Ross Smith offers his thoughts on the modern day re-incarnation of the 18th century flaneur via social media.
Flaneur is a 19th-century term for an aristocratic "man about town" – and the female 'flaneuse" - an aristocrat who saunters idly around the streets of London, Paris or elsewhere – pontificating and generally looking good in their aristocratic high fashion. It is a great job if you can get it.
The Paris Review describes:
The figure of the flaneur—the stroller, the passionate wanderer emblematic of nineteenth-century French literary culture—has always been essentially timeless; he removes himself from the world while he stands astride its heart.
Victorian era London was filled with an essence of the flaneur. Charles Dickens was a great example. In "The Old Curiosity Shop", the narrator is a curious blend between the all-seeing devil and Master Humphrey, the flâneur from the beginning of the tale; Humphrey's vision is partial and he speculates about his characters' future. This curious blend between these two opposed modes of apprehension of the city seems to be encapsulated in a passage from Master Humphrey's Clock, in which he recounts a recent expedition to the top of Saint Paul's:
It is night. Calm and unmoved amidst the scenes that darkness favours, the great heart of London throbs in its Giant breast . . . Draw but a little circle above the clustering housetops, and you shall have within its space everything, with its opposite extreme and contradiction, close beside. Where yonder feeble light is shining, a man is but this moment dead . . . . Does not this Heart of London, that nothing moves, nor stops, nor quickens,—that goes on the same let what will be done, does it not express the City's character well?
In cities and countries with high unemployment and/or low wages, the streets are filled with the unemployed, walking around or loitering, pontificating over their next meal - and generally living a similar, though less-than-aristocratic life of the flâneur. Similarly, thousands of aspiring journalists blog, stream, and post their thoughts online, representing the modern-day digital equivalent of these hifalutin nomads.
In the 1800's, the flaneur was held in high regard in society. They clearly had enough resources to live and stroll about town. Fast forward to the 21st century, the high society flaneur no longer exists. You don't see tech billionaires donning high fashion and strolling the streets of Seattle or Silicon Valley – or the Wall Street tycoons wandering the streets of New York city pondering the future of the world for everyone to observe.
What has changed?
I think part of this is how what we value in our heroes and idols has changed. In the old days, aristocracy and royalty was revered and highly admired. Today, we put more value in the lone wolf tech entrepreneur over family money or royalty. We expect our billionaires to continue to burn the midnight oil despite their riches.
Perhaps the internet has changed things? We don't see Gates or Bezos or Musk strolling the streets of their respective communities, visibly pontificating about the future – but we do read about them on the web – we watch their TED talks – so maybe the new age flaneur is on YouTube – and scaling well beyond their local community. We see the Technorati strutting their stuff on blogs, podcasts, Medium, Reddit, Twitter, LinkedIn, Facebook, Instagram and a host of other social sites. Is this not the digital equivalent of the flaneur?
It is interesting to consider how the future of AI, automation, and worker displacement might influence the 21st century digital flaneur. Workers in dozens of industries will be replaced by machines. Many of the tasks of the typical worker will continued to be digitized and automated. When was the last time you sent a letter to a customer with a printed invoice? This transformation has been underway for many years, but what's different about AI and machine learning advances is the pervasiveness of the tasks that will be replaced. Lawyers, designers, retailers, managers, salespeople, customer service agents – dozens of careers will be disrupted over the next few decades.
As Arnaiv Adhikari describes in the Atlantic:
For as long as there have been cities, there have been wanderers, figures who have slipped away from the constraints of time and responsibility, to drift through urban terrain, seduced by a hidden alleyway or a crowd in the marketplace. The flâneur, as this wanderer came to be known in his more polished nineteenth century incarnation, was a symbol of privilege and leisure, an embodiment of the artist who submits himself to the transient experience of the metropolis. A passionate spectator of the ways in which modernity unfolded across these cityscapes, he became both a recorder and a reflection of a new historical moment. The flâneur was, as Charles Baudelaire wrote, "a kaleidoscope gifted with consciousness ... an 'I' with an insatiable appetite for the 'non-I'.
The question ahead is how workers displaced by AI and perhaps supported by a universal basic income, might adopt this new role of flaneur – or digital flaneur – and provide inspiration to the world around them, strolling the metaphorical cobblestone lanes, in full garb, of Twitter, Reddit and other social media channels, pontificating about the future of society.
As they say, "the more things change, the more they stay the same..." I think it's incumbent upon all of us to reboot the spirit of the flaneur – and to spend time walking around, thinking about the future.
Our time is now.
Ross Smith is the Director of Skype for Good; he has worked at Microsoft for over 27 years and is a Principal Group Engineering Manager.