Cyburbia: L.A. As the New Frontier, or Grave?, by Fred Dewey
           
           
   
 
 
 
 
       
         
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L.A. has long been boosterized as a kind of paradise for commerce and fantasy. It has also been lamented for its lack of a sense of community, for cars out of control, people’s retreat into isolation, and the privatization of public space. What if these latter dilemmas are not absences, but effects of a new, emerging type of city?

Scholars have been struggling to find terms for this new landscape and its rumbling conflicts. I would argue LA has long been struggling not with suburbia, but with suburbia’s transitional nature, gestating a new form which is only now materializing with the development of information and image transmission technologies. Its primary trait is the merger of what we still, in perhaps outmoded fashion, think of as material versus immaterial that is, the real and unreal. It is a built environment that produces and is made of images, information, and formidable strategies of mobilization and security. It is an imaginary city only in the sense of ‘setting the stage.’ To borrow a brilliant distinction made at a recent Getty symposium on the city and cinema. What is set up is all too real.

L.A. may be the first city truly created by the information revolution, albeit in its early stages. From its takeoff at the turn of the century, the L.A. Times and the Chandler-Otis dynasty and its close friends used real estate holdings and hype to steer the city’s development, layout, water supply, political direction, and in turn, the nation. Hollywood and defense/aerospace joined suit, with suburban tracts financed and filled by, and in turn fueling, war production, altogether creating ‘environments’ with global impact. This resulted in a city produced by and producing a truly unique confluence of forces, what one could call the defense-entertainment-information complex.

The commonality of electronics to the defense industry, the entertainment industry and news production unveils an entirely new paradigm of armed, and somewhat ruthless, semiotic expansionism. Far from a city without a center, a city of multiple identities, whatever heterogeneity or independent public politics arises here is subsumed in L.A.’s design and production of the fantasy-security dome protecting, imagining, and globalizing the United States. This may be why, as Ed Soja has noted sardonically, the city is ringed by the most formidable array of military bases in the history of the planet.

L.A. has evolved into an anti-polis, a city of pure privacy. Its cybernetic, spatial, political, and economic tendencies sustain a highly productive and diverse world of industry and labor yet, perhaps for the first time in urban history, thwart development of a free, public realm as reward and dutiful repository for this endless labor. In an increasingly electronified loop, those excluded and crushed play their critical role. Social breakdown and neglect are not merely ‘entrenched.’ They are becoming part of the nest of forces driving the development of an electronically saturated and secure world. Fear has always been a part of the city of nets. But far from a failure, it may turn out to have been all along one of the critical forces propelling the push inward, ever more into not the self, but the private, producing a technologized, secured, fantasy realm to blanket the world.

The built environment has always been about the geography of power. This is no less true when the netting and electronicization of our environment, through modems, cable, mobile technologies and the ‘air touch’ of cellular and microwave, make the goal of absolute, narcissistic control of ‘reality’ materially attainable. The lure of cyburbia is precisely to live in a technologically protected, secure, safe, dreamlike and monitored world. When truly personalized, cyburbia may offer as its portal to community an interactive screen of electronic selves and agents that arise and vaporize week by week. Yet as the net overlays and weaves holes in material boundaries, human metaphysical encapsulation, on the one hand, and total vulnerability and degradation on the other, grow. The privileged overclass retreat behind their enveloping electro-mechanical buffer, while, those without, a large and growing group, experience the brutish facticity and chaos, not of fantasy, but of its abdication and effect, the real.

LA is approaching its cyburban antipolis status by a radical advance in spatial containment and elimination. For even as it refines its thematization and control of reality, bringing the privileged together electronically inside secured, gated enclaves, problems on the ‘outside’ deepen. It is not by chance the two most resonant riots of the late 20th century occurred here, in Watts and South Central. A cybernetic loop has been established, whereby the perception of increase in crime and chaos, i.e., their threat, whether true or not, propels desire for ever more exclusive control, security, and monitoring to protect what is ‘inside’ the fantasy of immaculate, non-human existence.

