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Nonplaces (physical & online): what convenience takes from us

I often would go through Rue du Paradis for two years, in Paris’ 9th arrondissement (borough). This city area, a melange of Haussmannian avenues with landmarks such as the Opera Garnier, antique shops, and former streets of production workshops or cités, has attracted young professionals, actors, or writers since the late sixties.

In his last novel, the controversial and autobiographical Yoga, Emmanuel Carrère (according to The Guardian, “the most important French writer you’ve never heard of”) locates the geographical epicenter of his existential crisis post midlife in a rented, empty apartment perpendicular to rue du Paradis, at rue du Faubourg Poissonnière.

There, he receives, in the middle of a deep depression, New York Times journalist Wyatt Mason. Carrère will search in Mason’s depiction the cruel mirror of others’ perception to come to terms with his personal struggle, as if we could only measure pain through the eyes of how others see us:

“The vaguely creepy ambiance of that objectively pleasant apartment into which Carrère welcomed me — large windows facing a leafy courtyard; two floors — was further amplified by the presence of a huge leather couch at its center, a couch that seemed somehow forlorn, abandoned, a huge dog of a couch waiting miserably for its owner to return.”

Walking pass Le Rallye

I must have gone through Le Rallye, the unimpressive bar tabac at the corner of both rues, Paradis and Faubourg Poissonnière, one of these times when—Carrère explains—he would sit at Le Rallye’s terrasse for hours, unapologetic and unable to put himself together.

Going through there, I didn’t know any of the usual customers was a writer I had read. On my way to the Mediathèque Françoise Sagan, I’d always cut across from Paradis and take rue Martel, the street where Argentinian writer Julio Cortázar and Carol Dunlop lived. A plaque remembers them at number 4.

One day, thinking about the layers of stories and memories streets have in a place like Paris (rich scenery for the psychogeography of real and imagined events, sometimes forgotten but oftentimes with literary or cinematic references), I tried to imagine Cortázar (tall, with his “long arms and all that,” as he had stated once) talking to Dunlop while lighting a cigarette. If rue Martel has kept its sense of place, it’s because of the memory anchors making locals reflect on it as I do when I depict the writer leaving his building (he died in 1984).

Walking through a city actively looking for its reminiscences, imaginary and real, may connect anybody (or not) to old flanêurs such as Charles Baudelaire, notoriously belligerent against the Haussmannian renovation of Paris, and Walter Benjamin, a cultural critic very concerned by the banalization of art by means of its mechanical reproduction, a process diluting any sense of “aura” or authenticity.

One day, serendipity got me in front of a second-hand book by Cortázar, the French translation of The Autonauts of the Cosmoroute, also signed by Carol Dunlop, which narrates their road trip from Paris to Marseille from May to June 1982 aboard a Volkswagen campervan, without ever leaving the highway and its “nonplaces,” the service stations serving the route. A provocation and the testimony of what contemporary culture has managed to transform. An adventure of nonplaces despite crossing one of the most enchanting, culturally stimulant countries in Europe.

The book’s subtitle (“Un viaje atemporal París-Marsella“) warns us: there’s no time continuity but postmodern fragmentation.

Time fragmentation and experience

When Byung-Chul Han was a student in South Korea, he experimented with what we could call an epiphany: career paths seemed already set in front of him with little wiggle room for discovery, so he decided to leave for Germany and immerse himself in literature, theology, and philosophy.

Years after, he earned a doctorate in Freiburg with a dissertation on a controversial, totemic figure of twentieth-century philosophy, Martin Heidegger no less. He would end up giving classes and writing (in German) original, highly influential philosophical texts, focusing his career in the effects of modernity on the way we see ourselves and the world.

If Heidegger focused his thinking on the damage modernity can do to mankind by uprooting anybody from old rhythms and customs, Byung-Chul Han had come once there was little left of pre-modern societies, let alone of any illusion of “authenticity.”

Julio Cortázar on his campervan: Cortázar and Dunlop made a provocative roadtrip of “nonplaces,” a trip from Paris to Marseille without leaving the highway premises

Mechanical reproduction and industrial societies still had a memory of all things pre-industrial. In contrast, cybernetics had taken care of detaching place and experience as if dualism of body and soul had made a comeback, though not through a Platonic (or Cartesian) separation of things physical from ideas, but by building an artificial interconnected layer on top of human society.

