Tuesday, February 3, 2009

The new spaces of globalisation

Listening to a podcast about Cairo's gated communities, I was struck yet again by the strange ways in which globalisation divides and connects different spaces.

Castells has written some interesting work on the subject: in 'The Space of Flows' he talks about the division of the world into two 'spaces', the space of flows and the space of places. The space of flows is one where information, people, and goods move freely and swiftly across borders. The space of places is tied to locales, to the people and activities that do not move so easily. And while these two spaces connect and overlap, it is the space of flows where most 'dominant activities' take place.

In Cairo, many of the people who are mobile - those with money, those who have travelled, those who can escape (and wish to escape) their families' orbits - are moving to gated communities. One the one hand, these communities are isolated: fenced off, with only an 'exclusive' set of people allowed to enter (as one interviewee on the podcast put it).

On the other hand, they become in some ways placeless, or rather part of another space - the space of luxury. The particularities of Egypt's geography can be effaced, as water is pumped in from the Nile to water the golf courses and fill the swimming pools. An Egyptian architect commenting on the communities talks about the architecture as placeless, pulled from the Internet. Names like 'Beverly Hills' and 'Hyde Park' also act to shift these places away from the local reality, and mosques are discreet, if present at all, the muezzin absent ("they have no volume control").

Communities like these exist everywhere - in Johannesburg, in Mexico City, in Kenya. Air-conditioned cars transport those with money from one manicured, placeless space, to another. Shopping malls, airports, even universities, are more or less the same all over. Even Perth itself feels like one of these spaces sometimes, cut off from many of the unpleasant realities of the world outside the gates.

I am aware, as I write this, that I am one of the few (on a global scale) who have access to the space of flows. I simultaneously feel guilty and optimistic; guilty because my privilege is undeserved, optimistic because there are so many people who are working at the nodes to change things. Where the space of flows and the space of places meet, there are small projects, debates, transfers, explorations of how the world can become different. There are some people who are working to insert new ideas into the current, hoping that they'll take seed somewhere downriver.

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