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Sense of place vs. non-places. Our relation with the things surrounding us

Being interested in urbanism, I’ve seen one type of meme popping up repeatedly. It shows a rather conventional picture of a highway exit that could have been taken anywhere in the US, displaying the same signs for gas, fast food, and motel chains.

If it’s a Reddit thread, it will be populated with comments praising ubiquity and convenience: some are happy to see such signs after hours traveling, they say; this or that other fast-food chain has really clean bathrooms. How about the convenience of Sheetz? “Try Sheetz bathrooms if you are in PA.” Got it.

A most either celebrated or hated non-place; a highway exit that could be anywhere in America; this one is located near Breezewood, PA

Such non-places selling convenience and interchangeable experiences have morphed into strip malls that pack chain stores with parking lots in front, sometimes going for miles at a time around major traffic arteries. And despite the retail crunch caused by online shopping, strip malls continue to grow.

We’ve taken extensive road trips across North America and Europe during the last decade or so, sometimes covering over five thousand miles in a few weeks, and convenience has been on our side across the US no matter at what time. Got tired after a long day but have no plans on where to sleep? It doesn’t matter; a strip mall will pop up soon by the side of the highway, and you’ll be able to choose your motel of convenience to save the day once and again.

A contemporary substance: convenience

However, It’s not as easy to rely on mere chance when traveling across Europe. Hotels and restaurants may be closed by the time you realize your previous plan is not going to work, and you need to get some rest within a given area. This is the case even in highly populated areas near big cities and arteries. In some European Union countries, even getting gas at night can represent a challenge.

When we traveled by car and ferry from Ancona (Italy) to Igoumenitsa (Greece) a few years back, we relied on our previous experience traveling across Europe on our gas-guzzling clunker; we needed gas at night somewhere before reaching the Northern region of Thessaly, not far from where the magical monasteries atop the naked boulders of Meteora show up in the distance like out of a fairy tale.

It was around 10 p.m. at night. We thought we’d find gas, but time passed, and all we saw were closed gas stations. When we arrived at a medium-sized town, we discovered everything was closed there, too; in desperation, we decided to ask a passerby how to get gas. His fuss regarding the question didn’t promise anything good.

He said there was no gas in town in the rudimentary English (Globish?) that has become the tongue of convenience. However, there was one option for us just outside the city —a place for trucks to rest that remained open all night, albeit difficult to get to. I offered him the phone; could he tap the name? He didn’t seem to remember the name. Finally, he offered to come with us to the place, though only if we brought him back home. That’s how we learned the lesson. The kids made room for him in the back, and their smiles ended up charming him during the five-minute trip.

Building the psychogeography of convenience

Non-places extend their tentacles worldwide, yet convenience hasn’t reached the apex of pervasive standardization of services and experiences; to our guest, we probably were a by-product of it just dropped from the sky in small-town Greece in October.. Our new acquaintance didn’t want any money from us, so we offered him a package of artisanal Italian sweets some friends had offered our children days before. He thanked us: I could understand ευχαριστώ (thank you) but little else of what he said. He may have said he was a worker from nearby Albania (Αλβανία). He looked certainly tired when we approached him with our car, certainly getting back home after a long day. That’s how we could get to the hotel near Meteora, which we had booked for later that night.

We were on our way to visit a magical place, yet we had relied on the false comfort of modern convenience to get there with little planning: taking for granted the services along highways and cities that have paved communication arteries across the west—and detaching our experience from that of travelers in the past.

An itinerant sense on place and “home” that is engaged and vernacular; a Bedouin home (Sahara desert, Morocco)

Across the US and around American cities, highway interchanges and overpasses have transformed cities, relations, and experiences. The transformation was already underway several decades ago:

”The automobile has not merely taken over the street, it has dissolved the living tissue of the city. Its appetite for space is absolutely insatiable; moving and parked, it devours urban land, leaving the buildings as mere islands of habitable space in a sea of dangerous and ugly traffic.”

