With all our worries about Big Brother watching us everywhere and all the time, I wonder about the things that can no longer hide from us. Our private lives are open to anyone surfing the web or overhearing our conversations on a cellphone. Our dreams and nightmares are revealed both on that same web and on increasingly sophisticated data-tracking software. And off-the-beaten-track places are now so easy to locate.
When I was a child, I had a secret place in the local park two blocks from my house. It was a little clearing hidden behind a bramble of bushes, and I thought nobody knew about it, until I crept in one day and found a couple smooching there. When I return there now, I realize how open to view I was in my small little hiding place. But I did not know that then.
When I lived in L.A., I prided myself on knowing the route that would get you from Venice to Beverly Hills without ever getting stuck on a freeway or major highway, or the fact that you should always take Franklin to get between Hollywood and any point to the west. Now apps such as Wave use crowdsourcing to uncover such snaky subterfuges.
Whenever I move to a city, I want to discover its hidden places: parks sheltering behind buildings, small communities left behind as development moved elsewhere, abandoned tunnels or dead-end roads, moments of agriculture marooned between cul-de-sacs. Cincinnati has plenty of those: It is a place where you can turn from suburbia, go along the Little Miami River for a mile or two and think you are in the countryside, and then find yourself surrounded by exurbia.
The problem is transparency. It is the theme of David Eggers's new book, The Circle, in which the headquarters of a powerful tech company is made of glass—like a dystopian version of Paul Scheerbart’s glass architecture—and everybody knows everything about everybody else and everything. It certainly is convenient to know where you are and where you're going, as much as it helps to be able to Facetime with an old college friend with whom you had lost track.
With the dissolution of all barriers also comes the disappearance of things that awaken desire exactly because they are secret, that we shelter in our ignorance. We also lose surprise, awe, and wonder. A recent editorial in The New York Times bemoaned the destruction of previously hard-to-find and thus relatively safe Anasazi ruins by day hikers equipped with GPS. On a more quotidian level, with our ability to tour cities and even buildings with Google Street View, we know what we are going to see before we get there. We can no longer discover, but only confirm, and in so doing reduce what we check off as having physically experienced to ruins of banality.
I was reminded of all this when I went to see the David Hockney exhibit at San Francisco's de Young Museum (hurry, it is only up through January 20th). Hockney, always a fan of technology, these days uses iPad drawings and iPhone photographs to produce his art. He also went back to the landscape in which he grew up, a fairly standard and not particularly distinguished piece of English countryside. Then he went to work. He turned his snaps and sketches of lanes, hawthorn bushes and meadows, of forests and suburban clusters, into paintings so large they cover four, six, or even twelve canvases. He brought out the texture, light, and complexity hiding in branches denuded by the winter and shows us the glory of the everyday. He uses the scale, the handicraft, and the vision that is his own to replace a reality that is all too easy to find with a version so glorious we can lose ourselves in discovering all its many beauties.
Aaron Betsky is a regularly featured columnist whose stories appear on this website each week. His views and conclusions are not necessarily those of ARCHITECT magazine nor of the American Institute of Architects.