Landscape organizes everything within sight.

Thursday, June 24, 2010

Face to Face

The apparition of these faces in the crowd; / Petals on a wet, black bough. Ezra Pound

Sociologist Richard Sennett's Flesh and Stone (1996) gives a strange history of interaction. Deploring the death of human contact in public, Sennett blames modern loneliness upon Greek masculinity, the Christian church, urban planning, and indeed capitalism's fear of the poor.

Such arguments raise profound questions for the way we live: is loneliness a human condition? or have modern people, divided by suburbs and cubicles, removed themselves from strangers to a degree unprecedented in other ages? History lends some answers. In The Road to Rule (Harvard University Press, 2011), I show that strangers stopped speaking to each other on the public streets of nineteenth-century Britain as middle-class travelers began to rely on guidebooks and maps for wayfinding advice they once received face-to-face from strangers. In other articles, I've examined the shift of body language and changing repertoires for reading strangers' faces.

But writers become sensitive to habits of interaction by living in a body in the world, not by books alone. ChatRoulette is an online website that randomly assigns your video camera to another party. There are dorm rooms, people masturbating, and dance studios -- wherever people happen to be -- from all around the world. Enter and you could find yourself looking into any of the nations where the internet is cheap: Japan, Boston, or Ireland. Go and you'll find a disproportionate number of men, a series few black screens (where the user wants to see you but won't show himself); and a large number of penises in the process of being jerked off.

But click past these gatekeepers and you might find yourself looking straight at the face of a stranger. Not in the eyes; both of you are almost certainly looking into the computer screen, not its camera. But there they are, in real time, the stranger's face, looking back at you.

You find yourself gazing into the face of strangers intently, studying teeth, hair, eyes, and smiles. People are too nervous on chatroulette to say much at first: what one really wants to do is stare at the face. After a string of penises another shy face, slightly amused, comes as a welcome surprise. For a few minutes you just look at the other person's laughing eyes, flickering from camera to screen, both of you amused to find another person with clothes on. The shape of the eyes, the face leaning towards you, the motions of a laugh are mostly silent, because most of us have terrible microphones in our computers. So we look and look, and then if we take up courage, if the person isn't to sour or somber, maybe we bend towards the keyboard and type, "How are you?" Contact is all about the face.

Three days ago I found myself giggling face-to-face with a twenty-year-old in Berlin who had just gotten off the night shift. It was 2am in Boston and 8am in Berlin, and there was sunlight coming through the window of the other room. We didn't have much to say to each other, but there was a full fifteen minutes of staring at each others' faces, lively, grinning, eyes moving, the pure delight of connection.

It takes a new technology to see a face a different way, to open up the room for longings otherwise suppressed or forgotten. How little did I know I wanted so much to gaze, to be gazed upon; to be seen. For two full days I thought only about that smile.

In The Railway Journey (1987), historian Wolfgang Schivelbusch argued that nineteenth-century trains were the first place where large numbers of strangers sat facing each other in silence. The experience created, he argued, the strange phenomenon of strangers looking at each other without saying anything. Thomas de Quincey's rambles in nineteenth-century London reflected another aspect to that silence: the strange sobriety of strangers on the streets in London, careful not to crack a smile or break a stride. Each face was frozen in the aspect of concrete: two windows looking out, nothing looking in. Strangers locked eyes to their mutual embarrassment. On the Tube people stare at the floor. A book is a comfort, a retreat.

In the city a few days later, I realize how little I gaze in everyday life. Philosopher Edward Casey, in his monumental study The World at a Glance (2007), asserts that the gaze of cinema is a rarity in human history, founded mainly upon the furtive glances, the fleeting snapshots of strangers' expressions and gestures. Early cinema scholars equated gazing with bought luxury, the privilege of the man in the box-seat staring at the woman on the stage, or the privilege of moneyed people staring through department-store windows. The intimacy of the face is something most of us only have with movie stars, whose pores and creases we know in detail. The luxury of gazing and gazing at another living face -- and of being gazed back upon -- is like drinking in the magic of cinema. More: it's like *being* the magic of cinema. It's the opportunity of being enchanted with someone else's pure personhood. It is not their ideas, their voice, their touch, their beauty that are transmitted through the tiny screens and dodgy cameras: it's their sure presence, their strange daring, for being alone with a stranger, for letting their face be studied. I find myself stopping at the face that says, "I am here! How crazy is that?" My shy smile back asks: "How funny is it that we're staring?"

