I recently read an article titled “from city space to cyber space”, written by Jennifer Light in 1999. It is written in a period where the internet had recently taken off, while many skeptics were concerned about its effects on urban spaces because they claimed, “internet makes people isolated”. Light explains how this skepticism resonated with historical cases: Middletown studies in 1956 found that with the use of telephones “visiting” each other in neighborhoods decreased. In other sources we read how telephones, televisions, and VCRs were tied to the closing of neighbourhood establishments. Based on these, Light explains how the meanings and interpretations of reality change as societies and urban spaces evolve. Take the example of shopping malls, which were regarded as the death of real public spaces in US: not too far from today, Light explains.
“Reality and virtuality” dialectic have taken different forms throughout the relatively short history of the internet. Only 20 years later, we are no longer questioning the internet, we are now questioning the ways in which we are engaged with smart devices and how we incorporate them into the reality of our lives. Watch a few videos on Youtube, that evoke nostalgia for authentic old days, showing how smart devices have killed our human side, as we take selfies in front of burning buildings. Or, consider sharing platforms. Schor’s concept of “strange sharing” is a vivid example of how the “real and virtual” are reinterpreted as societies and spaces evolve: it is not like sharing with kins and neighbours, it is a new type of sharing that is enabled virtually as our digital reputation helps us connect with strangers, she explains.
We maybe questioning the authenticity of our spaces today, but the picture is not so bleak. The real power of innovations, be the internet, smart phones, or plastic surgery, depends on how people use them. Back in the 80s, electronic communication was already helping citizens in urban spaces to connect with others, to find solutions to the problems of neighbourhoods by fostering collaborations between locals. Santa Monica’s Public Electronic Network (PEN) in 1989 is an example. Or, various communities in Chicago emerged to help citizens gain digital literacy and access the internet for free. Such stories are countless in the history of the internet.
Its not too different today. As individuals who have always been the “real” agents of change, it is time that we understand the real meaning of smart: smart devices are smart not only because of their information processing capacities, they are smart because they enable a form of virtual collaboration that can help solve many societal and environmental problems. Cities have been transforming into virtual spaces of collaborations among citizens, and urban problems are increasingly addressed through enabling the participation of people, the mobilization of resources, skills, and capabilities of individuals.
Moral of the story? Before jumping on the nostalgia bandwagon and question the authenticity of our virtual spaces, be smart, and use your smart device for a real purpose. How? You can join a crowdsourcing platform and donate to a project, or vote, or spend a few extra hours online to volunteer for an association… instead of that last selfie. Opportunities are endless.