A study on the potential of urban and cultural theory to revitalize social experience online, kindling a spirit of creative misuse.
Note: This piece was written prior to the killing of George Floyd and the ensuing uprising and protests, which have reclaimed vast swathes of public space both in the imaginary and in reality. This new context had clear implications for several points of analysis in the original piece, and we have layered insight in where suitable, while avoiding a frivolous or appropriative treatment of the ongoing national discourse.
“His living room is a box in the theater of the world.” ~Walter Benjamin
On a typical morning — a pre-pandemic one, if we can still conjure its texture — we might brew a pot of coffee, check our feeds, or exercise (ambitious, yes). We might queue a podcast, or pick up a sandwich, or take a call, or commute. This transit, a gradual broadening of our attention and energies from the intimacy of private life to the openness of our public one, seems quite simple and is indeed easily taken for granted.
An absence of the commons from our lives now is conspicuous. A broad ecosystem of space — the public, social sphere that knits communities together — has been compressed into one awkward, oversubscribed surrogate: a kitchen table and laptop. While protests over the killings of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and others — civic action on a scale heretofore unseen in this country — have reclaimed various forms of public space, our experience of collective social relation has still, by and large, been flattened by the health crisis and its quarantine. This quandary is likely here to stay: as some states amble toward reopening businesses, others still are seeing a resurgence of viral cases. It’s becoming clear: dominant modes of common space — the workplace and the retail shop — may be changed for good.
A sociologist or urbanist might divide the ecosystem of space, as we know it, into thirds: the first space being the home, the second space work, and the third a kind of in-between, a connector, everything that is elusive and outdoors right now. When Ray Oldenburg first coined the term ‘Third Space’ in 1989, he was extending a long tradition of thinking on the city as varied, cluttered, hypnotic, and surprising — a spatial and social territory that…