Barbarous Indifference and Selfish Egotism

In what follows, Communication and Media lecturer David Hill returns to themes from his 2012 article Total Gating (in the journal Mobilities) in order to think through problems around urban withdrawal, selective disassociation and digital media.

In his The Condition of the Working Class in England, an extensive study of London and the industrial cities of the north that he visited as a young man in the first half of the nineteenth-century, Friedrich Engels observed: ‘The more that Londoners are packed into a tiny space, the more repulsive and disgraceful becomes the brutal indifference with which they ignore their neighbours and selfishly concentrate upon their private affairs’. Engels recognised that this individualisation was characteristic not only of London, but of modernity in general, claiming, however, that it was nowhere more pronounced than with the crowds of England’s capital. Of London – and also Manchester, Birmingham, and Leeds – he concludes: ‘Here indeed human society has been split into its component atoms’.

This picture is familiar to us today. What is contended – by Walter Benjamin, at least, in his essay ‘On Some Motifs in Baudelaire’ – are the value judgements made of this state of affairs. He writes of Engels’ account:

It lacks the skill and ease with which the flâneur moves among the crowd and which the journalist eagerly learns from him. Engels is dismayed by the crowd; he responds with a moral reaction, and an aesthetic one as well; the speed with which people rush past one another unsettles him. The charm of his description lies in the intersecting of unshakeable critical integrity with an old fashioned attitude. The writer came from a Germany that was still provincial; he may never have faced the temptation to lose himself in a stream of people.

So, the essence of Benjamin’s complaint is that Engels is too moralistic about his jarring experience of the big-city crowd, about which he is not, apparently, alone – ‘Fear, revulsion, and horror were the emotions which the big city crowd aroused in those who first observed it’, remarks Benjamin – and that he has failed to see the new freedom of the flâneur in this scene. I feel this is unfair. The remarks of Engels referred to by Benjamin – he quotes a lengthier passage than that reproduced above but I have presented the nub of the matter raised by Engels – come in a chapter on ‘The Great Towns’ of England. Engels begins with these reflections on the indifference of people towards people in the hustle-bustle crowd but quickly moves into comprehensive accounts of workers’ living conditions and the general squalor of the city. His point could not be clearer: it is precisely in the most abhorrent conditions, within scenes of the most appalling human suffering, that we at the same time find indifference towards the distress of other people. Not that the reader need make this connection of their own, since Engels makes it explicit: ‘Everywhere one finds on the one hand the most barbarous indifference and selfish egotism and on the other the most distressing scenes of misery and poverty’. To claim that Engels is practising an old-fashioned moralism seems a stretch: he is observing human suffering and the response of those proximate to it, so his moralising is not out of place and his attitude not out of time, since I hope that we can all agree that omission of action in such circumstances is, at the very least, a cause for critical reflection on how such a state of affairs comes about.

What of the disparity between Engels’ account and Benjamin’s flâneur? This notion, originated by Charles Baudelaire but put through its paces by Benjamin, is of a stroller who experiences the city through his wanderings. Benjamin describes him as a ‘man of leisure’ capable of losing himself in the crowd, which is to say, who is not struck by the revulsion, fear, and horror that apparently afflicts Engels. There is clearly a time and a place for the flâneur, and I would not like to deny that there is a great pleasure in roaming the streets of an unfamiliar city, but Engels’ concern was not with the ‘man of leisure’ but the ‘man of work’, whose conditions were appalling. He was not concerned with the individual’s ability to ‘lose himself in the crowd’ but with the willingness of that individual to ‘lose’ others completely, to turn a blind eye to their suffering.

There is a curious line in Engels’ text that reads: ‘Everyone turns his house into a fortress to defend himself – under the protection of the law – from the depredations of his neighbours’. These figurative fortresses have today taken a literal form in the gated community. It is left open to the reader to wonder about the depredations of the neighbour: what predatory attacks would Engels be referring to? Today we might say that it is of little matter what the actuality of this depredation is, that what matters is the idea in the mind that you are vulnerable to your neighbours, to those that surround your home. We find gated communities in areas where the risk of others is perceived to be high: in the major cities of Brazil; in Los Angeles; in the mash-up of class and ethnicity that is London; and, as I have previously explored, in Teesside. These also happen to be areas where poverty, for many, is high. Poverty and crime combine to reinforce the sort of fear that leads to gating. Once more then we find the cruellest indifference towards others amidst poor conditions.

