Architectural critics anticipated that modern life would change the sensation of space. Almost 30 years ago, the French anthropologist Marc Augé coined the word non-place to describe a family of transitional locations where people’s sense of self becomes suppressed or even vanishes. Non-places include airports, hotels, shopping malls, supermarkets, and highways. There’s a sorrow to these sites, because unlike legitimate ones, human beings never really occupy non-places; they simply move through them on their way to “anthropological places,” as Augé called them, such as schools, homes, and monuments.
Non-places have both proliferated and declined in the decades since. On the one hand, there are far more of them, and people encounter them more frequently. More airports and train stations in which more passengers transit more often. More hotel lobbies and conference centers, many boasting their own food courts and shopping plazas, non-places nested within non-places.
On the other hand, the anonymity and uselessness of non-places has been undermined by the smartphone. Every gate waiting area, every plush lobby couch cluster, every wood-veneered coffee shop lean-to has become capable of transforming itself into any space for any patron. The airport or café is also an office and a movie theater, a knitting club, and a classroom.
Non-places always garnered sneers. Augé himself dubbed their rise an “invasion” that brought about “supermodernity,” a massive overabundance of dead space devoted to individual rather than collective activity. He predicted that the uniformity of these places—every airport and hotel is like every other—would proliferate into a scourge, a plague that would strip the built environment of opportunities for humans to express themselves.
Supermodernity did come to pass, but not in quite the way Augé and his successors forecast, and feared. You no longer need an industrialized space, such as a supermarket or a conference center, for the anonymity of the non-place to coalesce. Now, something weirder takes place. For one part, the bastions of supermodernity have become more personalized than they used to be. You might overhear a business call in the airport terminal, or witness the emotional distress of a relationship blowing up over text in the Starbucks line. But for another part, any place whatsoever—even the anthropological spaces that Augé thought gave human experience context—can become equally anonymous.
You walk into your own living room to find your spouse or son on the couch, staring or tapping into a device. What are they doing? you wonder. Email? Television? Pornography? Shopping? Which is also to ask: What other, foreign, spaces have they conjured into the shared space of the home? The answer is often unknowable, and in any case just as quickly replaced by another space as one app backgrounds and another comes to the fore. A proliferation of non-places wasn’t the problem, it seems. Instead, technology has allowed personal intimacy and connection to flourish too much, and anywhere. Now every space is a superspace, a place that might be fused together with any other.