Saturday, October 13, 2007

The Blogosphere as Place

When a journalwhich attempts to redefine and reinvent the concept of placedecides to enter the blogosphere, what should happen?

Sitting around the table, discussing this very question, the immediate answer amongst our editors was clear:
We'll do exactly what the journal does, except edgier. With cameras and lights and reckless abandon.

And I agreed—couldn't wait to enter the Wilmington, NC environs with pad and camera and analytical mind ready to observe the ideas of place that exist around us which have been constructed out of thin air: the contemporary, main street mall with apartments located above the Banana Republic; the streets that run up to Wrightsville Beach, upon which city workers regularly attack the sand with leaf blowers; the airport terminals where nobody is meant to be for any period of time, and so find ways to escape even while there.

But then I thought,
Is the blogosphere, this ethereal landscape we've now entered, a place? And if so, how would it look on a map, or in a photograph, or roughly etched into the grain of gypsum?

The idea of the blogosphere
as place—this virtual landscape in which physical landmarks are connected by thematic, relational or irrational links—is not a difficult one to enter. But consider this: the screen, two dimensional, flat, pixilated, contains the idea of three dimensions, reflections of three dimensional lives digested mostly through text. And the text contains multitudes, contains regional cross-sections of lives pulsating upon a three dimensional globe spinning wildly, contains the daily struggles and milestones and rants and musings of people plugged in, sitting in an office or living room or coffee shop, plugging all of this into—where exactly?

Try stuffing a basketball into a business-sized envelope. And when you cannot, instead produce a paring knife and peel off a small sliver of orange-tinged leather. Slide it into the envelope. Seal it.

Now call that envelope a place, disconnected from the vandalized, publicly exposed ball. It seems to me all that can be said about the envelope is this: it's nothing and everything. Nowhere and everywhere.

And if this is true, then the blogosphere, like God, exists independent of us, but cannot exist without us. In other words, it is the absence of physicality. A body without form.

Is that a place?


The Mad Macedonian said...

What a thought provoking post!

Writing about place has been a popular pastime among bloggers for years.

In fact there is a website, also called Ecotone that, until it closed down for re-organization, was a community of writers writing about "place".

Hopefully it will re-open again soon.

Anyway, I've long written about "Place" on my blogs, and hope that my efforts will encourage others to try their own hand at it.

I've added your blog to my Blogroll of Writing related websites. ;-D

Robert McKay said...

Thinking lately about place and location. How they're not synonyms; how location is a set of GPS coordinates or a URL (and how since cyberspace, we are told, is "everting," those 2 kinds of locations are becoming less and less distinct); how place is somewhere else entirely, a working definition being location plus consciousness plus time. (Though of course functionally you need consciousness for location too.) Place, in short, is location plus history. You know where you are, how you got there, if you're lucky how to get back, and at least a bit about what made there there in the first place. Place and location are modes of being too: I saw a man walking down Brattle Street, face all but shoved into the pixelated depths of smartphone screen. As we passed he suddenly looked up. "Where am I?" he asked. On the screen I saw a satellite map of Brattle, his phone a pulsating blue dot. Or take my first weeks in Boston: the city was the T, reduced to a twisted skein of colorcoded worms. Geometry simplified to the almost non-physical. Spaces and angles ignored in favor of clean visual organization and sequencing. Underground, you never know where you are. But you know your location; which stop comes next out of the dark. If that's your stop or not. Whereas in Burlington VT, where I live now and where my history is, I am always in place. I know which way the lake is, always, without a second's thought. I know how I felt, who I was with, the last time I was here, the time before that. I know who I heard playing here, where they are now. The layers of history lie so thick much is forgotten, necessarily but not forever, composting like the lower layers of mould. Place, then, is a forest floor. A text piled deep over the bedrock. Layers of time. Location is nothing like that; and indeed only when it has vanished can place begin to agglomerate around the point where location was.
The geoweb, with it's instant, supremely docile delivery of location anywhere, seems at first to be an assault mounted by location on place. "With an iPhone," my friend said," you're never lost, just really far off course." And so you'll never have to find yourself. Just veer off where the screen now leads. But as it evolves (this question obsesses a character I'm writing now), might the geoweb, this thin layer of virtuality spread now over the real globe, become an enhancer of placedness, of really knowing, in a human way, where we are? As more and more history becomes hyperlinked to the present surface of things, we can for all intents and purposes "click on the real world" and dive into it's linkdepths from the little screens we're never without.
The notion of the blogosphere as a place, a fractally nubbled terrain, is interesting. But imagine what the combination of mapping and mobile web ubiquity mght do to overlay this terrain with the world's, and whether, as that happens, we might get closer to place, or further removed than ever.