A Metastatic World

I want to think about garbage today. Driving home from the store, I made an informal census of the garbage by the side of the road and in the green spaces in our neighborhood. The vast majority of the garbage and pollution has one cause: our newfound unwillingness or inability to eat and drink in one place, more or less designated as a place to eat or drink—a restaurant, dining room, kitchen, or café. Whatever its particular source, be it Starbucks or Dasani, the garbage comes from this one deeper wellspring. It's comprised of plastic bottles, soda cups, coffee cups, fast food wrappers, Royal Farms chicken boxes and the like.


Imagine that we were still eating and drinking water in specific eating places and at specific times—remember when people mostly drank water with meals?—and, magically, much of the urban detritus, and indigestion, disappears.

The larger predicament here is cultural metastasis. Things and activities that belong in one place and one time are creeping into other places and times where they don’t belong. Like invasive, non-native flora, they proliferate, and bring distress and trouble, along with liberty and flexibility.

This is true of dining and drinking, which are now portable, mobile activities that occur in cars, on the street, or at a desk, leaving a trail behind them.

The metastasis has so many other examples.  Cell phones and social media bring personal, intimate conversations from the private space of the home into the public spheres of the commuter train, the stores, and the streets.  Movies metastasize from the public space of the theater to the tablet; education, from colleges and schools to desktops; commerce moves from stores to devices.  I never thought I’d feel a faint nostalgic pull for the old camaraderie of… a mall.

These same technologies metastasize work from a designated place, the office, into the home.  For many professionals, work has no time and place; indeed, there is no end to it, and no form to it. In several jobs, one is never “at” work and therefore never not at work.

Of course, most of history is a story of movement and displacement of one kind or another—in ideas, people, geography, or spaces. Cities are born and die. People move from point A to point B, in mass migration; commerce shifts from downtown to the mall; residences move from urban cores to suburban developments, and the plates and fault lines of history shift accordingly.

What makes the metastasis of the 21st century so unique is that one place isn’t being replaced by a new place (a literal re-placement). Instead, one place is being replaced by no place, or placelessness. What used to have a place now has none, but is a mobile, autonomous, fluid, unbounded activity.

This creates a lifestyle miasma.  I imagine us as jellyfish—formless, without turgid boundaries and spaces to give our lives structure and rhythm. Or, maybe we’re more like snails, who transport our lives with us wherever we go, on our backs.

It may be a good thing, and a source of freedom and creativity. Maybe only weak people need places, cubicles, blocks, and houses to define them, or place-based rituals to shape their lives. There’s a tendency in the U.S. to link freedom to the obliteration of constraints or boundaries, of any kind, and to imagine it, like the mythic image of the western frontier, as a vast space of emptiness.

But as common places and experiences fracture, and even things as basic as dining and working occur with random placelessness, on what basis do we have the shared social place, experience, and ritual that knits society together.

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