One aspect of Engels’ account that does not quite tally today is his claim that human society has been split into atoms. We see instead that a given social space may indeed be so divided, but that atoms are nonetheless networked beyond that particular locale. That is, the occupant of a gated community may well have withdrawn from the immediate social space whilst remaining very much in place, but they are not hermits. Gated communities are virtual communities, they are advertised as possessing the state-of-the-art when it comes to ICTs since, and after all, complete isolation would be a high cost to pay for withdrawal from your immediate surroundings. We should understand gated communities as protected nodal points in a circuit-board society. Occupants can maintain social relations whilst ignoring their neighbours (those outside the gates). Of course, the compulsion of proximity is great and so virtual relations will never suffice: we all still want to get out there and meet people, and the occupants of gated communities appear no different. Today, digital media are revolutionary in terms of mobility around urban space. This works in two ways. First, unnecessary excursions into urban space can, to a greater extent than ever before, be avoided – managed through a selective mode of disassociation. Social media can be used to maintain relationships regardless of geographical distance between people such that it is no longer essential to meet face-to-face if you want to lead a social life, something that feeds into the viability of gated existence. Second, face-to-face meet-ups can be choreographed using social media such that we can control more exactly when and whom we meet; random encounters with others can be negotiated or avoided by the combination of this ability to more precisely organise social meet-ups with bubbled mobilities, trajectories into urban space that are private or defended.

This applies universally to users of digital media, not just to those behind the gates. They too can exert greater control over who they encounter online. It is also the case that they can construct their own ‘bubbles’ when out and about. Between headphones and wi-fi, social space has subtly changed. Why talk to your neighbour on the train when your friends are accessible via a Facebook application on a smart phone? Or pour your lovesick heart out to the barman in the pub when you can use the same smart phone to meet new singles in your area through online dating? To possess an iPhone is to be constantly in possession of a newspaper, a television, a computer, a games console – and, of course, a telephone. When someone is oblivious to what is going on around them we say that they are lost in their own little world. It seems more accurate to conclude of mobile media that we carry a window onto a wider world, that we are no longer limited to the claustrophobic environment around us – and all those strange people within it. It is often said that new technologies have shrunk the world; the local shrinks too, and we can now easily step outside of it. The point is not to make value judgements when people choose to disengage with their surroundings and take control of who they encounter, but that this selective disassociation is not without ethical consequence. When we can so readily choose who we encounter, or simply just ignore what is occurring around us by immersing ourselves in mobile media, we have to answer to Engels’ complaint – the indifference is brutal.

What of the digital media environment itself? The environments they create can also be fortified against the depredations of the neighbour, such that we might talk of ‘online gating’. The profile used in social networking is like the gap between the bars in the gate; just as passers-by are afforded a partial view of the occupants’ existence, so too can browsers only see ‘bits’ of the reality of the user. The friends list is analogous to the residents of the gated compound, ‘people like us’ who are allowed into the fold. Blocks and filters work as gates and walls, keeping the strange out and affording the user control over the traffic through the online environment. The codes of conduct that users sign up too (often unwittingly) are much like the residents’ agreements that dictate how those behind the gates ought to behave. These codes are enforced by the moderators, who act much like a committee of residents; fail to conform, and the moderators become security guards, casting the now strange users from the fold. A laboured analogy, perhaps, but merited in that it poses questions about how we view the way online environments are designed, including the control they afford users over encounters.

To bring all of this together, if we reflect on both gating and online gating in light of mobile media use in the urban context, there adds a new dimension to total gating. Not only do residents of gated communities occupy a counterpart city; not only do they combine this with ICT use to reinforce their control over the urban environment (selective disassociation); but now the online environments they can occupy at their nodal points are seen to resemble the very gated, counterpart city they have created in the urban environment. China Miéville could not make it up. In his The City & The City two cities occupy the same space and residents from one parallel city are forbidden from entering the other parallel city; with total gating, occupants of one environment (the city) are forbidden from entering a parallel environment (the counterpart city created by gating) – and if the others get too close then there is another parallel environment (the online environment fashioned after the gated environment) that they are also forbidden from entering and into which the gated residents can retreat.

The ability to disengage from the local environment has never been so pronounced or so achievable. (I’ve written a follow-up post on why I think we recoil from responsibility to others here.)