Virtual and Unreal


“Public and private have been nearly inverted by digital media, iPhones and streets wrapped in computer screens. Clearly, we can barely remember what we used to call urban life - even just fifty years ago.”[1]
–Norman M. Klein

There is another version of urban space that exists in the online world. This space has characteristics distinct from the lived physical experience. In this space, we can float above the street and fly across the sky. We can view the whole neighbourhood at once or zoom in close and inspect a small detail as the building dissolves before our eyes. We explore this space without sound, smell or touch.

Gravity Free

This ability to be gravity-free allows a view of the space which was until recently only possible by building high towers or using flying devices. Now, any citizen can examine their space from far above. They can look into what was once restricted private courtyards, hovering above them, and seeing how the space is divided up between the buildings, even looking into what are normally private courtyards not visible from the street. They can walk down the streets of their neighbourhood floating five meters in the air, as I am doing in figure 26. This elevated view gives a unique impression of the space that is impossible to have in reality, which bring us to the next characteristic of the experience of virtual urban space; it is unreal.


Urban space as experienced online, on Google Earth, always has a strange unrealness to it. Even when it seems that you are experiencing it as virtually real, at street level, turning and looking 360 degrees, there are always unreal moments. First and foremost, the street names are continually appearing in the space as well as helpful arrows inviting you to move forward, backwards up or down. During my virtual walks, there was a never-ending stream of strange occurrences, at times the leaves were dead on the trees, and a few meters later they are green again, or a building under construction is complete a few meters further down the road. All of the faces encountered are strangely blurred, although they seem to be looking at the viewer. If you zoom in closely, you will see the google trademark emblazoned on buildings and in the sky. Overhead wires do not connect; bikes melt into the street; we can see more faceless people from open windows the sky disappearing above them.

Further adding to the unrealness of the online space is the complete silence of the experience, which is in marked contrast to lived urban space. Interestingly, Baudrillard referred to this lack of sound as one of "the most precious qualities of photography: its silence. Whatever the violence, speed or noise that surrounds the real object, its instant image gives back to the object its immobility and its silence."[2]This strange, silent online space is not the real Klybeck as experienced in a tactile, bodily manner; this is not a space that could ever exist in the physical world.


This space is also open; the access is available to anyone with an internet connection whether you are near or far. You may walk these streets, inspect the restaurants and gaze at the sky whether you are in Klybeck or on the other side of the world. The urban space online is available to all and anyone can also add to the knowledge of this space through the uploading of their person-al panoramic images to google maps or by geotagging their photos, writing restaurant reviews with photos or sharing impressions of the space on social media. Much as in the physical space, there is some personalization possible through the selection of image material tagged and uploaded. 


At the same time that this space is open, it is also curated, with many of the images tailored to the purpose of the platform. Instagram images have a distinct look and focus; sometimes, they are commercial at other times showing 'Instagram friendly' facades, touristic images and yoga. (Fig.27)The Google maps images are generated by google technology and the occasional private contributions by sanctioned users. The other online private images such as geotagged images are uploaded by private citizens and are usually concerning a commercial enterprise or a beautiful or visually appealing image. In this way, the image of Klybeck is not that of everyday life, but rather a curated view, provided by others to the virtual viewer.


This leads to the obvious problem with a space that can only be explored through the eyes of others and that is that the experience is deceptive. Looking at the online images after having thoroughly explored the space in a physically and visually engaging way, it became evident that many of the images encountered were not showing what was there. Sometimes they were entirely off as in the geotagged images, likely gathered by the cruise ship tourists parked in the area, which showed the Basel Munster, which is located in the historc old town, as being located within my research area. There were also less obvious distortions such as a large number of images of the Holzpark which appear during an Instagram search, giving the impression that this is the prevalent aesthetic feel of Klybeck when in reality it was just the most photographed for social reasons.

It would be easy at this point to make an argument for the superiority of one experience over the other, the lived or the virtual, but that is not my intention in this thesis. I am interested in all aspects of the urban space as the visualization of the space requires a complete understanding of all of the characteristics which make up the experience of urban space and for much of the population that experience now includes a visit to the online space.

[1] Noever & Meyer, 2010 p.44 (From Norman M. Klein, the American urban and media historian’s manifesto: What if and what next?)
[2] Moya Pellitero, A.M., 2007 p.96