Monday, January 25, 2016

City Lights 2: Mobility, Opportunity and Visibility in Cities

(speeding to some destination)

Cities allow mobility, offer opportunities and facilitate invisibility. This is a very nostalgic statement. Cities no longer allow mobility and facilitate invisibility. However, they still offer opportunities. It is not necessary that a city gives you all what you want but it gives you a platform to begin with. Depending on your qualifications and also other physical as well as mental abilities, you can grab the opportunity by its throat and demand what is due to you. There are a lot of people in the cities who start at some place and remain there for ever; there are some other people who start from humble beginning in some inconspicuous corners of the cities and become so big that the cities would be known even in their names. There is yet another lot that makes a steady movement from one end of the city to the other end and in due course become winners or losers. Winning and losing in a city is always relative and it is measured with the material gains or losses that one makes in his/her life. It is only money, ‘only money’ and affluence that determines one’s success in a city. In a village you could be a humble farmer and remain happy; you could be a humble teacher and still remain happy; or you could be a mendicant and still feel happiness. But in a city, whatever your spiritual sublimation is, one cares much for that. If you have opulence, then flaunt it; that is the only way to assert your position in a city.

That is the bad part of a city; it forces one to become a snob, a show off and a jerk. Vices grow as one’s need to succeed and show it off all for the people around him/her grow. It makes one a slave to the cravings that one feels to succeed in material life. In this race one forgets to see the subtleties around. There is beauty in the concrete jungles; there is beauty in the small piece of sky seen through a window or a balcony. A park or the piece of a forest ridge seen from the terrace is worthy of contemplation but you miss it. There is always an urgency felt by most of the city dwellers to prove something to someone. One really does not know what is there to prove and to whom it should be directed. When one really does not know what to do with this, there occurs a need for symbolic satisfactions. That’s why people look for better cars, go for better locations, eat from expensive restaurants and watch movies paying for expensive tickets. Nobody really knows why one does it all. It is not the excitement of certain achievement that makes one happy or fulfilled of an inner need but the knowledge of the sense of exhilaration that is anticipated and understood in certain predetermined fashion by visiting some place or consuming certain things.

(Busy with their smart phones)

Each effort to succeed in a city makes one believe that each achievement thus gained would provide him/her with an adequate sense of mobility and both invisibility and visibility. Cities do offer mobility if mobility is understood as faster and smoother commuting between two points within the city itself or a point in the city and another point elsewhere. Let’s us forget traffic jams and similar clogging that we face on a daily basis on the city roads. In an ideal situation, a city is supposed to give increased mobility to an individual either by personal vehicles or by public transportation. This is the case of physical mobility but there is another case of virtual mobility that is made possible by the fast internet connections and smart phones with a whole lot of apps for various purposes. The contrast is felt and the inadequacy of being in a village is understood when you are caught in a situation in a rural area where roads do not really help fast driving or the phones fail to pick up frequencies. But we have to ask whether the physical and the virtual mobility offered by the cities actually translate into quality life or happier life. A deeper look would reveal that both these movements do not fundamentally make the individuals mobile.

Mobility that a city offers is limited as the mobility comes with a price that is paid by human focus on things that facilitate the mobility. That means, if you are travelling by a car at a higher speed, then the whole focus is on driving. In case if you are driven around by someone else, still your apparent mobility is directly connected to the intended goal either of reaching a destination or of meeting a person and in both cases the fruit of it is assessed how these acts turns into real money.  Again we are tied up to the material or money as a benchmark of success. Now, let’s take the case of a person who is connected to his smart phone and believes that he/she has enhanced mobility thanks to facilities offered by the phone and the internet connection. The whole focus of the individual here is again connected to the quality of the phone and the speed of the internet connection. If one of these fails, then the idea of mobility collapses. People look into their phones for two apparent reasons; one, they want to know certain things by ‘connecting’ with the world through increased ‘mobility’ and two, they want to avoid the real time connections not only with the people around but also with the space itself around them. So mobility here happens in an extremely detached and disconnected fashion which fundamentally is against the idea of mobility. The fundamental meaning of mobility, as seen elsewhere is the ability to reach but when one is ‘disconnected’ with both people and surroundings, automatically the mobility is nullified. It will be as good as daydreaming on a hobby horse or fighting with a windmill or even running behind a gold thief, curiously taking more pleasure in being a thief than the policeman in pursuit.

 (Day dreaming)

Daydreaming has its own sense of mobility hence it cannot be really connected to the virtual mobility that gets nullified by being ‘disconnected’. My point here is that the cities generally curtail the possibility of the individuals daydreaming at their will. First of all, the enhanced and vigorous ‘mobility’ of the city life as a whole closes down the avenues for daydreaming and also they kill the ‘will’ to daydream. Daydreaming is poetic, illogical and is the best tool of a non-conformist who chooses a city rightly yet wrongly as a place to nourish his abilities to daydream. He wants to bring about a revolution and a revolution needs a resolution and a resolution needs a lot of imagination and imagination is a byword for daydreaming. As the city is fast and always in a flux (which is good for different kinds of churning of mind and body), it takes away the patience from people to sit and daydream. There are so many places in a city including cafes and parks where in fact one could daydream. But in reality these places have become further hideouts so that either one could continue with their smart phones or they could make some real time chit chatting. Whether it is a park or a café, people in a city have forgotten the way to sit idle or connect with the people who are living in the real time. But we believe that in cities we connect with people by travelling great distances by cars or covering such distances by smart phones. With the dulled will and wit, one becomes a human machine that has forgotten the very idea of dreaming or imagination.

