Paul Gavarni Le Flaneur [public domain France, PD 1923]We spend much of our lives in a virtual world, traversing the online plains. Microsoft’s early tagline, “Where do you want to go today?” captured that mood. That seems almost quaint now, given that the online landscape might better be described as a food lot, where we are the cattle dumbly fattened on material we don’t want, and capacity to imagine and ability to roam artistically free is filtered into a premature dead end.

The New York Times today carried two marvelous opinion pieces that resonate with my own beliefs in conversation. Lori Andrews’ “Facebook is Using You” piece echoes the thoughts of Eli Pariser and Douglas Rushkoff that we are the commodity on the internet. Evgeny Morozov’s piece, “The Death of the Cyberflâneur” is a delightful yet saddening review of the demise of the potential for the internet to be a venue for virtual flânerie. The flânuer was someone who would indulge in the slow, deliberately unplanned observation of cosmopolitan life, or what Honoré de Balzac called “the gastronomy of the eye.” Not just limited to those who strolled through the city, a flânuer also demonstrated that certain philosophy of mind and life that might include curiosity, a casualness to time, perspicuous perception of the world around them and an enjoyment of beauty in life.

What each piece maddeningly notes is that the internet, under the guise of either social engagement or personal relevance, has succeeded not just in commercializing this online environment, but has turned us into a homogenous product, with all the predictability to commercial or governmental entities that we had thought the internet was irreversibly freeing us from. The dream of a virtual landscape in which we could all saunter as cyberflânuers has evaporated.

Conversation remains one of those remarkable human activities that may maintain our relish of the mercurial, pleasure in the whimsical, and energy from serendipitous inspiration. Morozov quotes German writer, Franz Hessel, who says that, “in order to engage in flânerie, one must not have anything too definite in mind.” The random drift afforded by conversation, enjoyed as a flânuer might enjoy a stroll around 19th-century Paris, but without the solitude, was a promise made to us by the internet, but one that has been usurped by other interests. At least conversation still affords us these pleasures.