The Instagram Storm and the City

It’s been almost a week since Hurricane Sandy hit New York and New Jersey, delivering the sort of punch that used to be a once-in-a-lifetime but now seems to be an annual event, if slightly worse in ferocity.

We’re been fine, but kept busy by the difficulties of running things off a generator for a week and dealing with two small children who have an unexpected week and a half off. Best-laid plans have again come awry and any thoughts of being able to focus on my work have been banished by the necessity of learning the fine points of chainsaw operation, waiting in line for gas, restocking our fireplace inserts with wood, and helping out neighbors without generators or heat.

Manhattan is steadily getting back to normality, with lights back on after days of outages in some of its most fashionable neighborhoods while limited subway service has been re-established with Brooklyn. Things could have been much worse and I was pleasantly surprised at how quickly and easily these services were brought back on line, given the city’s antiquated and ill-maintained systems.

Sandy is the Instagram Storm, with individuals (as well as Time Magazine, which sent out five photographers to document the storm using the service) posting storm images at a rate of 10 per second and a Web site titled #instacane built to display them. Of course individuals and publications resorting to Instagram sought to lend an air of retro-hipness to their work while sharing it on social media, but perversely the over-exposure of Instagram images (since when has anything still hip been on the cover of Time?) will kill the service, forcing hipsters away from it; while numbers will likely rise for a short time, the Facebook-owned service's days are now numbered. Sandy is likely to remain the only Instagram storm, its photographic record permanently marred by an injudicious use of a gimmicky filter. I suppose we should just be happy it isn't the HDR storm. But of course it couldn't be, since HDR's images are so firmly un-hip, their over-saturated images recalling the paintings of Thomas Kinkade. Instead, Instagram's trick isn't that it just creates a look, but rather that its pre-distressed antique images produce affect, allowing both the taker-as-viewer (here less as an artist and more as a dandy with a Claude Glass) and viewer alike to suspend between temporalities, simultaneously inhabiting both the 60s and 70s heyday of Kodachrome as well as a more recent moment of viewing the color-shifting of Kodachrome dyes as they age (as evoked in tumblr blogs of scanned photographs like http://myparentswereawesome.tumblr.com). In the case of the Instagram Storm, the use of Instagram evokes the storm's status as a legendary event, something to be lived through to tell one's grandchildren about while also emphasizing that this was the place to be at that moment—that is, both experiencing the storm and being a part of the Instagram buzz about it. But the temporal displacement also invoked a saccharine sweet sense of loss. Philosopher Edmund Burke wrote "The passion caused by the great and sublime in nature . . . is Astonishment; and astonishment is that state of the soul, in which all its motions are suspended, with some degree of horror. In this case the mind is so entirely filled with its object, that it cannot entertain any other." But experiencing the storm through Instagram suggests detachment and an inability to have experiences, no matter how overwhelming, except through media. Still, we should not confuse the use of Instagram to experience the storm with the viewing of events on television. On the contrary, as a social network Instagram bonded users together as a participatory, networked public while Instagram's filters made the photographs seem more personal. 

But where the hip parts of Brooklyn largely experienced the storm through Instagram and where lower Manhattan was immersed in a days-long blackout, large areas of both the city  and the Northeastern megalopolis beyond the five boroughs were destroyed. Although the blackout may have undone the smug sense of superiority that some Manhattanites have about their way of life, it reinforced the differences within global cities. The post-Sandy experiences of Instagram-wielding Open Source urban adventurers winding their way, Situationist readers in hand, through the darkened streets of Lower Manhattan in search of candle-lit bars are a far cry from the harrowing conditions that individuals in Staten Island and Queens continue to live under. This is, in at least two ways, the product of neoliberalism. First, neoliberalism has flattened some differences between developed and developing countries, creating a larger Gini coefficient in the former—particularly in the United States. The result is the development of a third world in the first, of √©lite, secure enclaves such as Manhattan (below 125th street, at least) surrounded by vast territories of the disenfranchised. Second, utility deregulation, a low tax regime, and the rise of NIMBYism have left infrastructure in the developed world fragile and overloaded, as we documented in the Infrastructural City.

It's unlikely that any of this will change soon. Rather, we should expect the opposite. Crisis is the new normal under network culture. Climate change is producing more severe weather events even as the stagnant global economy seems like it can only operate on a boom and bust cycle. Collapsing infrastructure and the cycle of economic crisis provide a fertile terrain for the Shock Doctrine, which was so effectively applied in New Orleans after Katrina.

Little question that Wall Street will finish its pull out from Lower Manhattan, which is now largely a symbolic and historical base of operations. I'm still uncertain about what the effect on poor areas of New York and New Jersey will be, but it's unlikely to be positive. Watch carefully for signs of the Shock Doctrine being put in place though, it is lurking right around the corner…… 

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