James Marston Fitch, New York Times, 1 May 1960

Our physical experience shapes our days and interactions. We’ll hardly have the same daily experience that dwellers of median cities designed in medieval times experience. The city center of Siena in Tuscany, Italy, gracefully accommodates 30,000 residents into a space the same size as any of Houston’s stack interchanges. Put side by side a picture of DFW (the airport at Dallas-Forth Worth) and the city of Paris, and you’ll realize that the airport occupies roughly the same area as the entire historical Paris (the Haussmannian city encircled by the Boulevard Periphérique).

A road trip celebrating (or is it denouncing?) convenience

Non-places have grown in size and become pervasive, serving us well to the detriment of a more humane experience rooted somewhere. In May of 1982, the Paris-based Argentinian writer Julio Cortázar and his partner Carol Dunlop set to take yet another road trip on their VW camper van, a.k.a. Fafner. Though, this time, they would travel across France from Paris to Marseilles without leaving the non-place premises of the freeway and its rest stops.

They had done the same route before, sometimes in roughly 10 hours, but this time, they packed supplies—food, water, wine, typewriters, cameras—and embarked on a trip of thirty-three days, never leaving the autoroute and covering two stops per day. Their surreal voyage would inspire Cortázar’s book The Autonauts of the Cosmoroute. In a way, we all have become Autonauts, and the extreme game of Cortázar and Dunlop wouldn’t be considered odd at all nowadays, at least by some.

Unlike the architecture and urbanism of car-reliant convenience, humane architecture considers its surroundings, reflecting locality in building materials, styles, and references, which creates a sense of continuity and belonging. The way we design cities, spaces, and experiences affects how we feel and interact within them, engaging our senses and enhancing our mood. Yet we can go about our day finding only a few—if any at all—rich evocations of where we are.

The best antidote against blood and soil essentialism isn’t giving up a strong sense of place in favor of the blunt, alienating non-places we’ve been creating in the world as life online increases its protagonism to the detriment of purely analogic experience. Places with meaning are commoditized and hashtagged to be easily recognized, photographed, and remixed. In this process, we forget to step back and enjoy a place (and its context) for what it is, no matter its popularity online or its potential as a social media meme.

Even the unabashedly placeless areas, often sterile and generic, can be uplifted by doing some personal research on their unique history or cultural aspects: highways can be devoid of meaning or be the scenario of the great American novel in the beatnik era, suburban LA is also the scenario of Charles Bukowski or film noir whereabouts, etc.

The low-friction standards of Non-Places

French anthropologist Marc Augé theorized that, with globalization, the most used spaces in our civilization would lose their social and historical identity, becoming transient areas of internationalist design for people to go about their day with little friction: airports, highways, shopping malls, hospitals, road interchanges, or commercial outlets are the physical materialization of blunt gateways to connect people, goods, and ideas across cultures and distances. Yet we click like-like-like-like-like (in a Tom Wolfe succession) to pictures of places we believe they survive in their innocence:

“In a way, the user of the non-place is always required to prove his innocence. Checks on the contract and the user’s identity, a priory or a posteriori, stamp the space of contemporary consumption with the sign of non-place: it can be entered only by the innocent.”

Marc Auge, Non-Places: Introduction to an Anthropology of Supermodernity

Paradoxically, as non-places eat the world, we strive to know and travel more to “places” where to reconnect with a sense of authenticity, if not with the very essence of “being somewhere.” Can we still be somewhere the same way our grandparents or great-grandparents were able to be decades ago when the physical spaces we inhabited weren’t merging with a virtual existence? Artists have been intrigued by non-places to the point of turning placeless markers into memorable portraits, hence giving a place to these non-places.

The awe of Meteora, Greece (from our October 2018 road trip through France, Italy and Greece)

Edward Hopper’s gas stations or alienated figures find communion through Hopper’s decision to celebrate them, and we find a similar phenomenon in early modernist models populated by the collective alineation of a city, like “Manhattan Transfer,” the narrative collage by John Dos Passos. Hopper was onto something by capturing the sense of emotional distance that modern existence brings. His solitary figures in cafes, empty streets and brightly lit rooms would have ended up scoring high on the UCLA Loneliness Scale, a psychological tool developed at UCLA in 1978 to measure feelings of loneliness in individuals.

