Reports of the Death of the Cyberflaneur Have Been Exaggerated

Most of us have enjoyed, at least once, the serendipitous confluence of wandering and delight. We’ve bumped into something utterly transfixing, without really trying, and come away enriched – with the added sense that “it was meant to be.” Maybe that’s how we met a lover (we say bonjour in a cafe, against our intent only minutes before). We’re drawn into a market where a sweet or cheese produced by a discrete and solitary vendor illuminates our tastes, opening a heretofore unimagined world of gastronomical delight. Engrossed by the colorful river of umbrellas coursing around us on a rainy day we pause midstream, drawing the hisses and downturned mouths of passersby.

These are the moments a flaneur lives for. Anticipated, unimagined, serendipitous delight of the senses.

Typically the produce of grand and walkable cities – Washington, DC over Manhattan, Dakar over Johannesburg, Paris over Brussels etc – Evgeny Morozov offers us today the possibility that, after Haussman was through with Paris, the age of the flaneur was spent. But there was a moment of hope, with the rise of the Internet rose the cyberflaneur, phoenix like, to tromp anonymously the intertubes of delight, to stumble upon its “original playful identity,” to “surf,” flaneur-like, the galleries of discovery that awaited, like the turn of a city block, one click away.

Remember those playful experiments, “webrings” and random links curated by the optimists of unknown – nonetheless designed – user experience? Well, Morozov is here to tell us the Internet is “no longer a place for strolling — it’s a place for getting things done. Hardly anyone “surfs” the Web anymore.”

I disagree, profoundly.

Sure, many consumers of the Internet rely on streaming content, fabricated and well manicured content destinations where experience is highly manufactured. But that’s like saying the flaneur wouldn’t enjoy Picadilly Circus because its become the haunt of the world’s megaadvertisers and only chains that can afford the rent will squat there.

There’s truth to that, but its incomplete. Just around the corner – link by link – there are rabbit holes that continually draw us into the flaneur’s experience.

First, recognize that the flaneur is a product of place. He or she knows his city well; in fact, what he lives for is spontaneity amidst the familiar, an enervating encounter despite the banal. The path of the flaneur is well-known, he becomes his city precisely because he has the capacity to re-experience it, over and over again. He is his city’s unrelenting optimist. Unlike the drudging office worker who plies, nose buried in his paper, the same route perhaps ten time a week, the flaneur consciously seeks out the alternative, eyes up and restless, alert with the magpies keenness for the subtlest glint that will change his course. This can be as much a conscious as unconscious act, and therefore it is pure delight. An “encounter” can be as much an awakening from sleepwalk as the apex of direction.

Before we set off, you have to consider this: just like the flaneur of 19th century Paris, we must consider how we will dress ourselves. A top hat today? Is it cold enough for a heavy coat with the collar up? Perhaps today, with the air so fresh, it will be boots, spats, and a good wool suit, no hat and no cane. Today is a day to project youth, confidence, a certain debonair brashness. Fine: you’ve elected to browse (to “surf”) anonymously – you’re going to take some risks today so you launch Safari (which, appropriately enough, uses a compass for its icon – the equivalent of the modern’s stopwatch). Since you never log into your social accounts – Google, Facebook, Twitter, Path, Tumblr or whatever – using Safari, your “out of the box” clean shoes, you’re going to be pretty discrete today. Perfect.

You launch Safari and step out the door. Hello Apple. Fuck that. You turn left and head to Google. “M.I.A” you type in, and then – just because and you’re in a wool suit today – you hit “I’m feeling lucky.” BAM! What the hell, there she is but like in Syria or something. Who is this Gavras guy you think. You watch most of “Wild Girls” until you can’t bang your bling on the dashboard any more and type in, “Romain Gavras” and take the broad boulevard ahead of you aka Wikipedia. “Gritty energy…flashy high energy.” Woah, nice. Wait what’s this “Kourtrajmé” business? Dam, dead end. You back out to Google and type it in. Top result, you click. Suddenly you’re in an unfamiliar sidestreet, its obviously French. Why is Vincent Cassel everywhere…? Oh look there’s a Facebook page. “Notre jour viendra.” Okay, that’s boring but oh hey there’s a link to crakedz.com – whatever. Try it. You’re suddenly at a roundabout, a new window has opened – how did I get here? You can’t retrace your steps, there’s no back button and you haven’t really been paying attention anyway. But it looks like its all stores.

Dam. You pick an exit, any street.

You close the window and land back at Facebook, where you just were. You duck into a cafe, enjoying the hubbub of conversation all around you. A couple’s conversation catches your ear – “A spermbank is refusing blood from redheads,” she says, with a look of genuine outrage. Hm. Further back in the cafe, you see a group of young men. They’re talking loudly. Something about the making of a movie down the street, “Our Day is Coming.” You walk outside, making sure to look around as though you’ve missed an appointment, you’re not obliged to pay – or in the case of Facebook, join. You’re anonymous. It doesn’t know you already have. Bitches.

Outside you head to your right, hoping you’ll arrive at the movie set where, you’ve just realized, there’s a connection. Everyone around here is fascinated with redheads. The “ginger” ones. Something about being outsiders, and genocide. Weird. You pause at an intersection. Typing into your browser you look for “redheads genocide.” You have some options. You decide to go left, with “whizkidtech,” something about redheads, witches, and oppression over the ages. Suddenly you’re in an strange neighborhood, almost a time box, like Bauhaus. Everything is in strange color and antique fonts. Very unsophisticated. “Where the fuck am I,” you ask. You see this old redhead dude. Yo, okay. You scroll down, grazing, skimming the old posters on the walls as you sidle along. Its all bland, probably important but bland. You keep going until you get to the end of the block.

And holy smokes, what’s this? What are the odds?!

There, at the foot of the block, right there in the footer, is a fucking webring. Just like at the Merry-go-round. A genuine romantic artifact of a bygone era. You click. Boom, a bus roars past and there you are, “Redheads Online” the ad on the big old diesel proclaims, coughing up sulfer-laden smoke in its wake.

OMFG.

You close your browser window with efficient key strokes. The spell broken, you decide its time for lunch.

Being a flaneur isn’t dead. Its just evolving. Baudelaire would never have fixed him as this or that time, this or that circumstance. People decay, evolve. Cities too. For the flaneur at heart, its all there – the magic of discovery and re-discovery. You just have to be willing to adapt, to change your behavior a little, to be open to the new without always accepting it. And you have to work at it. Learn to work around change. Its how we survive.

(I mean, seriously Morozov – your editors ran the image from Wikipedia – hardly the emblem of flaneur discovery, right? Its lazy and ironically feeds the fulfillment of your proclamation.)

NMW writes, “Personally, I do not believe in “random walks” — I mean: I do feel as though I go on such walks, but I also believe that there are more or less reasonable explanations that motivate most of my actions.”

This is a great point. So perhaps I should clarify my use of the word, “random.” What I was trying to communicate is the idea of walking with no particular destination in mind. Walking for walking’s sake, if one could define walking in this instance as movement toward, through, and beyond encounter, perhaps even discovery. To venture out with no more explicit intention than to receive, in some space of time, that which lays “out there,” but with no specific concept of what the received thing might be before commencing the walk.

Random gets at the forces which one may encounter, without anticipation, along the way. Less so the “more or less reasonable explanations” for my reaction to each encounter.

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