Because I believe "place" matters in a world where the virtual life is becoming more common, the work by Christine Boyer, an urban historian at Princeton, caught my eye as I was skimming the dust jackets in the new book section at Apple Library.
This is really a collection of five essays, written for conferences in the 92-95 timeframe and for an anthology that never was published, plus a short introduction and conclusion. She has a number of goals: bring the city back into discussions of modern life, explore "the analogy between the computer matrix and the space of the city", the withdrawal from the "excesses of reality into the cybernetic representations of the virtual world of computers." Part of this is due to "the dematerialization of physical space and chronological time."
While she recognizes the trend of decentralization, she does not think this is necessarily a good thing. "And why is our contemporary era so fearful of centering devices, evident from the fact that we refer to frequently to the invisible, the disappearing, the de-industrialized, the disfigured, and the decentered city?" Postmodern cultural critics have deconstructed the city in many ways because the think the notion of a unified place is an artifice. She believes this has happened at the cost of community. Like so many of us, she feels community is important but declines the challenge of defining it.
As a historian of ideas, she draws on many sources: from Norbert Wiener and Nicholas Negroponte to many of the French postmodern critics. Without a framework to understand the latter, it is very heavy going, but she makes interesting links between urban history, art critics, film noir, science fiction, and nerd visionaries. The central figure for Boyer is Walter Benjamin who is cited in every chapter. I found myself more interested in Benjamin's ideas than the problems of cities in the information age.
I spend a lot of time online, and I see the main danger at present is that too many people think the world of information is online. Boyer seems to say that the danger is turning our backs on the world of the city or only trying to understand it through a world of simulations and video images.
Although Boyer is writing about the online world and cities, her audience is presumed to be more at home in the world away from the computer screen. Like her, many are probably skeptical of the promises and hype. She spends a fair amount of space explaining the basics of hypertext, of virtual reality, and how video shifts our perceptions of the viability of the city. These essays are rich in links to other writers and critics and layers of commentary on each others works, but I longed for more of her own thoughts on her first hand experience with networks and new media, much as Bill McKibben did in The Age of Missing Information.
When she does write about the Internet, it is only an introduction to the issues of access, corporate control of the means of communications, government regulation, and second-hand criticisms of America Online. She sees cyberspace being promoted as a substitute for our public urban spaces and urban experience. Part of this flight from the city is in our minds (we prefer the simulation on screen) and part is the disengagement we feel about the city is because of the view we have on programs like "Cops" and the constant surveillance of video cameras which are showing up more in public places like traffic intersections, elevators, and convenience stores. She buttresses her arguments with discussions of the movie Blade Runner and the genre that influenced it, film noir, and especially "Chinatown."
Her conclusion is so brief that it can't tie up the many strands and issues she has raised. There is no index, so I had to find my way back to some passages I had not flagged through the endnotes after each essay. For a different take on the tension between real communities and cyberspace, see Stephen Doheny-Farina's "The Wired Neighborhood which was also published in 1996.