Flâneurs and Surfers

The Internet is the siren call of the voyeur—witness the importance of pornography to its financial success—much as the city was, with Paris the exemplar, to the 19th century. And the reservoir of energy one can tap into through the Web is certainly proving transformative. “In a similar style to the Flâneur, a web surfer hopes to gain novel experiences by following links that arouse his curiosity. Thus freed from the demands of targeted search, his navigation and reading of the material is not directed or tainted by expectations. Rather than judging information by preconceived criteria, he finds joy in assessing the material for its own merit” (Mercedes Paulini and Marc Aurel Schnabel, “Surfing the City: Towards Context-Aware Mobile Exploration,” 385). Soon, that ‘joy’ exceeds its ‘own merit,’ creating new goals and pathways, new organizations of information. Robert Luke describes a permutation, “the phoneur, the cell phone sporting, incessantly talking, e-urbanite whose identity is articulated within the mediated space of the mobile phone and the ensuing enculturation processes of the wireless web” (Robert Luke, “The Phoneur,” 187). Such people have brought the Web down from the ether and into life, another clear transforming action. As Andy Clark writes, “the iPhones, Blackberries, laptops and organizers… transform and extend the reach of bare biological processing in so many ways. These blobs of less-celebrated activity may sometimes be best seen, myself and others have argued, as bio-external elements in an extended cognitive process: one that now criss-crosses the conventional boundaries of skin and skull” (Andy Clark, “Out of Our Brains,”). Extraordinary as these changes may prove to be, however, they present only limited visions of the flâneur, and also of the Web surfer or netizen. Something more, another level of perception and knowledge, is also needed.

In 1863, at the beginning of “The Painter of Modern Life,” Charles Baudelaire described the visitor to a museum who stops only at the most known works, then believes they know the museum. He uses this as a lead-in, as:

an excellent opportunity to establish a rational and historical theory of beauty; to show that beauty is always and inevitably of a double composition, although the impression that it produces is single—for the fact that it is difficult to discern the variable elements of beauty within the unity of the impression invalidates in no way the necessity of variety in its composition. Beauty is made up of an eternal, invariable element, whose quantity it is excessively difficult to determine, and of a relative, circumstantial element, which will be, if you like, whether severally or all at once, the age, its fashions, its morals, its emotions. (Charles Baudelaire, The Painter of Modern Life and Other Essays, London: Phaidon Press, 1995, 3).

This last element requires knowledge and active engagement on the part of the viewer. The flâneur who cannot engage in this way, ingesting both aspect of beauty, but who only sees one or the other of the two can never appreciate the full extent of beauty—or of knowledge or of the Web and its possibilities. There are, then, two flâneurs, one who can comprehend and combine, and one who simply observes. The former “is not wandering aimlessly, but rather assembles ‘raw materials’ for the production of culture and identity. So, if early users of the initial incarnations of the web were more ‘alienated’ and passive, the active users of the Web 2.0 might reflect a desire to take control of the ‘alienating space’ by ‘aestheticising’ and ‘colonising’ it” (Simon Lindgren, “From Flâneur to Web Surfer,”), a far cry from passive observation or simple utilization.

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