The breakdown of the real into toxicity, crime, traffic jams, poverty, and community disintegration become caught in what cyberneticists call a feedback loop, but what I would prefer to call the material, built environment. They provide the necessary, and dependant, impetus for industrial development of an immaculate world where none truly come face to face. In LA, first there was the closeup, then the media event, and now the virtual event. It is, in some profound ways, a neo-medieval paradigm. The real world is a lost cause, and so we retreat. As more and more real communities fail, the push is on for ever more refined and secure castle-enclaves, points of entry into, and exclusion from, the magic kingdom of infinite desire.

These pathologies driving the expansion of cyburbia find their origins in suburbia, where flight meant leaving unfortunates behind and turning ones back on real problems. This has profoundly restructured the process of cultural division and segregation. Suburbia’s safe, secure, clean and orderly private space meant one could indulge every primal fantasy in a technological, built way, disappearing into communities where everyone was apparently just like you. This was the first nail driven into the coffin of the polis. In time, as we now see, suburbia reveals the ravages of its inhumanity, both internally and externally.

Cyburbia’s hubris, which is L.A.’s hubris, first and foremost, is to provide the door to never having to face the errors of our suburban and inner city past. In cyburbia, the desperation of the excluded becomes electronically bonded to the retreat of the elite. Far from representing the problems produced by exclusion, fantasy, and security obsessions, in the new virtual realm, the real becomes the ghetto, a place losers end up. It is the thing to be technologically avoided. As net surfers and cybernauts put it rather graphically, everything human outside the cyber-realm becomes ‘meat.’

Dialogue in cyberspace is, contrary to hype, ill-equipped to affect or reign in powerful interests moving ever further ahead of the citizen. Information quantity is multiplying, but control of distribution, affecting what gets through, is concentrating in ever fewer hands. Open ‘meeting places’ in cyberspace may never make the leap to dealing with problems in the real world, and therein lies their tragic lure. People meet to share common interests in private, hardly to work out and face intractable differences between real, sweaty, and flawed human beings. Those assemblies which can occur, do so almost entirely now in cyberspace, where anything can be monitored, infiltrated, recorded, or steered off course by hard-to-identify agents. The most obvious and important trait is never discussed: electronic, or virtual, communities have a very hard time enduring, in a meaningful, built, face to face sense. When real people do meet, they may be driven further apart, to the edge of violence.

The reduction of community to a symbolic and semiotic technology leaves the real as the target of cleansing, a world of privatization with no privacy, existence with no substance, immaculate life on one side and violence on the other. The long-trumpeted suburban silent majority, with all its apathy, is not about withdrawing from and refusing power, as Jean Baudrillard has argued, but about people being withdrawn from, and beginning to hate, each other: it is atomization without open domination. As Tony Vidler noted in the same recent Getty colloquia, the panopticon of surveillance has been superseded, and we need new models.

Suburbia first developed the deadly triad of separation, virtual sensations, and total mobilization. Positioned in production lines, people were then placed happily in pleasure domes. The car got you from one to the other. Inside controlled enclosed spaces, we gained the ‘sense’ of the uniqueness of the non-unique, through the ‘presence’ of glamorous events and personalities on TV or goods in the mall, more ‘real’ than screaming kids and arguing parents across the lawn. As Anne Friedberg has argued in Window Shopping, the automobile may itself be a training for virtual space, where one is cut off, enclosed, moving through a world one did not create by virtual window.

In advancing all this, cyberspace is the very definition of ideology, as Scott Bukatman noted in the Getty symposium. No longer does ideology need to be reduced to statements, beliefs, or political platforms. Now it can exist as interactive worlds, entire labyrinthine plateaus of virtuality. What is left out of the discussion is that, however much Internet romantics see the data ocean as our salvation, they have de facto given up on face-to-face accountability and accessibility. This is not just an abstract problem. It is a problem of the built environment. Where do people go and exist while net-life unfolds?