So this human gaze is something special, historically speaking: the chance to look face to face, rather than through a glance fleetingly, at the lines of strangers' faces. We gaze at icons, moviestars, and children. The intimacy of gazing is too much, too scary, to entertain with adults. God forbid you study the face of a stranger on the bus or in the cafe.

Even in love, most of us blush and become calm when our partner breaks the stare to turn towards our feet or hair. Even among friends, we change topics that cut too close; we relieve the burden of presence by playing games or eating or telling stories. When do we stare?

Mostly, even on chatroulette, one does not stare; either party has the option of selecting "next" and being propelled to the next screen. I glance at nervous twenty-year-olds and immediately hit "next," downright afraid of being face-to-face with expressions so raw, so scared; as if looking any longer at their faces could put me in their condition.

We see through a glass darkly, says the Bible. How long will chatroulette remain a novelty, an opportunity for seeing people anew? For how many people does it actually operate that way? For a moment now, we see face-to-face. As we fill our screens with ephemeral windows that studies tell us sap our attention span, the glance predominates. We see face-to-face but for a moment: it is enough to remind us of how beautiful other people are, even if hereafter we choose against it, deflecting our gaze in shyness.

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Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Locals and Tourists: The Maps of Collective Imaginations

About a year ago, I started asking my graduate students in digital history about a complicated problem: sorting photos, not text, for cultural data. When humanities professors go digital, typically they tackle text first. Humanities professors, schooled on books and sorted by proficiency in the math-and-numbers testing of the SAT and GRE, are (like most of our text-based culture) fluent with words, not pictures. The genera of research projects they attempt are based in text. They sort court cases for redundant terms; they try to identify the relationships between individuals in the Domesday book, or they tally the programs from the eighteenth-century theater -- all sorting games that effectively involve sophisticated flavors of keyword search. Like most of search software for the internet, humanities professors can only get you to what we know about text-based culture.

But scholars have long been aware of a universe of visual signifiers, exchanged beyond the scope of literate elites among the illiterate masses. Even in an age of mass literacy, 90% of experience is visual, and the built environment, advertising, the commodity, gesture, and ritual constantly fill the visual cortex with new messages about social reality.

Since "local" and "tourist" maps appeared on Eric Fischer's flickr site, however, the humanities have a hard prod to try something more visual.

The Local v Tourist map is the first attempt to map a collective *visual* (rather than textual) imagination. By dividing the population into two groups -- locals and tourists -- the maps manage to point at one of the foundational terms of modern sociology and anthropology. The key term was "world view." From the 1880s forward, philosophers, anthropologists, sociologists and art historians fixated upon "world view" as a category for understanding how different demographics use and move through a city, a forest, a market, or government in very different ways.

"World view" is always studied through the use and experience and naming of everyday places, which makes social networks in flickr such a perfect way of studying it. Further horizons include the ability to show you something like "the Chicano city" or "the teenager city" and invite the traveler to really become a traveler into different peoples' worlds -- not just into the social imaginary of the city as presented by Disney or Fodor.

The next step, it seems to me, is using photosynth to agglomerate something about the local/tourist city -- even "averaging" houses, monuments, museums, parks, or people from local v tourist. Or, as Bethany Nowviskie prods me, averaging colors and angles used by locals and tourists. Or, if one is using film-in-time rather than pictures to make an argument: smooshing them together into a VR tour of the local v tourist city.

One of the grants I wrote last year was for a nonprofit in Chicago with thousands of landscape photographs taken by youth of color. We were imagining building something like this to sort their photographs, then building a mobile phone app to help bring in new photos with GPS and social networking metadata.

All of this represents a new way of thinking about how people deal with the spaces around them -- how to see into the world views of different cultures, the overlapping planes of culture in real space. And *that* represents the real horizon of synthetic research in historical landscape photographs, maps, and travel-guides.

If we can build a world-view-surfer for Chicago on Flickr, we can build it for French and English explorers with the Newberry library maps & guidebooks on Google Earth. The old historical chestnut was that the French went by river; the English by land, and their cities, landscapes, and language developed accordingly. What other patterns are out there?

Overlapping world views, transposed onto the same space: synthesizing and averaging images to give an overview of how different cultures use landscape -- this is the horizon of a vast and little-known frontier.