In cities, imagination is the privilege of those people who despite their abilities to create methods of making human machines, really do not fall for the real or virtual disconnects. They are the people who invent new apps, write new software, create new avenues of making virtual business and render the people motionless while imparting a feeling of added mobility. Such people are real dreamers and gifted with a lot of imagination. They make social media and introduce innovative ideas; they live in their rural retreats, live organically, connect with people in real time and spend times in parks and cafes just to while away the time. They are not the people who really crave to prove through mobility. In fact they really do not move much; but when they move the whole world comes to know. They inadvertently make the world full of cities or rather they help in the gradual conversion of the villages into cities and make human machines that are happy with the idea of enhanced mobility by moving their lives into a city. These people who facilitate this imaginary mobility are not culprits of anything. We cannot accuse them of any guilt for creating such added ‘connectivity’ which disconnect people from people and events. They are the byproducts of a time that is created by the cities that demand more and more need for the people not only to live a sanitized life but also to measure their lives with the benchmark of success which materialistic in nature and invest them with the idea of flaunting it at the drop of a hat.

(You are being watched)

At the outset I mentioned that in today’s world cities do not offer invisibility. Cities used to be the places of opportunities because they could erase the social markers in a big way as people moved from rural areas to the city centers both as unskilled laborers and skilled workers. In India’s case, caste and creed, and the stigmas related to these could find lesser manifestations in the milling crowds of a city. People could move vertically and horizontally in city by not making much effort to hide their religion or caste which they had to in a closely knit village situation. In cities, through their labor and turning it into profit both for the employer and for themselves, they could transcend the religious and caste barriers. If one became a successful engineer or doctor in a city none asked his religion or caste. Even if the surnames showed their caste affiliations or names in themselves marked the religion of the name holder, the city life did not bother much about these things. One could gain visibility through making so many things about them invisible. Even they could become invisible in their own ghettos and just by being in a ghetto within a city they could become visible too and this visibility gave them both social and political power. While cities helped one to rise up in the scale economics through hard work and perseverance, by choice one could show absolute disinterestedness towards any such affiliations thereby making oneself both visible and invisible as an autonomous entity.

Gone are those days when people did not bother about caste, religion or creed even in big cities. Ironically globalization and added connectivity have made people more conscious of their genealogies and religious and caste affiliations. International strife regarding religious terrorism and ideological wars has facilitated a new situation where security of the state has become more important than the security of an individual. When the state is under threat and the state does not know whether the enemy is inside or outside and the complexion and religion of the enemy are not determined though there is a general assumption about the religion of the enemy, the state is always on the edge and it watches the citizens with the eyes of doubt and suspicion. An individual in a city therefore has become a potential threat to the state than an incumbent member who assures security to the state in turn. When the state looks at its own citizens with suspicion and treats him as a potential enemy, suddenly he/she become more visible than before. Each and every movement of a citizen is watched and noted and kept in compressed digital files. Except in the washroom and bed room, none is safe from the surveillance of the state. The invisibility that the cities had offered once upon a time has now absolutely become the visibility of the citizen. He/she is not sure when and where the state records his/her act. This Orwellian situation has now become so normalized that the absence of a CCTV camera induces some sort of anxiety and insecurity amongst the people in the city. One volunteers to be visible in such a situation. The irony is that the more one wants to be visible before the state as if in a very naïve effort to prove his innocence in a crime which he has not committed nor does have any intention to commit, the more he yield his right to be invisible in a city. 

(self flagellation for imaginary sins)

The cities have become treacherous spaces. We are no longer safe in a city. It is not because that we are in the wrong hands but because our over belief in the right hands which we are already in. We have given ourselves to the city authorities and we have given away our will to imagine and have surrendered our reasons to connect with the real people and spaces for and before the state. In a strange turn of things, we have become victims who demand more punishment from the master for the wrongs that we allegedly believe that we have done. In this sense, in the cities we have become more like religious believers who are forced think themselves as sinners and any kind of punishment that we voluntarily take is a way to salvage ourselves from the possible ‘punishment’ after life or after death. So this willing victimization has become a auto-erotic play for the people that they find all the satisfaction of being a victim in the added mobility both in the virtual and real spaces. The very knowledge that they are being watched wherever they go gives them a sense of protection. The ironic expression that ‘slavery is freedom’ as expressed by Orwell has become an absolute and readily accepted truth of our times. In the cities we have become immobile with lesser opportunities to transcend and have become too visible to be alone.  

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