“Near” and “far” losing their meaning

The sense of nearness and farness has lost its old meaning, thanks to the mirrorworld we’re building online (on repositories owned by big companies). But, as we get closer to even the most remote locations, technological advances have forced on us a symbolic distance that can’t be overcome: that of authenticity. It’s not a new phenomenon that emerged during the digital era, but the online world accentuates it:

“All distances in time and space are shrinking. […] 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 radio, can remain far from us.”

Martin Heidegger, Poetry, Language, Thought

Alienation and detachment can pull individuals away from their surroundings, and so we strive to recover our own essence of being while unable to diagnose what’s really going on. Keith Richards was already onto something decades ago when he couldn’t get no satisfaction. We may be suffering from the same alienation and detachment, only this time it lurks around our digital self, as we spend more and more time curating feeds—or enjoying other people’s curated stories.

In her posthumous book The Need For Roots, published in 1949 but written right before her death of exhaustion and despair in 1943, French philosopher Simone Weil warned about the advance of uprootedness in technical societies. Focused on money, the majority of people lived to acquire material means, often forgetting about anything else, whereas high culture had become detached from any reality people could identify with, hence the uprootedness of pop culture after World War II.

How do we create a sense of place in our days, learning to find meaning in the surrounding environment, now that the role of vernacular architecture, family, culture, and community are being deconstructed and replaced by the false comfort of a virtual experience curated by algorithms and lacking actual people on the other end?

Apple Vision Pro and Kathryn Bigelow’s Strange Days

On his Vanity Fair review article regarding the Apple Vision Pro goggles, Nick Bilton finishes the article with what he perceives as the risk behind the potential success of the Vision Pro or equivalent gadgets once they become cheaper, lighter, and smaller: what happens when we get used to the virtual enhancement of reality once we go back to our mere perception?

“In the middle of my DJ set, an Apple employee said it was time to wrap up. I took the Apple Vision Pro off, and that’s when it hit me. The problem. It happened again at home, scrolling through the spatial videos I’ve taken of my kids over the last few weeks, seeing them as if they’re actually in front of me. And it’s going to happen in a few minutes, when I finish writing this article and the Word document in front of me the size of an IMAX screen goes away.”

“When I take it off, every other device feels flat and boring: My 75-inch OLED TV feels like a CRT from the ’90s; my iPhone feels like a flip phone from yesteryear, and even the real world around me feels surprisingly flat. And this is the problem. In the same way that I can’t imagine driving a car without a stereo, in the same way I can’t imagine not having a phone to communicate with people or take pictures of my children, in the same way, I can’t imagine trying to work without a computer, I can see a day when we all can’t imagine living without augmented reality. When we’re enveloped more and more by technology, to the point that we crave these glasses like a drug, like we crave our iPhones today but with more desire for the dopamine hit this resolution of AR can deliver.”

This brings me back to a 1995 science fiction thriller that I enjoyed during college, watching it several times: Kathryn Bigelow’s Strange Days, a story in which the protagonist, the tormented ex-cop Lenny Nero (Ralph Fiennes), is hooked to a neural device blending a MiniDisc-like cartridge to be played on a SQUID recorder headset or brain-computer interface, consuming the recorded memories and physical sensations of other people.

Former LAPD officer Lenny Nero (Ralph Fiennes) hooked to SQUID headset discs with recorded memories; from the film “Stange Days” (Kathryn Bigelow, 1995)

Of course, his addiction to recorded memories of others that he gets on the black market in recorded SQUID discs will get him in trouble, though his biggest problem is basically his need to inhabit a world of digital deception not that dissimilar from such an accomplishing device as the Apple Vision Pro.