Afraid of being on our own, somewhere

We just began to acknowledge the implications of forming socially meaningful structures on a digital layer where we all participate with little hope to escape if we want to avoid ostracism, and, as old promises of “freedom” and enhancement become commercial services that make it difficult (if not painful) to their “convenience,” we struggle to discover nuances on our own in a world that personalizes what we should do, become, aspire to.

If at first, this new layer had the intention of “enhancing” experience, early idealism from the Internet pioneers gave way to the reckless intention of replacing old institutions and processes of knowledge and human interaction.

Nowadays, explains Byung-Chul Han in his essays, the effort it takes to cultivate our digital avatar is proportional to phenomena such as narcissism, a drive for perceived perfection and success, and one type of exhaustion that, unlike industrial alienation, we inflict on ourselves by trying to keep up with performance markers.

It’s not only what society expects from us that keeps us busy and unease, but what we expect of ourselves after constant exposure with a narrative of superficial success, argues Byung-Chul Han, who thinks our obsession with work (what Hannah Arendt called “vita activa”) has deprived us of having a meaningful relationship with a narrative attached to “time.”

Chan dedicates one of his essays, The Scent of Time, to explore the transformation of the way we experience reality. The ritual repetition of events experienced by the ancients (a seasonal sense of reality attached to the concept of the eternal return of things) gave way to the rise of historicism or a reality based on a coherent storytelling a society shares among its members.

The times and places of convenience: sharing fear on the Web

With postmodernity came a fragmentation of time and its meaning, along with a cacophony of narratives and the self-inflicted pressure to work as much as possible, dedicating any possible moment to “do something.” The new fragmented time in an “always-on” culture created a dyschronicity that prevents us from renewing our sources of “enchantment” and humanistic well-being since there’s no room for lingering, nor the expectant hope of beginnings and endings.

Our personal and collective time has no “contours” anymore, hence the need for vindicating an existence where we have the feeling we can renew the storytelling that gives meaning to the reality surrounding us —and to our lives.

When historian James Gleick was asked to participate in a 1996 issue of the New York Times Magazine on what awaited us in The Next Hundred Years, he acknowledged the fears Neil Postman had theorized a decade earlier in his comparison of Orwell’s 1984 versus Huxley’s Brave New World: the future looked indeed menacing, but not for the reasons Orwell had feared.

Thanks to fragmentation and new, always-connected tools that soon would be small enough to carry with us, our sense of privacy would be eroded, wrote Gleick, stating a controversial take in the optimistic vibe of 1996: he chose the headline “Big Brother Is US”:

“Our privacy is disappearing, but not by force. We’re selling it, even giving it away.”

It’s difficult to realize that, back then, astronomer and early Internet adopter Clifford “Cliff” Stoll had published an op-ed in Newsweek (February 1995) explaining why, according to him, Internet would remain irrelevant, and the enthusiasm would fade away, wondering whether “our computer pundits lack all common sense.”

It has become easy to dunk on Cliff Stoll’s article about the future of the Web, even though his article made some interesting remarks about the risk posed by a medium where voices can be heard “cheaply and instantly,” unfiltered and independent from their relation to reality. Stoll’s skepticism contrasts with Bill Gates’ internal memo from May 26, 1995: Internet was a “tidal wave” about to transform society, not only computing.

The smartphone: the birth of a human appendix

Nothing was self-evident in the pre-dotcom era bubble burst, and Stoll’s article is a painful testimony of our tendency to oversimplify complex phenomena. In the mid-nineties, Google had just started, Yahoo! dominated the Web at a moment when it was not yet a commercial behemoth, and the Web 2.0 social networks were years ahead (so was the first iPhone, unveiled on June 29, 2007). Yet from his 1996 article James Gleick sensed the importance of permanent interconnectedness in human culture when the phenomenon was far from becoming a reality:

“The Network Knows: Like any gossip, we trade information to get information. Over in the advanced research laboratories of the consumer electronics companies, futurists are readying little boxes that they believe you would like to carry around — not just telephones but perfect two-way Internet-connected pocket pals. They could use Global Positioning System satellites so that you always know where you are. They could let the Network know too: then the Network could combine its knowledge of your block-by-block location and your customary 11 A.M. hankering for sushi to beam live restaurant guidance to your pocket pal. Surely you don’t mind if the Network knows all this…”

A description of the relationship that today’s teenagers have naturally established with their smartphones, unable to grasp a world where only the best futurologists could imagine what they now carry with them nonchalantly.

