Why is the act of urban walking so revolutionary?

What both the interwar topographers and the situationists recognised was the transformative potential of large numbers of people regularly stepping outside the matrix, taking to the streets and walking, becoming active participants rather than passive spe

“The cry of the age is for distraction, but distraction is precisely what we do not want.” This is not situationist-inspired graffiti daubed on the walls of Paris during the insurrection of May 1968 but a line from the introduction to a 1930 walking book, It Isn’t Far from London, by the stalwart BBC broadcaster S P B Mais. His superficially innocent books describing routes along field paths and over stiles through places such as Stoke Poges and Dorking are calls to reclaim a connection to the spirit of place through “slow, solitary and wayward” walks. He exhorted his readers to “make up your mind to be bound by no programme, to travel with complete irresponsibility” and “continually trespass”.

There was a whole band of urban ramblers exploring the insalubrious and unheralded districts of London during the interwar years. In books such as Gordon S Maxwell’s The Fringe of London, Thomas Burke’s The Outer Circle and James Bone’s The London Perambulator, the previously overlooked suburban hinterland of the city was treated with the same reverence as more conventional heritage sites. The workaday city was celebrated as a land rich in legend and wonder. In the same period, George Orwell was undertaking his politicised tramps around London and into the Kent countryside to experience the hardships endured by the homeless and destitute; then he walked his way from Coventry to Wigan Pier, chronicling the “distressed areas” of the north.

Yet it was a bunch of Parisian gadabouts who turned this damp-tweed form of subversive schlepping into a codified art. For members of the Situationist International (SI), such drifts were fact-finding missions for the transformation of urban living and society in general. The walks were recast as dérives and the findings formed the new pseudo-social science of psychogeography. The intent was overtly revolutionary. Radicalism was not cloaked in the guise of a walking guide; the SI’s ambulatory studies of the Paris suburbs were “reconnaissance missions” for the revolution that was to come – and it very nearly did in May 1968.

Though it’s hard to imagine Mais, Maxwell and Burke, with their schoolmasterly tones, sitting down to sip absinthe with Guy Debord and Ivan Chtcheglov at a Left Bank café, what they shared was the belief that citydwellers’ connection to their environment was under attack from the onward march of urban growth. The car was seen as a tool of capitalist propaganda, the city itself as a manifestation of hierarchies and power structures; modern urban planning was a mass exercise in “organising universal isolation” that shackled and oppressed the human spirit. The primary solution to combat this attack was to walk.

Urban walking is now promoted as a leisure pursuit, with posses of rambling groups herded on to sanctioned routes and heritage trails that double as cycle highways. Although paths such as the Greenway in London give city-dwellers a chance to stand outside the urban soup to float atop like a toasted crouton, sooner or later they sink back into the mire.

The reality of the street is what we need to confront, as increasing proportions of the public realm are quietly transferred to private ownership. Whereas there was a long and hard-fought battle to establish the right to roam over private land in the countryside, a fellow urban rambler, Andrew Stevens, remarked to me recently that there is no comparable right to roam in the city. Take Mais’s and Maxwell’s advice to “constantly trespass” and you’ll soon find yourself pursued by members of the expanding army of private security guards.

Though psychogeography today has largely been adopted as a creative practice, its radical potential remains latent. The walker is more likely to notice the changes taking place within the urban environment – less prone to the stresses and anxieties of overcrowded public transport and congested roads, not as susceptible to whisperings that the city is a place of danger, a zone from which we should seek refuge behind the gates of the latest development of luxury apartments. You feel that, were our urban planners, councillors and developers regularly to “drop their relations, their work and leisure activities” and dérive through the city streets as described by Debord in his “Theory of the Dérive”, there’d be far fewer car-centred consumer colonies in our towns and cities and more “houses where it will be impossible not to fall in love”, as envisioned by Chtcheglov.

To find evidence of Mais’s age of distraction and the situationist “spectacle”, you need only observe the peculiar, somnolent processions of shoppers around Westfield Stratford City, beguiled by glittering chain-store window displays, dazzled by illuminated screens projecting the aspirational dream of an ersatz celebrity lifestyle, available for purchase at the higher-end stores on the second floor. The only footfall of importance here is not psychogeographical but a metric for measuring potential consumer spend.

What both the interwar topographers and the situationists recognised was the transformative potential of large numbers of people regularly stepping outside the matrix, taking to the streets and walking, becoming active participants rather than passive spectators. This “revolution of everyday life” is a radical shift that starts with placing one foot in front of the other.

John Rogers is the author of “This Other London: Adventures in the Overlooked City”, published by HarperCollins (£12.99)

Image: Gueorgiu Pinkhassov/Magnum Photos

This article first appeared in the 23 October 2013 issue of the New Statesman, Russell Brand Guest Edit

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Forget fake news on Facebook – the real filter bubble is you

If people want to receive all their news from a single feed that reinforces their beliefs, there is little that can be done.

