Sunday, 29 October 2017

52. Cities and invisibility: a new type of God

Cities and invisibility: under the the gaze of Google and Facebook and self help books

In the first part of the entry (50), I argued that cities cannot keep the same idea of God as in Villages, because the collective gaze (the gaze of the neighbour) is not ever present. Cities grant a level of privacy to its citizens (there are areas where this gaze is blind to). Therefore people in cities feel different about God's gaze:

  • the gaze is absent (some sort of God forsaken place), 
  • never existed (atheism), 
  • or comes back as a new personal God that looks at you at a more personal level, responding to the atomised structure and individuality of urban life (self help). 
We learn that we should not expect a positive response from a neighbour or a supporting community. We are alone in our problems and should deal with them with self help techniques.

Cities offer indeed a more diverse view than a village. More people and more diverse people live together, share public services, bump into each other in public spaces, etc. In a city we see more and we are more invisible at the same time. Our neighbour is quite busy, he doesn't notice us. It's like being abandoned by the collective gaze, it simply does not have time fore us. However, technology is coming to the rescue. This gaze directed to us -individually- is being incarnated by Facebook and Google. On the one hand we don't seem to bother about how much they know about us and on the other hand their algorithms are acting like the new gatekeepers filtering what we should see. We all know that different people will have different results in a Google search, which it is done with the purpose of offering relevant content. That means there is someone up there in the cloud thinking about what we need (isn't it touching?). This personal god is recreating a virtual village (made up by friends or even friends with whom I agree) where I find normal what my virtual village finds normal.
Technology is recreating through their relevance-ensuring algorithms the old village gaze, what's now called a filter bubble, a womb where we feel safe. 
This, of course, became a hot topic with two surprising election results. Brexit and Donald Trump. People in big cities (in particular) were surprised with the results of the election. They discovered there were tons of people "out there" that have different views that had not been "visible" up to that point.

The problem with the infantilizing effect of relevance is that this blindness to what tech companies deem irrelevant for us, is not very far away from makings us start to  think that a different view is "not normal" and start to approve that powers decide to make these different voices shut up and to reestablish the order of the virtual village. It was in the context of Brexit that I was part of discussions where young people were arguing in favour of qualified voting, for example claiming that people without university degrees should not vote, and idea that is deeply antidemocratic.

Our contribution to the construction of the collective gaze through the acceptance of bubbles gives us as a result a new adolescent God that is happy to punish and banish all who disagree in order to keep Eden in order. As individuals we are no longer sustaining and constructing collective freedom. More and more frequently people build arguments for censorship (let's not talk about politics/ gun control/ Brexit/ Catalunya / the AfD / the financial sector, Santiago Maldonado, etc), supported by concepts of individual freedom. They are surrounded by many more bystanders that in their passivity somehow agree that not speaking up is the best way forward for keeping peace. Silence, censorship and outright repression are being normalised for the sake of peace. For this reason I claimed in the part 1 of this entry (50) that freedom is in danger.

Against the social fracture

Love and freedom are connected concepts. Love is the non-castrating limit of freedom. It is what allows power to show self-restraint in order to not impose itself and to avoid breaking the bond. This self-restraint was missing during the repression of the Referendum in Catalonya.

It is easy to be (or imagine ourselves) free alone, with no relationships and other interests to consider. Enabling each other's freedom within a bond is much more complicated.

And even if those conversations Salman Rushdie speaks about happen, they don't necessarily lead to anything better. In an era with access to what it seems infinite amount of information, information has been found to polarise audiences even more if they are used to disprove our inner beliefs. 

Our gaze, our vision of God

Even though in cities "the collective action" is present everywhere, we might not see it. We open a tap to get water we did not pump, we buy a salad or a tomato we did not plant, we did not watch grow, we did not water, we did not collect, we walk on floors we did not lay. Still we feel the absence of the gaze. The one that looks at us and "sees" our needs (something beyond the needs for water, and food, and infrastructure that we now take for granted). Because we are tailoring our interactions and conversations so much, we are narrowing our view of what's normal. And because of that, we are recreating a village with a more conservative god than in the old testament. The tension in the village is that it is both Eden and Egypt. This village with a narrow sense of what's accepted is Eden for those in power and Egypt for the ones considered not normal. Being a child can be Eden and Egypt. A paradise and the place where we are slaves and we want to escape from. But being dependent (of others, of the collective infrastructure, of our employers, of our country) is not the same as being slaves and being independent is not the same as being free. Is repression the only pacifying method? Is breaking all bonds the only escape?

Going back to the initial argument in entry 50. If we step back and remember that collective freedom is about all of us authorising everyone to be free (which implies a self-restricting limit of love) and, not only that: we go beyond and we confabulate to get out of ourselves every once in a while to help others overcome the restrictions they find in their way. Our gaze is our vision of God, how the collective should order itself. The difference of the village god and the city god is the subjectivity. In the village, we have "the town", "the people", the folk, "el pueblo", a collective that tends to deny the individual. In the city, the subjectivity is that of an individual, that tends to deny the collective. Our gaze should start to see both, the individual and the collective, and become active supporters of the collective from our individuality because it is only in this acknowledgement we can build freedom, our individual freedom. Freedom is a collective phenomenon.


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