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Frenetic London life

On TV this week, I saw an ad for some sports programmes, which said we don’t have to wait for the future, because it’s already here.


Steve Latham


It reminded me of cyberpunk author, William Gibson’s quip: that the futures here, it’s just unevenly distributed.

Gibson began writing tech-based sci-fi, but progressed to writing contemporary novels, which are still infatuated with technology and fashion, and look like sci-fi, because they’re so ‘futuristic’.

He is so ´’cutting edge’, he slices open the seal of time, revealing its multi-vocal heart, beating with simultaneous broadcasts from alternate cultural time-zones.

This interpenetration of parallel temporalities is clearest in the cities, the global urban centres, which attract denizens from the entire planet, making everyone an immigrant from past into future.

These combine the hardware of mass transit systems, with the software of hand-held super-computers.

But, this is differentially incorporated into personal experience, and largely reflects age and education.

On the one hand, a teenager is sitting in their bedroom, playing Dungeons and Dragons with friends spread throughout the world, inhabiting multiple time-zones.

On the other, an old man, sitting in a pub, having his early morning pint, may not even own a mobile phone.

David Harvey the radical Marxist geographer, reaches back for the Leninist notion of ‘uneven geographical development’, to explain these inequalities within our contemporary metropolis. Economic power is geographically located in specific areas of the city, where the planetary elite, live or work, in central city apartments or suburban mansions.

These sub-spaces may exist contiguously with poverty, street-dwellers, slum-dwellers; so that we walk, drive, along the street, looking eye-to-eye, but without ever seeing each other.

This is the divided city, of China Miévile’s “City and the city”; wholly other, like Karl Barth’s concept of God, but never acknowledged, despite occupying the same space.

We see without seeing, carefully trained to shield our gaze from the strange, often foreign, element, which would disturb, perturb, our personal peace.

But this segregated spatiality also reflects differentiated temporalities, a multiverse of urban existentialism.

Jonathan Raban’s classic characterisation of London, in “Soft city”, describes the way time changes speed according to where we enter the maelstrom.

It’s often noted, for example, that life in London is very ‘fast. I’ve heard it from visitors even from other megacities, including those appearing more chaotic and frenetic than London, like Lagos.

The pace of walking is super-fast, pedestrians looking effortlessly past you, racing along the pavement to their next appointment.

But this contrasts with the slower speed of subsistence, at lower rungs in the social ladder; living on social housing estates, with high unemployment, for instance.

Here, inquires about what happened this week meet with embarrassed silence, because the answer is ‘not much’.

Dwelling side-by-side, we feel time differently, following a Bergsonian concept of ‘duration’ instead of chronological linear time.

As subjective time varies, whether we’re happy or not, time’s velocity flows unevenly depending on our super-position within the urban flux.

Time-wars follow as we criss-cross the cityline, time-travellers along the interzone.

(Photos: Pixabay)

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