L.A. promotes a strange and dangerous notion, that the face-to-face realm is avoidable, that privacy is better. Its entire technological and conceptual base pushes us to believe imagination, fantasy, and thinking come from retreat into privacy, rather than from being in the public space. But the face to face realm is messy, like the real world. And just as we failed to take charge of the development of suburbia, with its proliferation of Levittowns and freeways, we are now once again turning from the messy real into a technological fantasy of order that may well be catastrophic.

Interests driving the new frontier are hardly going to discuss its effect on civic life and interaction. But how do we deal with a world where ever larger regions of life are severed from public visibility and accountability? The L.A.-cyburban paradigm suggests the single perspective is impossible. Unfortunately, it is being replaced with a realm of endless perspectives folding inward, and likely, with cyburbia in full flower, no stable position whatsoever.

The model, I would argue, for this new cyburban regime of no viewpoint, is hardly the agora, with its open discussion and debate between real citizens, but the over-worked model of Disneyland. Here a totally privatized fantasy disguises control of the constitution, control, and expansion of the world by a corporatized few. It is a world we must enter and agree to before we can “experience something, and still we must pay. It is a place where point of view does not matter. We ‘buy in.’ If we do not, we’re ‘out.’

Disneyland has become the folkloric trope of our era, like Coney Island was in its day. Yet to see this as theme park is radically insufficient. It is here we find the link not just between space and theme, but between the cybernetic world of feedback, control, monitoring and the built environment. The control and rigidity of experience which Disneyland symbolizes is based on constant, unblockable control and monitoring: it is a force which lets go only when you’re out of money. Mechanized, automatic, navigable, and claustrophobically banal, Disneyland is a transitional technology, where people do not create or revise the reality they traverse, but decide how to traverse a reality created by others, all inside a secure perimeter. One learns to forget the desire to create reality oneself, and instead to experience the pleasure of a machine the mass is said to desire.

In cyburbia, our reduction to laboring animals in pure society becomes invisible. People will be able to work at home, conversing with people continents away, never having to meet the stranger across the street or next door, or, for that matter, the boss. Not to mention someone of a different group, race or class. When plugged into the screen, confronting a real person becomes a threat, a danger to immersion. Yes, one can leave a hundred messages on the boss’ Email, but what then? Will five hundred employees each get to talk one-on-one with the boss, or will it be Perot’s town hall, where the boss speaks to five hundred, personally, at five hundred locations?

Just as suburbia and its partner the decaying inner city have thwarted and undermined material possibilities for public space, cyburbia represents the end of public interaction and movement across, and overcoming, differences of hierarchy, race, class, and gender. It has replaced this real movement with a pseudo-movement of signs. The technicalized, professionalized bureaucratic buffer of the 20th century is expanded and transformed into a post-modern electronic curtain, enveloping everyone in their own private, segregated world of consumption, labor, speculative existence and total penetration. Far from pulling back the electronic curtain to reveal the men behind the levers, cyburbia suggests the feudalistic politics of caste and invisible power, lurking under industrialism and bureaucracy, are now rationalizing themselves into the only remaining domains of existence.

This is why place, location and physical space, far from being antiquated by cyberspace, become the key issue again. Bringing people together face-to-face, and making this a constructive, ongoing and secure activity for self-government is a task professionals can ill afford to ignore if our freedom is to survive. In the face of cyburbia, we must devise ways to encourage different people to come together as equals, face to face, to govern and create their own worlds, not to navigate worlds handed to them. This is the abyss facing architecture, design, and community – what William Gibson, describing Singapore, calls ‘Disneyland with the death penalty.’ Resistance is springing up, but architecture and the human must first become better friends, or they may well become enemies.

Fred Dewey resides in Los Angeles and has written for London’s New Statesman, LACPS’ Framework and the L.A. Weekly.

Back to May 1994 Newsletter: Los Angeles Urbanism