The map and the territory

Our sense of place has been deeply studied across different disciplines in philosophy, sociology, anthropology, urbanism, and also psychiatry. We define who we are collectively and individually in relation to strong markers of belonging, which have been losing their shine for a while now. The place in which we think we belong is a construct that comprises experiences but also a sense of attachment or even belonging, sometimes triggered by a relation with other people or by the taste of a madeleine soaked in tea.

Some of us have decided to live a complex, cosmopolitan life yet yearn to cultivate a sense of place. Living far from family or old friends can feel alienating, yet there are ways to reconnect with being somewhere in a precise moment; it involves abandoning the comfort zone of living online and making the effort to get to know people, either by reaching out, engaging in community activities, etc.

Meaningful interactions aren’t exclusive to people who have been close to us for a long time, and several companies have realized that there’s an untapped market for physical experiences after years of growing atomization and digital overload, amplified by the effects of a pandemic and the persistence of remote work. Loneliness seems to be a factor in the increase of the so-called diseases of affluence, including depression, addiction, and other disorders.

Some argue that we’ve known the cure all along, at least on paper: if old series like Friends and Seinfeld have found rejuvenating popularity among today’s teenagers, it might be because they show casual conviviality and interaction among people who don’t only meet at home or at work, but at what sociologists call “third places.” Encounters in third places used to happen by design, thanks to urbanism that didn’t rely on staying at home or driving everywhere as it does now.

Lenny Nero (Ralph Fiennes) getting his neural dope via his black-market SQUID headset; from the film “Stange Days” (Kathryn Bigelow, 1995)

In real life, however, the characters of such sitcoms struggle to find the feeling of community and life meaning their characters portray. Like in a Greek tragedy, we shall not confound the mask and the face, the map and the territory.

Business Insider Eliza Relman explains that, for decades, Americans reported spending several hours a week with friends but, from 2014 to 2019, the trend suddenly dropped by 37%, coinciding with the golden era of smartphone and social media use.

Paying for reconnection (in real life)

Without social connection and a bond with the places we live, people are looking for quick fixes. Some young professionals who can afford it are moving to newly created walkable neighborhoods, and a new business frenzy is centered around creating physical experiences for people who spend too much time alone, often replacing the lack of nearby relations with online interaction.

Sensing the placelessness and alienation experienced by young and middle-aged adults, investment is flowing again into the experience economy. SoulCycle founders Julie Rice and Elizabeth Cutler have launched a new wellness studio that summarizes the trend with its name and ethos: Peoplehood, “a first-of-its-kind practice designed to improve our relationships, starting with ourselves,” one can read on the website. “Peoplehood is a practice, like a workout for your relationships.” Or, as a title by the New York Times featuring the company describes, “SoulCycle Without the Bike: Here Comes Peoplehood.”

Something stopped happening organically, even in dense, vibrant cities. People who are too busy, self-absorbed, and online to look around them and help contribute to creating a sense of place for themselves and their community are now targeted by companies offering them what they have worked hard to avoid.

Escaping from freedom?

Is there a loneliness epidemic, or is it just a matter of over-diagnosing? Whether people feel lonelier or not as they commit to remote work and avoid the random interactions of casual socialization, more and more startups are creating new businesses around, precisely, the opportunity of maximizing the meaningful interactions that post-World War II urbanism erased by design.

A walk in Meteora, Greece (from our October 2018 road trip through France, Italy and Greece)

Modern life and its projection online can breed a deep sense of inauthenticity and alienation. To philosophers like Jean-Paul Sartre, existence precedes any essence, and human tragedy is also our biggest potential to flourish. We are condemned to find a purpose and meaning in life since we are “condemned to be free”; we can change things if we decide to do so, both individually and collectively.

Freedom can be a heavy burden, sometimes bringing fear, paralysis, conformity, or even a quest to look for a “master” to follow (a religion, a cult, consumerism, the online world, etc.), as German American psychoanalyst Erich Fromm argued:

“Man does not suffer so much from poverty today as he suffers from the fact that he has become a cog in a large machine, an automaton, that his life has become empty and lost its meaning.”

Erich Fromm, Escape from Freedom (1941)