By Rococo Modem Basilisk
Source: Modern Mythology
Ordinarily, when we discuss psychogeography, we operate at the scale of a city: we discuss how people are drawn through a walkable space, at a speed in which they can be affected by each piece of passing scenery and make a detour to examine it. But, at the same time the Lettrists were wandering Paris and laying the groundwork for Disneyland in the micro-scale, at the macro-scale holes were being punched through the fabric of the United States in the form of highways.
Habitual migration patterns break the close association between culture and geography. There’s a psychogeographic wormhole between Fairfield County, CT and south Florida, and used to be one between there and upstate NY. If you live in Fairfield County (or certain parts of NYC) you’re liable to be culturally closer to some parts of south Florida than to many points in-between, not because of natural rock formations or bodies of water, but because highways have made it possible to pass through the middle without interacting with it.
Areas of transience — the hyperspace of psychogeography — are not ‘non-places’ with ‘non-culture’. They have a uniquely warped kind of culture, in the same way tourist-dependent places do. Some people spend large amounts of their lives there: long-haul truckers, jet-setting businessmen, touring bands or comedians or authors. The attempt at producing a consistent experience across geography produces an experience that can only exist in hyperspace.
Our own psychogeographic hyperspace is not as psychedelic as the one in Cordwainer Smith’s A Game of Rat and Dragon, but it is stranger, in a Ligottian way.
Why do they have ice machines? Why do they have pools? Why are airplanes and airports trapped in a perpetual 1963 idea of what luxury looks like? Path dependence has made the culture of our hyperspace deeply strange: there are low upper limits on quality of manufacture and high lower limits on quality of service, and the assumed transitory state of most inhabitants means bonds cannot be formed.
When new ideas are integrated here at all, they slot into existing structures — structures that don’t exist outside, in the world that is normal for most of us. Wifi passwords come with the keycard; a robot kiosk in front of the check-in desk prints tickets, as the clerk who formerly printed tickets watches.
These liminal spaces are only forgettable for people who have destinations. They’re also populated by residents, or commuters from geographically — nearby places, who fill the service jobs. What’s it like to have a diner with no regulars? This situation is capitalism-optimized. If you are a resident of psychogeographic hyperspace — nomadic or not — you are dog-fooding the experience that Rand thought was natural to man: separation of orbits, mediated by impersonal monetary transactions. It looks like endless beige hotels with broken ice machines.
What are the attributes of this Randian New Man who lives as hyperspace nomad? Sleep deprivation, boredom, and a dependence on stimulants. Gas stations in hyperspace cater to truckers, abnormally large DVD and pornography selections and every variety of pick-me-up not yet banned. Airports, whose nomads are of a higher caste and have less private space or scheduling freedom, focus more on overpriced convenience food, mediocre reading material, and headphones, and pillows. A Cinnabon could not survive outside of hyperspace, even if it grew up in the shallows of the shopping mall, but in this ecosystem, sheltered from competitors and provided with a steady stream of easy prey, it thrives.
The culture of hyperspace is not a psychogeography, except in a fairly minor sense: everywhere is the same, or tries to be. The few deviations, like Denver International Airport, are notable because deviation is so rare. There is an international internet radio station specifically for airports, and I have heard it play the same playlist in three states. (It never played Brian Eno.) However, like the hyperspace of fiction, it is a strange world that fills the gaps as we jump from one point to another without travelling in-between.
Transit systems are not the only holes in psychogeography. Communications systems also create them. Just as the prevalence of snowbirds and Adirondack cottages make it possible for small segments of northern New York and southern Florida to influence Manhattan finance and vice versa, arbitrary decisions or early-mover advantages gave Los Angeles cultural power over film, Cleveland cultural power over radio, and Atlanta cultural power over podcasting.
Communications technologies have their own hyperspace-cultures, although the geographic centralization of the big players has a larger impact on how they manifest than in the case of hotels. Twitter is the internet equivalent of a trucker-optimized gas station, and caters to journalists — the long-haul truckers of the information landscape. Facebook is the internet equivalent of a Holiday Inn: a premium-mediocre imitation of homeyness that is endearing in its complete failure to be convincing but ultimately irritating if you try to stay too long. (Facebook’s ice machine is always broken, and always loud.) The film industry is a bit like any airport: perpetually stuck in a cheap imitation of an imagined luxurious past, adapting poorly to the cosmopolitanism produced by globalization while profiting through its monopoly on the means of that globalization.
The culture of any hyperspace, because the means of association are limited to the Randian, will be corporate in its manifestation: customer service, marketing, selection, returns, free coupons as a means of apology. It differs from non-hyperspace because these are the only forms of communication truly available. This diner has no regulars with whom the waitress can be frank, only strangers perpetually passing through. It can get away with being shallow and having nothing under its surface, because only very rarely will someone stay long enough to peel it back.