus scans, all reminiscent of the modernist correlation between cleanliness and morality, in the white colonial imagination.
Slick and pure, monotonous in its ability to disappear, to facilitate a-political identity performance; vague, symbolic gestures that lose their form the moment they are uttered.
Citizens become implicated in capitalist structures of reaffirmation, often unknowingly swayed by a logic of submission under the guise of emancipatory participation, self-expression and entrepreneurial initiative.
a functionality that eases
pore-less and slick like glossed marble.
manicured nails swiping across manicured screens
knuckle centipedes, erasing the fingerprints of power
fused with the words on a screen
felt closely, intimately
smooth all my jagged edges?
aching and vacuous
walking horribly, set of crutches fused skeletal legs
arms elongated with acrylic joints
i had already metabolized the glossy white-tiled-strangeness
the narratives of improvement
making skin glossy and clear like the reflection on a screen
auto-tuned to perfectibility (tonality too uneven)
screens flicker cold smiles and rubbery hands
clone stamped-nostrils, blue tinted teeth
(too much Gatorade)
vast, expansive networks; coercion, softly
optimizable and productive fantasies
in well-lit plazas
confronted with an endless void of vacuous white plains,
the stifling promise of infinite choice
blame slides off these surfaces
like oil on water
This is an extrusion of an Instagram news feed, a physicalization based on colour and contrast. The planes and valleys are the contours of your image; this landscape becomes a data visualization.
Even as we explore the back end of social media interfaces we are presented with an aestheticized façade; our statistical data, flattened into a texture that reflects back at us, eluding critique in its personalization.
If hostile architecture is built to design out a certain kind of behavior that is deemed inappropriate or unseemly to those in power, can the term also apply to digital landscapes that are designed to condition a behavior that instead facilitates hegemonic power distributions? Are these anesthetic architectures and interfaces a kind of hostile architecture too, in an inverse way? Rather than overtly punishing certain behavior, they encourage and condition our participation in the flow of consumption.
Surveillance capitalism relies on tenants of violent conquest, recreating architectures of power online to perpetuate logics of capture, extraction, the advantageous misuse of behaviour surplus.
Perplexed by our constant need to aestheticize and unable to articulate a vague, lingering sense of self-exploitation, we lull ourselves back into the infinite loop in the virtual plaza
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