Gleick quoted Marc Rotenberg, director of the Electronic Privacy Information Center, to whom privacy would become the first victim of pervasive Internet culture:

“Privacy will be to the information economy of the next century what consumer protection and environmental concerns have been to the industrial society of the 20th century.”

If modernity created spaces of privacy, postmodernity conveniently fetishizes “transparency.” But if “transparency” is merely used as a slogan where it’s most needed, in the public realm (where freedom of information may prevent abuse and denounce corruption, abuse of power, structural injustice, etc.), it has become a self-inflicted mandate among citizens, who (downgraded to mere “users,”) work incessantly to build their Internet persona.

Taping a word on a box is not “knowing”

But, argues Byung-Chul Han, the more information we share on the Internet, the bigger the illusion the Internet becomes a “mirrorworld” where our ideal selves can participate and be more up to the task than our fallible real selves. Instead, nuance, mystery, or trust become obsolete when human conceptualization are replaced by query searches into “what’s out there.” The algorithm replaces personal views or the need for commanding one’s own discovery, and human relations suffer the consequences of our pervasive dependability on personalized algorithmic queries.

We’ve grown cynical about the potential of online information to propel trust and knowledge, but the anxiety to accumulate more and more information lies behind personal and corporate ideals on the Internet, as if more data equaled to more and better knowledge as well as better decisions and outcomes.

Doctor T. J. Eckleburg’s eyes, the fading, bespectacled eyes painted on an old advertising billboard over the valley of ashes (Scott Fitzgerald, “The Great Gatsby,” 1925)

The online “mirrorworld” or metaverse (Gleick, among others, have recently lamented the fall of the word “meta” not that it has morphed from being a useful Greek prefix into Facebook’s brand and strategy) has become self-evident since 2016 when we have realized that everything that affects our lives has an intimate relationship with the use we make of our online presence and activity.

The pandemic has just sped processes that were already a possibility in 1996, when the New York Times Magazine published The Nex Hundred Years special: among other events, we have interiorized, to the point of forgetting the previous reality, what was it like to perform everyday tasks such as performing administrative tasks, buying food and goods, working or reading, watching, and interacting with news and entertainment.

Nonplaces in a global village

Not only our sense of “time” has changed, as Byung-Chul Han argues, but the very sense of place and belonging has become less attached to a physical locality where anonymity is possible like big cities of the past as if we had worked hard to live up to Marshall MacLuhan’s theory of the “global village“. Or, as James Gleick put it in 1996:

“On the Internet, we are re-creating a small-town world, where people mingle and share news easily and informally. But this time it is just one town. Some of its residents advocate rights not just to passive privacy, the right to be left alone, but to what might be called aggressive privacy: the right to retain anonymity even while acting with force and consequence on a broad public stage.”

Just like The Truman Show‘s main character, we can’t leave the small town we happen to be living in because it lives in the metaverse and it’s attached to our identity, more and more transubstantiated from the analogic world into the hyperconnected one.

Paradoxically, the fragmentation of experience played an important role in the popularity of symbols that represent the perceived essences of the historical past, from religious belief to national belonging to the celebration of pre-modern pastoral living. Internet memes feed on simplified dichotomies, often caricatural, between vilified modernity and idealized tradition, and every event, thought, or geographical place is on the verge of getting their own irreplaceable digital ID, an NFT to gamify the human experience and, with us, the world (and beyond).

As we build a physical world associated with digital markers, the old concepts of “place” and “land” of what scholar James M. Houston called “the Judeo-Christian tradition” cannot remain the same. Martin Heidegger thought about the consequences of cybernetics when they still belonged to speculation, as he noted in an interview for Der Spiegel published posthumously.

When there’s no distance, there’s no perspective

In The Thing, he opens with what modernity and interconnectedness mean for our sense of place and belonging:

“All distances in time and space are shrinking. Man now reaches overnight, by plane, places which formerly took weeks and months of travel. He now receives instant information, by radio, of events which he formerly learned about only years later, if at all. The germination and growth of plants, which remained hidden throughout the seasons, is now exhibited publicly in a minute, on film. Distant sites of the most ancient cultures are shown on film as if they stood this very moment amidst today’s street traffic. Moreover, the film attests to what it shows by presenting also the camera and its operators at work. The peak of this abolition of every possibility of remoteness is reached by television, which will son pervade and dominate the whole machinery of communication.”

