As a digital flâneur I have one very interesting relationship to time and place: I can stay physically fixed but still be mentally mobile through the internet. I can also be the opposite: mentally fixed through the use of my cell phone but be physically mobile.
The quote is from a travelogue written by a student and based upon her experiences from travelling in front of the computer. She performed her task as a dérive, using a series of movements on Manhattan as a scheme for travels in Stockholm, all by means of maps and other information available on the internet.
What she brings forward here are two very different ways of relating to concrete and virtual space in contemporary life. The first one can be expanded to all opportunities of staying in one place – for instance at home – and using available means of virtual or fantasised travel, from printed to electronic media. The second opportunity not only includes using the mobile to stay in touch with friends and family members when on the move, but all ways used by travellers to maintain networks of stable relations.
Her quote brings me back to a text I wrote some years ago on daily movements in housing environments. In the paper “Spaces of flow and coincidence“, I introduced the two extremes of the (computer) nerd and the (digital) nomad as representatives of ways of relating to the world in “information society”. They were sketched as ideal types and based upon very little empiric evidence apart from what was reported and debated by the media at that time. The idea was to put a new light upon community – in the sense of settlement – to acknowledge all the opportunities of social intercourse that go beyond local encounters face to face. Such modes of interaction were regarded as non-contributing to the creation and upholding of local social contexts.
It is still possible that the “nerd” and the “nomad” in some sense are relevant as ideal types in the sense that they refer to actual behaviour among groups of people. We all notice that some people around us actually tend to stay in front of their computer screens and others are always out, making use of their mobiles.
But more interesting are the opportunities (suggested in the quote above) to shift between states of being bodily static or moving and being mentally stationary or mobile. This way of putting it actually offers four opportunities, or four modes of combining travelling and staying.
Square 1 is applicable upon all sorts of place-bound relationships where interaction occurs between corporeally present people and communication via media play a limited role. Square 2 refers to the digital nomad, being on the move but still – by way of mobile communication tools – maintaining her or his social network. Just like nomadic tribes used to bring along their communities on their seasonal moves, the digital nomad is constantly in touch with friends and family. In square 3 we find for instance the hacker, the computer nerd or anyone who spends a lot of time in front of the computer, for instance armchair travel by way of internet. Square 4, finally, represents a condition of hybrid mobility when for instance wireless internet is used to navigate mentally, while simultaneously travelling in a physical sense – or when mobile phones are used to communicate within changing networks of people constantly on the move.
The reason for making this diagram is to sort out different possibilities of movement and stillness in the information society. However there are non-mediated variants of all four options. Storytelling or reading is a way of armchair travelling without using television or internet (3). Even hybrid mobility is an opportunity without electronic media just by bringing a travel book when going by train or air (4). Taking one’s family on a trip by car is in a way staying while travelling – and commuting sometimes means joining a relatively stable group of fellow travellers or even workmates (2).
Is this at all interesting? For me, the mobile phone represents the second square – being on the move without losing contact with the base camp – be it home or any other inhabited location. But the graph suggests the prospect of (more or less) abandoning the base and instead interacting with a fluctuant set of mobile contacts (4). Mobile communities are (temporarily) stabilised by the ever-present capacity of keeping in touch offered by the cell phone, of interacting while roaming. We still need somewhere to stay and to meet, but the communities we are involved in are becoming less and less dependant upon those fixed places.
Now I am going to a café where I have never been before to see a person that I know only via e-mail and internet.
Jennie Boija: “A Cyberflâneur’s Travel Guide”. Unpublished paper, 2008
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