|From Wikimedia Commons, courtesy Michiel1972|
In a sociological tradition stretching back to Durkheim, the city represents the apogee of alienated life, with residents adopting a variety of strategies to cope with their anonymity and to preserve their privacy amidst multitudes of other residents. Especially important are techniques for managing contact in public transportation—trains, buses and subways—where interactions are simultaneously intimate and anonymous. Those strategies include ways of looking, but also a variety of technologies that urban-dwellers adopt to avoid contact with others: newspapers, books, and, in more recent decades, a variety of technological devices, including MP3 players and smartphones.
But while analysis of these techniques and technologies has revolved around avoiding contact, it may be more useful to think of them as techniques for relating to the anonymous city—for initiating contact through differentiated interactions. All of these technologies, including subways, books, buses and smartphones, can be said to enable a certain construction of place: a networked knowledge of the city that connects to people and space in particular ways. As we become more urban, these technologies are quite likely to increase. The future, then, may bring new excesses of anomie, but it will also result in new ways of networking to place and people.
This is certainly the case with Korea’s largest city (Seoul) and its second-largest (Busan), both with highly-developed subway systems and ubiquitous computing infrastructures that ensure that residents will never spend an instant unplugged from various social networks, even as they navigate complex, transportation networks above and below ground. Living in the city means initiating and managing relationships in time and space while in constant motion. Some analysis has suggested a “bang” (room) culture that constructs a variety of “third spaces” between home, work and school, but the ubiquity of online social networks means that these liminal spaces can also be mobile--appended to the cityscape during the course of everyday perambulation.
This is particularly evident in the profusion of social networking software and social apps available for smartphones, including ones available for setting up bling dates (소개팅)and managing appointments, locative mobile social networking (LMSN) utilizing GPS in order to pinpoint friends and potential contacts amidst an urban scape, as well as locational games that overlay the Korean city with digital game networks. These can mean novel ways of associating, and even new forms of politics. For example, the candlelight vigils following the liberalization of beef imports in 2008 have been seen as a watershed in Korean politics because they involved a preponderance of school-aged girls, and because they were organized through online social networking.
Ultimately, this may say something about the development of urban living as not only a contemporary phenomenon, but as a bellwether for urban futures around the world. However, the profusion of applications and the near-universality of the hand-set in Korean life don’t necessarily signal a “break” with the past and the emergence of a new way of urban living. Rather, the focus on the network discloses the networked character of the city, as shifting assemblages of connected urban systems rather than as a static tableau of spaces. Life networked to the city through the smartphone doesn’t so much initiate new forms of living as re-invent the urban as the elaboration of networked technologies—as the creation of new lines of flight focused on transportation and communication technologies.
This has important consequences for the study of the future. First, the profusion of smartphone applications and social networking suggests an immanent social critique—the projection of a utopian ideal over the grit of the real city. That is, the popularity of these forms of networked socialites suggests the production of multiple “invisible cities” over the existing one, the analysis of which may suggest the direction of urban futures. Second, although the Korean city construed as an assemblage of transportation and communication suggests ways of living and interacting that may be particularly Korean, it also signals urban futures for other parts of the world where these systems are not yet as developed, including urban spaces in the United States where IT infrastructures have not yet reached the level of integration of Korean cities.