There's room for much building yonder. Neither the Googles of the world, nor the visual analysts of computer science departments, nor scholars of the visual humanities have come up with tools sufficient to differentiate World View. But the material is vast.

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Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Announcing: Rust Belt Tour Part 2

In a few weeks, I embark for Rust Belt Tour Part 2, camera in tow, looking for traces of how people's relationship with their territory is changing.

The Rust Belt has some of the highest rates of foreclosure, eviction, homelessness, and unemployment of any area of the nation. It's the perfect geographical region to study if you want to understand the social reality of the economic downturn.

A Modest Proposal

The thing that's changing right now isn't a new Russian Revolution or a new age of Utopias. It's just a subtle, historical shift in credit markets, migration patterns, and how-people-meet. Those things are worth knowing about and worth looking for.

In advance of the journey, we will look at maps of foreclosures, rates of debt, and new migration patterns. We'll be stopping off at shelters and places we could go where we'd find people in transit, i.e. truck stops, campgrounds, and the "jungles" where the homeless live.

What is the relationship between people and their territory in general? As we tour the Rust Belt, filming and interviewing, there are patterns that we can expect to encounter. Minorities are the most vulnerable to eviction, foreclosure, and migration. In the current crisis, minorities have lost structural control because of racist urban-planning policies inaugurated in midcentury America and continuing today under the guise of redevelopment (see my article, "The AntiDevelopment Crisis"

On the other side of these ghettos are zones of privilege, filled with murals, farmers' markets, and community gardens. Their isolation, however, means that community is but a facade for most of them. In our last tour we saw parades that no one attended, "community" gardens that fed but one family, and towns "revitalized" by artists where it was impossible to find food. The communities that self-isolate with capital/race/privilege are the least robust and interesting.

As we travel, we will be looking for territories where new forms of politics are being forged -- places that don't conform to the model described above. Throughout history, communities find each other in space. In nineteenth-century London and Paris and CHicago, radical politics emerged from public parks and urban cafes. We will ask, How is the relationship between people and their territory changing right now as a result of things more specific and structural than a local economic crisis? Our intuitions so far draw us to three conclusions.

First, the international evaporation of credit and the foreclosure crisis is pushing the poor out of Rust Belt cities at a higher rate than ever before. On our last trip, we learned from our friend Valdis Krebs how the international evaporation of credit was spiraling into the targeted eviction of folks in poor
forcing out ethnic homeowners from the neighborhoods of Flint, Cleveland, and Philadelphia.

Second, the deindustrialization of North America is promoting a backwards-migration of radicals and artist elites to the places of abandonment. On our last trip, we saw in Braddock how deindustrialization was driving a new
back-to-the-land movement of rich elites
. We learned about how deindustrialized towns save themselves by recruiting prisons. We read in the NYT, about the wealth of abandoned property in the Rust Belt, and how back-to-the-land punk squatters in Buffalo are changing land law to protect squatters' rights.

Third, the internet is promoting the creation of new communities.
c) changes in how-people-meet - historically, newspapers, maps, and guidebooks changed who-talked-to-whom, not necessarily making everyone talk, but opening up certain places where only the rich or only radicals met.

Are there internet places where elites are meeting and then changing the rust belt? are there internet places where radicals are meeting and then hooking up in real life?

We will scour sites such as, where nonprofits raise funds for new community gardens, and for evidence of new meeting patterns. -- which has more interface with homeless shelters and soup kitchens.

Social networking among nonprofits seems to be genuinely changing the shape of engagement in America. For instance, community-based funding seems to be saving local agriculture in San Francisco.

However, web-based charity may mean a lot less in places of economic isolation like the Rust Belt. A preliminary survey of these sites suggests that the majority of users are privileged users-of-technology, meeting up for the purposes of painting murals or planting community gardens: in short, they're gentrifying the poor out of neighborhoods. The nonprofits receiving funding on Kickstarter have raised funds for community gardens and murals, but not for rehousing the homeless or creating soup kitchens.

We're interested in finding any users who aren't local garden leagues -- perhaps punk
squatters who found out about their squat via the internet, or users of in more diverse areas of rust belt cities.

In a few weeks, we'll be reporting back. Till then, check out the photos from Rust Belt Tour '09 and reports from our travels last year.