Among the discursive threads that permeated global media during the height of The Arab Spring was the emphatic legitimization of the role of social media in provoking the “democratization” of what had been, and in many ways still is, a subjugated society. In the case of the Middle East, and Egypt in particular, this meant that social media held the power to circumvent the longstanding censorship imposed upon the population by the ruling government in its attempt to maintain an authoritarian rule. The projection of power upon the social spaces of the city, manifest through processes of surveillance, intimidation, and exclusion, could be bypassed by the anonymity of the network and its penchant for viral replication and self-organization. Proponents of the zeitgeist see this phenomenon as a validation of the mechanisms of a technologically networked society and the obsolescence of formal definition as a meaningful artifact of culture. Social media was the enabler of the society’s emergence from the archaic socio-political construct that had been concretized in the spatial structure of the city. After all, hadn’t these places been the sites of subjugation from the restrictive hand of governmental censorship?
Is it any different here in America, where the increasing privatization of the “public realm” has enabled our own authorities to exert their methods of control and to legitimize them; as currently manifested in the clashes taking place in our own cities? Here in America the spatial semiotics are different; Wall Street is as much an abstract capitalist idea as it is a physical location. The commoditization of public space in America has left us without a true public realm in our cities; one that operates as an agent for public discourse, where both conflict and concurrence can be nurtured. The ongoing occupational initiative, now playing out across the country is largely relegated to parks, America’s surrogate for a collective urbanism. The capitalist project, currently in crisis, has diminished the figurative role of urban space to an empty vessel. Does it matter that the spaces of the city are no longer truly public? Aren’t we able to organize and communicate electronically now? Space, after all, no longer carries the weight of genius loci.
I would argue that, rather than supplant public space, social media has instead layered it with a whole new relevance. The images of situationist resistance, so widely disseminated in the media, are an artifact of the symbiotic relationship between spatial configuration in the city, and a population both energized and alerted through social media. Spaces like Tahrir Square have been layered with new meanings, as landscapes of political appearance. The profane has been made sacred, newly immortalized in the spatiality of the places themselves.
But where exactly in Oakland is this protest going on? While the occupational movement in America might not carry the same gravitas as those playing out in the Middle East, neither do our places carry the same latent potential for public expression. Could American complacency be attributed to the privatization of public space in our cities? The reduction of the American urban landscape to a value-engineered system of infrastructure and private speculation did not bring an attendant openness, but rather subjugated our society to a placeless urban realm; one in which freedom is a commodity.