Services such as YouTube are an acceleration of this process, already in place in the mid-twentieth century with the generalization of television. In his Der Spiegel interview, Heidegger would mention cybernetics as the new propulsion of a technical world with no sense of distance, a phenomenon he already explained in The Thing:

“Yet the frantic abolition of all distances brings no nearness, for nearness does not consist in shortness of distance. What is least remote from us in point of distance, by virtue of its picture on film or its sound on the radio, can remain far from us (…).

“What is happening here when, as a result of the abolition of great distances, everything is equally far and equally near? What is this uniformity in which everything is neither far nor near —is, as it were, without distance?

“Everything gets lumped together into uniform distancelessness. How? Is not this merging of everything into the distanceless more unearthly than everything bursting apart?”

When Roberto Saviano mentioned Marc Augé

The “mirrorworld” we are building is finally eroding what was left of the “sense of place,” a cultural construct defined by the relationship we establish with spatial settings. To some people in a moment of history, a place may define a sense of cultural belonging, whereas others won’t be able to relate the same way.

Some years ago, Kirsten and I visited somebody in California who had retired in a rural area between Sonoma and Napa counties. We discussed different things and ended up commenting on his recent trip to Europe, which had included parts of France, Spain, and Portugal. Our interlocutor did not hesitate to pinpoint that, to him, the experience of “food” was overrated in that part of Europe:

“You see, you rent a car, take any road and keep going. Here, when you do that, you will stumble upon all sorts of things and you will ‘know’ visually what to expect from the food and sleep options by the side of the road. In Spain, you would drive for long periods and no clear signs by the road would try to bring you to this and that type of food.”

To our friend, the lack of clear markers of convenience food by the side of the road were unexcusable. On the other hand, other travelers will find this shortage of visual markers of global convenience food and shopping as an opportunity for discovery and an invitation to find out about the local culture.

“Gas” (1940), by Edward Hopper

As the services and landscapes we find all over the world become more homogeneous and predictable, particular places lose their special, unique meaning for people, and the former “sense of place” can give way to a contemporary, pervasive institution: the feeling of placelessness.

In his bestseller book about the camorra, Naples’ organized crime inner workings, Roberto Saviano depicts the suburban empires built in the erratic outskirts of the city as troubled tributes to postmodernity:

“In the past five years, veritable commercial thrones of cement have been built in just a few square miles: one of the largest movie theater complexes in Italy in Marcianise; the largest shopping center in southern Italy in Teverola; and the largest shopping center in Europe in Marcianise—all within a region with extremely high unemployment that is continually hemorrhaging emigrants. Enormous commercial complexes. Rather than nonplaces, as the ethnologist Marc Augé would have defined them, they seem to be starting places. Supermarkets where the paper money from everything bought and consumed baptizes capital that would otherwise not find a specific, legitimate origin. Places that provide the legal origin of money. The more shopping centers that go up, the more new construction sites, the more merchandise that arrives, the more suppliers who work, the more shipments that arrive, the faster the money will be able to cross from the jagged confines of illegal territories into legal ones.”


Saviano made Marc Augé notorious with this mention, and his essay Non-Places: Introduction to an Anthropology of Supermodernity (1995), irrelevant right until Saviano’s shocker came along, became an international work of reference. Augé had indeed coined the term non-place to refer to the spaces that have become pervasive in the last decades, all of them devoid of particularities or of a defined vernacular or locality.

The lack of personal character of nonplaces is not a bug, but a feature of interchangeable modernity: relations, history, and identity don’t have a place in such locations so they can sell the same convenience anywhere, no matter the particularities of the local culture they feed on like a parasitic entity.

To those accustomed to convenience, the more banal and interchangeable a motorway, an airport, a train station, a supermarket, or a motel room are, the less their friction will be when becoming “users” of such places.

Conversely, the commercial Internet concentrates most of its activity in a handful of sites and services controlled by a few companies despite the promise of decentralization of web3. The Internet has lost spaces for “cyberflâneurs,” as some Internet commentators have already pointed out.

How to find meaning and redefine belonging when so much of our lives go through physical and virtual nonplaces designed to erase any friction and maximize convenience?

When there’s no place nor opportunity for enchantment (or for “reenchantment,” for that matter), what is left?