When we stare at our phone, we flatten the rich texture of urban life
For most, especially those of us in cities, it has been a long time since our relationship with our environment has gone unmediated by technology, and we are not likely to feel the loss of a direct and sensuous connection to the earth acutely. It is, after all, not necessary for the urban inhabitant to sniff the air for a predator, to know which plot of dirt hemmed in by concrete ledges might best support grains. There is no need to know how to identify the droppings of animals in city parks and, even without weather apps, there is no pressing need to scan the sky for showers or note drops in the barometer to assess when the rain might come.
The real problem is what is being passed by and through, unseen or misunderstood, in the built environment itself. The urban landscape might be ignored, but the city is not silent. By design, it speaks. It nudges; it moves; it motivates; it persuades. The imposing curve atop St Paul’s Cathedral, the severe and minimalist thrust of the Shard, the golden glow of Prince Albert’s statue perched high above Kensington Gardens – these draw our eye upward, their height signifying their power, their vertical lines and dominating scale drawing our eyes heavenward in worship of God, and money, and monarchy. They speak to, among other things, England’s imperial history, global and cultural dominance, and financial might.
When we silence the city to pick up our phones, when we turn our gaze from the city’s stories to digital maps, we see only distorted selections of reality, bounded by frames, decontextualised, giving us the false sense that our journeys are imposed on the city, mapped over it rather than through it. These maps and apps flatten, simplify and neutralise space that is in reality three-dimensional, complex and rhetorical.
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