Social latency and the end of the flaneur

Edgar Allan Poe’s story fragment, “The Man of the Crowd” (published in 1840 when Poe was living between Baltimore, Richmond and Philadelphia), begins with the narrator peering out onto a London street from a café, making observations about passersby: typologies of urban dwellers (“the tribe of clerks,” the “race of swell pick-pockets”), divisions of the population into age, gender, race and ethnicity.  Finally, though, his gaze alights on an enigmatic character that eludes easy classification: “decrepit” and “feeble,” yet “he rushed with an activity I could not have dreamed of seeing in one so aged”; “without apparent aim,” yet characterized by “blood thirstiness” and armed with a “dagger”.  Seduced by these paradoxical attributes, Poe’s narrator follows the man until sunrise, without, though, gaining any insight into the man’s history, nor of his ultimate aims.

            Within this brief fragment, we can see multiple approaches to the urban collide: the first, the assignation of types.  The second, an ethnographic approach premised on direct observation of a single individual walking the streets.  One approach attempts to make sense of the whole—to say something, in this case, about London’s (or Baltimore’s or Philadelphia’s) urban population and the growth of a heterosocial, public space in the mid-19th century (Walkowitz 1992).  The second, the specificity of the individual in a particular place: what one could call the “daily round” of the individual.  But both approaches prove inadequate to understanding the enigmatic man of the crowd.

            But what if Poe’s narrator had tried a network approach?  What if one could show that the man of the crowd’s apparently aimless wanderings were, instead, the outlines of a networked city connecting multitudes of nodes consisting of places and people?  What if one could analyze those connections?  As many have shown, the city is, literally, the sum of its networks, assemblages of place and connection that are simultaneously larger and smaller than the geo-political boundaries of the urban (Pflieger and Rozenblat 2010).  Within this concatenation, people and place can be connected in myriad ways: the “strong” and “weak” ties that form the basis of much of social network analysis, but also in the form of a variety of “latencies” that, as Haythornthwaite (2002: 389) suggests, multiply in the age information and communication technologies and add new potentials to the elaboration of the urban networks around us.  In a networked world, Poe’s narrator might be able to exploit these connections in order to connect to his man in the crowd and make sense of his world.

            And, indeed, this is what happens all of the time in urban life.  Armed with various ICT’s (information and communication technologies), people trace complicated networks that include physical structures, transportation, socialites, technologies, economies and symbolic communications.  But by tweeting, posting to blogs, utilizing geolocational apps and uploading photos and videos, people multiply possibilities for place- and sense-making, mobilizing virtual connections that might open up new possibilities for physical or spatial connections, that might make the strange into the familiar.

           This is an important difference from Poe’s time.  Poe’s “man of the crowd” and Baudelaire’s “flaneur” depend upon a uniquely modern condition: spending a significant chunk of one’s life surrounded by complete strangers.  On the other hand, in our ICT-inflected lives, nobody can be a “complete” stranger.  Rather, in the fuzzy logic of social media, people on the street present different quanta of latency, different potentialities of connection that we may or may not be able to exploit.  When we attend a rally and marvel at the disparate groups that (momentarily) cohere in a place, we’re witnessing the activation of some of those latent ties, and, most probably, their rapid dissolution.

                In that sense, a networked city is a striking departure from previous urbanities, particularly the alienated city of the late-nineteenth and twentieth centuries, the city that, by virtue of specialization, “makes one individual incomparable to another (Simmel), and the city that, in the absence of meaningful community, produces general normlessness (Durkheim).   Of course, this doesn’t mean that people don’t feel alienation or anomie in the city, but rather that our understanding of the city needs to move from something more Newtonian to something else—a general relativity for the urban.  Rather than parse off populations (or neighborhoods or institutions) as connected or unconnected, we need to see them as fields of potentiality, with a stranger not just a linear distance away (“six degrees of separation”), but as a simultaneity of probabilistic connections that are “latencies” whose significance cannot be predicted using linear models.  But how can we build a quantum model for social networks in the city?

References

Haythornthwaite, Carolyn (2002).  “Strong, Weak, and Latent Ties and the Impact of New Media.”  The Information Society 18: 385-401.

Pflieger, Geraldine and Celine Rozenblat (2010).  “Introduction.  Urban Networks and Network Theory.”  Urban Studies 47(13): 2723-2735.

Walkowitz, Judith (1992).  City of Dreadful Delight.  Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

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