arch-peace editorials

29 June 2011

Virtually real

As Orhan Ayyuce noted in a previous editorial “Of Disaster Tourisms”, this year – and only half of it has transpired – has been exceptionally eventful from some of the worst natural and human-induced disasters to the Arab Spring’s democratic optimisms (although still selectively manipulated based on European and American geopolitical and economic interests) and so much in-between. These events are layered on top of the domestic disaster-saturated media that we consume on a daily basis, possibly a contributing factor to the numbness, passiveness and lack of empathy to the sufferings of fellow humans and the environment, such as societal apathy to the plight of refugees forcefully articulated in Eleanor Chapman’s “The Detention Spectacle”.

As a voracious consumer of the media, I am afflicted by this modern disease as I go about my everyday routine, occasionally switching to the media screens both mobile and fixed for ‘disaster updates’. I am sure many of us are familiar with the feelings of vulnerability and helplessness that often follow. On the other hand, precisely through those same media screens one can digitally contribute to efforts on the ground to mitigate the impacts and assuage personal guilt (for being ‘lucky’?). However, presented with the multitude of competing disasters, one is often forced to choose which plight one is emotionally affected by – another “dilemma of choice” (to quote David O’Brien) on top of the many one negotiates (often poorly) on a daily basis!

A dilemma of virtual, capitalist democracy?
The thought always crosses my mind… Had ‘border security’ not been politicized into an election issue and become part of popular entertainment, would we endorse (by default) such hard-hearted approaches? And the same applies to the indifference to Climate Change (where a major political party has chosen to ignore the latest science and spin the energy lobby’s line). ‘Information’ is so accessible and ‘real-time’ that there are always multiple viewpoints at your fingertips (whether keyboard or, increasingly on the touch-screen). Individuals have many ‘choices’ of what to consume and thus adopt/form viewpoints, momentarily or longer, in the extremes between gullibility and skepticism.

The notion of ‘choice’ may also need to be questioned as arguably the meticulously choreographed media may have subconsciously guided our decisions or sufficiently confused us to indecision! A dilemma of ‘reality’?
Venturing into the Existentialist realm, in this context ‘reality’ seems to have become the aggregate of virtual representations and exchanges (of texts, images, moving images etc.) created by multiple scalar agents from governments and corporations to the individual and transmitted via media screens to our conscious and subconscious mental states. To repeat a cliché, it is in essence a ‘reality’ aided and amplified by technology (digital media-aided existence), a condition in lived spaces increasingly taken as a given – the now ‘less real’ physical world of space and time that once regulates our daily rhythms and cycles has become antiquated. For instance, ‘Reality TV’ (varyingly managed of course) is far more alluring, attractive, sensual, emotional, exciting, tasty etc. than anything in real life. Moreover, for better and for worse, the notion of ‘place’ and ‘friends’ have become compromised and devalued as places compete with digital interfaces and ‘personal’ relationships compete with social networks…

The dilemma of planning and designing for ‘reality’? This, as we all know, poses critical challenges to the planning and design of those structures and spaces and the education of planners and designers (particularly ones who have not experienced the previous ‘analog’ era?). To be fair, this depends on what side of the debate (or generation?) you are on. On one side, design teachers often lament the penchant for the computer-generated spectacle amongst students – on the other, some design teachers lament the lack of skills and understanding of those digital tools amongst design teachers themselves (a more recent form of discrimination based on computer program literacy?). One can argue that these tools (increasingly powerful, user-friendly and accessible) have been democratizing planning and design and the lines between good design and slick representation, the specialist and the laymen, authorship/outputs/influences from practitioners in developed and developing societies etc. have become ever more blurred. Sometimes akin to playing computer games, design has been rendered ‘easy’ yielding amazing ‘choices’ that places can now become – as well as the speed with which it can be delivered and changed, both virtually and built. The notions of ‘sense of place’ that persist through time are mere virtual fabrications of the market...
Hence design becomes synonymous with fashion and ‘design heroes’ (arguably a dying breed with the availability of the digital tools and formulas to reproduce the spectacle?) clothe cities with icons to material dreams/aspirations in the service of the market.

We live in democracies where mechanisms of the market, arguably more than actual people, decide how cities ought to be planned and designed; hence for example the urban growth boundary is moved further out and habitually filled with low-density sprawl with little protest (from the ivory tower). Geopolitically, market–dominated democracies determined that Zimbabwean and Burmese democracy could wait while Iraq and Libya required violent interventions. In terms of immigration, skilled migrants are welcomed (but not necessary valued) and refugees from wars (many from the very wars our elected representatives helped start) are demonized by the market…

Don’t get me wrong. I am not against technology, digital media and communications and the ‘market’ (and just because I’m not on Facebook doesn’t mean that I am anti Facebook – it’s a matter of choice in virtual lifestyle).

Overall there are many positive evolutions as individuals are more ‘informed’, ‘empowered’ and ‘equipped’ to voluntarily take action and advocate (in varying degrees). Yet on the flip side ‘depth’ of meaningful understanding and engagement seems to be sacrificed and any agency desiring change and reform must constantly contend with amplified (old) social conditions such as biases, gullibility, apathy and extremisms to name a few… As planning and design practitioners and educators, we probably need to be even more acutely aware and reflective in our everyday navigation of this reality – one where I also suspect there is a growing generational gap in the perception of the critical basic ingredients of ‘people’, ‘place’, ‘space’, and ‘time’. Again, I’m not judging that this is for the good or bad – it is only natural and ultimately depends on what we, individually and collectively, make of it...

Sidh Sintusingha
Architects for Peace, June 2011


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