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by Giles Fraser
Friday, 17
January 2020
Seen Elsewhere

No, Guy Verhofstadt, citizenship is not a Netflix subscription

The latest idea from the EU is part of a wider loss of the importance place
by Giles Fraser
Guy Verhofstadt misunderstands the importance of place (Photo: THOMAS SAMSON/AFP via Getty Images)

In my column yesterday, I offered wine – or, at least, good wine – as a way of talking about the joys and importance of place. It’s publication coincided with a terrific article in The Atlantic that examined the other side: “Every place is the same now” it proclaimed, remorsefully. Technology, it argues, has collapsed our sense of place, and in particular the old idea that certain spaces had certain specific purposes. Now, the loo can be our office, somewhere to tap out emails, the sofa our own private cinema, shopping is something that no longer requires shops. As Ian Bogost explains:

Almost 30 years ago, the French anthropologist Marc Augé coined the word non-place to describe a family of transnational locations where people’s sense of self becomes supressed or even vanishes. Non-places include airports, hotels, shopping malls, supermarkets and highways. There’s a sorry to these sites, because unlike legitimate ones, human beings never really occupy non-places; they move through them on their way to “anthropological places” as Auge called them, such as schools, homes and churches.
- Ian Bogost, The Atlantic

But things didn’t turn out quite as Augé expected. For with the advent of the smartphone these anonymous non-places have also become places for a kind of hyper-individualised activity. The vanilla unobtrusive non-specific background of the hotel lobby or the airport lounge or the conference centre – once place being entirely substitutable for any other – is now the backwash for thousands of individual souls locked into their own little world; one watching Netflix, the other ordering their groceries or sneaking a peek at pornography, another playing Pokémon

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Bogost remembers a time when video games were played in an arcade. But the arcade has now all but vanished. Likewise, the sense that certain places were reserved for certain activities: shops for shopping, seedy cinemas for porn, office for work. The link between purpose and place has collapsed. With the advent of the smartphone, even so-called “anthropological spaces” are in danger of losing their purpose. As Yoram Hazony rightly tweeted in response to Bogost’s piece, only by ringfencing the home with something the Jewish call shabbat can we stop our homes from becoming yet another non-place, little more than a background for solitary activity.

As I was pondering Bogost’s piece this morning, Guy Verhofstadt was on the Today programme talking about the idea of Associate EU Membership for those British citizens who want it. And as he emphasised, such people could be living and settled anywhere in the world. Verhofstadt’s plan seemed to me to fit perfectly with a world that has dispensed with the importance of place. Associate Membership turns citizenship into a kind of subscription, like joining Netflix. And so it further undermines the importance that a sense of place has for human flourishing. Which is precisely why we must resist it.

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