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What are “non-places”?

In his 1992 essay, anthropologist Marc Augé defines non-spaces as opposite to culturally significant spaces:

If a place can be defined as relational, historical and concerned with identity, then a space which cannot be defined as relational, or historical, or concerned with identity will be a non-place.

Marc Augé, Non-Places. Introduction to an Anthropology of Supermodernity, 1995 [1992], p. 78

Non-places are deprived of historical value; they are interchangeable and forgettable; they are, simply put, of plain banality.

Why then pay attention to them?

Precisely because of their overabundance today. Supermodernity often reduces places to their most useful expression: commerce, transit, consumption, leisure—whilst emptying said places from their history and their meaning, rendering them as more or less abstract, and thus meaningless, “spaces.”

Clinics and hospital rooms, highways, shopping malls, slums, hotel chains, but also “travel” places (in particular those lacking characteristics, like a resort near a beach) tend to be non-places by excellence.

The hypothesis advanced here is that supermodernity produces non-places, meaning spaces which are not themselves anthropological places and which, unlike Baudelairean modernity, do not integrate the earlier places: instead these are listed, classified, promoted to the status of ‘places of memory’, and assigned to a circumscribed and specific position.

p. 78

Digital environments appear to be strong producers—hyper-producers—of non-places. The generic nature of large platforms leads to uniform and transitory experiences: one clicks, scrolls, moves around and errs in relatively undifferentiated spaces where there are increasingly more loading screens to see. Memory counts for little, since the ephemeral triumphs.

Web sites tend to look alike; in addition, their name or URL address (which define or circumscribe a given site) seem to lose importance considering the tendency to access content through a single click, or with a search query, always via a platform, via a particular search engine, or even through algorithmic recommendation. These dynamic environments favour “ghost friendships” (through “subscription-based” relationships); they swap out curious and active research for passive and mindless consumption; as non-places, they encourage undifferentiated experience of the multiplicity of digital environments.

Why resist non-places?

Internet is eminently multiform (there is an incommensurable number of web sites), but its increasing “platformization” appears to extend the phenomenon of non-spaces into the digital realm.

Non-spaces proliferate, but they seem to have detrimental effects from an anthropologic standpoint, such as “desingularization” of the individual and more generally the degrading of experiences.

This observation leads to the importance of making authentic “sites,” authentic places, whose history and culture forge their singularity; to promote the diversity, richness and depth of experiences rather than single, instrumental ends (e.g. “producing more consumers”—a reductive but common imperative).

More critical thought could be put into this issue. To be continued.