It’s Google that vaunts the absurdly optimistic motto “Don’t be evil”, but there are others of Silicon Valley’s techno-nabobs who have equally high-flown moral agendas. Step forward, Mark Zuckerberg of Facebook, who responded this week to the brouhaha surrounding his social media platform’s influence on the US presidential election thus: “We are all blessed to have the ability to make the world better, and we have the responsibility to do it. Let’s go work even harder.”

To which the only possible response – if you’re me – is: “No we aren’t, no we don’t, and I’m going back to my flowery bed to cultivate my garden of inanition.” I mean, where does this guy get off? It’s estimated that a single message from Facebook caused about 340,000 extra voters to pitch up at the polls for the 2010 US congressional elections – while the tech giant actually performed an “experiment”: showing either positive or negative news stories to hundreds of thousands of their members, and so rendering them happier or sadder.

In the past, Facebook employees curating the site’s “trending news” section were apparently told to squash stories that right-wingers might “like”, but in the run-up to the US election the brakes came off and all sorts of fraudulent clickbait was fed to the denizens of the virtual underworld, much – but not all of it – generated by spurious alt-right “news sites”.

Why? Because Facebook doesn’t view itself as a conventional news provider and has no rubric for fact-checking its news content: it can take up to 13 hours for stories about Hillary Clinton eating babies barbecued for her by Barack Obama to be taken down – and in that time Christ knows how many people will have not only given them credence, but also liked or shared them, so passing on the contagion. The result has been something digital analysts describe as a “filter bubble”, a sort of virtual helmet that drops down over your head and ensures that you receive only the sort of news you’re already fit to be imprinted with. Back in the days when everyone read the print edition of the New York Times this sort of manipulation was, it is argued, quite impossible; after all, the US media historically made a fetish of fact-checking, an editorial process that is pretty much unknown in our own press. Why, I’ve published short stories in American magazines and newspapers and had fact-checkers call me up to confirm the veracity of my flights of fancy. No, really.

In psychology, the process by which any given individual colludes in the creation of a personalised “filter bubble” is known as confirmation bias: we’re more inclined to believe the sort of things that validate what we want to believe – and by extension, surely, these are likely to be the sorts of beliefs we want to share with others. It seems to me that the big social media sites, while perhaps blowing up more and bigger filter bubbles, can scarcely be blamed for the confirmation bias. Nor – as yet – have they wreaked the sort of destruction on the world that has burst from the filter bubble known as “Western civilisation” – one that was blown into being by the New York Times, the BBC and all sorts of highly respected media outlets over many decades.

Societies that are both dominant and in the ascendant always imagine their belief systems and the values they enshrine are the best ones. You have only to switch on the radio and hear our politicians blithering on about how they’re going to get both bloodthirsty sides in the Syrian Civil War to behave like pacifist vegetarians in order to see the confirmation bias hard at work.

The Western belief – which has its roots in imperialism, but has bodied forth in the form of liberal humanism – that all is for the best in the world best described by the New York Times’s fact-checkers, is also a sort of filter bubble, haloing almost all of us in its shiny and translucent truth.

Religion? Obviously a good-news feed that many billions of the credulous rely on entirely. Science? Possibly the biggest filter bubble there is in the universe, and one that – if you believe Stephen Hawking – has been inflating since shortly before the Big Bang. After all, any scientific theory is just that: a series of observable (and potentially repeatable) regularities, a bubble of consistency we wander around in, perfectly at ease despite its obvious vulnerability to those little pricks, the unforeseen and the contingent. Let’s face it, what lies behind most people’s beliefs is not facts, but prejudices, and all this carping about algorithms is really the howling of a liberal elite whose own filter bubble has indeed been popped.

A television producer I know once joked that she was considering pitching a reality show to the networks to be called Daily Mail Hate Island. The conceit was that a group of ordinary Britons would be marooned on a desert island where the only news they’d have of the outside world would come in the form of the Daily Mail; viewers would find themselves riveted by watching these benighted folk descend into the barbarism of bigotry as they absorbed ever more factitious twaddle. But as I pointed out to this media innovator, we’re already marooned on Daily Mail Hate Island: it’s called Britain.

If people want to receive all their news from a single feed that constantly and consistently reinforces their beliefs, what are you going to do about it? The current argument is that Facebook’s algorithms reinforce political polarisation, but does anyone really believe better editing on the site will return our troubled present to some prelap­sarian past, let alone carry us forward into a brave new factual future? No, we’re all condemned to collude in the inflation of our own filter bubbles unless we actively seek to challenge every piece of received information, theory, or opinion. And what an exhausting business that would be . . . without the internet.

Will Self is an author and journalist. His books include Umbrella, Shark, The Book of Dave and The Butt. He writes the Madness of Crowds and Real Meals columns for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 24 November 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Blair: out of exile