Post-Internet Cities is a new collaborative project between MAAT – Museum of Art, Architecture and Technology and e-flux Architecture within the context of the Utopia/Dystopia exhibition and “Post-Internet Cities” conference, featuring contributions by Fabrizio Ballabio & Tommaso Franzolini, Salvatore Iaconesi & Oriana Persico, Nashin Mahtani, Marisa Olson, Hani Rashid, and Morten Søndergaard.
The later work of Walter Benjamin was largely dedicated to understanding the constitutive elements of nineteenth century Paris; not a physical city, but as the phantasmagoric construct that gave it the right to be called "Capital.” Phantasmagoria is, in short, the idea that the image projected onto the back of our retina is that of the world itself; that the allegory of the cave is not an allegory; that the shadows on the wall are more real than the objects casting them and their source of light. The internet today is, if nothing else, the phantasmagoric apparatus of the twenty-first century. Today we do not just identify with, but as our social media profiles; mistaking the it for the I and losing ourselves everywhere in between.
The internet has, since its cultural inception, been conceived of as an emancipatory technology. If, according to Benjamin, the invention of iron and glass predicated the nineteenth century paradigm of phantasmagoria through the “emancipation" of forms of construction from art—a historical trajectory that progressed onwards with the intervention of photography, montage, and the like—what, then, has the internet has emancipated from what? Conversely, the "accidents” of the internet—surveillance, fake news, the propagation of ideological evil, doxing, etc.—forces us to critically call into question the value of this emancipation; for who, and at what cost?
The first decades of the twenty-first century has been marked by both a proliferation of psychopathological diagnosis and the financial instrumentation of the city. While both of these contemporary phenomena can be traced back to the infrastructural affordances and sociological transformations wrought by the internet with relative ease, they are nothing particularly new as categories of historical transformation. Parallel to the overrun of Haussmann’s Paris by fraudulent real estate speculation was a medical discourse acutely aware and sensitive to the perceived impacts of the metropolis on its population’s nervous systems, from anxiety to depression, fatigue, headache, heart palpitations, high blood pressure and the like.
While one conservative interpretation of “neurasthenia,” as the general diagnosis was called, went that it was a threat to progress, the opposite was also possible. In speaking about the work of 19th century physiologist Angelo Mosso, Anson Rabinbach writes that “by ensuring an optimal state of equilibrium in which the body’s energy economy [becomes] syncretic with the imperatives of civilization,” these pathologies were the very means by which the progress of modernity could take place. Necessary for such balancing acts was the proliferation of a particular type of space—the domestic interior—and its attendant socio-architectural morphology—the single-family residence. If the internet is our modernity, is the term “post-internet” anything more than a question of how to make us work; how to render the unwillingly and pathologically unproductive re-productive again?
Just as the Paris commune did with the concept of the proletariat. critical discourse and cultural production has the power to shatter the phantasmagoric illusion the internet has cast over the city. The internet entered into cultural history as the dream of cyberspace. Yet within our slumber, we have failed to comprehend the significance and reckon with the fact that whatever space—analog or digital, real or virtual, abstract or concrete—takes place within and through the natural evolutions and regulations of the city; whatever its nature as an organism may be.
All over the world, cities have been, are, and will continue to be modernizing themselves with digital infrastructures, as much as they are able, willing, and feel the need to. Yet digital infrastructures have been, are, and will continue to be modernizing the city itself, as much as they can, on their terms. The temples of commodity that Benjamin identified in the Parisian arcades have long-since moved out of the city and onto the internet, leaving something like a void in the capital of cities that has been quick to be filled in and fought over by start-up ventures. Solutions are the commodity of today, and we know the ones we have to be insufficient in addressing the challenges we face. What is needed is a different way of seeing; a different language for questioning.